Cooking with Light

I’m  just about done reading Joe McNally’s terrific book, The Hot Shoe Diaries. If you are serious about picture-taking and you haven’t heard of Joe, you need to get out more often. His work is prodigious and always inspiring. He writes an excellent blog, where he discusses photographic lighting; in particular, how to get big lighting effects out of small flashes. His book is an easy read due to his relaxed writing style. It’s one of those books you read and come back to as a reference source. Go buy it.

There is a lot to learn in the book, but the two messages I’ve taken away are 1) use your camera and flash like you would ingredients in the kitchen and 2) obtain and use some light modifiers. I’ve been using an SLR camera since high school and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t experiment with it. I’m very conservative with the settings and my pictures reflect that. McNally encourages the reader to try different setting such as adjusting the exposure compensation on the camera in one direction and the output of the flash in the other, basically adding and subtracting compensation until the desired effect is achieved. The desired effect is not always a perfect histogram. So you have to work the camera and flash a bit to get what looks good. It sounds ridiculously simple, but I bet a lot of people are content to shoot on auto everything. Try actually adjusting the controls. You might like what happens!

Light modifiers run the gamut from foam core (very inexpensive) to giant reflectors and silks. I never bothered to investigate them because I’m essentially a lazy hobbiest and don’t want to lug extra crap around with me.  McNally’s book makes a compelling argument that shooting without some modification, shaping and coloring of light is just plain wrong and boring. The book has changed my entire philosophy about using small flashes. No longer will I burn someone’s eyes out with straight flash, now that I understand how to use modifiers. Let’s take a look at what I mean.

The photo up top is a mundane Saturday morning in my home: kids sitting in the chair, bright cloudy light outside. Basic exposure is ISO 800, f5.6 at like 1/60; the room is pretty dimly lit. Prior to reading McNally’s book, I’d bust out the SB flash unit and blast the kids in the chair. Maybe use the warming gel and make them look orange compared to the light outside the window. Oh, and that outside light would be pretty well trashed once I blast away with the flash. In fact it was. With the unmodified flash, all detail in the world outside the window was lost, not to mention the white wall behind the kids showed the shadows created by the point light source. Time for a different approach. I put the flash behind a handheld Lastolite Tri-Flip diffusion panel, a 3ft triangle of diffusion goodness that I held up over the kids while my loving wife pressed the shutter. I also made some fine tuning adjustments to the camera’s exposure control and the power setting on the flash. The result is significantly more appealing than the full-on blast of flash in their faces that I started with. One light through an inexpensive modifier that folds up into a disc. Not much more effort than using straight flash, when you think about it.

From McNally’s blog, I followed a link to Zach Arias’ website. Zach is a self-described “music photographer” who also has a lot of lighting tips on his site, as well as a lighting workshop and DVD. I’m planning to order the DVD to see his approach to lighting, which sounds minimalist based on the title. One of the resounding messages in Zach’s work is that gear will not make you a better shooter, shooting will make you a better shooter. He has a page entitled “GOYA,” for get off your ass and shoot, that includes a bunch of projects where he’s essentially stretching his creative chops in the form of friendly competitions. I ripped a page from his playbook and got off my own ass this evening and tried some lighting experiments in my basement.

Here’s my basement. An incandescent lamp and a couple of ceiling-mounted incandescents and fluorescents.

Just crappy for photography, in the traditional sense that there’s not enough light. Or is there? I was hoping to create something a little moody, something that shows the warmth and specialness of a home workspace.  So I enlisted the kids again, since they love playing with power tools.  The basic setting for all three images is: Nikon D200 with 17-55 lens. The camera’s pop up flash has a 1/3 CTO and is set to both provide light and trigger my only other lights, 2 SB 800s, both gelled with a CTO. The first SB is camera right on a light stand with it’s diffuser cap on, firing through the Lastolite Tri Flip about 4 feet from the workbench. The second SB is way in the back, underneath the hanging bicycles and powered down by -1 EV. I wanted something to add depth (thank you Joe McNally!) to the picture and not just have a giant black void there. The SBs are on separate groups controlled from the camera so I could adjust output levels.

I can’t recall all the exposure setting exactly. And that’s another point McNally makes throughout the book: it’s not a math exercise, there’s no correct answer. You adjust stuff on the camera and the flash until it looks good to you. I think I had the camera at +1.0 and the main light at +1.3. The shot above is with the camera’s white balance set to auto. Nice and warm. Maybe too warm. Maybe I over did it with the gels.

Here’s the same set up with the white balance set to tungsten.

It took me one second to adjust the WB, yet the look is completely different. I think I prefer this one, since I know my kid’s skin tone and it’s not “warm” at all.

I can’t leave the girl out of the action.

Obviously there’s a lot that could be done to make this scene better. I don’t care for the straight on flash coming from the camera’s pop-up but it was a trade-off. I only have two lights and I needed one to add some depth to the background. If I had a third, I would diffuse it and place it camera left, but given what I have it’s not a bad effort. Go back up and look at the first basement photo. You see that 2 small flashes and a diffuser made a huge difference.

Could it be better? Yes. I could have fiddled with the exposure controls more. I could have taken off the gels (one or all). I could have moved the lights around. Good luck doing all that with two year olds near power tools. The point of the exercise is to try. Try something new. Be prepared to make crap, delete it and try again. Be prepared to learn and have fun. Get your camera and lights out, and try different recipes until you make something you like. Get cooking….with light.


About robertkerner

Educator, registered nurse, attorney, inquisitive mind
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