Friday, January 05, 2007

A road to flash photography

For the last year and a half I have been purely an available light photographer. In low light I was shooting at a high ISO with fast/large aperture lenses (also very expensive) and loving it. The only problem was my Canon 50 mm f/1.4 USM , Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L USM, Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro are all too long for general indoor use and my Canon 17-40mm f/4 L USM is not a low available light type lens even at ISO 1600. This was not a big problem, I just had to except, for wide angle poor light indoor photos, there would be noise/quality issues and I did for awhile.

My first flash:

At some point in August I took some photos for a friend's band, Dr Jelly, at an outdoor venue in Kingston. There was more then enough light and I had no trouble getting some frames I was happy with.

Fun with funk
Fun with funk
1/640, f5, 200mm, ISO 100

A few weeks after the show Dr Jelly approached me to take a few more fun photos to use for band promotion and such. So we set a date in November which gave me lots of time to think/worry about how to produce another good set of photo for the band. Since this next shoot
would involve some indoor photos I was worried about noise/quality with a high ISO or whether I would be able to get a shot at all if the lighting was too poor. After much thought:

  1. I realized that I would NEVER part with my Canon 17-40mm f/4 L USM. It was my first lens after all plus I can not afford the 16-35 f2.8 L USM;
  2. I needed a flash to make my 17-40 f/4 an indoor (i.e. poor light) lens; and
  3. The flash for me was the Canon 580ex speedlite.
How I came to the conclusion that the 580ex was right for me and not the 430ex is a story for another day. I will say after lots of ebay/web surfing and several lost auctions, I finally decided to buy the 580ex from B&H photo in NY. It is funny, even with USD to CDN exchange, taxes, and shipping it was still $100 cheaper to buy it from the US.

A flashy new toy

How do I use this thing?

My 580ex arrived the day of the November shoot! I picked up the flash from the post office one hour before I was to meet the band which gave me enough time to get batteries and read the manual. I decide I would first go with what I know, available light, to get some "safety frames" so I would have something at the end of the day. Then once I felt I had enough "safety frames" I would put the flash on, set it to ETTL and get some practice.

Court craziness (safety frames)
Court craziness

I guess I did ok because the band later asked me in December to photograph a jam session. What I learned in November came in handy, although I stilled used ETTL but with lots of different bounce angles.

Future stars
Future stars
1/100, f6.3, 17mm, ISO 100, 580 ETTL bounced

In over my head?:

As it turns out I received a 430ex speedlite as a very generous present from my parents at Christmas time. How hard can using two flashes be? After all, I had read the best online off camera flash resources at It is going to take some practice. Seriously though, read!

Beware of the Chicken
Beware of the chicken
1/200, f5.6, 17mm, ISO 100, 580ex and 430 ex

Two flash portraits:

I decided to put some time into learning how to take photos with two flashes by doing a portrait. Since Cynthia was away I was left with only myself as a subject. This posed a problem, "How do I focus?". Without an IR remote and a shutter release with a really short cable (about 3 feet) decided to set the focus to 3m on the lens and then use a tape measure to mark the spot where I should stand. Then to help increase the depth of field I set the camera to f7.1 which puts the DOF at whopping 0.13 m.

As for flash settings ETTL seemed to get me nowhere. With ETTL set on both flashes the frame looked under exposed by at least 1 stop. I tried playing with each flash's exposure compensation but it did not seem to make too much of a difference. To be honest I was quite confused with this since I had used ETTL with great success with just one flash (the 580 on the camera). Anyway I switched to the manual settings where I would know exactly what the flash power was. Lots to learn...I played with the manual settings and after 10 frames or so I stayed with this photo.

Portrait of me

Camera settings:
  1. 135mm, ISO 200, 1/200, f7.1 (exposes 5 stops below ambient levels),
  2. Distance to subject is 3m;
  3. Custom white balance used;
Two Flashes:
  1. 580ex (master) M, 1/32, zoom 105mm, 0 degrees, straight on, height 1.7m;
  2. 430ex (slave) M, 1/16, zoom 24mm, 45 degrees, bounced, height 1m; and
  3. Flash locations click on diagram below.
"Portrait of me" flash setup

The slave flash was positioned to bounce off the background to prevent shadows behind me and to get under my hat. So in the end I kept the above for a benchmark to gauge whether my future flash setups are improving. Any suggestions are welcome.


Stuff I will certainly need to try out. Thanks guys!

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Gordon Perks says:

Try to have one flash falling on your face(or the subject's) on a 45 degree angle while having the 2nd flash zoomed in all the way at 105mm and on a 1/16 or 1/32 of a power. If you put the second flash so it is on the same angle as first but in the back of your head, you'll get a nice hair light. You have the right idea but reverse the setting on the flashes.

Having two flashed the possibilities are endless for setup ups.

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stvkrn Pro User says:

I notice that with ettl things seem to underexpose a bit as well. If you drag the shutter a little more, your flashes won't have to work so hard. Did you try the same shot with ETTL around 1/20th - 1/60th? Then set your background light 2 stops hotter than your key light. This is the standard ratio that the fashon guys use for the high key background look you seem to be after.
Posted 9 minutes ago.

My reply:

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Crag Spider Pro User says:

@stvkrn: Steve I combined your suggestion with Lars' (Gorden Perks, swap the zooms) and I got some good/similar results with ETTL. I first tried 1/20 but it was still looked too dark so I set the shutter to 1/5 (still ISO 200 f7.1). At 1/5 the camera meter reads a properly exposed frame (without flash). Is this the idea? I guess if I wanted a faster shutter speed I could open the aperture up and increase the ISO. Then I set the slave light to +2 as you suggested. I knew I left my gear setup for a reason. Thanks for all the help!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Point and shoot at night

No manual setting?!?:

On the way to
A&P tonight I experimented with my Sony DSCP10 (point and shoot) at night. Yes this camera is completely inferior to my 20D and can in no way compete against its smooth high ISOs together with a fast lens at night. However the P10 is not totally useless at night; it just takes a little more effort.

One way communication
One way communication
Left: 1/13, f/2.8, 7.9 mm, ISO 400
Right: 1/4, f/2.8, 7.9 mm, ISO 400

The biggest obstacle is that the P10 lacks full manual settings. So you are left with what the camera thinks is right which usually results in a shutter speed too slow to prevent camera shake. This means you must out smart the camera and fool it into the settings that you want. I should say there is a "P" mode where you can set the ISO (auto,100,200,400), focus (center/multi), and metering (spot/multi) but not the aperture or shutter speed.

Fooling the camera:

In this case I wanted to keep the shutter speed high enough to prevent camera shake but low enough to "properly" expose the frame. To accomplish this on the "P" setting I picked:

a) ISO 400: the photo will be grainy/noisy but it is better to have a sharp noisy photo then a blurry low noise photo;

b) Focus to center AF: the camera will have an easier time focusing in lower light levels with center AF. Although since the focusing is IR, P&S can actually have an easier time focusing then a (D)SLR which use a passive focusing system but I digress...; and

c) Metering to spot: the spot metering allows you get very localized light levels. This will be important for fooling the camera into a particular shutter speed.

The next step is to zoom out to the lens' widest setting and then zoom with your feet to compose the photo. The lens on the P10 has a variable aperture over the zoom range , f/2.8 at 7.9mm to f/5.2 at 23.7mm, so you have the possibility to get more light in
at 7.9mm.

With the above setting I was now ready to attempt a flashless low light photo. First compose your shot, focus, and then check what the camera thinks is the right settings. In the case of the phone booth the camera suggested 1 sec shutter speed with and f-stop of 2.8. There is no way to handhold a 1 sec exposure and not get motion blur. So I focused on parts of the booth with different light levels, locking the exposure settings each time by holding the shutter button half way down, until I got shutter speed of about 1/8. Remember the focal length is 7.9mm so this is inline with the "1/(focal length) rule" to prevent camera shake. Click on the above photo to see notes for the approximate camera settings metered from different regions.


Part of the reason this method works is because the sensor size of a point and shoot (2x crop factor or more) is such that the DOF is more or less infinite. That is everything is in "focus" (reasonably sharp). Have you ever seen point and shoot bokeh? Anyway this allows you to meter one area of the photo and recompose the frame completely, within reason of course, without worrying to much about the focus.