11 Jan 2008

How to take flash photographs – part 4

Over the last three post, I’ve demonstrated just a few of the ways you can create beautiful, soft, directional light with your flash gun attached to your camera. I hope by now you are realising that a flash really is a superbly versatile and portable source of light. When you have the facility to separate that flash gun from your camera, things get even better. Then you can really put light exactly where you want it.

For the photojournalist, a small portable flash is absolutely essential. Without it, he, or she, could not hope to get professional standard photographs in difficult, remote and often poorly lit locations. I have often chosen deliberately to photograph my subjects in what might be described as ‘difficult’ light conditions, and the reason for this is simple – those difficult light conditions can produce highly atmospheric photographs.

Take a glance at the photograph of the man sitting astride the old butcher’s bicycle. This was a wonderful story about a man called Cor Ellen – he is a professional beachcomber on the Dutch Friesian island of Texel in the North Sea. I was commissioned to photograph him for an article for ‘You’, the Mail on Sunday Magazine in UK. I took a great many photographs of Cor – in his home, working on the beach, with his collection of extraordinary things found washed up on the shore. But I wanted an atmospheric shot of Cor on the old bicycle he used to get around the island. I also wanted to show the atmosphere of this remote, wild and windswept place – where better than on the shore beneath the lighthouse.

To add atmosphere, I chose to wait until late afternoon when the light was fading. The camera was put on a tripod. I took a light reading of the cloudy part of the sky. At ISO100, that gave me 1/15sec at f11. The flash was held in my hand as far away from the camera as possible to my right hand side. It was connected to the camera by a long cable (synch lead). I timed the flashes of the lighthouse and pressed the shutter just before it shone.

The flash has fired and lit Cor and the bicycle, but the shutter has remained open – gathering the light from the sky and the lighthouse. A very similar technique to that I described in my article about photographing sparks.

Try to avoid those ‘curly’ flash cables – the springy ones like those on a telephone handset. They are a menace because the temptation is to stretch them just a little more, and a little more, to get the flash just that little bit further away from the camera. Then BANG! the tripod is pulled over. It happens so suddenly you will be unable to stop it. Better – if you can - to use a long, simple synch lead with no spring or curls in it. Then you will always know how far it can be pulled.

Cordless infra-red devices are often unreliable in adverse outdoor conditions.


Anonymous said...

When you say "I took a light reading of the cloudy part of the sky. At ISO100, that gave me 1/15sec at f11"....at the risk of sounding quite amateur, how does one do this? with a light meter or using your own camera? I have a nikon d40.

by the way....I love your site. You do put out so much helpful and practical knowledge!

Philip Dunn said...

Glad you are enjoying the blog.
I always use the ‘M’ manual exposure mode settings on the camera. That means I can set my own shutter speed and aperture.
If you have not used ‘M’ setting before, you may not realise that your camera is well equipped with a very good light meter. The scale for this meter is usually seen at the bottom or at one side when you look through the viewfinder.
Your question is a good one, and lots of people ask exactly the same. In fact how to use the manual settings is the most common question I am asked.
So, in my next post, I’ll write something about using the ‘M’ settings.
Meanwhile, I did write a short article on this blog a little while ago ‘How to get the correct exposure’. If I knew how to put a link from here to that article I would do it right now… but I’m still learning blogging! So please use the search box.

Anonymous said...

Thank you ...I will search for the articel. I learned Manual...and feel quite comfortable withthat...i am still adjusting to digital and trying to use it manually as well...thanks again!

MarkP said...

Can you recommend where to purchase "non-springy" hotshoe cords? For my Canon, I've only seen the coiled type but did want a much longer lead.

If it comes to it, I may just butcher a standard lead.

Philip Dunn said...

The manufacturers seem reluctant to offer simple synch leads - they would rather sell you a very expensive purpose-made cable.
You could try Mifsuds, in Devon if you are in UK. 01803 852400
web... http://www.mifsuds.com
If all else fails, by all means butcher a simple extension twin wire lead, but remember if you are connecting the flash through the hot shoe on the camera, the automatic settings will not work. It will just fire the flash.
If you are using manual setting on the cametra and flash this will not bother you one bit.
I have always made up my own cables, often making them up to 25feet long.
Make sure you get the male/female sockets correct.
If you are using Canon flash. They do not provide the flash with a simple flash synch lead socket - Nikon do.
That's why I stick to Nikon.

Philip Dunn said...

Just thought - you could always use your curly cable and simple add an extension lead.
This would give you the length you need and take the strain off that curly lead. Much safer

MarkP said...

Wow, thanks for all your help - I'll certainly look in to it :)

Cathy said...

Inspired by your blog I am about to order the Canon 580EX speedlite - but what are my options for using it off camera as you describe here? What is the extension lead you refer to, that I could use with the curly cable? Unlike markp, I couldn't make or adapt anything of my own. Thanks, and keep up the great work. Cathy.

Philip Dunn said...

Actually, putting together a couple of synch leads to make one extension cable with two male sockets is a lot easier than you think.
I'm still using one I bodged together in the back of a taxi in Delhi in 1994 - and it still works.

I suspect that Canon will limit your options for extending the coiled or curly extension lead for the Canon 580EX speedlite.
You could just extend the cable with a simple extension lead, but bear in mind the flash will not then 'talk' to the camera because none of the sophisticated multi connections will work.
It might well be worth investing in a cordless infra-red transmitter. Persnally, I don't much care for them, but other photographers swear by them (or at them??)
I spoke this morning to Ron, a helpful chap at Quiggs - a first class camera equipment shop in Glasgow - he says they stock various cable and infra-red options, and he will help if he can. 0141 553 2312 email: sales@quiggs.co.uk
I will put their web address in my links.
Hope that helps.