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This chapter is from the book

Continuing Our One-Light Tour of Iceland...

Let’s go from smooth flash that fits in and disappears to flash with an edge. Sharp flash that makes a statement. Small flash that fights off the very sun!

See the wind in Sara’s hair? Remember this whole chapter started with a windy misadventure? Remember I said I try to remember those hard-won lessons?

No 12′ silk here, thank you. Didn’t have one, first off, and secondly, from where I sit, this is a tailor-made situation for small flash and the technological advantages that come with using it well.

Not that you couldn’t have done this with a big pop of light from a big flash. Absolutely. But, most likely, you are then dealing with a normal flash sync speed of 1/250th of a second or so, and ramping up your f-stop to get proper exposure and saturation. Most likely, you end up around f/11. Cool. No worries. That works. But what’s the baggage that comes with f/11? Depth of field. The shiny building in the background gets sharper and much more defined. Again, if that’s what you want, go that way. That’s easy enough to make happen and, if you are photographing the president of the corporation that owns that building, it’s probably preferable. In annual report, public relations press release mode, you are not unconstrained to, you know, create in wild and feverish fashion. You have a mission. Show the big shot, and show the real estate he or she owns or runs. If you throw the background enterprise so out of focus that it’s unrecognizable, you may have one angry art director on your hands.

Showing the person with the establishment or signage nicely framed and sharp in the background doesn’t sound off-the-charts creative, I know. In fact, it sounds outright humdrum. But, corporate annual shooting can be thousands of dollars a day. At those rates, they can humdrum me to death. I’ll express myself with a tilt-shift lens another day. Hell, at those rates, if I’m shooting a president-type dude, I’ll even tell him his tie is pretty darn spiffy. Make him feel good, and the art director feel good, and then you get to feel good when the check shows up.

Given my druthers, though, I’d rather shoot Sara any day of the week.

And here, using high-speed sync, I can turn the building into gleaming, out-of-focus lines and shapes.

My exposure here is 1/4000th at f/2.8, 70–200mm lens, set at 82 mil. D3X, auto white balance, ISO 100. Manual mode for exposure. Via TTL commander mode, I’m sending the flash a message to go manual, and setting the power at 1/1, the most the flash can muster. The light shaper is a Flashpoint beauty dish, that little soup bowl you Velcro to the light. Sitting in the middle of the bowl is a curved piece of metal, called a deflector, which blocks the light coming straight from the flash, and pushes it back into the white interior of the bowl. The light then redirects and pings back towards your subject in a hard, clean, crisp way. Classic beauty dish mechanics, writ small. (As I mentioned earlier, this unit also comes with a set of honeycomb grids you can pop over the top of the soup bowl, which makes the light really tight and sharp, with very little dispersion. An extremely small, directed, sharp light results.)

My subject has a face made for fashion lighting. She has a very symmetrical visage and great cheek-bone structure. The light is thus placed symmetrically, right over camera and her steady gaze. You can tell the position from the catchlight in her eyes. The resultant shadow drop on her face is equivalently even. Logical, right? Light from this hard, hard source travels in a straight line. It doesn’t wrap or bend. Place it right over her, and the shadows fall in a pretty identical way on both sides of her face. Effectively, there isn’t a highlight side and a shadow side to her face, which is what, for instance, I created for her in the blue lagoon with the Deep Octa to camera left.

Okay, high-speed sync. Let’s deal with how you get flash sync at the relatively unheard-of shutter speed of 1/4000th. With Nikons, you make a menu check-off in the camera. With Canons, you turn on the function at the flash itself. I won’t go deep into the electronics—because I can’t—but what happens when your shutter slides beyond the traditional limits of normal, or regular, flash sync is that the flash starts pulsing. Little bits of light fly through the rapidly moving slits in the focal plane shutter, heading for your subject. The faster your shutter speed, the fewer bits make it through, and, as a result, the higher your shutter speed, the more light you lose. At the really high speeds, a ton of the light the flash is producing is getting lost on the dark side of the shutter and never makes it out there to help make an exposure.

  • “The numbers sound like a high school math problem, but the result you wring out of those numbers is more like a creative writing assignment.”

So, it works, all the way to 1/8000th of a second! Very cool. The price you pay? Tremendous loss of flash power. This liability, if you will, can translate into an aesthetic strength, though. Hear me out.

I shot Sara at 1/4000th at f/2.8, as I said. What does that translate to in the world of normal sync? 1/250th at f/11. There’s a tremendous difference between those two “equivalent” exposure settings. One has major depth of field (DOF), the other has minimum. Which setting suits your purpose? The numbers sound like a high school math problem, but the result you wring out of those numbers is more like a creative writing assignment.

The nice thing is that the high-speed sync option is there. When I started shooting pictures in earnest, the highest shutter speed that would sync with a flash was 1/60th of a second. The only way you could get higher sync was to use a camera with a leaf style shutter, such as a Hasselblad.

Which meant that for indoor, flashed sports action, you couldn’t use a 35mm camera. You had to go with a medium format. Ever try to manually follow focus on a fast-moving basketball player peering down through the dark alleyway of a Hasselblad viewfinder? Why do you think they call it “Hassel”?

The wonder of modern electronics has given us the gift of high-speed sync, but at a price: the aforementioned loss of flash power. You can counter this in several ways; some are simple, some expensive:

Move your flash in close. Easy enough, depending on your composition and frame.

Go to the highest power on the flash. Logical. Scotty, more power! But, with a battery-operated small flash, there are obvious limits to that power.

Open up your f-stop. This is where having one of those newly popular, ultra-fast, f/1.4 prime lenses stashed in your bag can be really, really helpful. For instance, the shot of Sara was zoomed to 82 millimeters. I didn’t have an 85mm f/1.4, but that fast 85—at basically the same length—would have given me an extra two stops of latitude.

Increase your ISO. That will increase the “power” of your flash, right? Yes, but in this instance, what will it also increase? The power of the sun. ISO step-ups sound logical when you’re desperate for flash power, but always remember that it’s a global input. You increase everything in the exposure, across the board. Increasing the power and pushing your flash in close are adjustments local to the flash and pertain strictly to its effectiveness only. ISO increase is a high-speed strategy that is only effective in certain isolated instances. There’s another story in this book that talks about when that might occur.

And then, there’s my favorite—more flashes! But boy does that get expensive, and fast. Figure this. You need another f-stop, which means you have to double your light power. Okay, if you are maxed on the flash currently in use, that means you need a whole other flash. Reasonable. Many shooters out there carry multiple flashes with them. But now let’s say you’re using two flashes and you still need another stop of light, which again, means you’re playing doubles. To grab just one more f-stop is to double the light output of the two flashes, which means—going to four flashes. That’s a lot of flashes.

That’s where other considerations kick in. Do I spend the dough on four $500 Speedlights or go for a big light? Both paths have strengths and weaknesses.

On the Speedlight side: Multiple flashes can provide versatility. They are light and very portable. Don’t need access to electric. Can liaise with external battery packs, thus extending their efficiency and usefulness. Provide access to proprietary camera technologies, such as high-speed sync and TTL control. Also can be used in manual mode, and many models have built-in slave eyes, making them readily available as small kicker or background lights, triggering off a main light—any main light. “Darn handy” is a good term to describe these little hot shoe sons of guns.

On the downside: Limited range and power. Finite battery life. Will heat up and burn out if pushed too hard. Limited array (though ever growing) of light-shaping tools. They are small sources, tending to be harsh in their effect, unless shaped and bounced to achieve the softness and effect you can get pretty easily from a bigger flash and power pack arrangement. No access to a true model light for pre-judging a shot. Constant maintenance and field planning in terms of always having fresh batteries available, either rechargeables or one-use.

Bigger flashes: Much more power and, to a degree, dependability. Faster recycle. Access to a truly wide range of very sophisticated light shapers. Effective model lights, so you can pre-visualize the quality and direction of the light. One pack and head can often suffice, whereas with small flash you might need multiple units to achieve the same results. Certain types of bigger flashes run off electric, which means they’ll work all day, others work off battery packs, which make them good, versatile field units. Manual, precise controls mean you get the same results, frame to frame, as opposed to rolling the dice with TTL. Durable. The better units are really well constructed and hold up over time.

Downside of big flash? Big. Heavy. No truly automated controls, along the lines of TTL small flash systems. Some need access to electrical power and, thus, at least occasionally, yards and yards of heavy extension cords. The battery units are also heavy, given the fact that the lights essentially run off of a power source that’s akin to a motorcycle battery. If you have one big flash and it goes down in the field, you are lightless. With multiple small flashes, you have redundancy in case of a malfunction. (You can achieve redundancy with big flash too, for sure, but doubling up big flash packs and heads starts to get into the realm of hand trucks, assistants, larger rental vehicles, higher excess bag charges on airplanes, and the whole big-flash, travel-heavy routine.)

Decisions, decisions. Hey, here’s a downside both share—whatever way you go, as I always caution, you’re gonna spend some money.

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