Adding an Off-Camera Flash to Create a Winning Image

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Star_gazers

This image, titled “Star Gazers”, won Grand Prizes at the 2015 Shoot the Hills photo competition. Held in the Hocking Hills region near Logan, Ohio, this competition takes place the 3rd weekend every April. 160 photographers from several states participated this year.

I initially came up with the idea for this shot over a year earlier, but my first attempt at the image failed miserably. (see below)

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What mistakes did I make?

If I would have checked the histogram I would have seen that all of the image was extremely under-exposed with all the data pushed up against the left side of the histogram.

If I had checked the histogram I would have noticed that the image was extremely under-exposed with all the data pushed up against the left side of the histogram.

  1. The image was under-exposed, because I failed to check the histogram. In the dark the image looked great on the LCD on the back of the camera!
  2. With the long exposure (30 seconds) there was no way for the subjects in the image to remain still enough to avoid blurring.

The Solutions

  1. The solution for the exposure was simple. First I turned down the brightness of the camera’s LCD screen. Then I used the histogram to determine my exposure.
  2. The length of exposure time was the main problem I had with this first attempt at capturing the image I had planned. It is nearly impossible for a live model to stand still for 30 seconds to prevent blurring. An off-camera flash was added behind the models to create the rim lighting in order to freeze their movement. Adding this flash was the major difference-maker from my earlier attempt of this image.

Other Factors to Consider

Sometimes it takes some trial and error to achieve the results you are looking for in an image. Improvisation may be required when unforeseen issues change shooting conditions. Many factors need to fall together for it to be possible to create an image such as this one. After waiting until 2 a.m. for the clouds to clear, it was finally time to capture the image I had pre-visualized nearly a year earlier.  Because the cloud cover remained near the horizon, it became necessary to change the angle of view to capture the higher, clearer sky. This adjustment also made it necessary to change the focal length from the 18mm I had planned to 50mm. One of the rules of the Shoot the Hills photo competition is that all images must be submitted straight out of the camera, so getting everything right in the camera is a must. Here are some additional factors required to capture such an image:

The Weather

  • Clear starry night – Probably the single most important factor to create this image is a clear starry night.
  • Dark sky – Find a dark sky, away from the lights of the city. There are dark sky maps on the internet.
  • Moonless night (or after the moon has set) – The light from the moon will fade out (overpower) many of the dimmer stars.

The Exposure

Histogram for the final winning. Notice how the histogram stretches back almost into the mid-tones, with a little info clear back into the highlights which is the stars and the rim lighting.

Histogram for the final winning shot. Notice how the histogram stretches back almost into the mid-tones, with a little info clear back into the highlights, which represent the stars and rim lighting.

I wanted to keep the shutter speed at 30 seconds for two reasons. First, that is the longest shutter speed most cameras allow without having to set them to bulb, and manually doing a timed exposure. Secondly, I didn’t want the stars to become extremely blurry. Using the histogram, I determined my exposure with my focal length at 50mm to be;  aperture at f/5 and ISO set to 2000, which I had predetermined was the highest ISO I could use, and still be able to minimize the amount of digital noise. As mentioned earlier, do not rely on the camera’s LED screen to determine exposure. In fact, in the dark the LED screen will look really bright when the image is actually extremely underexposed. To remedy this problem, turn the brightness down on you LED screen, if this setting is available. But always use the histogram to get the best exposure setting. If the histogram is all pushed over to the left side, the image is going to be underexposed.

Remote Triggers

Since I was also one of the subjects in the images, I used one remote to begin the exposure, and another to trigger the flash.

White Balance

After experimenting with several preset white balances I decided to set a custom white balance of 2560 Kelvin, to give the image a cool blue colored sky.

Focusing

Focusing a camera in the dark is one of the most challenging parts of creating a night shot under the stars. Here are some tips to set focus for night images:

  • Pre-focus before it gets dark. This is the easiest way to focus for a night shot, and after the focus is set, turn off the auto-focus so it doesn’t change.
  • Shine a bright flash light on the subject to allow the camera to focus, and as in the method above, after attaining focus, turn off the auto-focus.
  • Use live view to focus manually on a light.
  • Use back button focusing to preset focus

For this image I used back button focusing, and a flash light to set my focus.

The Logistics

The setup for this shot was at the top of a steep hill which came to a point. With the subjects at the very top, the camera was placed on a tripod below, and aimed upward at the subjects and the starry sky in the background. The off-camera flash was placed on a tripod on the other side of the hill and aimed upward at the subjects. The flash and tripod had to be placed low enough on other side of the hill, so that the actual flash did not show in the image.

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Conclusion

Henry Ford once said that “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  When an image idea fails, take a look at what went wrong and then look for solutions to improve the image, return to the scenario and try it again. From my first unsuccessful attempt to capture star-gazers, the need to freeze the subjects and prevent the blurring, led me to try the off-camera flash technique. The back-lighting and a year’s experience made all the difference between a failed shot and a winner!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Miriam Poling

    Great article and amazing image!

  • Theresa634563
  • Lorna

    Wonderful photo!

  • Marie Fullerton

    Congratulations on your wonderful photo! I am new to using flash in photography. I don’t understand how you used the flash, but still did a 30-second exposure. Did you have the people duck out right away after the flash and continue to expose to get the stars? I’m confused and hope you can enlighten me. Please be detailed. 🙂

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks Marie, the people stayed in the exposure for the entire 30 seconds of the exposure holding as still as possible, but during the 30 seconds I fired the off-camera flash by remote, which created the rim light around the people and froze their position in the image.

  • Marie Fullerton

    Thanks for taking time to respond. That clears it up for me. Really appreciate it!

  • Great post! I really enjoy taking pictures of the night sky but I have yet to experiment with people. I have found that using a remote trigger (or timed trigger if you don’t have a remote) helps regardless of whether or not you plan to be in the shot. Simply pressing the trigger button on your camera can add a bit of blur since the act of pressing the trigger can shake the camera.

  • evelyn.croft
  • Bruce Wunderlich

    yes good point Mitsuyo, I never go out without my remote trigger.

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