14 Mar 2008

Photographing with multi flash

Here’s a picture – a very simple one, with no pretensions to be anything other than a demonstration shot. It shows the group of photographers who joined me last week to learn more about portraiture.

I was showing the group how to get the best from their flash guns both on and off the camera, when I decided to show them the old technique of firing multiple flashed on one exposure – with just one flash unit of course.

I was taught the technique by a photographer called Arthur Partington when I was just a 15 year old apprentice on a local newspaper. In those days staff photographers like Arthur were expected to turn their hands to every job that came in to the office – and that included news, features, weddings, some commercial work, and advertising. Arthur had the task of photographing a carpet warehouse in an old converted cotton mill. The floor area was vast, the ceiling fairly low and supported by dozens of steel pillars. The whole place was covered in rolls of carpet. The client wanted to show the scale of his operation by having the entire warehouse area photographed and the picture printed in a full page ad in our broadsheet paper.

One winter evening, Arthur went prepared with his Speed Graphic 5 x 4 glass plate camera, a heavy wooden tripod, a huge bulb flash gun, an empty shoulder bag and another containing about a dozen PF1000 flash bulbs (I think that’s what they were). These old-fashioned flash bulbs were about the size of a large orange and often exploded when they were fired.

And Arthur took me. I had a particular job to do.

First he found his best angle and set the camera up on the tripod. Then he turned to me and walked me right around the warehouse floor showing me exactly where and in which direction he wanted me to let of one of the flash bulbs. I was under threat of death if I got it wrong. Every time I let off a flash bulb I would have to be hidden behind one of the pillars. Right. Arthur eyed my with distrust and asked if I was ready. He pulled out the sheath from the slide holder. Opened the shutter on ‘B’ and told me to Go!

Oh, I almost forgot, before he sent me off, he turned off most of the lights in the warehouse. I could barely see where I was going.

A raced around that warehouse blasting off flashes as I went. Each time I fired a flash bulb it had to be unscrewed (burning my fingers), the spent bulb dropped into the empty bag and a new bulb screwed into the flash gun ready for the next blast. Three times bulbs exploded with a terrifying bag, spraying me with fine shards of glass. Each time Arthur yelled – “Don’t stop you little bugger, keep moving”.

By the time I had fired the last flash bulb and Arthur had closed his shutter, I had covered the equivalent of a 200 yard sprint under heavy fire in the dark. I was gasping for breath and shell-shocked.

“Right”, said Arthur. “Get that camera packed up and we’ll get off home.”

I watched Arthur develop the glass plate and print the photograph next morning. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was as though the entire warehouse had been lit with studio lighting. It was beautifully lit.

Well that’s a mighty long explanation for the method used to take the picture above. All I did was darken the room. Stick the camera on a tripod. Tell the subjects to keep dead still, opened the shutter and dashed around everyone letting off the flash gun. Closed the shutter. No cables, no infra-red, no wireless-systems. None of that is needed… just you with a flash in your hand The flash was fired four times.

I admit it’s not ideal – some of the shadows are in the wrong place, one flash has looked into the camera (over the shoulder of the man sat on the left) and another has lit part of my red sweater (over on the right). But as a quick two-minute demo it was very effective.

You can try this at home. It’s great fun and you’ll learn lots. Multi flash pictures can have an extraordinarily powerful visual appeal if you get it just right.

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