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!


Blogger David said...


Keep at it. You can do it. It's not hard at all.

You'll always have available light if you want to use it. That's why they call it "available."

Rock on.


9:48 AM  

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