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On Assignment: Tweaking Dusk

All throughout the '1990s if it was the second week in August I knew exactly where I would be -- at the Howard County Fair.

I was a staffer at Patuxent Publishing, a (then) photo-conscious chain of weekly papers. Issues were commonly over 200 pages. And since they ran the results of every 4H judging in the fair, I knew I would have 28(!) pages of listings to fill with photography.

They gave me most of the week to shoot, print and caption, and ran the photos huge in B&W. I was happy as a pig in mud.

So when choosing photos for the culture section of my Howard County Guide project, I knew I wanted to go back and include something from the fair.

Then and Now

The good news is we don't have to fill 28 pages with photos. This time, I'm looking for two shots. I want a scener from the midway, and something tighter from the 4H areas. So I shot 4H stuff in the afternoon and moved to the midway as twilight approached.

I've shot the Wellenflug many times before, but haven't yet lit it at mix light. I knew the photos would run in color on the web, and would also exist as large (20x30") prints later. So I wanted something with both rich colors and content that would hold up large.

Zooming in on the shot above, the cool expressions from the riders start to become visible with size (click to embiggen). A couple of bare speedlights allowed me to keep detail in both the sky and the people.

Here it is, straight ambient. Other than the light bulbs on the ride (which actually complicate things as we'll see later) it is all in silhouette -- even with the sky a little hotter than I will want it.

I shot this with full-frame Nikon D3 and a 35mm f/1.8 lens that was designed for a small chip camera. It vignettes in a way that will be like fingernails on a blackboard for some of you gearheads, but I like it. Outdoors at f/1.8, it almost looks like an old view camera lens. I use it a lot this way.

So flash obviously gives us the ability to match the tones of the ride and the sky together. And using two flashes allows us to both do that and emphasize the texture of an object at the same time.

My mantra for using two lights is always one light for shape, another for detail. The detail (AKA fill) light is on-camera, and bare. Probably at 1/8 power or so. I was working with my usual walk-around bag, which meant only a couple speedlights and one light stand.

The exposure was chosen to give me a rich sky. And you have to work fast, because of two things. One, you can't just walk the sky down by changing your shutter speed or you'll lose the ability to freeze the riders. And two, you have to shoot during the short window that the (fixed) ambient bulbs on the ride balance with the (dropping) ambient in the sky.

So, given that the ride lasts about 5 mins, plan on getting one or two good spins when the planets are all lined up. (Literally, actually.) If you run over and drop your power level on your flashes to compensate for dropping daylight, you can maybe pull a second or third spin before the lights go too far out of balance. But soon, the ride's bulbs would be too bright.

So my on-camera flash is serving two purposes. It is working as a fill light, and it is also triggering my key light. As a fill light, it needs to be a couple stops underexposed. And I cheated it left just a little (and used a wide beam) so it would set off the other SB-800 which was slaved off and to my left.

So here's my key, an SB-800 on a compact LP605. The stand only goes up to 7', but the picnic table it is sitting on gave me another 30" or so.

That flash was slaved (in SU-4 mode) and set to 1/2 power. I zoomed it out to 105mm for a tight throw, and feathered it up and to the right to keep the foreground and the left side of the ride from getting too hot.

You have to be willing to interact with people if you are going to walk over and plop a light stand right onto their table. But I have been doing this stuff since the Reagan years, so I am not shy.

You also have to have a little faith in humanity to walk away from a $400 speedlight on a light stand in a crowd at dusk. But we were always taught at The Sun that the biggest risk you can possibly take with your gear is never to take a risk with it. Knock wood, I have never had anything stolen in the field.

Since the light was changing so fast, you want to test and adjust any time you are not shooting. As you can see in the photo above, the place was crawling with people. But during one of the test shots between spins, the selective lighting made it look as if the place was dead empty.

I actually like this photo better than the one at top, but I think the top one works better for the HoCo Guide project. For a BC3.3 assignment, I would have chosen the static one. I love the texture from the two hard lights, and the mood of it. I'll tag this one and drop it in, to keep it with the group.

20/20 hindsight, I think $20 to rent a creepy fair clown for 10 mins as a subject would have been money well-spent. Just sit him in one of the swings with a deadpan expression in profile, small enough not to be immediately noticed.

Come to think of it, I might have to go back next year.

Next: Stephanie Barnes


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