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In the Shooting with Wireless Flash series, award-winning photographer Jim Sugar demonstrates his approach to using off-camera flash in a variety of lighting scenarios, sharing practical tips along the way.
In this installment, Jim shows how to shoot outdoors during twilight, what photographers refer to as the magic hour. He goes on location to create an exterior photo of a busy pizzeria, employing five wireless strobes strategically placed both inside the building and on its exterior.
His approach to lighting the scene involves balancing all of the scene’s light sources—the twilight from the sky, the interior light of the pizzeria, the existing lights on the outside of the building, and the output of his strobes—in such a way that the final photo doesn’t appear to have any special lighting at all. He demonstrates a variety of inexpensive lighting tools—clamps, gels, and other light modifiers—to accomplish this goal.
Also discussed is the importance of planning and setting up ahead of time to maximize shooting time when the light is waning. The course wraps up with tips on planning for gear, estimating the amount of time available to shoot, shooting in manual mode, and using a camera's histogram to judge exposure.
As you can see, combining wireless flash with natural light gives you incredible creative control, especially during that time after sunset and just before dark. Let's look at some tips that will help you get the best results when you are shooting in a situation like this. First tip: plan your shot. Arrive at the site well in advance of when you want to begin shooting so that you can scout the location. What will the light be like after the sun goes down? How much space is there around the location? Will you be able to capture the entire scene without having to stand in the middle of a busy street? And what kind of lens will you need? In scouting Tony's Pizzaria, I determined that the restaurant faces west.
So the twilight would be beautiful behind the building. Now Tony's Pizza is on a very busy street, but fortunately, the sidewalk was wide enough so that I was able to set up a tripod. But even so, I had to use a fairly wide angle lens on my zoom lens, about 26 millimeters. Each of these decisions takes time and you don't want to have to make them during that brief period when the light is just right. So get there early and plan your shot. Next tip: give yourself time to set up your strobes and your camera.
Start by determining when the magic hour occurs at your location. Then estimate how much time you'll need to set up the shot based on how many lights you brought and what kind of lighting you want. Then work backwards to figure out when you need to start setting up. For the end of the shot of Tony's Pizzaria, we determined that sunset would occur at 6:30 p.m. and the total darkness would occur at 7:15 p.m., about 45 minutes later. Armed with that knowledge, we decided where to place the lights.
For this shoot, I brought five strobes and five clamps and three light stands. I estimated that I need at least two hours to put everything in place. We began setting up the shot at 4 p.m. and I needed every minute of that time. Now remember that the magic hour isn't necessarily one-hour long. In fact, its length depends on the season of the year and the latitude of the location. When you're working near the equator, the sun sets at about 6 p.m. all year long.
Twilight is only about 20 minutes long, and total darkness occurs very quickly. By comparison at northern latitudes during the summer, both the days and the twilight are long. If you're shooting in Alaska or Scandinavia in the summer, the twilight can last 90 minutes or more, giving you more time to adjust your camera and your lights. By the way, there are twilight calculators on the Web that let you determine the exact duration of twilight for your location.
You can even get smartphone apps that will do the job when you're in the field. Just do a web search for the phrase twilight calculator and you'll find them. So that's how you plan for the natural light. Now let's talk about the artificial light in our next tip. Learn how to balance your strobes with the existing artificial light. As I've said before, part of the secret of making a photo like this one is to balance the light sources so that it doesn't look like you've used multiple strobes.
Now the existing light at your location, the incandescent bulbs and the fluorescent lamps, put out a constant amount of light that you can't easily change. On the other hand you can increase or decrease the strobes' output. Simply adjust the menus of the camera body and the buttons on the strobes. You can also change the aim of the strobes, as we did at Tony's when I aimed the strobes into the awning instead of directly at the building.
That not only diffused the light. It reduced it. And don't forget that you can also change the quantity and quality of the strobe light by using diffusers and color gels. We did both of those things at Tony's Pizzaria too. Okay, so you've done your scouting and your planning and you've set up your strobes. The sun is down and you're ready to start shooting. That brings us to the next tip. Put your camera in Manual Mode. Shooting in Manual Mode gives you more control over the exposure because you can independently adjust the aperture and the shutter speed to balance the strobe light and the ambient light.
I mentioned that during the shoot, but let's go over it again right now. Your f-stop controls the exposure you're getting from the strobes. That's because the strobes pop for just a split second. So the wider the aperture, the more of the strobe's light reaches your camera sensor during that split second. On the other hand, your shutter speed controls the ambient light. With a fast shutter speed, less ambient light reaches your camera sensor. And that tips the brightness in favor of the strobes.
With a slow shutter speed, more ambient light reaches the sensor. And that has the effect of making the strobes appear dimmer in relation to the ambient light. We saw this in action during the shoot. I set the aperture to f/8. But as the sky got darker, I used slower and slower shutter speeds to keep the sky in balance with the strobes and the other lights in the pizzaria. At the end of the shoot as the twilight was fading, my exposure time was a full two seconds, which brings us to our next tip.
Use your camera's histogram display to help you judge exposure. You want a histogram that has a broad distribution from left to right. That's what tells you that you have a good range of blacks, midtones, whites, and everything in between. As I photographed Tony's Pizzaria, I reviewed the shots and looked at the Histogram on the back of my camera. As long as the histogram was well distributed, I knew that I had a properly exposed photo.
So as you can see, a shot like this requires planning and setup and lots of fine-tuning, not to mention coming to terms with some tricky concepts. All of that gets easier with practice and with experience. But there's one more thing that makes a shot like this one successful and it's our last tip. Don't forget the human element. If you're shooting an outdoor location where people gather, have some people in the shot. At Tony's, I wanted the photo to show the cook at work and I wanted to show Tony himself.
That's what this place is all about. To light the cook, I clamped one of my strobes to a window frame and aimed it inside the restaurant. To help light Tony, I put another strobe on a chair aimed towards the door of the Pizzaria and then as the sky darkened and a fresh pizza came out of the oven, I asked Tony, who is now 74 years young by the way, to stand in the doorway and hold a pose while also holding the pizza.
My window of opportunity was about five minutes long. The light in the sky was in balance with the restaurant's lights, which were in balance with my strobes. Tony was anxious to get back to work and a customer was anxious to get his pizza. He got his pizza and we got the shot. A shot like this tests nearly everything I know about light, about lighting, and about photography. It's different every time and I get consumed by it every time.
But for me, it's one of the great joys of being a photographer. So now it's your turn. Pick a location, do your homework and your planning, then set up your gear, balance all your light sources, and make a photo. Make a photo that looks like you didn't do anything at all. Thanks so much for watching!
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