Thursday, May 16, 2013

Improving Your Outdoor Night Flash Photography

Using off-camera or bounce flash can improve your outdoor night photos ~ © Royce Bair (click for  specs)
Portable Flashes vs. Built-in Camera Flashes: Although built-in camera flashes are convenient, they are not only limited in power, but more importantly in movement. Unlike a separate flash unit, their output cannot be redirected or aimed somewhere else, or moved away from the camera! Being able to make adjustments to your portable, camera-mounted flash can greatly improve the quality of your outdoor night photographs.

Canon Speedlite 430EX II
What I use: For under $300, I have the Canon Speedlite 430EX II. It's fully compatible with Canon's E-TTL automated flash exposure system, as well as offering adjustable manual power output down to 1/64 power. The flash head can be moved up and to the right 90º, and to the left 180º. On the Nikon side, I recommend the Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight, or their more versatile, Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight.

Getting the light source away from the camera: The unnatural part about most flash photography is that the light source is typically coming from the same direction as the camera's lens! Moving the light source away from your camera will improve almost any photo.

Bounce or extension: The moveable flash head allows me to bounce the flash off of ceilings and walls when I'm indoor, or off rocks, cliffs, and trees when I'm outdoors (see last the paragraph for an explanation). If the right object for bouncing is not available, I often hold the flash at arm's length (or have someone else hold it) using Canon's OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord. That two or three feet extension can make a huge difference in the look of your flash photos.

For greater distances, I use another Canon flash (i.e. the more versatile Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT) to trigger the one doing the main lighting (you can set lighting ratios with the Canon Speedlites), or I can use the PocketWizard Plus X Transceiver to trigger a more distant flash. The key is get the light source away from the camera and at an angle that lights the subject in a more natural and pleasant way.

Dining under a red granite cliff
Compare the difference: This was the scene at an early evening meal, under a red granite cliff in the Grand Canyon. After dinner we had a campfire, and I made this on-camera flash exposure (below) with the Canon Speedlite 430EX). I programmed the shutter speed and f-stop so they would mix and balance correctly with the light output of the fire. The problem with this system is that the direction of light is unnatural, as it is always coming from the camera, and the fall-off is very fast (especially when using a wide angle lens—causing the foregrounds to always be over lighted and washed out).

Straight-on flash with Speedlite 430EX
The difference between this photo and the one at the top is the direction and quality of the light. The light in the top photo is no longer coming from the same direction as the camera. In the top photo, the adjustable flash head has been rotated and turned so that its light is bouncing off the granite cliff behind me (the bounced light is coming from above and from my left, helping to match the direction of fire's light). Normally, I would also cover the flash head with a warming gel to match the warm color of the fire, but in this case the red color of the granite has already done that for me! Bouncing off a dark granite wall greatly reduces the flash's output to the scene, so most of my shots had to have an ISO boost to 1600 or 3200. Although this is abnormally high ISO for flash photography, the excellent noise control of the Canon 5D Mark III is well-equipped to handle it!

The gels I use are made by Rosco, and the Rosco Strobist 55-Piece Filter Kit is an easy way to change the color of the light or match the ambient light, such as in the campfire situation. When I bounce my strobe off of an overhanging tree that has green leaves, I can put a complimentary shade of magenta over the flash to bring the white balance back to normal.

These 1.5"x3.25" sheets work perfectly to cover most portable flash heads, but for my larger lights (or where I need to cover several lights with the same color), I use the larger 20"x24" Rosco sheets.

Delicate Arch - lighted with two filtered lights, one w/o ~ © Royce Bair (click for more info)