Balancing flash with ambient light is quickly becoming one of the short list of skills that most define me in my own mind. This article I’ll discuss more the creative decisions than the technical.
The method I usually use, unless time makes this impossible is to manually set an ambient exposure that gives the look I want. At this time I need to make the main creative choice; do I want the flashed subject to be brighter than the overall image, or use the flash as fill. If I want the flashed subject to be brighter, than I set the overall exposure to be a little dark, possibly as much as a stop. If I’m using the flash as fill, then I set a normal looking overall exposure.
Then you set the flash. If I’m using on camera speedlights, I use the E-ttl method. If I’m using off-camera then I set it manually. I am considering upgrading to Profoto Off Camera Flash system, if I do that I’ll use the method where you set the initial flash power with ttl and then tweak it to give the effect you want.
Finally, one has to consider the flash modifier used. I usually use something that softens the flash, softbox or beauty dish, but you need to look at the ambient and consider how you want it blend.
The day the Boeing 40C leaves WAAAM and heads to Spokane where its owners, Pemberton and Sons Aviation, are located, is always one of the best photo opportunity days. This year I got the word on Facebook that it was heading out Monday, April 18. That is much earlier than usual, because of the two reasons that the plane needed to be moved to beat some construction at WAAAM and had some early appearances scheduled.
On my drive there, as soon as I got on I84 and reached the West end of the Gorge, it was freakishly windy. Flying in strong winds is a concern for flying lighter aircraft, there is an increased chance for mishap, especially during landings. I knew that the wind was probably a little less at Hood River, but was still worried the whole thing may get canceled. As I got further East with no change, my anxiety level rose. When I got around five miles from Hood River and there was still no change, I was thinking the only hope was that the wind-speed wasn’t as high as it seemed. However, when I arrived at WAAAM, their beautiful garrison sized flag was hanging totally still. By the time the 40 was ready for departure, it had built up a bit, but was still slow enough for them to fly.
The day was backwards from most 40 departure days. The wind was from the East so the entire flight pattern was backwards. This did allow for different images than usual.
I have no idea why, but I always get some relief from any mental anguish from converting an image to black and white. There is something about eliminating the color from an image and creating drama through tonal contrast and separation that soothes my mind.
The secret to a compelling monochrome image is usually contrast. In monochrome, there are two ways to create contrast; there is contrast the same as in the image before you make the conversion and then there is separating tone based on color by using color filtration in the editing software. The second method, is always foremost on my mind when I shoot for b&W, which I rarely do. My method usually means that I sort through my existing images looking for one that will look dramatic after allowing for the color filtration etc.
For the process, I use Silver Efex Pro2, now available for free from Google. It is easy and powerful. I’ve tried to get similar results just as a test in Lightroom, and it takes a lot of work, but honestly can be done. Silver Efex Pro2 comes with such a great variety of presets that it is usually a matter of choosing a preset and then making tweaks. I rarely go with the preset alone; doesn’t provide the exact look I want, and deprives me of some of my therapy.
My most used preset these days is the High Structure (smooth). I usually apply a yellow or orange filter to it, red is usually too contrasty. In most pics, yellow, orange, red filters provide increasing contrast as you move through the list. This is dependent on the color makeup of the image however and sometimes blue or green are the appropriate choice. One thing to watch for is that due to some characteristic of digital images that I don’t understand, blue usually will make noise more visible.
If you want a closer look at these images look at this gallery.
The earlier shoot with a model and some planes at WAAAM, was a resounding success in all but one criteria. Thank you, Sami Van Der Westhuizen, Carrie Strahle, Ken Olsson, and WAAAM. That one criteria was the number of unique images brought home from the shoot. This was a result of the weather interfering with some of our planned shots, being late in arriving on location, and the lack of coming up with ideas myself. This blog post, I intend to tell you how I tried to improve on this last issue on a subsequent shoot.
Step one, and the best way to do it, is to plan many different looks while you are planning the logistics of the shoot. If you look at the gallery of the entire shoot, all of the images you don’t see in the slide show at the beginning of this article, were part of the plan from the beginning. This is the best way to plan multiple looks as you have time to consider them carefully, and not have your crew sit around bored while you think up stuff.
The other method is to be very observant while on location and use the surroundings and behavior of your model as inspiration for new ideas. The best example of that in this particular scenario is the images you see of Alex relaxing in her kayak. We took a break for me to think of new ideas and while I was thinking she used her kayak as a place to take a load off and relax. I thought it looked like a great shot, so stopped the break and started shooting.
Overall, I was ecstatic how this worked, the only thing I felt bad about was that some of the times I took a moment to think up some shots, I think I bored the crew a bit. The results are great though.
I do tend to prefer images with a natural background, however, images on white can be very useful. Still, I had never experimented with doing this with vehicles, because the standard way would require enough costly logistics that in my current financial situation, it wasn’t too realistic unless someone hired me to do it. Then one day I posted an image of a plane on Facebook and Instagram, and the background was nearly white. I began to think about that in relation with the following image.
With this image, Resurgence was in front of an open hangar door, in beautiful overcast light and the inside of the hangar was in shadow. I figured that if I burnt down the background I would have a beautiful shot that looked like it was done in a studio. Ecstatic with the results, I wondered if with a little playing around in Photoshop, I could get the on white look with cars and planes.
I started with the following shots.
The pavement behind the hangars at WAAAM is very bright and I determined that if you make a shot against their white, corrugated steel hangar walls, you would be well on your way to a white background shot. Unfortunately, I never liked that shot until I thought of this idea, so I had few shots to play with. The next step in Photoshop is to go into the Channels palette and pick the channel with the most contrast between the subject and background. Then, make a copy of that channel. Edit the levels on that channel to accentuate the contrast. Then click on the thumbnail of the channel while holding CTRL, this creates a luminance based selection. Invert this selection to select the vehicle instead of the background.
Next, turn off the visibility of the copied channel and reselect the composite RGB channel as your active channel. Go back to the layers palette and enter the refine edge dialog. Clean up the selection as much as you can here and export the results as a new layer with a layer mask. Now, with the underlying layers’ visibility turned off use your paint brush to refine the mask. Then create a layer between the original and the one with the vehicle masked out and fill it with white. This essentially finishes the process.
On the Waco YPF image, I also applied a surface blur to the shadow to get rid of the concrete texture.
Important lessons were learned in this process. I had earlier discussed with some folks at WAAAM that they felt images of their vehicles on white would be really cool. I said of course it would be possible, but quite a challenge. This experiment tells me that it would be easier than I originally envisioned. The results would be better if some equipment was rented; an actual white background, scrims to create clean reflections on shiny surfaces, etc. It can be done outside though, this goes along way to making it easier than I originally thought. Plus the method, outlined here can work, with the biggest challenge being catching ugly reflections in the shiny surfaces of the vehicles.
March 12, 2016, was Second Saturday at WAAAM. My expectation was that the weather would be very bad with lots of wind and rain, essentially stranding us inside. I still wanted to go, because one of the main things going on was a speech about the restoration of the Stearman 70, the prototype of the famous line of Stearman trainers of WWII. I have written a Resurrection Report piece for Warbird Digest that should appear in the May/June issue. Thus, I was very interested in going, even if the weather kept anything else from happening.
Most of the drive, the weather was very ominous, and it seemed like the my expectation was accurate. However, the last ten minutes of the drive or so, it seemed quite promising much to my surprise.
As a photographer, most of the interesting stuff happens outside. At this point, I think I pretty much have most of the interesting pics I can get inside, at least without bringing a lighting kit, etc. So I headed outside fairly early and hung around watching volunteers prepare cars for the day. At one point I moved inside for a bit, probably to check my phone and see if anything significant was going on in the outside world. When I stepped back out, the Waco 9 was sitting outside the restoration hangar and it appeared they were preparing for a engine test.
This is when it became apparent that this was going to be a fantastic Second Saturday. The Curtiss OX-5 sprung right to life on the first prop pull. I spent most of the day around the activity around the Waco, only leaving to eat and the speech about the Stearman. I am a Waco addict and this promises to be the oldest Waco when it flies.
The November 2015 Second Saturday was pretty cool. The weather was among the worst it has been for a Second Saturday, but it was a lot of fun.
One of the main things going on was about Rat Rods and Rat bikes, is that what they are called? A newly built rat bike was seen by the public for the first time. There was also a presentation by Gary Fisher of Resurrected Rust, regarding his Rat Rods, two of which have won the Rat Rod Magazine Build Off; Resurrected Rust in 2014 and Resurgence in 2015. His enthusiasm was very apparent in his presentation and it was very entertaining.
You need to check out these really cool cars at WAAAM, and also all their wonderful antiques.
Recently, a Murphy Rebel, a small homebuilt plane was donated to them. They want to sell this aircraft to fund the restoration of some of their other aircraft and they asked me to take some photographs of the plane to help them in that endeavor. The Rebel is a pretty good bush plane, so they came up with the idea of photos that made it look like someone was camping out of the plane along a river. So we set up this whole scene with a tent a fold-up chair and a picnic basket. It created a scene that looked pretty darn cool.
I had an idea for a photo that didn’t work quite as planned, but is still cool. The idea was to put CTO on a flash and set the color balance on the camera to tungsten. Then I would underexpose the ambient light and properly expose the flash. My speedlight wasn’t powerful enough for the scene to look as I’d hoped, but it still looks pretty cool.
Serendipity came in when one of the board member’s dog thought that under the plane looked like a pretty good place to rest. Initially, we tried to convince him to move, but eventually decided that he adds to the photos.
October’s Second Saturday at WAAAM was Roaring Twenties day, but there was plenty of other things to fascinate.
One of the items that really excited me was a rat rod that was on display. It won the Rat Rod Magazine, build-off, the second in a row for the builder. It fascinated me in its oddity and the imagination shown in how to build an automobile in an unconventional way. Furthermore, rat rods definitely have a rustic look I always find fascinating. To better show what I find fascinating about the rat rod, I used the post processing method I’ve talked about many times here. I look forward to hearing your opinion of the results.
Another thing fascinating thing at this Second Saturday was the tour of the restoration shop, focusing on the restoration of the Waco 9. This plane will most likely be the oldest airworthy Waco when completed. The folks at WAAAM are really perfecting their tours of the restoration hangar and they get more informative and exciting every time.
The final thing of fascination that I’ll discuss here today is they parked the L-birds they were flying that day in a way that was perfect for a portrait of the two planes. It was almost like this was coordinated with myself or another photographer.
I was at the 2015 WAAAM Traffic Jam, when a car club arrived from out of town (I can’t even remember where.) Among the cars was a 1957 Buick Roadmaster. Right away, I knew this was a very special car and it did end up winning several awards at the show. While I was there I made sure I got a pretty good number of images of this auto.
At that time I was processing most of my automobile and airplane shot through a Lightroom preset that brought the highlights down, the shadows up, and applied a lot of clarity. This preset tended to accentuate reflections and while I was working on these images, I became very disenchanted with how this made the paint job look. It pretty much ruined the color of it. So, I decided to change my method to something more like that taught by Tim Wallace at KelbyOne.
This post method is pretty basic as an overall treatment to the image. Then apply a considerable amount more clarity with the brush, to the grill, headlights, and other like items on the car. Sometimes, I even add some Tonal Contrast from Nik Software, Color Efex Pro4.
I am happier with this method. Not adding clarity to most of the automobile has the paint job looking much nicer. I do add a slight amount of clarity to airplane images overall, but a small amount that I add to most images that I make regardless of the subject.
I suggest you take a look at Tim Wallace’s classes for more information.