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Strobe on a Rope

I used to think that there was special light that only came out when other, better shooters needed to make a picture.

I knew, of course, that they added light when working on controllable situations. But these guys even had great looking photos in "run-and-gun" settings, where you could not hope to have a light stand set up because it would get knocked over. Or your subject was not remaining in one location.

Way back when I got my first off-camera TTL cord, I realized that these little things could give you an incredible amount of control over the direction of your strobe light.

But there was one problem -- all of my photos looked pretty much the same. The light was always coming from the left side of my composition. This was because I needed my right hand to hold and operate the camera.

One day I realized that I could use the 1/4 x 20 socket on the bottom of the flash end of the cord to connect it to my monopod. This changed everything. Here were two items I carried around anyway that could be called into double duty to create (way) off-axis, mobile light on short notice.

I used this technique this week while covering the Baltimore Ravens (a professional American football team, for the international readers) training camp. At the end of the session, which usually yields about five dozen very similar-looking action shots, there is the typical media scrum for quotes and the obligatory autograph signings by the players.

Both of these situations are (a) in crappy mid-day light, and (b) too mobile/crowded to add a light stand to the scene.

Since I really try to avoid direct, on-camera flash whenever possible, I frequently go to the "strobe-on-a-rope" technique in a scrum. Here's how to do it.
First, attach the flash to the off-camera TTL cord as and the monopod as shown. The male end of the cord simply plugs into the hot shoe of your camera.

Second, set your camera at the high synch speed to make things easy on your flash if you are working in daylight. Set the aperture to underexpose daylight by about a stop. This will make the flash-lit part of your frame really pop.

This is, of course is done to taste. But it's a good starting point.

Choose a comfy working distance (I like three or four feet) that you will keep constant when shooting your subject. Setting the flash on about 1/8 power gives me a good exposure at that range. I still do not trust TTL with digital, so I always use manual and keep my working distance fairly constant.

The beam angle on the flash is set to 50mm, which is a good compromise between flash efficiency and having to have a good aim when working off camera on the fly.
Now, test it out on something. As our guinea pig today, we have Ace AP Photographer Chris Gardner, who was just as drenched in sweat as I was from covering the sweltering practice.

I very much appreciate Chris modeling for me without being asked. And for that favor, I would never, ever do anything like stick the "I'm-dog-tired-and-sweaty" photo of him up on a blog where 20,000 people from around the world will see it.

Unless, of course, it was absolutely necessary to illustrate the concept.

Some exposure info: If the flash-lit part is overexposed, you either back up the flash-to-subject working distance or power down the flash a little. And vice versa.

Notice that the flash is coming from the camera left side of Chris. That is because the sun happens to be coming from back-camera-right. I always try to let the flash work against the ambient for nice shape and detail. It's your call, though.

Now we are ready to work. In the photo up top, I have the flash coming from camera right (against the sun.) This is something that I could not easily do without the monopod to act as an extension of my hand. Too much of my arm span would be used up by the considerable width of my torso. (Thus the Diet Mountain Dews, these days...)
For illustrative purposes, here's a frame where I included the flash in the frame to show the position of the light source.

It's just a matter of continually adjusting and setting the light source where I want it as I work. It gives me the ability to create very three-dimensional light in a fluid situation. That's something you absolutely cannot do with on-camera fill flash.

There's no reason you cannot use this in more controlled situations, too. Portraits can really benefit by the fact that you can quickly and easily change the direction of the light source in mid-shoot. You can get 15 different looks in two minutes.

Light from either side, back/side light (you have some reach when working up close) top light, bottom light - whatever. Just remember to work the good lighting angles long enough to make sure you get a good range of expressions before you switch the light to somewhere else.

The technique lends itself to trying things you otherwise would not have. Which is a good thing.
I also liked this shot of fans waiting for quarterback Steve McNair, complete with a bobblehead doll for him to sign. That's an ugly, mid-day sky in mid-day light made a lot better by overpowering the ambient with off-axis flash.

Additionally, I like the way that the off-axis light helps to control the exposure on the edges and call attention to the subject. The edges sort of burn themselves. And the closer the various objects are to me, the more of a hard angle the light will be coming from. Look at the two guys arms as an example. This also adds dimensionality to the photo.

Drawbacks? Sure, there are a couple.

First, you have to practice a little to be able to aim your off-camera, off-axis flash. As you get better, you can work with tighter light beam spreads. This can allow you to power down your flash for quick recycling or have a greater working distance. Or both.

Also, you need to be aware of your working distance and keep it relatively constant. (Or adjust your flash to compensate.) With film, you could usually get away with going TTL. But I have not been satisfied with digital TTL to the point where this works well yet. Bear in mind that I am usually trying to overpower daylight for a photo with a "look." The TTL systems sometimes think I am screwing up, and try to "help" me. (Even with the compensation settings.)

Hey, I am simple, manual guy. What can I say.

But the beauty of this technique is that it employs gear that the typical shooter already has.

If you do not have a monopod and/or an off-camera cord, they are not very expensive and are money well spent.

Nikon and Canon both make off-camera flash cords for their systems. But I am not a big fan of Canon's because it is not really long enough to be as useful for this technique as it could be.

Remember, since you are not using the TTL function, you do not need it built into the cord. You can use a normal PC cord. Or the little infra red thing you Canon guys all seem to have. Pocket Wizards also work well. (as long as your monopod is not longer than 800 feet - heh, heh, heh.) Just ball bungee the receiver to the flash.

But then you need to figure out how to connect the flash to the monopod. The cold shoe adapters from your standard umbrella stand bracket will connect just fine. For me, the Nikon cord does both functions in a nice, neat small package.

And speaking of monopods, get one that will be strong enough to use to support your camera and a long lens if you see yourself using it that way one day. That is their main purpose, after all.

If you see yourself turning pro one day. I am a big fan of Gitzo. They are not cheap. But you buy one, and you are pretty much finished buying monopods. They are built very well.

But for light duty (or for just doing this technique as opposed to holding up a 400/2.8) you can spend as little as you want. But don't expect it to work well holding up a big, fast tele later.

So, there you go. The next time you think that a fluid situation is inhibiting your ability to light something well, try some Strobe on a Rope.

Next: Tupperware and Trash Bags, Pt. 1 of 3


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