Light Fare at The Bar

My favorite part of attending a week-long photo conference is hanging out with the other shooters and students in the off-hours. In Dubai, this meant almost nightly trips to the "Vista," a restaurant on the top floor of our hotel, seen at left.

The food, drinks, views and company were outstanding. And if we seemed a little sleepy while teaching the next morning, it was likely because we had closed the joint down the night before.

The last evening saw us too tired even to make it to the top floor. So we crashed at the hotel bar on the bottom floor. It had weird, low-level lighting and was full of tipsy sedate photographers -- a perfect environment for a Canon G9 and a slaved SB-800...

The fact that you can control the G9 in manual mode, and that the SB-800 has an excellent built-in slave, makes for an easy, impromptu off-camera light setup.

Everything happens in manual -- the G9's ambient exposure, the built-in flash, and the SB-800. This is what allows easy use of the Nikon and Canon gear together. If you are used to working in manual, this combo is very quick and easy. You just work out your most important variable, and go from there.

Pick Your Most Important Variable

In every flash/ambient exposure, you have to first decide what factor is driving the decision-making process. In this instance, it is something a little unusual: The camera's ISO.

I say that because great camera that the G9 is, I do not like to go above ISO 100 if I can help it. Small-chip noise starts worsening at ISO 200. And if I can get away with ISO 100 in a dark bar, I can do it almost anywhere.

I was shooting in full manual. In addition, I had the G9's internal flash set on manual at the lowest of three output levels. All I wanted was enough flash to set of the SB-800. Which ain't much.

Everything Else Solves Itself

So, back to the thought process. ISO 100 is driving the train. What comes next? Wide open aperture. For the G9 that means ~f/2.8 - f/4, depending on the focal length of the zoom. This gives the best least hideous shutter speed possible in the dark room at ISO 100. In the end, I was hanging out in the 1/4 - 1/2 second range. Sometimes I would hold the camera still and sometimes I would move it a bit for effect.

Now that you know an ISO and an aperture -- say, f/4 or the sake of argument -- your other values fall into place. Next in line would be to find a power level and distance for the SB-800 which exposes your subject properly. What I like to do is to choose a consistent working distance for the SB, and dial in my power level with a couple of quick test shots.

In this instance, it was at 1/32 power with a working distance of about 3 feet. I added a diffusion dome to make the light go in all directions -- bare bulb style. Now, anywhere I stick that flash I will have a properly exposed photo at a light-to-subject distance of 3 feet.

Generally, I would just put the flash on the table -- in the direction in which I wanted the light to hit. I also would put something between the flash and my shooting position to gobo the direct light.

All that is left to decide is the shutter speed. And in manual mode, this is easy. I just use the camera's meter to dial my shutter in so that the environment is ~2 stops underexposed. In most instances, In this case, we were down into the Hail Mary shutter speed settings. No problem -- the flash is freezing my subject.

I can also dial in whatever amount of flash/ambient contrast I like via the shutter speed. And everything else is already taken care of by the other exposure choices.

Drink With the Left Hand, Shoot with the Right

Take young Adam -- just 12 years old -- who came all the way from the UK take classes, ask questions, and offer to sleep on studio floors. Don't laugh -- that is exactly what I would have done at his age.

Among the students, it was very easy to see exactly who had made the decision to get the absolute most out of the conference. We had them pegged by the end of the first day. And between you and me, those guys had the right idea. Bravo.

After-hours at the bar just meant more time for editing and second guessing the day's work. The guys in Chase's class were particularly hard-driven. They did a three-day, full commercial assignment class. Soup-to-nuts -- real commercial brief, models, location, editing and post. Wish I could have taken it.

This may have been a first in the photo class of this kind in the world, especially given the authenticity of all of the components. I would have given my left tes right arm to have a class like this as a 22-yr-old.

Way down at the other end of the ambition scale, the instructors were totally prepared to relax and unwind in the after-hours. Witness Chris Hurtt (who spent the week getting people off of the "green square" and saving them money on post cards) pondering the intricacies of an orange vase lit from the inside by an SB-800.

I know what you are thinking: He's three sheets to the wind.

But if you knew Chris, you would know that this is a perfectly normal expression for him. I had better photos, but the customs folks made me delete them at the airport before I left the country.

Next time you have a fun, after-hours thing going on, give this stuff a try. The manual lighting and exposure process may seem a little complicated at first, but it is not. And it is surprisingly fast to set up -- even if one is not safe to drive at the time.

We did some fun stuff in the Dubai classes (and out in the desert) and I will be posting more within the next coupla weeks.


Dubai Photo Set (still uploading)
Joe McNally: Overpowering the Sun in Dubai
Lifehacker: How to Hack Your Canon Point-and-Shoot


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