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On Assignment: Speedlights, Sync and Sun

It's a bit of a leap of faith, the first time you head out on an assignment with just an X100s and a couple speedlights. (Ask Zack.) And truth be told, I had a DSLR and a couple lenses with me as backup, just in case.

But I never brought them out. And with the crazy sync speeds offered by the X100s, a pair of speedlights is all you really need to do battle with late afternoon sun as it turns out.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the ability to sync (true, not HSS) at higher speeds is a force multiplier. But it still feels weird to go up against sunlight with only speedlights (and have any hope of doing anything other than lighting close-in and hard.)

My fallback was that the sun was low, which meant we'd have a little time to work after sunset, too. So if I was patient, the light would come to me.

With that confidence in mind, we headed to the Howard County Conservancy for the second of two shoots with soprano Rebecca L. Hargrove. Working with assistant Dylan Singleton, the idea would be to work quickly with minimal gear through the fast-changing light.

Light mods don't get much simpler/cheaper than two double-fold umbrellas, which is what we used. In every case, the bottom fill light was an SB-800 in an umbrella on a collapsed LP605 stand (love that it does that.) The key light, a LumoPro LP180, was VAL'd as an overhead boom (another LP605) by Dylan.

Sync was via 10-meter OCF cord, to not lose any sync to radio latency. The second flash was slaved to the first.

With the sun still a few fingers above the horizon (pro tip: each finger at arms' length = about 15 mins) we used the shade side of the barn as a backdrop. But being able to sync at 1/2000th at f/4 (ISO 400, with the built-in ND engaged) meant we could hold the sky in the late spring light.

One light was low on the ground (fill) and the other was VAL/boomed and keyed to whichever way Rebecca was looking. This is why a VAL boom beats a metal boom, any day.

For the different shots, the idea was to work our way over to the field to the field as the light waned, and then shoot against sunset. As you can see from this overhead shot, I don't think we traveled more then 75 feet to do all four looks:

The "A" pic (seen just above) was using the barn as a backdrop. The "B" pic (seen at top) used the field as a backdrop and the setting sun as a super-warm rim light. Again, syncing at 1/2000th (at f/5, ISO 200, with ND in this case) allows us to not only overpower the late sun but to do so at modest power settings on the speedlights. This meant quick double taps were available when needed.

Could you do this with slower syncs? Yeah. But you'd need more light, and a stronger ND if you wanted to maintain the same depth of field.

Also, I could have used one flash on high camera left and another at back camera right to fake the sun. But more and more I am learning that when you augment a high key with a low fill on the same axis (in this case, coming from high left and low left) people just glow in a way that they would not if the fill was not there.

(On the future idea list: Doing this with hard lights, and with different color key and fill.)

The field in back is straight ambient, but dropped way down—maybe three stops. As the sun got closer to the horizon, we started to think of it as a golden light source. So we pushed back into the field a little, to use that background as a setting to make the "C" photo:

The low sun did not deliver what we wanted as a key light, so for this shot we pushed the ambient down again. Not as far this time, just two thirds of a stop so the grass would look rich. (Without flash she would have been a rim-lit silhouette.) The ambient, from camera right, is obviously changing quickly here and mostly just a rim light. So I just locked the camera in aperture priority at f/4 (ISO 200, ND engaged) and left the compensation at -⅔ stop.

This way the shutter would track the light and my aperture (and thus, flash exposure) would stay put. The ⅔ stop underexposure tracks, too. Now I can concentrate on my photo rather than f/stops and shutter speeds. When we started this set we were about at 1/1000th of a sec on the shutter. Within a few minutes the light had dropped and so had our automatically chosen shutter speed. EXIF records this frame as 1/210th of a sec.

The light was a VAL'D overhead key, upper camera right, with the fill light being low and near my feet from the left. Still using a pair of speedlights in small double-fold umbrellas.

The camera was pretty much pointed due south for the "B" and "C" photos. For the "D" pic seen just below, re rotated 90 degrees and shot from the same field location into the sunset itself:

The angle is really low were. On my belly in the grass, for some depth and foreground interest. Cost me an extra day of allergies. That said, I've laid in worse.

For this shot, it is again a key VAL'd to her face. But the fill is low and camera left, for a couple of reasons. One, it leaves some shadow on her. And two, it lights up the grass in the foreground to leave it more natural looking as compared to a silhouette.

At a 210th of a sec each, these last two photos could have been done with any camera (okay, close enough, Mr. Mk III) and speedlights. These light levels are when speedlights can shine for anyone. But I can report that having the ability to push against actual sun with speedlights in softeners is freakin' awesome.

All told, I am totally ready to use the x100s for lit, day portraits. In fact, next up is a group shot of 8 people in that same field with the sun shining as a rim light from back camera right. Using a few Einsteins in action mode (fast t.1 times, remember) I want to dial down the ambient and overlight them at distance.

Will it work? Probably. But there's only one way to find out.

Next: Evoking Expression


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