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Stripping the Light Fantastic!

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Back to the remoteness of Iceland. Yet another field foray with just one light, this time back to that gray area between small and big flash, the Quadra. Here you can easily see one of the strengths of bigger flash systems I mention above. The tiny (half pound) flash head of the Quadra couples with the Rotalux 2×6′ strip light quite easily. That’s a big beautiful source for a really small, light flash head. (Truth be told, the Quadra flash head on its own is lighter than an SB-900.)

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This strip source is an indirect softbox, which means the actual flash head is facing directly away from the subject, firing into a big strip of silvery material. The result is a very even, smooth line of light, which I find is often perfect for a dancer. Dancer’s moves tend to be linear. They extend. This type of softbox extends with them. Ever been on stage and looked into the wings? There are often vertically arrayed banks of hot lights, baffled by curtains on either side of them. Wing lights, side lights—call them what you will—but the point is they are vertical and skinny. Perfect for rim lighting the shapes of performers. Think of this strip light as your own, portable set of wing lights, stage right or left, as you choose.

Take a look at the production picture, if you would. Couple of things to notice. The diffuser is off the front of the softbox. I wanted a lot of f-stop for this picture, so I was really asking a lot of this still relatively small flash system. Four hundred watt-seconds can get swallowed up pretty quickly inside these real big, voluminous light shapers. What you are seeing here is one strategy to cop back some power. When you remove the outer layer of diffusion, generally you’ll pick back up at least one f-stop.

And, given the size of this strip, you’ll still stay soft. It will be more directional, for sure, but the expanse of silver, and the indirect nature of the construction of this light shaper makes removing that outer baffle doable, without causing a disaster for the quality of your light. (Reason for big f-stop was DOF. I wanted the fields of grass and the sky to be pretty sharp and well defined.)

The finals on this spat out at 1/60th at f/11, ISO 200, D3X, lens zoomed at 19mm. Auto white balance. I was not nervous about my subject being unsharp, even given her leap. When you are working with a dancer, and orchestrating his or her gesture, you get into a rhythm with them, and your timing follows along. For a jump such as she is executing, for a very split second, at the apex of that jump, she is essentially motionless, hanging in the air. That fact, coupled with the speed of the flash burst (known as flash duration) will nail the motion, even at a shutter speed such as 1/60th.

(This is not a universal! I am compelled to say that a 1/60th flash mix will not always stop motion, depending on the nature and speed of the motion, the ambient conditions, how much available light is in the final equation, and how much flash. Whew! Would I get nailed to the wall for that one! Like all things photographic, it’s a solution for this moment, at this time, in this field, in Iceland. Broad-stroke lessons and experience derive from every time you put your camera to your eye, and those strokes will inform your next shoot, but always, always understand this about shooting on location: What works today, will not tomorrow. You have to take everything you know, everything you’ve learned, and all information that the mistakes and bad frames have provided you with, and bring them to bear, every day, with every click. It’s never the same. What a pain in the ass! At the same time, what bliss! Not everybody gets that wonderful, invigorating opportunity to figure it all out all over again, each and every day.)

Back to the production pic. Notice again, our buddy the C-stand. It is not that high, but it is seriously pitched at an angle towards my subject and her gesture. When she jumps, or even just looks up, she is looking into the light, and a section of the softbox that will be closer to her. This does two things: Makes that area of exposure around her head and shoulders incrementally brighter than the rest of the photo, which is a good thing; and it makes sure that the light that hits her face will be nice light. Remember, the closer the light source, the softer the feel of the light. A she jumps, up and in toward the light source, she is jumping into an area of really pretty photons.

By making sure her upper torso gets the best light, and ever-so-slightly more of it than her legs and the grass, there is a natural gradation—a fall-off—that occurs right at the moment of exposure. By pitching the flash this way, you gather the nicest and strongest piece of it right where you want and need it. The rest of the flash effect just fades away. Which is good. You don’t want to over-light the ground and draw attention down there.

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Good thing I had a whole class with me, by the way. Will I never learn? Here I’ve been saying all along that I respected the power of the wind, and I’ve offered cautionary notes about using light sources that are just dumb to put up in even the slightest of breezes. And there I am, out on the plains of Iceland, without a shred of cover, and a 6′ softbox up on a stand. I’ve got another stand up to stop the box from spinning in the wind, and I’ve got half the class holding onto the stand supporting the light.

Oh, well. Photographers. If we were smart, or trainable, or logical, or reasonable, we would have probably stopped doing all this long ago. I guess we just keep hearing the call of a light in the wind.

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