The Plight of Winter - How I light my photos at night. Long Island Children's Photographer
I get asked a lot about artificial light and how my images look a certain way, since I mostly shoot at night.
This photo was taken at night. It doesn't really look like it thanks to my BFF Off Camera Flash!
Winter light sucks. At least for me it does. When daylight savings time starts, my images filled with golden hour amazingness come to a screeching miserable halt.
Since I work full time, I leave when it's dark and come home when it's dark. Since natural light is just not an option from November - March, I have to suffer with artificial light.
The first year of my 365, I struggled HARD in the winter months. I had a 60D that maxed out at ISO 6400, so my photos were ROUGH.
The above image was where my camera maxed out. I had the slowest possible shutter, highest possible ISO an lowest possible aperture. I HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO! The frustration with maxing out my cameras capabilities must have made me super annoying, because I got a shiny new 5D Mark III that spring as a gift from my husband. That baby has ISO capabilities of 102400!!!
Because of this super sweet new camera, I was almost excited to enter into the winter of 2014. I mean, come on! I had a full frame pro camera now. I knew what I was doing (not really).
So while I FINALLY had the ability to take photos at night with ambient (or available) light... I was kinda bummed with how they looked. Mind you, they were a million times better than what I shot with the 60D, but as the newness of my camera wore off, I started looking for something MORE. I can't embrace grain. I just don't like it in lifestyle photos. I love airy, light filled images with lots of negative space and little pops of color. There is just no place for grain and crappy ambient light in my vision.
Back in the day, I had this really awful Canon 90ex Speedlite. It was a stationary mounted flash, meaning it doesn't move. It sucked. I also had NO IDEA what I was doing with it and it showed in my work. That was all I knew of flashes at the time and images like this below were the best I could produce.... Um, no thanks.
As I entered the second year of my 365 and had the whole winter ahead of me, I decided to get into studio lighting and use my 365 to figure out how it worked. I purchased an AB400, a 64" PLM and made a DIY backdrop stand with some pvc pipe. Within a few hours, I came to the conclusion that studio lighting was AMAZING. It made shooting fun and exciting again!
I could shoot at any time of day, in any lighting conditions! Who cares if it's pitch black outside? I could do anything I wanted and always have continuous and consistent lighting! It was great for a little while - I would experiment with all different types of lighting, with placement, high key and low key, but as with all things, I eventually got bored. I realized that studio lighting is just not where my heart is. I definitely like it, but I was missing out on the day to day lifestyle shots that really mean the most to me. I love photos with details, atmosphere, and a sense of place. Photos that really show my daughters personality. Studio isn't like that....so I got complacent pretty quickly.... and then hit a big time wall.
I knew something had to give, but I was kind of at a loss for what direction I wanted to go in. I needed the ability to light a scene, but hated the limitations of shooting in studio. I needed to incorporate the two, but there was no way in heck that I would lug my studio gear around my house!
My only option was back to flash. I read about using flash off camera, but with all the fancy triggers, receivers and modifiers, it really confused the crap out of me. I already had a flash and hated it - but using strobes really taught me an amazing lesson on light and how it works. With that added knowledge, I was ready to give flash another try.
Luckily for me, Facebook came to the rescue with several groups dedicated to off camera flash. My personal favorite, Speedlight Fundamentals. A guide to learning OCF is filled with tons of amazing knowledge by people who seriously know what they are doing.
After getting some advice, I bought my first ever off brand product. A Yongnuo 568 EX II. This flash is my baby. It's the most awesome piece of photography equipment I own (and I have some pretty sweet gear guys). My second purchase was a Yongnuo 622C-TX and 622c (Flash controller and trigger).
Compared to other items on the market that do the exact same thing, these babies are a bargain. I'm always hesitant to buy stuff like this, because I assume they are cheaply priced for a reason, however please trust me when I say that the quality of the flash and triggers exceeded my expectations. I've dropped these on the floor more times than I can count and they still work and look brand new.
How exactly do you use them? I was expecting it to be super complicated - however it could't be any easier. Stick the Controller on the camera hot shoe, the trigger on the flash unit and turn them all on. THAT'S IT! Done. A more detailed explanation of how these work, including channels, E-TTL and other stuff that I really don't care about can be found here.
So where do I put my flash? I can't be bothered putting it on a stand (I also don't have any extra one laying around). 99% of the time I just put the flash on a counter and shoot. The other 1% of the time, I use this thing called a justin clamp to clamp my light where I want it.
Figuring out flash power is a trial and error thing for me. So is figuring out where to put the flash. To make things a bit easier I started out experimenting in the bathroom. Tubby shots are the easiest way to practice OCF. Trust me.... I found out after the fact that pretty much everyone learns this way. Most bathrooms are small, have white ceilings and are the best way to learn how to bounce your flash to light a scene.
To get started, I generally set my camera settings first. I love shooting fairly wide open, so I'll usually set my Aperture to 2.0, ISO to around 100-200 (I hate noise!!!) and with the shutter, I ALWAYS keep at around 200 (any higher and you'll exceed your max sync speed, and get shutter curtain). Once I plug in my camera settings, I'll set my flash settings. Some flashes support TTL (through the lens/ like an automatic setting), but setting it manually has always worked best for me. I usually start at about 1/16th power and work up from there until I am properly exposed. In the beginning, this involved a lot of test shots, to figure out how to get the exposure right. Now that this is something I do almost every day, it takes one to two shots max to get my light right.
Think of putting your flash wherever you wish you had a window or some natural light. Head on lighting can look a little flat, so for me, its usually stuck in a corner on the counter for some directional light.
The flash itself is just sticking straight up towards the ceiling. Since my ceiling are white, when the flash goes off it bounces off the ceiling giving me beautiful soft light.
Once I realized the look I could get from my flash, I started experimenting using it as fill light for just about everything, even when I had enough ambient light to shoot in.
Besides providing amazing fill light, flash also has the ability to freeze motion. That means that besides having more light and less noise, my photos appear sharper too, even at a slower shutter speed.
OCF is also very portable, and seriously takes no time to set up. I turn them on and they are ready to go. As I got more comfortable with bouncing flash, I moved into other areas, like adding a modifier to my flash and using more than one light.
I even started to take it outside. I can shoot at midnight if I want to.
So to make a long story short - OCF gives me the ability to have it all. I can take my in the moment lifestyle shots and have the ability to properly light them, regardless of whether the sun is shining or we're bracing ourselves for Snowmageddeon 2016!