The Balancing Act Of Flash On Location

Crafting My Look

For my travel magazine and reportage work—especially in places like North Korea, Iran and Myanmar—I’m a one-man band. That means traveling light and low-key. My key to using flash is subtlety. In general, I want it to positively affect my photography without the image screaming, “FLASH!” While some fashion photographers want that “paparazzi” look, it’s not for me.

Lastolite Triflash Bracket

The first step in removing artificiality from the use of flash is getting the flash unit off the camera. I usually handhold my Nikon Speedlight SB-800 above my head and off to one side. This drops the shadow created by my flash down behind the subject in a more realistic manner, one that could be created by the sun or a ceiling light fixture. For indoor scenes, I like my lighting to basically replicate the direction and feel of the existing light sources while giving me the added ƒ-stop, shutter speed, fill light and color balance needed for a given situation.

One of my favorite techniques is a combination of a long exposure with multiple pops from a single flash. To illuminate two statues hidden in the recesses of a stupa (a kind of pagoda) in Bagan, Myanmar, I fired two flashes from my Speedlight SB-800 during a 20-second exposure. I approximated the same value as the large Buddha that was illuminated by sunlight. After locking down my Nikon D3 with a Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 on a tripod, I set the camera to timer. An aperture of ƒ/16 not only gave me great depth of field, but also gave a long enough exposure time to run from one statue to the other without being recorded by the sensor. I taped a 1?8 CTO (color temperature orange) over the flash head to slightly warm up the cool daylight-balanced flash. This last part, color balance, is vital for a realistic look.

In today’s ultracompetitive business environment, a pro needs to have the ability to be mobile; a large studio space is a rarity. You have to be able to work on location and travel light. Mark Edward Harris has built a reputation as a top travel and location pro, in part by mastering ultraportable lighting techniques. He sets up fast and he gets the shot.

Mixed Sources And Color Temperature

While we can use presets, such as sunny, cloudy or tungsten, and adjust white-balance values in Kelvin (on professional cameras), as well as shoot RAW and adjust color, none of these will correct a color imbalance if the image has mixed light sources, e.g., tungsten and daylight. Processing a RAW file twice, then putting the images together, requires time and effort, which I’d rather use creating imagery rather than “saving it” in post. It’s better to get it right on the initial capture.

A basic understanding of the Kelvin scale will aid in this endeavor. The scale was named after the Irish-born physicist, mathematician and engineer William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who was instrumental in the development of an “absolute thermometric scale” in the mid-19th century.

Basically, higher color temperatures (5000 K or more) are cool (bluish-white) colors. Lower color temperatures are warm (yellowish-white through orange to red). Daylight film emulsions are calibrated to approximately 5600 K, as are the daylight settings on our digital cameras.

When I was starting my career shooting stills on The Merv Griffin Show, I shot with tungsten-balanced film with a 3200 K temperature to balance to the studio’s hotlights. These days, a quick adjustment of the white-balance button to the tungsten setting on a digital camera is all it takes. Fluorescent lamps emit light primarily by a process other than thermal radiation so it doesn’t follow the Kelvin scale, which is based on thermal radiation. Instead, these types of light sources are assigned a CCT (correlated color temperature). Fortunately, we have presets, filters and gels to remove these unattractive colors from our images.

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