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.
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.
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.
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.
On June 13, 2015, the B-17 Alliance hosted the second annual Warbirds Over the West at McNary Field in Salem. This was the first time it was held at the Alliance’s new home in Salem. Knowing that my friends at the Living History Group Northwest were supposed to be at the show, I knew there was a chance for some images that were very important to me. I also knew to make them happen I’d need to ask some these great folks who I don’t know that well to do this for me with little benefit to them. (Can afford to give them some free pics, but little else.) This is a situation that often makes me quite anxious, so I was afraid I would chicken out and come home without the images.
I have been endeavoring to build a portfolio of images of people with vehicles in a Hollywood inspired style to show potential clients. The “aviatrix” shoot I recently wrote about with Sami Van Der Westhuizen and Carrie Strahle – makeup, was also part of this effort. If all went well at Warbirds Over the West, I felt certain I could reach the number of images I needed to show this portfolio as separate from my “people” portfolio on my web site.
With these images being the most important thing I had planned for the day, and the fact that the light would be deteriorating all day; I made it my first task for the day. Thanks to training with Toastmasters International and some other issues, I have been doing pretty well with these sorts of things when it has to do with my photography career. Thus, asking the various folks in these photos to pose for me went off without a single hitch and resulted in images that met what I envisioned very well. I couldn’t be more grateful for their help.
These images were shot and processed with the method I discussed on here earlier, How Do I Light Heroic Portraits? The only difference was I used a low-saturation version of the Lightroom preset I created. I usually do this with old military things.
Of course, there was a lot of other stuff going on at Warbirds Over the West. The headline was Grumpy was there from the Historic Flight Museum was giving flights to paying folks and doing flybys. Some friends from WAAAM flew the museum’s Taylorcraft L-2 and there was also a Stinson L-5 on hand. The beautiful, shiny DC-3 flew in from Aurora.
There was also live music and a beer garden, which proved to be the perfect way to chill after the big day.
In the end, it was a great day, I look forward to it next year.
It may not be Darwinian, but a photographer’s style evolves over time. Sometimes it is intentional; the photographer will pay attention to what works in the marketplace, filtering that through what excites him, altering his style. Further, if he’s really working at this he will continue to learn new things. Finally, there is unintentional evolution; it may be subtle, but the way the photographer looks at a subject will change over time.
I have created two galleries here displaying some evolution in my shooting. Both are connected to my attempts to pay homage to George Hurrell, a Hollywood photographer from the past. The above gallery is my earlier attempt and the bottom is some very recent shooting. Of course, I must also credit the help of Sami Van Der Westhuizen (the model), Carrie Strahle (makeup artist) and WAAAM (the museum that owns the planes) for having an impact on the second set of images looking different than the first.
On April 24, 2015, Erickson Aircraft Collection performed engine tests on Madras Maiden, their B-17G Flying Fortress, for the first time since some maintenance work. There was some talk of flying that day also, but it didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons was the weather kind of sucked.
I went over to photograph the day’s events and was a bit frustrated by the weather, but came up with some stuff I like pretty well.
I used too basic methods for accomplishing this in these less than ideal weather conditions. The number one challenge was preventing getting a washed out sky combined with a too dark airplane. Method number one for dealing with this was to shoot carefully making sure that the sky retained detail. This was followed by processing in Lightroom to make the most out of the dynamic range. This included bringing the highlights down and the shadows up along with judicious use of the clarity slider. Graduated filters applied to the sky were also sometimes used.
The other thing I did, that gave me results I preferred, was to use alternative “retro” processing. On some of the images I applied presets in Nik’s Analog Efex Pro2. On my favorites however, I went in to Silver Efex Pro2. There I started with the High Structure: Harsh preset. I then let the sky go very light and optimized contrast. I was shooting for an almost etching look. I finished it off with a little sepia toning.
Recently, I completed a model shoot at WAAAM with some of the old biplanes there. The route to this shoot was nebulous and the original point of the shoot got lost a little bit, but we made something great out of it. I believe WAAAM will get a great photo to hang in the lobby out of this and I certainly got some nice new additions to my portfolio.
I’ll begin my narrative with the human side of the story, as the shoot was an incredible experience, and this part of the story isn’t necessarily evident in the story.
I have been working with Ken Olsson with various things at WAAAM for several years. Initially, we met when I was writing a story about aviation museums in Oregon. I’ve always enjoyed talking with Ken, he’s friendly, and we’ve always had plenty to talk about. I met Carrie Strahle, of Carrie Strahle Makeup Artistry, at an ASMP event, and exchanged business cards with her. She is the kind of person that instantly strikes you as a friend, despite the brief encounter. In discussions with Carrie later, she suggested Sami Van Der Westhuizen might be able to help me with a project that I was beginning to think about at that time. Thus I contacted Sami on FB.
So when I came up with the idea for this project. I started by having a meeting with Ken and Judy at WAAAM and discussed this as well as a few other ideas. I did not want to move ahead with other elements of the project without making sure it was ok with them; although, I had discussed the idea with Carrie in friendly conversation and got her ideas on whether the logistics of this could be worked out or not. After getting approval from WAAAM, for a slightly different idea than what you see before you, I put out a casting call on FB. When someone suggested Sami, I wasn’t aware she met the height requirements we had at that point, I thought perfect. I asked Sami if she would be interested. Next step was to ask Carrie if she would be willing to do the project.
Finally, the day came. The photographic crew met at Joe Wilson’s studio, Joe is the membership chair at the local chapter of the ASMP. Sami was the only person involved I had not met in person. She came in with her boyfriend and I must say, they are some of the nicest people you’ll meet. So, with one of the friendliest, fun crews around, we got to work.
In summation, the shoot was a blast, in addition to producing some great imagery. I was able to make contact with existing friends again and make some new ones. On the professional side of things, Sami was amazing, what I noticed immediately was her ability to help me aim the lights shaving minutes off setup when I changed the lighting. Carrie’s work was fantastic; I especially loved the curls she gave Sami for the shoot.
One thing I learned about myself that had to do with the human side of the shoot, is I do get in a bit of “a zone” when I photograph. During most of the shoot, I got in this zone where I was only aware of Sami, myself and the plane. I came out of it occasionally to share what images we were getting. I was not aware of what others were doing around me on set. It really struck home for me when I started retouching images and I would notice a frame or two when a strand of hair on Sami would fall out of place and then suddenly, the next frame, it’d be all perfect again. From this it was apparent that Carrie was stepping in to touch up. Looking at the bts images my assistant (dad) made, it was more apparent; Carrie doing touch ups, everyone very attentive to what was happening, confirming what I had earlier suspected about me falling into “the zone.”
If you are a photographer needing a model and makeup artist, I recommend putting Sami and Carrie at the top of your list of possibilities. They do excellent work and will certainly help keep your set a fun place to be.
Now to move on to a technical thing, I wanted to explain how I made the above image.
It was inspired by a promotional video on the Profoto web site. I started by setting my ambient exposure such that everything would fade to black. Setting ISO 100, 1/160th of a second and f/16 ensures that happens really quickly under the indoor setting. I setup one light in a strip bank, as close as possible to directly above the Jenny. It was slightly in front of the plane and then tilted at a slight angle to make sure the light shone far enough back on the plane. Then, I lit Sami with a very large octabox placed 45° to her front and 45° above, essentially Rembrandt light. The octa was also aimed across her, feathering the light onto her face. This was primarily done to prevent spill on the background, but also makes the light softer on her.
Post processing on this image was really simple. Basically, it comes down to I applied Tonal Contrast from Nik’s Color Efex Pro4 on the plane and Sami’s clothes.
Personal projects are very important. Photographers must always develop their skills, practice those skills, invent new techniques, and keep their portfolio updated, these are all things that personal projects can provide. They can be intimidating to setup, however. One idea I’ve heard from several sources lately is to approach the project as if you were shooting an assignment for someone. This helps provide direction to the project that helps one cope with the intimidation. I’m going to tell you a bit about how I setup my most recent project.
I came up with the idea that I would shoot as if I was creating an ad for a cultural/musical festival. I did have a specific festival in mind, although I don’t want to name it here. Belly dancing was a great fit and I had worked with a dancer before whom I felt would be willing to do a shoot like this again. However, for this project I felt it important to include her dancing partner. So I asked them both if they’d be interesting in doing a trade shoot.
We then set out trying to come up with an appropriate location. I was thinking something that would create a Mid-Eastern coffee house sort of feel. After trying to come up with something for a few weeks, we decided it would probably be best to use one of the dancers’ home. I set out to come up with an idea that would give a similar ambience in her home.
What I came up with was to use a piece of fabric I found that’s color was close to saffron. Then in Photoshop, I would add a texture to the solid color. In the end I decided not to add the texture to all the images. When lit appropriately, this created the look and feel I was after.
The shooting itself was fairly easy. I let what images were most successful from the earlier shoot guide me. The only real challenge was positioning two dancers so that behind them was the background we made and nothing else. Portable backgrounds are only moderate size out of necessity and this can cause difficulties at times.