Advanced Flash Techniques for Event Photography
As the name of my web site implies, I don’t photograph many weddings. I photographed a wedding for a friend, and I photographed the wedding of my son, Carl. This past weekend was the wedding of my son Brad. Brad’s fiancee is friends with a professional photographer, and she was hired to do the job. I wasn’t hurt – it’s difficult to be the father of the groom and be the official wedding photographer. But there wasn’t going to be a second shooter, so I was asked to shoot the groomsmen preparation and, of course, I wanted a few photos for myself. I brought my gear and planned to do limited photography at the rehearsal and at the reception. As it turned out, there was a second shooter, so I was redundant at the groomsmen event, but I went ahead a got some shots there anyway.
The point of this post is to discuss flash photography. With the better digital cameras available today, you can now shoot with such high ISO settings that it is possible to shoot using ambient light in all but the darkest settings, but ambient light does not allow you to control the light on your subject, and if you shoot ambient-only lighting indoors you will not get particularly exciting photos. If you want top-shelf event photographs you must learn to use a flash.
There are lots of videos and articles that discuss basic flash photography, so I’m not going to cover it. I’m going to assume you know the basics and dive into a couple of techniques that can improve your results.
Several things I’ve learned about my gear impact my flash work significantly and they are worth considering with your gear. First, because I shoot a micro four thirds (i.e. mirrorless) camera, I get a three second auto review after every shot. This means that I see every image momentarily after I’ve shot it – no need to drop my camera and “chimp” the image. If my lighting is off, I know it immediately and can correct the problem before the next shot. If I’m working with a flash, I may need to change the output setting of the flash. Or, if the ambient part of the image is off, adjust the shutter speed to allow more or less ambient illumination. Note that the auto review feature has a shutter override, so if my images are good, I don’t need to wait three seconds for the next shot. As soon as I touch the shutter, I’m back in viewfinder mode, not stuck reviewing the image. It’s very seamless and easy to use. It helps you keep your exposure right when the conditions are outside of what auto exposure can be expected to handle. Secondly, my flash has “auto” and “TTL-auto” modes. I’ve learned that auto mode is much better than TTL-auto mode.
TTL-auto is a technology that combines light control in the flash and camera and it will provide excellent exposure control, especially when the subject needs lighting much different from the non-subject area. However, TTL-auto come with three problems: there is a pre-flash for calculation that causes a lot of people to blink – just in time for the main flash, TTL-auto adds about a half second delay to every shot – this throws your timing off with moving subjects, and TTL-auto consumes a lot of battery power - the recycle time on my flash in TTL-auto is more than double than when the flash is in auto mode. So, as you might imagine, I do not use TTL-auto mode. I use the standard auto mode, or I switch to manual mode and adjust the flash output as needed.
The last feature of my gear that that is worth mentioning is the auto eye viewfinder/viewing panel switching. As a rule, I prefer to compose using the eye viewfinder. However, when shooting people dancing or sitting at a table, the ability shoot high, shoot low, or zoom by means of arm extension is useful. With the auto switching feature, as soon as I remove the camera from my eye, the camera’s back viewing panel is activated and I can continue to shoot with all the shooting angle options that are allowed by not needing to keep the camera to my eyeball.
Couples PortraitureUsing the fold-out rear viewing panel of my micro four thirds camera allows me lower my shooting angle and zoom with my arms to improve couples shots.
If you think that these comments are a sales job for “mirrorless” cameras over “DSLR” cameras, you’re wrong. It’s not intended to be that. These are just features available to me and I've learned to take advantage of them. Still, as I watched the professionals at Brad’s wedding, I did feel sorry for them as they worked with their older Canon gear.
So, let’s get on to the flash tricks that I used at Brad’s wedding.
On the morning of the wedding, I was sitting in my hotel room, which was about the same as Brad’s room where the groomsmen preparation event was going to occur. (This was before I knew there was going to be a second shooter, so I was assuming that I was going to be the only photographer.) I noted that nearly all the light in the room was coming from the window, which was at one of the narrow ends of a rectangular room. This meant that I would need to stand at the window end of the room to get any decent light. Any shots towards the window would be heavily backlit. I thought about this for a while and came up with a solution, which I practiced in my hotel room until I got it reasonably perfected.
Here is the trick. I usually shoot with a Peter Gregg Better Bounce Card. This is a bounce card that attaches to the end of the flash head. The flash head, when used with this card, is rotated ninety degrees and aimed straight up. The card uses perhaps a quarter of the flash’s light to illuminate the subject directly, and the rest is thrown into the ceiling to provide better ambient light. It works well with the flash in auto mode though it is usually necessary to tune your settings a bit for the room and conditions you are shooting. What I did differently for this situation was that I re-aimed the flash head so that the flash was aimed behind me and I switched the flash from auto mode to manual mode. None of the flash’s light was headed directly towards the subject. All of the flash’s light would be coming from the ceiling and from the bounce on any wall behind me. Using the technique, the window light remained my primary light source. If was shooting from the window side of the room, most of the flash’s light was lost through the window - the outside light provided the illumination on my subjects. When shooting from the inside of the room, towards the window, the flash provided a huge, soft illumination from the dark side of the room. In some cases this was not enough to balance the window light, but overall it worked well. I shot in aperture-priority mode with the ISO at 800 and the f-stop at 2.8 to 5.6. I put the flash in manual mode and used its lower power ranges; guide numbers roughly 7 to 28. Due to the extreme lighting conditions I did need to adjust frequently and there were a couple of muffs, but I am pleased with the results.
Groomsmen-1Despite an overpowering backlight from the large window, good lighting was achieved using a backwards-facing flash to flood the room with bounced light.
Groomsmen-2The flash power was kept low to achieve a balance of ambient light from the window and bounced illumination from the flash.
The other trick for flash shooting was used for the dancing at the reception. Since I knew there would be a professional photographer there, I decided to shoot using the technique known as “dragging the shutter” and let the pro take the standard shots. The technique involves using a very slow shutter speed coupled with the nearly instant speed of a modern flash – typically 1/2000th to 1/4000th of a second. The key to making this work is that you need to get the camera, without the flash, set up to underexpose the room a stop or two at about 1/6th of a second shutter speed. You can go faster or slower than this to change the effect, but you must be under about 1/30th or you lose the effect. Once you have this exposure determined, fix it in the camera in manual mode. Now you need to add your flash. You can use the auto or manual mode, but I find I like auto mode better. In auto mode, the flash will correct for distance, but it will not change the camera’s settings. This will give you a nice balance of a constant background illumination with consistent, correct foreground illumination. You may need to adjust the flash’s output level to get this right, but once set up you can pretty much blast away. The last piece of this technique is camera shake - this is where the back panel viewing comes into play. Holding the camera away from your body (and often slightly lowered), track the subject’s action. As you depress the shutter, give the camera a slight jiggle. Note that for this technique I usually take off the bounce card and use a bare flash aimed straight ahead. One thing I did not explore was what the impact of image stabilization on these images is. I have always left the stabilization on, but perhaps next time I have an opportunity to shoot a similar event, I'll turn off stabilization and see how much difference that makes.
The effect of this is that the subjects will be focused, well illuminated and fairly well detailed. There will be some motion blur, notably in their hands. The background will be much more blurred and bright background objects will tend to add lots of irregular color. The viewing sensation is quite dramatic. Even though these are still photos, they have a sense of motion - almost like a very short video clip.
You will need some practice at this to get the technique working for you, and you will find that not every shot is a keeper. Sometimes the blurring is just wrong or a stray hand or body has gotten in the way, but usually at least one in five will come out really well. Adjustments in shutter speed will increase or decrease the amount of blurring. Changes in aperture will increase or decrease the clarity of the background details. Flash adjustments will change the illumination of the subject but will not change the appearance of the background. There are quite a few variable and you can modify any or all of them to your preference. It’s a wonderful technique, and with dancers, I guarantee you will get results that blow away standard frozen-frame photos – even those taken by professionals.
Your camera and all of your accessories are tools. The better you know them, the more you can get out of them. Used to their full abilities, they will assist you in taking better photographs. Dig in and start exploring what your kit can do.
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