Creating a complicated light setup (one piece at a time)

Having flash is no guarantee of getting great shots. Taking control of the light you introduce into a shot helps and with some practice you’ll start creating better images. This entry will be the first of three blog entries where I’ll build up a full lighting setup one piece at a time. We’ll start with a super simple and quick solution and we’ll build it up until it’s totally awesome.

To start my lighting setup I’ll use a white seamless paper background and a single flash shooting into a convertible umbrella. Umbrellas are common, popular and incredibly inexpensive. I have about a dozen in various styles and sizes that I use for creating different looks. My favorites are convertible white umbrellas (with a black backing that easily removes to change from bounce to shoot through). My 30″ convertible umbrellas cost me less than $15 each and they get plenty of use. My biggest is a 7′ parabolic that creates incredible looking light. If you’re going out on location (or on a very tight budget) and you only want to bring one light modifier with you a convertible umbrella is a great choice. For this shoot I’ll be using one of my 30″ convertible umbrellas.

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Getting your flash off camera

After reading my blog entry Why use flash? you might be wondering how to get your flash off of your camera and what it costs. I have some big studio strobes but I love to use the more portable hot-shoe style flashes. If you already own an on-camera flash you’re half way there. If you don’t have an on-camera flash you can get my new favorite small flash for less than $160. All you need after that is a way to put the flash where you want it and a way to trigger to it. For this blog entry I’ll be concentrating on some of the ways I get my flash positioned to achieve my signature photographic style.

There’s plenty of really great gear designed to get your flash in exactly the right place. You can spend thousands of dollars or you can spend very little. The super expensive solutions are sturdier, can handle more weight and often they solve very specific problems. On the less expensive side of the scale there’s some really good solutions including light stands (starting around $20) clamps (starting under $20) and simple plastic stands (starting under $10 but your flash might have come with one). For this blog entry I’ll show some examples of my favorites that I use when I go out on location and I’ll use one of my Lumopro LP-160’s as an example.

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Why use flash?

Before I moved to Virginia and started my own photography business I spent years working as a designer for Ford Motor Company. After spending the better part of a decade I learned a lot about how people see shapes and how I can be more effective with my lights when I’m taking pictures.

I used to work 50 hour weeks in the design studios and a lot of my time was spent working in Photoshop. I’m still good friends with the designers at Ford and I even do special assignment work for Ford Design every so often. I credit my time at Ford with helping me to achieve my current understanding of flash photography and it continues to influence my personal photographic style. With this blog entry (and a few more after this one) I hope that I can explain a bit about how shadows and reflections of light create a three dimensional look on a two dimensional picture.

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Photoshop To The Rescue

These days there are a number of schools of thought when it comes to photography. There’s the “why fake it when you can create it” group and I’m solidly in that camp. There’s the “because of Lightroom I don’t need Photoshop” group and I have one foot solidly in that group as well. But Photoshop is my all around quicker-fixer-upper and it’s saved me more than a few times.

I have always tried my best to achieve 99% of my signature look in camera by bringing lots of flashes and plenty of tools to control all of that light. With soft boxes, grids, gels and radio triggers I like to wrestle a look out of my images before they ever get opened on a computer. Most of the time I succeed and my post processing time is minimized. But every once in a while I have a technical problem (like when the lights don’t do what I ask of them).  My recent senior portrait shoot with Alex is a good example of how I made a mistake on location but rescued the images in Lightroom/Photoshop.

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A fun senior portrait shoot with Alex

Recently I took a trip to southeast Michigan to complete a number of photo assignments. One of the assignments I was looking forward to was a portrait shoot with a great high school senior named Alex.

I’ve always loved location portraiture and I really enjoy the challenges involved. Every time I meet with a new client in a new location I don’t know what I’m walking into. Everything is out of my control at first and it’s up to me to use what I brought to make the most of the location and deliver an exceptional picture to my clients. It’s total pressure (and I absolutely love it).

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Photographing a Gazebo at Night

One of my recent assignments was a property shoot for a horse farm owner in Northern VIrginia. I was asked to show more of the beauty of the farm and to de-emphasize the working environment. This is a farm I know very well and I instantly had some shots in mind. With over 100 acres to cover I made sure the farm owner understood that I’d need to return for sunrises and sunsets to get the best shots and that the weather would play a big part in how long this assignment would take to complete.

In the weeks after getting the assignment I took plenty of killer sunrise and sunset pictures but I didn’t just want sunrises and sunsets. I needed some daytime shots, detail shots and even a night time shot. I also needed to get some people into some shots. Here’s a thought, how about a night shot with some people in it?

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