HIWS: Fixing Bad Light

Nikon D800, 70-200 2.8 VR II @ 200mm, ISO 50, f/4.5, 1/250 sec.
Nikon D800, 70-200 2.8 VR II @ 200mm, ISO 50, f/4.5, 1/250 sec.

It’s been quite a busy summer and so I haven’t had the chance to get out and do any artist profiles lately. I’ll be getting back into it in the coming months, but in the meantime, I figured I would share some other content.

As I’ve mentioned before, I do a bit of photography work at my day job (I’m a musician), and I frequently bring my gear to my gigs. I like trying to incorporate some sort of lighting in order to practice the different scenarios with which a photographer would have to contend. There are all sorts of lighting challenges when it comes to photographing our band. During the indoor concert season, it’s usually dim or poorly lit stages. Outdoors can actually be better, but there’s frequently strong backlighting from the setting sun.

Let’s talk about a backlit situation outdoors. You can certainly shoot this with natural light. Expose for the subject (the band) and blow out the sky and/or the rest of the background. In a portrait of one person in this situation you could use a reflector, but for a whole band? That would have to be one big stinkin’ reflector. Come to think of it, a light colored building facing the front of the band could do the trick nicely but you can’t always fit one of those in your gear bag.

I’m not a big fan of the blown out background mainly because it detracts from the subject. Your eye goes right to the brightest part of the frame—the background. So when I was thinking about how to address this issue, I decided to try balancing some speedlights with the ambient backlight. The first problem that immediately came to my mind was power.

One, I don’t have powerful studio strobes—just the speedlights.

Two, I needed to have the light evenly cover a relatively large area. Again, I’m not photographing one person; I’m photographing an 18 member band spread out over the area of a stage or bandshell. For even light you need distance—not good for my power problem.

Finally, our concerts usually take place before the sun sets and so the sky is still pretty bright. At sunset or after sunset it would be easy enough to open up my aperture to help out my speedlights, but to keep the sky from blowing out before sunset my aperture was f/6.3 at ISO 100, 1/250 sec (the D800 allowed me to go down to ISO 50 so I ended up using that in order to get shallower depth of field for the photo at the top of this post). Not exactly speedlight friendly when they’re placed at a bit of a distance.

With all of the above in mind, I set out trying to find the best placement for the speedlight. I needed (a) enough distance for even coverage, (b) a nice angle to create a bit of interest while taking care of evening out the backlighting, and (c) to make sure that I didn’t block the audience’s view of the band.

I found a spot about 45º off to stage right and in front of a tree (the tree was already blocking the audience’s view). Once I had my light set up, I tried a test shot at 1/2 power zoomed to 85mm.

And… no. Underexposed, but not by too much. I figured about another stop of light would do the trick, but that would put my light at full power. My speedlights take about 3-4 seconds to recycle at full power, which isn’t great for firing off some quick shots during the limited rest time I have on the gig.

So I tried something I’ve been just dying to do. In fact, it took all of my willpower not to let out a series of Tim Allen-esque grunts. That’s right—I gaffer-taped two speedlights together.

It’s not pretty but it effectively doubles your light output, which in flash photography terms, means an extra stop of light. That’s just what I needed to keep my 1/2 power recycle time with the correct exposure.

Fixing Bad LightLooking at the photo again (click to see it larger), the sun is coming from camera left although it is being blocked by some buildings at this point so there’s no rim light from it. The speedlights are firing from just off to camera right and you can determine the angle best by looking at the shadows on the trombone player (standing). These shadows, and the ones behind him, will tell you how far underexposed the musicians would have been had I not used flash.

Again, why not just use natural light and expose for the musicians? That sky in the photo would have ended up as pure white, and the trees behind would have been overexposed as well. By using flash to expose the musicians, I am able to keep the subtle tone in the sky, and create some directional light for interest.

Thoughts for the future:

  • Having the lights positioned at about a 45º angle to the band limited my shooting angles. Perhaps I could add another set of lights at the other 45º angle to allow me to shoot from both sides of band, while adding a rim light effect.
  • Another setup would have the lights dead center out in front of the band so that shooting from sides would create a more dramatic effect. They would have to be positioned right by the soundboard to keep from blocking audience view as much as possible.
  • Bring sandbags for lightstand. It was getting a little precarious with two speedlights mounted up high!
Nikon D800, 70-200 2.8 VR II @ 200mm, ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/250 sec.
Nikon D800, 70-200 2.8 VR II @ 200mm, ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/250 sec.

Here’s one more photo from earlier in the evening when the sun was still high enough to act as a rim light (coming from camera left). You can see how strong it was compared to the ambient light on the front of the musicians by looking at the shadow created by the saxophone. Had I tried to expose for the ambient on the front of the musicians, I would have severely blown out that rim light.

And remember, you can always gaffer-tape four speedlights together for two extra stops of light. Believe me, I’m tempted.

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