Dusk Photography (with Flash)

Location photography is all about showing your environment and making it look like someplace others want to visit. Location portraiture is all about getting great portraits and including a cool background (but not letting the environment dominate the shot). An easy way to get killer shots (and tone down the background in your portraits) is to shoot early in the morning or really close to sunset. Having a little less brightness in your background lets you bring out your own lights to take control of your final shot.

Whenever I walk into a location shoot I start by looking around and trying to figure out the story I want to tell with my final image. Sometimes I see my shot immediately and sometimes I have to search a bit to find my image. The bottom line is that you have to look past what’s in front of you and think about what it could become. For this blog entry I’ll be talking about how I get into the mindset of finding my shot and how I work through the process of setting up a shot using small flashes.

Finding the Shot

When I arrive at my location the first thing I look for is a cool subject. In the case of my Walkway to the Ocean picture my subject was going to be the ocean. But having a subject doesn’t mean that it will be the only thing in my picture. A subject is just one component of my location shots. Another, equally important, component is telling a story. So I have my subject (the ocean) but I needed a story. In the case of my Walkway picture my story would be about taking a walk to see the ocean.

Great, I had a subject and a story. Now I had to find a way to tell the story about the subject.

Well, this walkway turned out to be a perfect way to lead a viewers eye to the ocean and it helped me to keep the ocean from dominating the shot. Perfect! Now it was a matter of waiting for some killer light.

Light is Everything

I suppose I could just break out my camera and take my story telling picture of the ocean at any old time of day. It would certainly be a whole lot easier than waiting for just the right amount of ambient light and bringing out a bunch of flashes. But my problem with that kind of thinking is that I’d end up with a shot that anyone can take. Photography, for me, is a form of self expression and I want to share images that people may not have seen before. This kind of thinking makes me wait until the lighting works in my favor instead of just getting an average shot.

Here’s a look at my walkway to the ocean in the middle of the day:

Is this a bad shot? I don’t think so. It’s telling me a lot about the different elements I want to include in my final shot. But the light is pretty average (at best) and the shadows are kind of distracting. No amount of flash I bring out can overcome the shadow caused by the sun hitting the rail on the right of my shot.

Light is everything in photography. We’re capturing light with the sensor inside of our cameras. Quality of light, direction of light and color of light all matter. If you shoot in the early morning light or the later in the evening light you get quality, direction and color that is way better than you get in the middle of the day.

For my final shot I decided to go with evening light and to do what I call: “chasing the light”.

Leaving Your Story “Open-Ended”

The ocean is pretty awesome and the sky can be an important element in any outdoor shot. But both are vast and very attention grabbing. Sometimes vast and attention grabbing can be a bad thing.

When I tell a story with my photography I prefer to leave some things to a viewers imagination. In this case I wanted people who saw the final image to want to take the walk for themselves to see what was at the other end. This kind of photography has always intrigued me and I love it when I see other photographers leading me into a picture and letting me dream up what isn’t shown. In my middle of the day shot (above) I felt like there was just too much ocean and too much sky. Making a change is as easy as moving the camera position (in this case getting it lower so that you see less ocean and sky).

Taking Inventory of What You Have

We have our story, we have our chosen time of day and now we’ve figured out where we want the camera. Next to get sorted out is the lighting.

When I return to a location (or arrive for the first time) I like to take an inventory of what I have. By that I’m saying I want to know what is already well lit and what I’ll need to light. I’ve always found it best to look at the scene and take some test shots to get my starting point for my shot. Here’s a look at the scene when I returned just after the sun had set for the night:

This is only a test shot so I know it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s far from perfect. The sky and the ocean look pretty good but they’re both a little dark. That’s easy enough to fix with a little shutter speed adjustment. The other thing that jumps out at me is how the walkway is the same brightness as the rest of the shot. If I want my viewers eyes to go to the walkway (and to travel along the path to the ocean) then I’ll need to brighten it up a bit.

Time to Add Some Flashes

To light up the walkway I decided to use two LumoPro LP-160 flashes. I probably could have made the shot work with just one flash placed in the center of the walkway but I didn’t want to create any new shadows. Instead I went with a flash on each side of the walkway. Too position the flashes I used two LumoPro clip clamps. Next up I needed to work out how I was going to trigger my flashes. I could have used a couple of radio receivers (one for each flash) but instead I decided to use the optical triggers. It’s not that using the optical triggers is any better, it’s just that I wanted to know for sure that they could be triggered by another flash because I was planning to take some portrait shots in this same place. I took this opportunity to test out my flash triggering and it worked perfectly. Here’s a look at my flash setup with two flashes clipped to the side rails and my trigger flash located down the stairs:

Now we’re getting somewhere. I really like how the deck is now the brightest part of the shot.

Is it perfect? I don’t think so. How can we make it better? By adding some color…

Adding Some Flash Gels

Bare flash looks boring if you ask me. Adding colored gels can totally change the feel of an image and when you add warm colors it can make an entire picture easier on a viewers psyche. What I love about adding a gel (in this case CTO gel) is that you don’t need to warm up your entire shot to get the desired result. Even adding some warmth to the walkway is enough to give you a warm feeling. It also adds some color contrast (having some warmth makes blue parts of the image look even bluer). Here’s that same setup but with the addition of CTO gels on my main lights (the trigger light was left bare since it doesn’t add to the final image).

I’m really liking how this shot is shaping up. Time to move the camera position in to my final position. Here’s a look at this same shot but with the camera positioned so that the flashes are out of the shot:

This was my final shot. By moving the camera up onto the walkway I was able to use the side rails to create leading lines (picture elements that help to direct a viewers attention). One final addition I made when I took the picture was a white balance change. I shoot RAW and could have changed the color balance in post production but I like seeing the shot on my LCD to help me make decisions. For this shot I changed the white balance from auto to cloudy (which warmed up the background a bit).

The finishing touches are made in Lightroom and Photoshop.


I hope that following along as I built this shot helps to explain a little of what goes through my mind when I’m creating a location shot. I like to think about story telling and using the elements of my environment to tell my story. Being a small flash kind of guy I’m always looking at what the natural light is giving me and where the problem places are (meaning things that I may have to light with flash or reflectors). Once I get my lighting figured out I start thinking about adding in additional elements like color (or portrait subjects) to finish my shots off.

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