News and Views from Dave Wilson

Playing with off-camera flash

by on May.31, 2009, under Family, Photography

Frankie Catches Air

Frankie Catches Air, originally uploaded by David A G Wilson.

I’m definitely way behind the curve when it comes to lighting. Up until now, I’ve considered a flash to be a necessary evil – something to use in a dire emergency or when I’m taking snaps at parties and the like. Over the last few months, however, I’ve been reading David Hobby’s Strobist blog and demolished Joe McNally’s book “The Moment it Clicks” in a single sitting and, inspired by these, have been keen to start using a flash for “serious” photography.

To further this goal, I got out the manual for my Nikon SB-600 to try to figure out how to use some of its advanced modes, notably wireless off-camera triggering and high speed sync (the ability to use the flash when your shutter speed is faster than the usual 1/200th sync speed). With this new information in hand, I headed off for a day of shooting with Miles Bintz at the Walnut Creek BMX track yesterday and this is one of the resulting images.

This proved to be a great experience. I was only using a single flash but the difference it made was incredible. The track is heavily wooded and, with the sun so high in the sky, photos taken without the flash always ended up with the riders’ faces in the shade. By using a flash to the left and below the riders as they jumped, these shadows could be filled in resulting in good light on them. Exposure adjustment also allowed the background to be darkened rather nicely to highlight the rider. I’ve done some arty stuff to this picture but, even with the monochrome background, you can still get a pretty good idea of the effect. No doubt I’ll post a few more (less processed) images from the shoot here over the next week or so.

So what were the main lessons learned yesterday?

  1. To use the high speed sync capabilities offered by the SB-600, you need to ensure that you are not trying to use the on-camera flash for fill. It doesn’t support high speed sync and you find yourself limited to shutter speeds longer than 1/200 or thereabouts. Use it purely as a commander, however, and the SB-600 will sync with all shutter speeds up to 1/4000 (albeit with dramatically reduced guide numbers as the shutter speeds get faster).
  2. You need at least 2 lights to get this right. With a single light on one side of the jumper, you end up with harsh shadows cast by the arm across the body in most shots. Another, slightly less powerful light on the opposite side would help reduce this. Miles was shooting with this arrangement and his lighting looks lot more even.
  3. I thought I would be using my long lens most of the day but ended up getting the best shots (like this one) with the 50mm or even the 10-20mm ultra-wide zoom. The prespective distortion introduced by the ultra-wide results in very dramatic pictures but you take your life in your hands to get them since you end up very close to the bikes as they fly through the air.
  4. The most difficult part of the process once you get the lights positioned is focusing. Most of the time, I stuck to manual focus and prefocused where I thought the bike would be at the apex of the jump. I then fired the shutter when the rider flew through the field of view and chimped the result to check the focal point before refocusing for their next run if necessary.
  5. As an extension of the last point, even the super-fast autofocus on the 70-200mm f2.8 VR can’t track one of these guys as he flies towards you.
  6. Don’t leave your water bottle in the car if you intend spending 4 hours in the sun in the Texas summer.

Yesterday’s experience was enormously positive and I’m left with whole new vistas of flash-enabled photographic opportunity. I’ll definitely go back to the track since I think it would make a great documentary subject in addition to being a fabulous place to get some really dramatic action shots. Maybe I’ve found the photo project I’ve been looking for?

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