Let’s face it. All adventure photographers dream about golden crepuscular sun bathing their subjects in flattering light. And sometimes that happens. But a lot of times it doesn’t. Instead, you’re dealt overcast skies and flat light, or midday sun scorching you and your subject. At other times, you’re shooting at twilight and need more light. Don’t despair, because artificial light offers lots of solutions.
Why use flash in the first place? Many outdoor photographers are cautious using flash because it looks unnatural. This is a legitimate concern, and you (or your client) must be happy with the final image. But using flash effectively is a great photographic tool. Flash adds highlights to an image and directs the viewer to this part of the shot. Flash will add contrast, produce creative shadows, fill in shadows, punch up color, add catch lights in the eyes, brighten overall exposure, add motion streaks ... the list is long. If any of these aspects are important in the shot you’re trying to capture, then using flash may be the right approach (Figure 4.7).
4.7 Using flash punches up color in this image.
Artificial light saves my photographic day, and makes my images stand out from the pack. When I’m on an assignment, I can’t just put my camera away if the light isn’t what I want. I need to use my photographic savvy and create my own light. Understanding artificial light technique using speedlights and strobes is crucial for the adventure sports photographer. And today’s flash technology is opening up new image possibilities that were impossible just a year ago.
Flash photography at its most basic begins with on-camera pop-up flashes and speedlights, which are larger flashes that attach to the camera hot shoe. Both of these flash options offer many benefits to adventure sports shooters, including small size, TTL metering, and high-speed sync. If you’ve been intimidated by flash photography in the past, this is your starting point.
Pop-up flashes are handy because they’re an integral part of the camera. You pop them up when you need them, and close them when you don’t. Pop-up flashes can add catch light to eyes and fill in shadows under a hat. But pop-up flashes have limited power and can’t be used off camera. Speedlights are the next choice. Every adventure sports photographer should have one.
Speedlight flash modes
Speedlights offer many advantages for shooting adventure sports. They are small, operate on AA batteries, and can easily be carried into the field. Another big advantage of speedlights is the compatibility of the flash with your DSLR camera. The flash will work with different metering modes and relay focal-length information. Speedlights have a variety of shooting modes, but there are two in particular that work great in adventure sports photography: TTL and Manual mode.
In TTL mode, speedlights use TTL metering to control the flash output. This means the light is measured through the lens, resulting in accurate flash exposures. This approach works very well in fast-moving situations where you don’t have time to set up manual flash exposures. Mountain bikers and kayakers don’t wait on you and your flash; you need to be able to aim the flash at the subject wherever they are and get a decent exposure. TTL flash does the trick (Figure 4.8).
4.8 Using flash in TTL mode allows you to shoot very quickly in the field.
Sometimes TTL flash is too powerful in the shot, resulting in “over-flashed” images. Try reducing the flash output 1–2 stops for a more balanced flash/ambient light exposure. Some speedlights offer Balanced Fill Flash mode, which nicely blends flash and ambient light. I use SB900s in Balanced Fill Flash mode for nice fill light and a good background exposure.
Sometimes TTL mode doesn’t work well. If you encounter a tricky metering situation, your flash exposure may be off or inconsistent. This is when Manual flash mode is the right choice. Manual flash exposure allows you to set the speedlight output for consistent results, eliminating TTL flash output metering. Most speedlights allow you to adjust the flash output from full power downward in 1/3-stop increments. Once you have your flash power dialed in, you get consistent flash output for each shot (Figure 4.9).
4.9 Using manual flash mode to ensure consistent flash output on each shot.
4.10 Light painting involves using a flashlight to add light to a scene.
Triggering flash off camera
Once you’ve decided what speedlight mode to use, the next question is how to use it effectively. If you attach your speedlight to your camera hot shoe, you’re using it in a manner similar to a pop-up flash. You can add some nice fill flash and punch up the colors, and some fast shooting situations are best photographed with on-camera flash. But your creative choices are very limited with the flash on the same axis as the lens. Take your speedlight off camera for some real drama (Figure 4.11).
4.11 Using a speedlight off camera allows creative lighting angles and gives you the ability to create shadow.
Using your speedlight off camera will give you many more options to modify the light. One huge advantage is that you can create shadow and contrast by shooting the flash at an angle to your subject. You can transform a two-dimensional scene into a three-dimensional scene. Simply put, using your speedlight off camera is one of the best ways to improve your flash photography.
There are many options to trigger your flash off camera. Almost every flash can be used off camera using a dedicated cable between the speedlight and camera hot shoe. These cables allow full control of all the speedlight’s functions just as if they were attached to the camera. I use SC-29 cables to trigger my SB900s. These 9-foot cables can be tethered together for more length. Cables are inexpensive, reliable, and the easiest way to use your flash off camera. The downside is the cable limits the range of where you can use your speedlight. For even more flexibility, I use a wireless transmitter.
Wireless transmitters relay flash information from the camera to a flash with a wireless receiver. Many camera systems have a dedicated wireless system where the speedlights have a receiver built in—all you need is the transmitter. I use a Nikon SU-800 transmitter to trigger my SB 900s wirelessly. The SU-800 uses an optical signal to control three separate groups of flashes. Flashes can be used in many modes including TTL mode, and output is controlled at the camera from the SU-800. This is very handy when you’re working alone (Figure 4.12).
4.12 Using an SU800 wireless transmitter allows control of three different groups of speedlights.
Other wireless systems use a radio signal to control speedlights. Radio wireless systems can trigger speedlights from farther distances and work well in bright sun (sometimes direct sun interferes with optical signals). Pocket Wizard and Radio Popper systems use radio signals and offer control similar to a dedicated optical system. You need both a transmitter and receiver to use these systems.
Modifying the quality of light
In Chapter 3, we discussed the three important principles of light: direction, quality, and color. Now that you can use flash off camera and control direction, the next consideration is changing the quality of light coming from your flash. You have lots of options.
Many photographers like to use soft, diffused light on their subject. Diffused light is very forgiving, fills in skin imperfections, and gives people a healthy glow. Since the light coming from a speedlight is very directional and harsh, you need to diffuse it to soften the light quality. The easiest way to diffuse a speedlight is to put a diffusion dome on top of the flash. Most flashes come with this dome included. A diffusion dome will spread the light and take the harsh edge off it, which may be all that is needed for some images. But one rule holds true when diffusing your flash. The softness of the light is directly proportional to the size of the light source and how close it is to the subject (Figure 4.13). Since the diffusion dome is small, it doesn’t diffuse the light much, even if it is close to your subject.
4.13 Using a softbox will soften the light on your subject.
There are many small softboxes designed for speedlight use that work well. I use Lastolite Ezyboxes. What I like about these softboxes is they use an inner and outer diffusion layer for very soft light, similar to a studio-sized softbox. The Speed-Lite model attaches directly to your flash using Velcro straps, and is the smallest of the bunch. This softbox is great when you want to soften the light in fast situations or precarious spots. For more diffusion I use a Lastolite 54 cm Ezybox. This softbox requires a bracket to hold the speedlight, and produces very soft light. I can handhold this softbox while shooting, but it’s easier to set it on a stand or have a friend hold it.
Another option for producing soft light is shooting speedlights through diffusion material. Many reflectors have translucent material that will soften flash. You can also shoot multiple speedlights through a larger diffusion panel for a very soft light. I attach my speedlights to the crossbar of my diffusion panel using Manfrotto 175F Justin Clamps. These clamps have a cold-shoe mount to attach your flash, and are very handy for putting flashes on light stands and difficult spots (Figure 4.14).
4.14 Justin Clamps allow easy speedlight fastening to light stands and anything you can clamp.
What if you don’t want to soften the light, but want to focus the area where the light hits? This requires snoots and grids, which are also available for speedlights. I use Rogue Flash Benders to control the angle of light. These units attach to your flash head using Velcro. The snoot has flexible metal bars that allow you to shape the opening from a narrow slit to as wide as your flash head. If I don’t want my flash that narrow, but still want to keep the light from spilling into a scene, I use grids by Honl or Rogue. These grids come in a variety of sizes and are great for controlling light in small spaces.
Changing the color of light
The last aspect of light you can control is the color of light. Heat-resistant acetate, or gels, is used to change the color of flash. Some gels color correct light sources to precise color temperatures while other gels add theatrical effects. I use Nikon gels that came with my SB900s. These gels fit in a plastic holder that attaches to the front of the flash. I also use gels by Rosco, a company that offers a wide selection of colors, and has gels sized for speedlights as well as larger studio lights. Gels can be attached using gaffer tape to larger flashes.
My favorite use of a gel is putting a full CTO (orange) on my flash, and setting my camera white balance to incandescent. Incandescent white balance turns daylight blue. Since my flash is approximately daylight in color temperature, the flash would be blue without a gel. But the orange gel will counter the incandescent white balance. Anything the flash hits will be neutral in color. This is a great technique for cloudy skies. The blue color makes the sky moody, and the illuminated subject really stands out in the scene (Figure 4.15).
4.15 Using an orange gel and setting your camera white balance to incandescent can result in dramatic effects.
One shooting mode is especially important for the adventure sports photographer: high-speed sync. Since so many of the subjects I photograph are moving, it’s very important to be able to freeze the action in a fill flash mode. If the daylight is underexposed by 2 stops or more, then the flash duration will freeze the action, not the shutter speed. But if I’m using flash and the daylight exposure isn’t underexposed by much, then the shutter speed will stop the action.
High-speed sync allows you to shoot at speeds faster than your normal flash sync speed, generally around 1/250. Using high-speed sync I can shoot at shutter speeds all the way to 1/8000 to freeze any scene I encounter (Figure 4.16). In high-speed sync mode, speedlights emit a pulsating beam of light to ensure that flash is present no matter how fast the shutter is moving.
4.16 High-speed sync allows you to use fast shutter speeds and flash.
High-speed sync also offers another advantage: It allows you to shoot at wide-open apertures in the middle of the day. Imagine attempting to photograph a fly fisherman in the middle of a sunny day and using fill flash. If you choose f/2.8 as your aperture, set your ISO to 100 (the lowest ISO setting on many cameras), you’ll need to set your shutter speed around 1/2000 or faster to get the right exposure. High-speed sync will allow you to use flash and this fast shutter speed. Using fast shutter speeds in the middle of the day also lets you underexpose the daylight and create dark, dramatic backgrounds for portraits.
The one limitation of high-speed sync is that your effective flash distance is greatly reduced. To improve the range of speedlights in high-speed sync mode, I use multiple units. I use a Lastolite Triflash bracket to attach three speedlights, which greatly improves the flash range. This bracket can be placed on a light stand or handheld (Figure 4.17). I often place my Triflash bracket on the pointed end of my ski pole to use as a light stand when I am shooting skiing. I also attach multiple flashes to light stands using Justin Clamps.
4.17 A Lastolite TriFlash bracket and Radio Poppers increase the range of speedlights.
Triggering multiple flashes wirelessly in high-speed sync mode is similar to triggering one. I will use my Nikon SU800 to trigger my speedlights when I am working close to my flashes. If I need to trigger my flashes from a distance, then I will use Radio Poppers or the Pocket Wizard Flex system to trigger the flashes. You need to attach a receiver to each flash in order to use all the flashes in high-speed sync mode. Radio poppers have an impressive range; you can trigger flashes around 1/4 of a mile away.
Large flash systems
Speedlights are great portable units for shooting adventure sports, but sometimes you need more power and faster recycling times. When I photograph kayakers in the middle of a rapid, I need a very powerful light to reach the kayaker. I could use multiple speedlights, but I’d soon reach the point where using one big light would be more practical than using a bunch of small lights. Large flash systems offer lots of power and the ability to use bigger light modifiers on your shoot (Figure 4.18).
4.18 Studio strobes allow the use of larger softboxes to project very diffused light on your subject.
Functionality in the field
Most of your adventure sports shooting will take place in the backcountry where you won’t have AC power close at hand. On my backcountry shoots I use a battery-powered flash system by Elinchrom. I use the 1100-watt Ranger and 400-watt Quadra flash packs. These lights have lots of battery power, quick flash-recycling times, and are very durable in the field. My Ranger pack has survived blizzards, desert heat, and heavy rain, and it’s never missed a pop.
A big advantage of the Elinchrom system is its ability to control flash output from a wireless transmitter attached to your camera. This system, called Skyport, is very handy when you place your flash packs in hard-to-reach spots. I sometimes place a Ranger on the side of the river opposite the one I’m shooting from when I photograph kayakers. Since I can control output at the camera, I don’t have to keep crossing the river to adjust my lights (Figure 4.19).
4.19 The Elinchrom Skyport system allows flash triggering and power control of the Ranger pack from the camera.
Pack size is the real concern for the adventure sports shooter. The Ranger packs weigh around 17 pounds, which limits how far you might bring them in the field, but the advantage is all the power you get. The Quadra pack isn’t as powerful, but it weighs only about 6 pounds, making it a great choice when weight is a big concern.
Using large flash systems
Large flash systems like the Elinchrom Ranger and Quadra work differently from a speedlight. These flashes work in manual mode; there is no TTL metering or automatic fill flash. Also, you need to choose what reflector to use with the strobe head for your shoot.
I always start by establishing my ambient, daylight exposure. Sometimes I like the daylight exposure to be right on target, and use my flash to add some fill light to shadow areas in the image. But more often I like to underexpose my daylight exposure 1–2 stops. When I add flash to this underexposed scene, everything the flash illuminates will pop off the canvas, creating separation of my subject from the background. Underexposing your background will also add some mood and drama to the image. How you expose the daylight in your shot should relate to what you’re trying to create in the final image. Some shots are all about high-key bright scenes and shouldn’t be underexposed. Other shots work great with the background underexposed, adding tension to the final image (Figure 4.20).
4.20 Determine your lighting ratio between flash and ambient light to get the effect you want in the final shot.
After I’ve established the background exposure, I add flash to the image. I decide what reflector or softbox to use on the head, and how many lights I need for my image. I don’t use a light meter since many of my subjects are far away or in precarious positions. I simply trigger the flashes and see how things look on my LCD. I adjust the light output until I get the right exposure. I use my highlight (blinkies) indicator on my LCD screen to help determine my flash exposure. Since I’m using the Skyport wireless system with my flash packs, I can adjust my lights very quickly right at the camera.
Flash heads are bigger than a speedlight, so I use light stands to position my lights. Manfrotto makes a wide variety of stands that will take years of use (or abuse). I use Manfrotto 367B 9-foot stands for most of my shooting. These are light enough to carry into the field, and collapse small enough to fit in a suitcase for travel. If I’m using large softboxes and need a stronger stand, I use the Manfrotto Alu Master 12-foot stand.
A big advantage of using studio lights is the wide variety of light modifiers the flash heads can use. I use many types of softboxes, ranging from square softboxes and strip banks to large octabanks. I will use standard reflectors when I need hard-edged light in a scene (Figure 4.21). These reflectors also accept grids to help control the spill of light. I also use a sports reflector on my flash head when I need to project my flash as far as I can into a scene.
4.21 Hard-edged light works well to add highlights to an image.
Ranger high-speed sync
My Elinchrom Ranger syncs at 1/200 of a second. This means that I can’t shoot any faster than this or I will clip the flash. Clipped flash appears as a dark band across your image where the shutter clipped part of the flash. Can you freeze action at 1/200? Absolutely, but it is your flash duration, not the shutter speed, that will do the job.
In order to freeze action, you need to reduce or eliminate the daylight in your shot. The daylight exposure is tied directly to the shutter speed, so a fast-moving skier will not look sharp at 1/200. But if you darken the daylight exposure so that the flash is the main light illuminating your subject, then the flash will become the light source that will freeze the subject. My Elinchrom Ranger A-heads have a very fast flash duration—1/2300 and faster—that’s more than fast enough to freeze a skier. Always consider the flash duration of the light when you’re purchasing a studio flash system.
Can you use high-speed sync with studio lights? Yes, yes, yes! Until recently, studio packs couldn’t operate past their maximum sync speed, but with Pocket Wizard’s Hypersync technology, you can shoot at shutter speeds of 1/800 and faster. Hypersync is a utility that recalibrates the shutter and flash timing, allowing faster sync speeds. You need one of their MinTT1 or FlexTT5 transmitters and a dedicated receiver for your flash unit. Results will vary depending on your flash system and the camera you are using (Figure 4.22).
4.22 High-speed sync is available using large flash packs. Elinchrom Ranger shot at 1/2500.
With my Elinchrom Ranger system, I use the S-heads for the best results. These heads have a slower flash duration, which gives Hypersync more latitude to time the shutter and flash. And the results are staggering. I can sync my Nikon D3 around 1/800, much faster than 1/200. With my D300s, I can sync all the way to 1/8000! I get a tiny bit of flash clipping at this speed, easy to crop out in post-production. And I still get a lot of flash power and distance at this shutter speed. Remember, this high speed is good not only for stopping action, but also for shooting with a wide-open aperture in the middle of the day (Figure 4.23). The Quadra can also sync faster using Hypersync, a FlexTT5 as a receiver, and an S-head. Since the Quadra has a built-in wireless receiver, the FlexTT5 is plugged into the sync port of the pack.
4.23 This image was shot at 1/3200 and f/4.8 using high-speed sync and an Elinchrom Ranger. High-speed sync enables you to use f/4.8 and selective focus in sunny conditions.
Effective outdoor flash: Two scenarios
What is the best light for an image? To answer that question, you need to consider what the image concept is, and what direction, quality, and color of light will best illustrate it. To create a flattering portrait, using a single large softbox at a slight angle to your subject should work fine. But if you want to add some edgy highlights to a mountain bike shot to increase the tension in the image, a hard-edged light source is the right choice. Your shooting distance may also influence your decision. Diffused light sources don’t have much range, while a bare-bulb speedlight can shoot light far into a scene.
Let’s look at how to put all this lighting technique to use. Below are two typical adventure sports shooting scenarios, and how I would go about lighting them.
Scenario #1: mountain biker
Imagine you’re photographing a mountain biker on a sunny day in the mountains. The rider will pass right in front of you on a single-track trail. He is moving fast, and wearing bright colors and a helmet.
First, consider the light. Since the sun is high overhead, the light falling on the subject will come from directly overhead, resulting in some shadows under the helmet and areas on the bike. This subject needs some fill light to “snap” the colors and fill in some shadows.
One choice would be setting up a large 78-inch white Skylite reflector to bounce light back on the rider. Since you’re shooting close to the subject, the reflector should bounce plenty of light into the scene. Do a test shot with the rider stationary (or an assistant standing in) on the trail and see how fast you can shoot. Use a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster to freeze the action. If it’s windy outside, or if you don’t have a way to anchor the Skylite, then use a speedlight instead.
The way to use a speedlight in this situation is to put it in TTL mode and make sure high-speed sync is turned on. In Nikon systems, high-speed sync is turned on in the camera custom functions; in Canon systems, high-speed sync is turned on in the flash unit. I could also use my Elinchrom Ranger at fast sync speeds using the Pocket Wizard Flex system with Hypersync. You could use your flash on camera, but for a better image, put your flash in front of the rider, aimed at his front. With the light in front of him and the sun lighting him from above, you’ll get some nice cross lighting. Since you’re using a speedlight close to the rider without any diffusion, high-speed sync with one flash should produce enough light. If it doesn’t, add another speedlight in the same location using a Triflash bracket. Depending on the rider’s speed, you should shoot at 1/500 or faster.
The final consideration is the flash-to-daylight ratio. Underexpose the daylight around 1 stop in this situation. To do so, use your camera in manual mode, set the daylight exposure to –1, and then add TTL flash triggered wirelessly using an SU800. If the distance to your flash is more than your camera can reach, use Radio Poppers as your wireless system. This would result in a fill flash lighting ratio, and the sun would still add some highlights to the top part of the rider. Don’t eliminate the sun as a light source; use it as accent light in your image.
Scenario #2: half-pipe skier
In this scenario, you’re hired by a ski resort to photograph a skier in the resort super pipe. They want you to capture a dramatic shot that will attract skiers to the resort. You show up and the day is partly cloudy. Your pro skier model will be at least 30 feet away from you when he does his aerial moves. He’s wearing bright colors and a helmet.
As always, you begin by considering the light. If you photograph him in partly cloudy light, it will be inconsistent sun, so using a reflector is out. And aiming the reflector would be a challenge.
This means you need to use flash to add some impact to the shot. Since the skier is going to be flying through the air and you want to freeze the action, use a fast shutter speed. This means using high-speed sync flash or darkening the daylight exposure so the flash duration will freeze the action.
If I were shooting in this scenario, I would use my Elinchrom Ranger and one head with a sports reflector attached. This light setup has plenty of power to reach the skier, and will recycle fast enough so I won’t miss a shot. I can choose to shoot my Ranger using Hypersync and an S-head, or underexpose the daylight 2 stops and use an A-head where the flash duration would freeze the skier. Both choices would make dramatic images in this situation.
If I’m shooting in the bottom of the pipe, I would place the light at an angle to illuminate the skier from slightly in front. Since the light will be close to me, my wireless system should have no problem working. I might also add another light with a standard reflector on the lip of the pipe to illuminate the skier from behind. Backlighting skiers and snowboarders as they jump will add sparkle to the flying snow.
After determining my daylight exposure, I would set my main light hitting the skier to normal exposure, and the backlight to 1 stop brighter. This will result in an image with some contrast from the different intensities of the strobes. To determine my exposure, I would have an assistant stand on the lip and shoot a test shot. This would get my lights pretty close to the right exposure, although if the skier is flying high, I might have to increase the power. I might also add a blue gel to the backlight for a more creative look.
Here’s great principle to follow with your lighting: Don’t illuminate the subject; light it. Anyone can blast light straight at a subject and illuminate it. Experiment with different angles, colors, and lighting ratios to create a masterfully lit shot, not an illuminated one. In later chapters on shooting mountain sports, winter sports, and portraits we’ll look at other lighting setups.