Creating an Atmosphere On-The-Go & Lighting Control

Creating an Atmosphere On-The-Go & Lighting Control

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital FilmToday one of our Belgian Readers, Morgan Moller, shares how he used portable flash units to light this chapel – as well as some lessons learned in tackling the task.

Helmut Newton. Annie Leibovitz. Richard Avedon. These are just a very slim pick out of the photographers who, in their early careers haven’t had the tools available ( I know some preferred not using them) to create intricate lighting schemes, or to really bend the light the way they wanted ever.

Nowadays more tools are available for us photographers, and they’ve become more accessible, more affordable, more comprehensible and easy-to-use. They’re are still a lot of challenges though, and one of those challenges is creating an environment up to your wishes using portable lighting.

Before the introduction of portable flash units (further referred to as Speedlights) lighting equipment was heavy, expensive, encumbering, you name it. Not the type of thing you’d take with you everyday. However, the industrial revolution brought us production chains, the lighting revolution brought us affordable, portable flash units. There are speedlights to fit all of your needs.

200912032122.jpgWhen I go on a trip (in this case it was a holiday with friends), I make it a point to bring at least a couple of speedlight. You never know. (I do know what’s going through your brain right now- that guy’s a friggin’ numnuts!) And this strategy rewarded me this year. We went with a gang of friends to another friend’s house in France. In this domain was a small early 16th century chapel. It was barely touched, and the picturesque feeling just overwhelmed anyone entering it. I immediately thought, ‘this can make for some incredible pictures!’It had the religious statues, stained windows, candles, the whole shebang.

As soon as the possibilities started flowing in my head I also immediately saw the downside. This chapel’s dark. Like really really dark. Trees had grown next to the windows covering them partially, and the sun wasn’t getting through as much as i’d have wanted it to. I halted for a moment and realised I already had the solution. I had 3 speedlights (Nikon SB-24’s & 800’s) in my bag.

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital Film

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital Film

I immediately made a lighting scheme of which Joe McNally would have been proud I hope. I grabbed my speedlights and hopped over to the chapel, set them up and grabbed my camera.

One thing I noticed, is that the stained windows were beautiful but they just didn’t ‘pop-out’ like I wanted them. I chose to boost ‘em with speedlights. Triggered using Cactus V4 Triggers I had a buddy on a ladder hold 3 of them superimposed outside the chapel window and made ‘em blast at full warp speed. Perfect. Since I didn’t have 12 speedlights or so, I put them grouped in 3 and did each window. I also placed one inside the chapel to have the inside ceiling that was a beautiful blue pop out, and give it that ‘holy feel’. This is what came out .

I used candlesmoke to add a ‘mystique’ feeling to it , and it serves a dual purpose to illustrate the power of the flashes.

Now, knowing that It worked I set up to the a complete shot of the whole chapel. I used a super-wide 10-20mm lens at f/11 or so.

Due to the lack of speedlights I knew i’d have to take the windows separately and merge them as layers in photoshop later on, but I wanted to try and remain off photoshop as much as possible. I really wanted to create the image on the spot, not later on in photoshop. I wanted Joe McNally to be proud of me.

You can see the flash ‘hidden’ inside the altar lighting up the ceiling to add more details and light to the overal image. All flashes were shot at full warp speed or 1/1 for the mathletes (I know, how complicated right?) and the cheap cactus triggers worked flawlessly. Impressive cheap materials.

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital Film

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital Film

On the subject of batteries and power managment for your flashes. What’s so useful about these little portable flashes is that they work with either every type of popular battery (AA) either with power packs. I use mine with NimH batteries. They give my flashes the power they need (especially in this situation) and a more than reasonable recycle time. If you need even more power, go for the power packs. These are really packs you attach to your camera and give you way more power than conventional batteries.

If I could give you 1 tip about batteries it’s this : don’t buy the cheap ones. They might be cheaper (thanks for that Captain Obvious) but you’ll regret it. Why? They usually aren’t as powerful as brand ones, the recycle time is likely to be very poor, but worse of all , they might leak and ruin your expensive flash. I have a buddy to who it occured, and after much scrubbing the guys at the nikon shop asked him if he needed a shovel for his 3 month old SB-900. Use at your own risk. I use GP 2700 mAh batteries, and they’re incredible. (No, I don’t get paid by GP, in fact nobody pays me. Might need to look into that)

And lastly, an overall shot combining everything I explained previously of the chapel. This one required layer merging in photoshop due to the extensive number of windows in the chapel I had to speedlight ‘em separately, since I hadn’t brought like 12 of them.

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital Film

Nikon d70s, SB-24’s & 900’s, Sigma 10-20mm UWA @ f/11, Sandisk Digital Film

You might notive the green-yellow overcast in the pictures, let me explain. Whilst editing these pictures I noticed that the colors of the chapel weren’t really great. I guess this was due to the aging of the paint or something, i’m not a chemist. So, I was editing it, and CSI:Miami was on the tv in the same room, and I noticed how they have the same kinda green-yellow overcast on a lot of their shots, and I wanted to give this chapel a CSI:Miami look. Maybe someone got shot in here?

Anyway, this for me has been a lesson in packing. If I hadn’t brought my speedlights which take very little space I wouldn’t have pulled these shots off. Being able to control the lighting situation in a building or environment on the go is crucial. You won’t (I hope for your sake) alsways be confined in your safe, controlled studio environment. Sometimes you just need to get out, and get the shot.

What I’ve learned & Tips:

  • Always pack speedlights. You never know.
  • Use the good batteries. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Draw a little lighting map. It’s great for future reference.
  • Have a friend with really long arms.Always handy.
  • If you’re going to pack lights, pack some accesories. This is somehting I didn’t have with me, but eversince I do : gobo’s, snoots, diffusers,…
  • Wide Angle lenses rock. They can really get you the shot you need sometimes.
  • Got extra space? Pack a tripod!
  • Ignite your environment. Not only candles, but fill it with smoke, lights, fire, anything to create a feel!
  • Fill in your noteworthy experience tip!

Morgan Moller is a 22 year old Belgian law student and photographer from Antwerp Belgium. He mainly focuses on fashion and travel photography. He is an admirer of Patrick Demarchelier’s, Richard Avedon’s work and dreams of a career in fashion photography. Check out his site at www.mmphoto.be

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