Teaching an Intro To Off-Camera Flash workshop

For the past couple of years I wanted to facilitate a simple portrait lighting workshop with my favorite local photography group, the Hwy 9 Photography Group. Ideally what that meant was that I’d coordinate with a local portrait photographer who would actually do the presentation. After a few false starts I decided OK… why not me?

Behind the scenes with Katie

What I wanted to show was that you could create stunning portraits using low cost equipment. No need for high end lighting; this could be done with speedlights, diffusers, a backdrop, radio triggers, and a hand-held light meter.

I worked out a basic outline that I thought would take 20 minutes to present. I contacted Katie to model for us, worked out times, availability, and rates. Then I worked out a deal for the exotic location of the gym at the Boulder Creek Recreation Center. Fancy, I know.

I did my best to keep my actual talking to a minimum. I get a little tired of hearing my own voice. I also don’t really consider myself an expert on much, but like I said earlier “why not me?” I wanted to give the basic idea. What you could do with one light. Two lights. Three.

Snapshot of me giving the brief rundown. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kahn

It didn’t matter that none of the attendees had never shot with off-camera flash before. It also didn’t matter that none had worked with an experienced model before! I had a series of emails with Katie where I explained the situation. What I needed from her was to be herself, know where the lights were, be at ease, and mostly just do her stuff without needing direction. She was magnificent.

One light

We started out with a single light at camera left. A simple manual Yongnuo YN-560 II Speedlight connected to a PocketWizard PlusX Transceiver. The speedlight was placed inside a 36″ Fotodiox Pro 36″ (90cm) Octagon Softbox. After determining the correct exposure settings with the hand held light meter we were ready to go. The single light at camera left created some very dramatic light and shadows.

A single light at camera left shot as low key and dramatic. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kahn

One light and a reflector

Next I introduced a reflector at camera right to fill in some of the shadows.

Many thanks to Katie’s mom for (a) being there and (b) holding the reflector. The softbox at camera right wasn’t used yet.

The results from just adding the reflector were stunning. Each participant spent about 5 minutes each shooting with this setup. I would tell everyone the exposure recommendation based on my meter then I’d hand my radio trigger to the next participant.

Photo courtesy of Ian Webb
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kahn

Two lights: one at camera left, one at camera right

I setup the second light; virtually identical to the first light. The only difference was that the second speedlight was triggered optically. That meant that I needed to have only the one set of radio triggers. As soon as any other speedlight would fire then the second light would fire too. The optical trigger itself was built into the speedlights. I setup the second light to be about a stop less than the main light. Now we started getting even more volume to our subject. The point isn’t just to light your subject, it’s also to provide depth.

A shot from me using two lights
Behind the scenes with Mike Gendimenico
Behind the scenes with Keith Wyner

Three Lights: gels

I added a third speedlight behind Katie and put a purple gel on it. This speedlight was also on an optical trigger so it would fire when any other flash would fire. I had a few goals with the third light:

  1. separate the subject from the background
  2. demonstrate that you could change the color of the background
  3. introduce rim lighting
By placing a speedlight behind Katie and pointing it at the backdrop I could change the color of the background to nearly anything I wanted.
Courtesy of Erik Elfring
I’m not remotely as attractive as Katie. This is what happens when I’m talking and I hand the radio trigger to somebody. Photo courtesy of Erik Elfring.

Another great look is a rim light. Ideally you’d setup a light higher up and pointing down from behind your subject. Here I simply turned the speedlight around to face into the camera. I left the same color gel so Katie’s hair lights up with purple.

Rim light demonstration
For fun we played around a little with lens flares just by moving the camera a bit.

The Popup Flash

Now that everybody was acquainted with the benefits of off-camera flash and getting a little comfortable with the idea I wanted to take a step backwards. I wanted to show where the typical popup flash falls short.

Photo with the popup flash on my Canon 7d Mk II

The flash built in on many cameras points straight at your subject and right above the lens barrel. The result is a flat look. There is very little volume now. Notice also the weird catchlight in Katie’s eyes. It’s right there in the middle of her eyes. It’s not awful, but we can do so much better.

Putting it all together

It was time for a wardrobe change when Jon had an inspiration. He saw a small plush chair and thought she would look nice seated in it. Katie came back out in a stunning red dress and Jon’s idea absolutely came to life.

Seating Katie in the chair now meant moving the lights and metering again.
Behind the scenes with Mike and Katie. This was the entire setup.
Selective color. Photo courtesy Jonathan Kahn
My own favorite for the day

Seeing, Acting, Doing: workflow walkthrough

I thought it would be worth writing about the creative process and workflow behind this photograph. For a few miles I walked along the trail looking for compositions that I liked. Up high, down low, close to the water, high above. Many things spoke to me here. The whole area was still damp from recent rains and the colors were saturated. There were yellows, oranges, and of course lots of green. 

The finished photograph
A starting point

Observing

At a turn in the trail I seriously thought about a small cascade. There wasn’t anything especially unique about that cascade and I decided to keep looking. It just didn’t do anything for me at that time. About half a mile later there was a concrete diversion dam. This was a beautiful spot which I wrote about in an earlier post. 

Side note: A funny thing about the paragraph above; as I’m developing my blogging style I try to keep in mind how I want this to be read. I want to write it as if I’m talking with a friend over a beer. I started this with “But there were visual elements that compelled me to…” . That may be what I was thinking, but that’s definitely now how I’d say it. So, hang with me please while I get the hang of this. 

A lower, rudimentary dam – just concrete and rebar really created a nice vantage point. Some visual elements that had me think about it for a while. I wanted to create a photograph that leads the eye around the frame. As I looked at the scene in the first “A starting point” picture above, I saw the curve of the San Lorenzo River taking up the lower 2/3 of the frame. The river curves, leading the eye to the colorful trees. The reeds half way up the photo do a nice job of framing the river. The rock at the bottom left 1/3 does a nice job of anchoring the scene. The river itself was moving and I thought it would be good to slow down my shutter speed. 

Seeing the problems

As I looked at the scene I realized there there were problems. Potentially this would also be a really good topic for a workshop and a blog topic. I’ll try to break this down into bullet points to keep it brief. (note: yeah I kind of failed at the “brief” idea)

  • The scene was really busy
  • The plants (I really want to use a word more interesting than “plants” but does “vegetation” seem like something you’d really hear me say? Probably not) in the center were colorful but they were also total chaos. 
  • The river was nice but it had a lot of distracting reflections
  • The amount of green was overwhelming. Green on green, with pops of yellow.
  • I knew that the river would turn this weird unnatural blue in post processing
  • A gap is in the upper right where the tree line ends and the sky begins. The sky was definitely going to be an uninteresting blown out blob so I composed the shot to omit as much of it as possible.  

But here’s the thing — I recognized all of this in the field. I also started thinking about how to approach this in post processing while I was there. 

Acting

Setting up the shot

I got up on the lower concrete & rebar eyesore dam (it’s really ugly, I’m not mincing words here) and setup my tripod. I stood up and squatted down a few times to decide what height I want to shoot from. I chose a height that was nearly fully extended. I wanted the colorful trees in the background to be in the upper 1/3 of the frame so I setup the lens at 40mm. The composition of photo is very “rule of thirds.” You can see how I placed certain elements in the frame so that the object would be where grid lines would intersect. That’s not an accident.

A lot of reflected light was in the water so I put a circular polarizer on the lens to cut that back some. I wanted a longer exposure and thought that about one second would be nice for the water. This created a problem though; (ooh a semicolon! Fancy schmancy!) stacking  circular filters on the lens creates unwanted vignetting. Ditching the circular polarizer wasn’t an option so I decided to use f/16 to reduce the amount of light. I sure didn’t need f/16 for the depth of field. I’m pretty sure this would have been good around f/8. For longer exposures (really anything under 1/40th sec) I like to use a simple remote trigger.

Knowing that I had a lot of depth of field to work with I set my focus manually about 1/3 of the way into the field. That was a pretty good estimate to gauge hyperfocal distance.  The result is the elements close to the camera are in sharp focus while my main subject (the colorful trees in the distance) are also in reasonably sharp focus. I use my Canon 5d Mk III’s live view to select where I want to focus, then I zoom in using the zoom buttons on the camera body to tighten it more. 

I’m paying attention to the histogram displayed in the live view while I’m working. I set mine up to display values in red, green, and blue rather than the default luminosity. This way I can be sure no individual value is overexposing

From an outing in Capitola that shows the RBB histogram idea

Post Processing – Adobe Lightroom

Work in Lightroom was kept very basic with a little exploration into color grading. Most of the work was going to be done in Photoshop. Lightroom was used to bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights. Color temperature was changed to something warmer. The scene was shot in an “open shade” kind of situation which the camera would usually decide is around 6000k.  

After the Lightroom edits. Still more work to be done.
Basic Panel. Bring the shadows up, highlights down, add some contrast, and changed the white balance to 7500k
It’s not often that change much in the HSL panel, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone a bit with this photograph.
I added just a little split toning. This is very unusual for me, but I liked the overall effect and will probably do this more often now.

Doing

Finish the job in Photoshop

Basic RAW edits from Lightroom are exported to Photoshop for more work. I usually break this down into a few groups of edits. I use adjustment layers (I keep looking for a phrase that’s more interesting than “a lot…” but hell…) a lot. The great thing about adjustment layers is that it’s as close to “non destructive editing” as you’re going to get in a raster editor like Photoshop.

So many adjustment layers…

Yeah there’s a lot going on here but it’s nowhere near as complicated as I’ve seen. More isn’t better here. 

Color Correction

Left slider moves up all the way to the cliff on the histogram

A Levels adjustment layer is added where I am working with red, green, and blue channels. I bring the darkest values of each channel to the edge of the meaningful data in the histogram. 

Green channel
I moved the blue channel a little more than I usually do. 

Bring some things up, some things down

My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. I added an adjustment layer that darkens most of the image. I painted black into the layer mask with a large brush to bring some brightness back up selectively

Color Grading In the Mid Tones

Raya Pro was used to get the mid tones luminosity mask. If right about now you’re cross eyed and saying “wha???” that’s cool. I wanted to be very selective about how I got creative with color. Admittedly I didn’t go wild but this did have a nice effect. No, this isn’t how I actually saw the scene in front of me, but it is how I wanted to present it. That’s the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. I’ll keep this brief, mostly because this post has gotten to be very long and I’m into beer number two while writing it. The YOST SEO plugin is telling me I’m wording poorly. 

Thanks YOST. 

Below you can see that I was editing the curves for each color channel. The neat thing is that I’m doing this only in the midtones to keep it selective. No, the screenshot below isn’t really an accurate depiction of the whole thing but it gives you the general idea. 

Selective color correction

There was probably a better way to do this. I wanted to add a little more contrast. I also thought at the image was too blue. The levels adjustment layer at bottom brings the middle slider for the blues up, reducing the blues in the midtones. The curves layer darkens the darks values a bit, and really just a little bit. The levels adjustment later up top is where I make a custom mask to keep the edits to a portion of the image. 

There was probably a better way to do this…

Essentially the river is reflecting a lot of blue from the sky and I found it distracting. That last levels adjustment layer is to bring those blue tones down to something I liked better. 

The middle slider was moved to the right a bit to get those blue tones under control.

Finishing touches

Selective sharpening and a vignette are added last. Sharpening will be different depending the camera used and the final output. My Canon 5d Mk III needs a little more sharpening in post processing than newer Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve found that the sharpening can also cause problems when the job goes to print. My favorite high end shop, LightSource SF, adds some custom sharpening. I compensate for this by doing my sharpening in an adjustment layer that can be disabled for printing if needed.

Take a closer look at my sharpening layer. It’s a high-pass filter with a layer mask painted black. I paint white with a big, soft brush on that layer mask so the sharpening is applied only to the parts of the image that I really want. The high-pass filter layer is set to an “overlay” or “soft light” mode. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between the modes by looking at them. No, really. 

A vignette is used to further draw the eye around. How do you something brighter? One way is to make everything else darker. I make an organic shape using a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet. That vignette is applied to a curve layer and the white parts of the layer mask make darker areas in the final image.

Selective sharpening and vignette

Landscape Photography Basics: Part Two – Depth Of Field

The last post about landscape photography basics explored a little about something frequently used: wide angle lenses. Another aspect of landscapes is that they often have a greater depth of field compared to portraits, macro, or wild life photographs.

Greater Depth of Field

What the heck does that mean? Usually you are trying to capture a larger scene; a beach, a canyon, a valley, a forest, etc. You are probably trying to capture the experience of being there. Consider what the human eye does in these experiences. You scan the scene. Your eyes will focus on a subject, move, focus on another subject, move, refocus, and so on. Not only that but your pupils dilate and contract to accommodate the different light in the same scene.

Bodega Head, northern California. Canon 5d Mk III, 17mm, f/16

To achieve this with your camera you select an aperture that will result in as much of the scene (front to back) in focus as you want. Usually this means an aperture ranging from f/8 to something less than the maximum (that’s usually around f/22).

Right about now you may be wrinkling up your nose thinking…

f slash a number? What the heck does that mean?

That’s a perfectly natural response. For a good beginner-level discussion on the topic read this article on The Exposure Triangle . I’ll summarize it like this:

    • A lower number is a wider opening in the lens
    • A higher number is a smaller opening

Wide open at f/2.8

A tiny aperture at f/22

Example wide aperture around f/4

Example middle aperture around f/8

Example small aperture around f/13

A larger aperture (wider opening: f/1.8 to 4.0):

  • Allows in more light
  • Allows for shorter exposure times

The depth of field is shallow (less in front of and beyond your subject will be in focus). This can be great for isolating your subject by making the background blurry while the subject is in sharp focus. Here is a series of examples shot with a Canon 50mm prime f/1.8 using a Canon 7d Mk II. Each image uses an increasingly small aperture. Notice that each takes a little longer to expose, starting at 1/40 of a second at f/1.8 and ending at 1.6 seconds at f/16

f/1.8. The candle is in focus but everything in front and behind is blurry. Exposure time was 1/40th second

f/2.5: the candle is in focus and the Frankenstein head is a little less blurry.

f/3.5. A little bit more of Frank is coming into focus

A smaller aperture (smaller opening: f/5.6 to f/22 or more):

    • Allows in less light
    • Needs longer exposure times
    • The depth of field is greater (more stuff in front of and behind your subject will be in focus)

f/5.0: the candle and Frank are in focus. The clock in background is taking shape.

f/7.1: the candle and Frank are in tight focus. The clock is still blurry.

f/10: Everything is in focus now. The exposure time was .8 seconds.

f/16: Everything is in focus, but there’s not a lot of value added beyond the clock. The exposure time was 1.6 seconds.

Practical limitations – Chromatic aberration

There are practical limitations that vary depending on lens quality.
Most consumer/hobbyist lenses are optimized for around f/8. Wide open apertures (f/1.4, 2.8, 3.2..) will result in green and purple fringing around edges especially in high contrast areas. This is “chromatic aberration” and drives me kind of bananas personally. Some software is great at compensating for this.

An example of chromatic aberration. Look for the green fringe in the high contrast areas.

Practical limitations -lens diffraction

Very small apertures (f/18, f/20, f/22…) often have the counterintuitive effect of photos that are less sharp. This is called lens diffraction. A complete discussion is outside the scope of my article … and honestly I struggle to describe it particularly well. Dan Mitchell does a great job of explaining what’s going on while debunking a common digital photography myth. I refer to photographer friends often especially when they’re right.

Below is an example of a photo where I made several mistakes. The focus is softer than I wanted for a couple of reasons. The first is probably because I left the image stabilization engaged on my lens. I’ll explain that later, but don’t do that when you’re using a tripod. The other is that I shot this at f/20 when it wasn’t remotely necessary. f/13 would have done fine and focus suffered because of it.

Is this an example of a photograph that’s “wrong?” Yes and here’s why; I didn’t achieve what I set out to do and the final image needed extensive editing. I liked the result at the time but years later not so much.

A barely edited photo from around Mirror Lake. f/20 at 17mm. Just about every problem described earlier is here and then some.

Take a closer look here too: chromatic aberration. You don’t need to be using a wide open aperture to find this in your photograph. It’ll be there in high contrast areas at just about any aperture, but it’ll be most obvious when wide open.

Detail of focus and chromatic aberration problems

Thanks again for reading. I hope it was helpful. Come back for more when I discuss ISO and qualities of light. If you liked what you read then please share with your friends. I love comments and try to respond.

Landscape Photography Basics: Part One – wide angle lenses

I’m asked about photography topics fairly often. The questions are usually pretty similar so I thought it was time to start writing. This was going to be one short post. Of course that became a very long post which I thought nobody was going to seriously read, so breaking it up into smaller chunks seemed like a better idea.

A fairly typical landscape photograph. Soft light, wide angles, drama and adventure. Taft Point, Yosemite, November 2018.

Photography can be a complicated subject. Something I’d like to get across early is there is no universal “right” or “wrong”; you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t. When people ask me “did I do this right?” I can only ask “what were you trying to do?” Then we can work backwards from there. Having said that, here are some aspects of landscape photography that are common. Let’s start by talking about wide angle lenses.

Many landscape photos share these characteristics:

  • Wide angle lenses
  • Greater depth of field
  • Longer exposure times
  • Lower ISO
  • Softer light
  • Level horizon
  • Composition
  • A sense of drama

Let’s start Part One with Wide Angles lenses

I see most landscape photos shot using wide angle lenses.

  • 18-24mm is a typical “wide angle”
  • 14-17mm is a very wide angle
  • 10mm is a ludicrously wide (OK it’s usually called “ultra-wide”) angle

I have used a handful of wide angle lenses of varying quality. My favorites have been the Sigma 17-50 and the Canon 17-40

18-55 Canon EF-S kit lens
Sigma 17-50 f/2.8
Samyang 14mm f/2.8
17-40mm Canon L Series

There are of course plenty of perfectly good reasons to use a telephoto for landscapes. Let’s talk about that another time.

Wide angles will behave differently depending on the type of camera involved.

A full frame camera (Nikon 7xx/8xx-series, Canon 6d/5d series for a couple of examples) using a 17mm lens will result in a lot of distortion on the image. This probably isn’t something you’d want to use for a portrait.

Canon 7d Mark II with a Sigma 17-50 wide angle lens

A crop frame camera (most consumer and enthusiast cameras like the Nikon 3xxx/5xxx/7xxx, Canon Rebels, 20d-80d, etc) have a sensor that’s quite a bit smaller than their full frame counterparts (side note: the Canon 7d series is an interesting beast: a crop frame, pro camera). 18mm-20mm is still pretty wide and nice for landscapes. A wide angle lens on a crop frame camera will result in a little less distortion, but it will still be there.

Canon Rebel XT with a kit 18-55mm lens

Valley View, Yosemite shot with a 14mm lens on a crop frame DSLR. There’s some distortion noticeable in the trees. Look closely at the trees towards the right edge of the frame.

Take a closer look at this detail of the trees at the right side of the frame. There’s some distortion but it’s not awful A fair amount of editing went into this photograph.

Detail of some distortion with the 14mm lens on a crop frame camera. It’s not bad but it’s there.

Is wider better? That’s up to you.

There’s some misunderstanding that wider angles necessarily let you capture more. Yes and no. When you edit the photo to compensate for the distortion then some of that width gets cropped out.

A photo in progress. Climbers on El Capitan as a bus passes. 17mm with a full frame Canon 5d Mk III

Take a closer look at the bottom edge of the photo. You can get a better idea of the image distortion

Detail of the two cars at the bottom edge of the photo. This is where the distortion is most apparent

To me landscape photography is more about art than necessarily a journalistic/accurate representation of a scene. Everything is up to the vision of the artist using the camera in my opinion. You either got what you meant to achieve or you didn’t. There is no “wrong”. I say this a lot.

Check back for Part Two where we discuss depth of field and aperture.
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