How it Was Shot: Quick Portrait, Portable Lighting

31mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250

I often bring my camera and lights to my day job as a musician. It’s great practice for me, plus my organization uses a lot of the photos that I end up taking. I’ve been experimenting more with using speedlights in our concert settings but I’m still feeling out the balance between creating good light and being a distraction to the performers/audience. It also ends up being a lot of extra gear to lug around, considering that I already have a couple of bags that I need to bring to play the concert!

DSC_1834So the other day, I decided to bring a simple, portable kit to one of our concerts so that I could shoot a portrait of Pete, our sound engineer. I had tried a couple of portraits of him back in the fall (before my experiments with off-camera flash) and I was fairly unsatisfied. You can see one of those photos at left. It’s not Pete’s fault- I just didn’t really know how to get the light I wanted. I had been using a speedlight mounted on-camera with a large dome-style modifier. It created a fairly soft, pleasing light but it lacked dimensionality due to being on the camera. Getting that flash off-camera reveals so much more form and shape.

I began by thinking about what kind of look I wanted for the portrait. I definitely wanted to get Pete working at the soundboard. The soundboard is a pretty impressive array of buttons, dials, and sliders and could be a distraction from the main subject, so I knew that I wanted my light to keep the attention on Pete while still revealing some of the soundboard. Using a grid came to mind immediately. A grid provides a fairly small area of light that has a beautiful falloff. I was either going to rely on the ambient light in the room or on-axis fill light to preserve some detail in the soundboard.

Wanting to travel light, I packed my trusty D200 with an 18-70 lens. Why the 18-70? I know the room because we play there every year, and I was thinking about a wide-angle shot that would include the architecture of the hall. In addition, the zoom lens would give me the ability to quickly switch between focal lengths without having to pack extra lenses.

For flash, I packed a single speedlight, an SB-26. The SB-26 has a built-in optical slave, so I wouldn’t have to pack any radio triggers; I could fire it by using the built-in flash on my camera. I also planned on handholding the light because I didn’t want to pack a lightstand, and the lack of a need for radio triggers made it even easier to handhold. I did pack a PC-sync cable as a backup solution. Finally, I packed a gel kit (just in case of funky ambient, or for a different look) and two grids of different sizes.

That’s pretty minimal gear when you consider I wanted to use an off-camera flash setup. Really the only things taking up space and adding any noticeable weight were the camera, lens, and speedlight.

After arriving at the venue, unloading the truck, warming up, and soundchecking (that’s a word, right?), there was a small window of time to shoot some photos. Pete was still making some tweaks at the board and candid shots of him working the board were just what I had in mind anyway. He had set up the board in a location that made it impossible to get a good wide angle shot of the hall, so I opted for a slightly tighter (~45mm full frame equivalent) portrait. Score 1 for bringing a midrange zoom lens!

I stood on some seats to get a higher vantage point in order to show more of the controls on the board, plus you can then see Pete’s hands working the board. That was very important to me. Otherwise, it’s just a guy standing at a mixing board.

When handholding a flash at this distance, you still get a fairly decent angle on the light so that it provides more form and drama than on-axis light. You can see this in the way the shadows fall on the left side of his face. These shadows also tell you that I was holding the flash with my left hand and holding the camera with my right hand (this choice was really due to the fact that it would be quite a challenge to operate the camera with my left hand).

The tricky thing about handholding a gridded flash is that you have a pretty tight beam of light to aim. I ended up just relying on trial and error: aim the light, shoot, check the LCD screen, adjust, keep moving the light around and hope you get lucky. The best solution would have been to get an assistant to hold the flash for me. Oh well. You can see some of the misses below.

Closer, but still no.

I ended up using the tiny built-in flash on the camera as fill. There was very little ambient in the room, so I decided to keep my ISO low and use flash to light the entire photo. It also kept some of the distractions in the back of the frame from being an issue.

A couple of notes about the built-in flash: First, I set the power manually. On the D200 you can set it from full power down to 1/128. When I’m just using the flash to fire an optically slaved flash I often set it on 1/128 so that it doesn’t have much effect in the photo. In this case I wanted a little fill light from it, so I experimented a bit and ended up at 1/16. Second, you have to watch for lens hood shadows when using the built-in flash. I simply removed the lens hood for the shot.

Final photo before processing
Final photo before processing
Final photo after processing

Finally, some processing notes. Because I was doing a lot of shooting and adjusting with my light, there were often times when I wasn’t capturing the exact moment in time that I wanted. In the case of this photo, I had the exact moment that I wanted, but someone else was in the frame. Luckily, it was fairly easy to clone him out! I also did a bit of burning on that white post in the background to make it a little less distracting. The small specular highlights on Pete’s head are due to using a small light source, so I minimized those a bit as well. I warmed up the color temperature a bit, added a touch of clarity, and used a tone curves adjustment for contrast. I love using a tone curve for contrast because it provides a lot more control than the contrast slider. A side effect of using a tone curve in Lightroom contrast is that it also over-saturates the colors. I wish there was a way to get it to only affect luminance… perhaps I am missing something and someone can fill me in! My workaround is that I will often pull the saturation slider down a few notches. Finally, a bit of sharpening and it’s done. I still might tilt the whole thing to the right just a tad but I’m undecided.

31mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250

Here’s one more angle that I liked as well. The whole shoot took about 5 minutes, if that. Perfect photos? No, but certainly not snapshots either. That’s the beauty of using some off-camera flash and a homemade grid. Will I be rolling out with this minimal setup again? Definitely. Practice makes perfect… not really, but it does help!


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