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SLC-2L-02: Two-Speedlight Daylight Group Shot

Using speedlights without softening modifiers greatly expands your outdoor working range. And it does so enough that you can easily light a large group photo with a small, portable gear pack.

Today, we'll walk through how to do that, along with a few tips to tweak and improve your results.

A Basic Technique, Plus Three Tricks

In our last post we walked in detail through a bare-speedlight approach to outdoor portraiture. So if you have not read that Lighting Cookbook entry, you should go back and read it first.

Our subjects today are members of the Irish Professional Photographer's Association, along with co-instructor Sara Lando, fourth from right. We did a quick (5-minute) group photo after lunch to demonstrate a warm/cool two-light approach.

With this daylight group shot, we are going to take advantage of our extra working range (from using bare lights) to illuminate a larger area. And again, we are using just two speedlights as key and fill light for 16 people. To illustrate how efficient this is with respect to the amount of photo and lighting gear involved, here is a shot of all of the gear used to make the shot above:

In total, a Fuji X Pro2 with kit zoom, two Phottix Junos, a single Phottix Ares II transmitter, a couple gels, a compact stand and a swivel. That's it.

To that small gear pack and our basic two-light technique, we are going to add three little hacks to better control our lighting.

Tip #1: Exceed the Sync

Of course, our first step when using flash outdoors is to go to our maximum sync speed. In this photo I am not even using a leaf shutter. That would kinda be cheating a little, as most cameras have more limited focal plane shutters. In any case, the max sync speed on the Fuji X Pro2 camera I used for this is 1/250th. (But to be clear, using a leaf-shuttered Fuji X100F you could go much further with this approach.)

We're going to exceed max sync speed of 1/250th a litttle, and push that to 1/400th of a second. Why? Because by doing that I get two side effects, both of which are good for my final shot.

One, the faster shutter speed kills some ambient light, which means I can use a wider aperture and get more working distance from my flash at a given power setting.

But it won't sync across the full frame, you answer.

Yep, and that is my second positive side effect. If you look at the group shot closely (and if you need, click it for a bigger version) you'll note that it is darker around peoples' feet and lower body. That area is not syncing, but it is also not going black. It's merely underexposed ambient—I.e., no flash there. This is because I adjusted my exposure to underexpose the ambient by about a stop and a half.

So the overclocked sync speed does two good things for me. It gets me a darker ambient all around, and allows me to focus the light more on their faces and upper body areas. You don't have to do this, but it can help you expand your working range and/or restrict your light within the frame.

Three things to note:

1. If you camera has a shutter that misses sync from the top down, you might have to hold it upside down to get this bottom-dark effect.

2. When pushing your shutter speed for a partial-frame sync, you will be limited by how quickly your remote can sync, no matter what.

3. You'll need to experiment with your gear to see where your sync blackout stripe lands at different shutter speeds.

Tip #2: Feather the Light

The fill light is on-axis right next to my camera lens, as in the outdoor shots of Rocio earlier. So the fill light is evenly dispersed, just how I want it.

But my key light is off to camera right, and thus much closer some of the people than to others. By zooming out on my flash (to 105mm) I create a narrower beam of light that I can "feather" a bit.

I am rotating the beam of the flash a little away from faces of the people at camera right. So the light pushes more energy towards the people at camera left, puts the closer people at the edge of the beam, and lights the whole group more evenly.

Tip #3: Hack the Light Stand

What I really want for a photo like this is a tall light stand—maybe 12 or 13 feet. You need that height from the longer working distance to create the vertical angular rise to get better modeling on their faces from the key light. (I.e., from about 20 feet away, a 7.5-foot light stand would read as about at "eye level.") We don't want that.

So I am boosting my smaller light stand by having someone stand up and hold it up high. The compact stands and speedlights are very light. And without an umbrella they offer little wind resistance. So this is an easy thing for anyone to do. (In this case, it was my friend Ale.) And that turns your small, ultra-portable (~20", collapsed) light stand into the monster tall boy you normally would need for a group shot like this.

About the Light

Just like our two-light shots of Rocio earlier, this group shot benefits from using different colors for our key and fill. The key got a warming gel. I can't remember if it was a 1/4 CTO or a Rosco 08, the difference being more red in the 1/4 CTO.

The fill light got a 1/2 CTB, so it feels like the cool winter light that our ambient is giving us. It was held right next to the lens so it left no shadow sigature. If you are splitting hairs, you want it held on the opposite side of the lens from where the key light is coming. So, key: camera-right, fill: lens-left.

You could, in a pinch, put the fill light on the hot shoe. One reason to do this would be if you don't have a radio trigger and you were using the fill to trigger a slaved key. But even that little bit of height over the lens from your fill will create a thin shadow under the left side of the chin, which would be an area receiveing zero light from either flash. It would be a pretty obvious tell as compared the nicer feel you get from using the fill closer to on-axis.

Let's zoom in on the guy fourth from camera left. That's Manchester-based photographer Graham Binns, who thought he'd throw the old man a curve ball by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (and glasses!) Thanks, Graham, but this does not present a problem.

As you can see, the fill—differentiated by direction, intensity and color—gives me both color separation and detail in the shadow under his hat. This allows me to place my key wherever I want, without worrying about blacking out one or both eyes from the brim's key light shadow.

As for the glasses, remember that I am shooting with bare flashes. So any speculars that wind up in the lenses are only a matter of cloning out a few hot pixels. And remember, we could have totally killed those reflections—even from a large light source—by moving Graham to the camera-right side of the group (more info here.)

But It's Not Sunny

You're right, it's not. Have you ever been to Ireland? Excessive sun is not a problem there. Nor would it have been a problem for us.

Lemme 'splain. EXIF info tells me I shot this frame at 1/400th of a second at f/5.0 at ISO 400. The Sunny 16 Rule tells us that's 3 1/3 stops below full sun. But here's the thing: my key light, even with a working distance of ~20 feet, is only running at 1/4 power. So I have two more stops to give there.

And I have also not just matched the ambient, but underexposed it by at least a stop and a half. So I could at least match full sun from that working distance. And in full daylight I would probably have them facing away from the sun, placing faces in shadow. It's a different look. But sun as rim light in a lit photo is nice, too.

If I wanted to knock the full sun ambient down a bit I'd move the key closer and widen the beam a little bit to compensate for the extra beam width I'd need. Or maybe pull out an X100F to get a couple stops more wiggle room in my sync speed.

So yeah, it'd work.

And having used this new two-light, two color technique with both singles and groups, I can tell it is going to be a go-to for me in light-pack, outdoor portraiture.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, Two or More Lights


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