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On Assignment: 50 Years

When I travel with the family, I try to strike a balance between having enough gear with me to make nice photos and not feeling like a pack mule. I frequently guess wrong on the "how much to bring" question, but it usually comes down to a tight SLR bag (with an off-camera light kit) or a Canon G9.

Earlier this summer, I drove down to Florida with Susan and the kids to visit my parents. I brought along a camera, a coupla small flashes and an idea for a photo I wanted to make for the upcoming 50th anniversary of my parents' first date. It was to be a family photo, but I wanted to approach it just as seriously as if I had gotten the job from a magazine.

Mom and dad have retired to the shores of Lake Billy Boohoo, just north of the sprawling metropolis of Umatilla, Florida. (Population: Not very many.)

No, I am not making that lake name up, either. Some kid, presumably named Billy, drowned there in the 1950's and the name stuck. The sunset above is typical of the beautiful, subtropical displays they get in the evening.

Note to self: If I ever buy lakefront property in Florida, buy on the east side for the view. I only see sunrises when I am up too late from the night before.

Personally, I could probably go twenty years without getting the idea to build a private "tiki hut." But then I am not my parents, living on this lake, with some serious time to kill. So that's what they did.

When they told me about it last winter, I knew I wanted to photo them in the hut against a sunset. When I learned that they were coming up on the 50th anniversary of their first date (in the 8th grade) I figured this summer's trip would be a perfect time to shoot them.

If you are a long-time reader of this site, I hope the gears are already turning. Pop some nice flash against that sunset (maybe in an umbrella, warming gel, etc.) and Bob's your uncle. Problem is, soft window light normally does not live on beaches. And while the light might look nice, it would not really make sense.

Motivated light is one of the keys to getting believability and logic in your lit photos. Where would the light come from? What would the light look like?

Those are questions you should be asking yourself before you design the light in your photos if you want to hold a visual narrative.

So, I decided not to light for soft, flattering and warm but rather to emulate the light that would likely be in the tiki hut had dad run some electricity out there. (Give him enough time and he probably will, along with a computer terminal to check the weather a few hundred times a day...)

So my light was a single SB-800, sporting a CTO gel and a diffusion dome, mounted in the top of the hut with a Super Clamp.

Presto: One bare tungsten light bulb, albeit much more controllable.

The first test, above, shows where the light is mounted. I decided to just flood them from overhead with some "tungsten" light, and balance the flash with the sunset. A quick pop shows that I can get a clean 5.6 at half power, which is pretty good considering the diffuser and the gel both eat a lot of light.

So that gives me my working aperture. But the sky is too bright at my sync speed to look good at this point.

How do you fix that? You wait. Or you cheat.

This shot was taken at a 500th of a second -- a full stop past the normal top sync speed. Sure, I could go with focal plane high speed sync. But that robs power from the flash, and I needed power.

So, how to sync at a 500th? No problem if you do not need the whole frame to be flashed. My SB-800 was just lighting the bottom part of the frame, so no big whup cheating the sync for this shot.

Since the "black stripe" creeps in from the bottom of my photo, I did turn the camera upside down to cheat this one. If the flash would have needed to light the whole frame, you would have seen that it was dark in the upper half, due to incorrect synching. But it is the sky lighting the top of my frame, not the flash.

So now I waited for the ambient level to come to me. But while I waited, I decided to shoot the final photo at 1/320th of a second, to use that small, "no-synch" bar to seal off the flash from the bottom of my photo.

So, to be clear, I shot the camera right side up, meaning my out of sync "black line" would now be at the bottom and seal off the light from the flash. It feathered the flash nicely, leaving just ambient on the sand in the bottom. This kept what would have been a bright area from leading your eye out of the frame.

Here is the final shot, after the sunset came down to a level where 1/320th looked good against the correct (flashed) aperture. I love this photo, and made a nice print for them. (Click the pic to see it bigger.)

And given that you can vary the flash by fiddling with the aperture, and the sky by tweaking the shutter speed, I could have placed either tone anywhere I wanted. In this way, you get much more control through the shooting window than if there had been a real, continuous light bulb up in there.

Mom and dad wanted a shot from the side while I was at it, where you could see their faces better. Who am I to argue, except for the fact that I do not have an umbrella with me to diffuse the light. And besides, it is directly over their heads. Yuck.

My solution was to re-aim the light slightly, and take the diffuser off. I moved it to the front rail, aimed it a little forward and (mostly) balanced it off of the sand for a little over/under light.

It was the best I could do on short notice. But I think it looks kinda cool, considering. A little ham-fisted Photoshop session later and I was even able to clone the edges of the clamp out of the shot. (Couldn't really hide it from the side.)

It's amazing what you can do with one little flash if you wait for the ambient to come to you. Even more so the other small-flash job we did down there, which was to shoot a series of real estate photos of the luxury log cabin next door -- with one SB-800.

NEXT: One-Light Real Estate Photography


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