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.

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Photographing Hummingbirds

Where I live in northern Virginia I see a lot of wildlife “in the wild”. In late spring/early summer I see lots of birds, owls and butterflies right in my yard. Outside of my office window I have a Mimosa tree and it really attracts the various winged creatures. I’m not what I would consider a wildlife photographer but I do enjoy taking pictures of animals. This year I’ve been seeing lots of hummingbirds so I thought I’d try my luck at getting some hummingbird shots. I learned quickly that this kind of photography is a huge challenge and with this blog entry I’ll talk a bit about how I got my shots and the camera settings I used.

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The Coffee Shop Shoot (part 1)

Recently I’ve been working with a local business owner on a new photography assignment.

The owners of the Common Grounds coffee shop just opened their business and they needed some images to use on their website, in print advertising and for any future projects. This kind of work is great because it will involve lots of different styles and techniques for me to successfully deliver everything they need.

I’ll be taking exterior shots, interior HDR shots, shots of employees and customers (portraiture), shots of their products (food shots) and even some animal shots (they are service dog friendly). After a week of scouting and planning I began shooting some exterior shots last night. For this blog entry I’ll begin talking about how I use my photography on special assignments for business owners like this coffee shop.

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Creating a complicated lighting setup (the finishing touch)

This is the last of my three blog entries where I built up a studio lighting setup that looks great for shooting portraits (If you missed part 1 and part 2 be sure to check them out since they help this blog entry make sense). A lot of what I’ve done so far has been in my portrait studio but the principles apply to any location where you’ll be shooting. The portrait shots we’ve captured up to this point have all looked great and there’s not a lot more we can do with the light on Dug. What we haven’t looked at so far is the background.

We’ve been shooting on white seamless paper (available in rolls of various lengths) and up to this point we haven’t talked much about it. In every shot so far the background has looked neutral grey because we haven’t allowed much light to hit it. If we completely blocked light from hitting the background then the color would have been much darker grey (or even black). For the rest of the shots we’ll be using a third flash to create some unique looks for the background.

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Creating a complicated light setup (next steps)

This blog entry is part 2 of a series about building up a complicated studio lighting setup one step at a time. If you haven’t read part 1 you can read it here. We already had a really good start that could have been the finishing point for this portrait. But we’re photographers and we are always looking for something better. Let’s see if we can improve the shot by changing the umbrella orientation to a shoot though to get even better looking light. And if you own a second flash we’re going to take advantage of it next by creating a rim light to really separate our subject from the background. But first, let’s turn that umbrella around.

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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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