Oh No You Didn't...

I did something really scary this week.  I went on a shoot without a single strobe (add ghasp sound effect).


Hi, I'm Michael, and I'm addicted to strobes.  


I get sent on a one day social media tour with Garth Brooks for Entertainment Tonight.  I always bring a still camera, usually two, along with a host of strobes and hand held diffusers, like the kind I post about here.  In fact, they've become something of an extention of my shooting style, thanks to the inspirational work of guys like Joe McNally.  

But this shoot was different.  I would be moving with a pack of personal assistants, social media experts, reporters, and bloggers as the fabulous Mr. Brooks joined the social media universe, and I needed to travel light.

I grabbed a couple of batteries, my trusty D800E and a single lens-- a 50mm.  Why not the 24-70mm?  The 24-70 would give me more range, almost as much speed, and bit of flexibility, right?  Yes, that's true, but the 24-70 is a big, heavy lens.  It's obtrusive, and my thinking is that a big lens draws big attention.  The 50 is short, stubby, and doesn't scream "HEY!  I'M TAKING YOUR PICTURE!"  It's also faster, it goes down to f/1.4, allowing more light in bad situations.

It was a throw down challenge to myself to only shoot in good light, and to search for it before firing off a shot.  

It's not something I would do on a daily basis.  Strobes allow me a lot of flexibility and creativity in some of the worst shooting situations imaginable (think blank hotel room the size of a closet).  But for this trip, it was probably the right decision.  I got to shoot on a more personal basis, get to know the subject a bit more-- we spent the whole day together-- and capture more intimate moments which felt less posed.

Technically, it meant watching my settings constantly.  ISO was the biggest challenge.  I was constantly adjusting for the changes from indoor to outdoor, and I found myself shooting aperture priority, and bumping ISO so the shot wouldn't blur under a slower shutter. 

Try shooting in natural light on occasion.  It will stretch your ability as a photographer.




Lightning Round

I took this shot on my recent trip to Washington, and I've received a lot of inquiries on how to catch lightning in a bottle-- or a DSLR, anyway.

There are several techniques employed to achieve this shot.  I'll break it down.

First-- this is kind of a "duh"-- but you need to find a lightning storm.  While walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, this amazing storm was lighting up the sky.  I immediately thought I might be able to capture something unique.  You never really know for certain-- and if the skies opened up-- I would have been hosed.  I was limited by the 50mm lens I had attached to the camera-- so we started marching down the avenue toward the Capitol to get the ideal framing.  

Fortunately the D800E has 36 megapixels-- so even if I get the shot reasonably close-- I'm in business because there's a lot of room to reframe an image of this size.  I still got close enough to fill the frame without too much signage in the foreground.

Next-- you need to expose for the Capitol.  The Capitol is the focus of the image-- it needs to be a perfect exposure.  I want a decent of depth of field-- and I wanted to extend the exposure time-- the longer the exposure-- the greater the chance a bolt will hit while the shutter is open-- and there were a lot of lightning bolts missed-- I can assure you!  

So I closed down to f/7.  Also-- set your ISO low to minimize grain and maximize exposure time.  On the D800/D800E this means ISO 200.  Everything under ISO 200 doesn't decrease noise at all.  Now you just set the shutter speed-- which in this case was 1.3 seconds.  I probably could have stopped up a bit further and extended my exposure window-- but I didn't.  As you get to aperture settings over f/10, you start losing sharpness.  The D800E has a sweet spot in the aperture between f/5.6 and f/10.  I picked something in the middle-- could have maybe stopped down to f/9, but you begin to split hairs at some point.

You can't be touching the camera while exposing.  The slightest camera movement will cause blurring- which would wreck the shot.  A tripod is ideal, but I didn't have one with me.  So I used my old standby-- And I use this often.  My iPhone with a case is the perfect height for under the Nikon lens.  I prop the lens on the case and I don't have to touch the camera.  

Even the act of pushing the shutter button will shift the camera slightly, so I set the self-timer to 2 seconds and let the camera do the exposure itself.  You can use liveview to set the frame-- I didn't-- I just pointed the camera at the capitol and shot a test frame.  

Next step-- patience!  You need a lot of patience and you're going to take a lot of photos unless you're really lucky.  I shot around 300 frames before this capture.  I needed to stop and clear the card a few times (missing a few great bolts in the process, naturally).  

Just start shooting and don't stop until you get the image.  I had only one other frame that might have worked-- I had to delete it for space-- it was a bolt off to the extreme right of the frame.  It just wasn't quite what I wanted-- so I pressed on.  

It's not a terribly difficult shot to achieve-- but with patience and a little skill, you can get this shot, too.


Fix It in Post

I frequently find myself having to deliver a reasonable photograph while on a shoot-- under the most trying conditions.  At times this requires finding compromising solutions to problems many photographers may never face.  



Case in point:  The Oscar Luncheon.  

We jam a bunch of lights, cameras, props and rigging into an area with a footprint about the size of a British phone booth.  In the world that I shoot in-- the video comes before stills.  I have to weight anything I do toward the television production-- then accommodate for my still camera last.  

So at the luncheon-- I didn’t have the room to use my Lastolite Tri-Grip.  Let us review:


Oh sweet heaven.  The Tri-Grip I use is NOT solid, it’s a shoot -through, like a shoot-through umbrella.   So an SB-900 placed about a foot behind the Tri-Grip loses 1 stop, but changes the characteristic of the small strobe head into that of a large soft box.  

Nice soft directional light producing pleasing shadows which create depth in the photo--

Nothing harsh at all in this lighting, wouldn’t you agree?  In fact, most people who aren’t Strobists would never guess that I’m shooting with a portable speedlight.  I take great pride in this!

Now-- the Tri-Grip has become my crutch-- my best friend and at times, my pillow.  The thought of harming my Tri-Grip brings the same reaction as if you threaten one of my cats-- and here’s why:

I get one crack at getting a photo with these celebrities.  I have about :15 seconds after the interview wraps-- to get the light where I want it and fire a few shots.  If it doesn’t come out well, I’m out of luck.  I WILL NOT get the star back.

What the Tri-Grip / SB-900 / Nikon CLS system gives me is a predictable, nice-looking shot.  Thank you Joe McNally.  That’s pretty much all I need-- a pretty photo I can shoot in a hurry, that works every single time.  

Set CLS, pop up the D700 flash (preset to --, Commander mode, flash on Remote) 1/250ish, f8, bring the 900 and Tri Grip in-- up and to one side, fire, and I’m good to go.  

But at the Oscar luncheon-- I had no room for the Tri-Grip.  After the first wave of panic subsided, I started weighing out options.  First thought-- fine-- go Stofen on the strobe.  Let’s give that a try:

Henry’s reaction says it all.  Look at the shadows!  Look at the wall.  Look at the hand projected on Henry’s face!  The HORROR!  Poor Henry.  Besides the harshness-- what I lose is DEPTH.  I like images I feel I can walk into-- have a stroll around-- approach from an angle-- Like this:

I want to get to know this lady (Kathryn).  But I can’t achieve this look with a bare strobe. 

Option 2: use the hot lights on the set.  I’ve done this in a pinch-- but a couple of HMI 800s are tricky.  They’re not all that bright for photography.  Plus-- I now have to consider lens length and shutter speed.  Using CLS, it’s set and forget-- let the CPU do the math on the exposure.

I’m shooting with a 28-70mm f/2.8 lens.  I’m going to need f8 to make certain both people are in focus-- they don’t always land on the exact same focal plane-- I’ve learned (the hard way) to shoot f8, in order to allow for the likelihood that my people aren’t perfectly next to each other.  

At 70mm-- the shutter speed needs to be at least 1/250 to make certain I don’t get motion blur.  This is CRITICAL.  I lost my first Jennifer Aniston shot I ever took to motion blur.  I bumped the shutter speed down when I brushed the dial with my hand-- and the shot was wrecked.  I still have nightmares over my flubbed Kate Hudson.  Lessons learned in the most painful of ways.

I bump up the ISO to 640 to accommodate-- this will introduce very little grain on the D700 but give me a few extra stops to play with.  Let’s see how Henry is doing:

Better-- but there’s no pop to this image.  The shadows are gone, but like most TV lighting-- Henry is as flat as the background.  

So what I decided is to find a place on the set where I get some dynamic lighting, turn the flat TV setup into something more interesting.  So I am going turn my subjects 90 degrees from the light-- and use the HMI’s to back and side light my subjects.  I’m going to get GREAT hair light-- but at the expense of the key lighting-- in fact-- as you see-- there is no key at all:

I’ve decided that I am going to fix this whole shoot in post.  

Not my favorite way to work-- but adding a key light and extra pop is fairly easy with today’s tools-- and my favorite is Viveza 2.  It uses control points to select a range of the luminance and allow you to brush in changes to your adjustments.  

The image above-- as shot-- looks pretty ghastly.  There is a Kino-Flo at their knees giving me some up lighting-- I just need to add the key:

It’s a bit risky to shoot this way.  People who want to look at your LCD will freak at first.  But I’ve fixed worse shots than this!  Definitely something you want to test out before you commit, but in this case-- when you weigh the options, I think I made the right choice.  I also added a vignette to help  further soften the effect.

I’ve managed to give my subjects depth, without introducing harsh shadows.  I hope you think these shots are dimensional-- it was my intent.





Twilight and One Light

I’m pretty surprised by the reaction to these images from the “Twilight: New Moon” Junket.  These have instantly jumped to the most viewed images I’ve ever taken.  I’m assuming the popularity of the movie has a little to do with it-- but maybe it’s also because the shot is attractive.  At least that’s what the artist in me is hoping.  

So let’s discuss just how easy this kind of shot is to achieve.



That’s the secret here-- spread the light.  What am I talking about?

Well let’s break it down-- there’s a key light-- which is an SB-900-- up and to the left, and, well, that’s it. 

Really?  Just one strobe?

Yeah, but I’m taking that small strobe and making the light huge look huge with a Lastolite tri-grip.

So what the heck is that?  Does it come with mustard?

No-- I’m talking about these things.. And the specific one I use is a transparent, or shoot through.  

So what I’m doing is putting this tri-grip between the small strobe and the subject.  And it takes that pinpoint light and makes it big and soft, eliminating the harsh shadows that normally scream “STROBE!”

It’s the same basic principle as my “Three Strobes and a Bed Sheet” blog-- but with a more portable-- not to mention more attractive and professional looking-- diffuser.

Anything Else?


Well, yeah, actually-- you need really attractive Hollywood stars.  No, just kidding.  

You’ve gotta get the light off the camera.  That’s an essential element to take this type of photograph.  Straight on lighting looks like a snapshot.  Move the light around-- find a sweet spot.  Up and right or left is usually a sure-fire starting point.  Above-- Samantha is turning into the light, while Taylor is getting a really nice soft shadow across his face.

Settings-- Not much to brag about.  1/320 shutter speed is pretty much obliterating any existing room light-- and there’s bright sun just beyond the glass windows, while f/10 is allowing plenty of depth-of-field to make certain both people are in focus.  I shoot manual mode, but that really doesn’t matter here. 

The secret to this shot is get the light off the camera, and spread it around.

It’s pretty amazing when you consider all of these shots were made with only a single strobe.




3 Strobes and a Bed Sheet


So my cousin stopped by our hotel while my wife and I are drinking winding our way through the Napa Valley.  She was saying she needed a few nice shots of herself, and being ever-ready to shoot, and with the most amazing support staff a guy could ask for-- his wife-- I thought I’d give it a shot.





Well, I only have a few items at my disposal.  I have a 50mm f/1.4 lens, which is a good start (I’m taking mostly scenery shots on our trip, so I didn’t pack my 70-200mm, which I’d prefer for this setup), my other lens is a 17-35mm, which is out of the question for head shots.  


I do have strobes, good, because it’s late at night, so I’m going to have to light it.  But you know strobes-- blasty and direct without modifiers, so we’re going to have to improvise.  


Bring on the bed sheet!  A bed sheet is large, white and semi transparent.  So any small light source (like a strobe) pointed at it will become the size of the sheet as the light penetrates it.  Boo-Yah!  Instant wall of light.


There’s a colorful curtain in my room, so that’s my first background.  




I had the strobes tied together in my Frankenstein setup (see the high-speed sync blog) so I thought I’d start there. Problem is-- the room is cramped as hell.  So we pull the sheet off the bed-- drape it between door jams (just out of frame left) my wife holding the Frankenstein about a foot off the sheet, shoot through to spread the light and get a few decent frames.  The above being the keeper.  


I tried some white wall shots-- but not so good.  So we move outside to a bench, yes, the bed sheet came along!




I’m working entirely in CLS here-- Remote mode.  My f-stop is f/5.6 throughout the entire shoot, focusing always on the near eye.  f/5.6 provides a nice drop off in depth of field beyond the face, without being to shallow.  Indoors I shot at 1/80, outdoor I jumped to 1/250.  Pop up flash is deployed, only to send the CLS signals to the remote strobes.  Flash mode is Commander, with the pop up set to “--”, so it doesn’t affect my image. 






Now I pull the strobes apart, use the ball bungies that had them tied together to strap 2 of the strobes (SB-800s) to the back of the bench, firing into the greenery behind.  I changed the SB-800s to group B, keeping the key (SB-900) behind the sheet on group A.  Using all CLS here.



I tried up and left first, resulting in these shots (above and below).





I’m liking where this is heading, but change the light over to her left (my right) which is a little more flattering.





Just a couple more frames and we hit the hot tub with a bottle of wine.  



The lesson here is ANYTHING can modify light.  The sheet provided a nice modifier to deliver a large soft light from just a single strobe. 


Okay, so the staff at the hotel thought we were nuts, but, hey, it worked!