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© nevada wier Peru. Paucartambo. Virgen del Carmen festival.
Canon 5D Mark II Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8 II USM (18mm) 1/30 sec; f/7.1; ISO 1600
Shutter Priority. Evaluative Metering. Daylight white balance
I’m on my way (literally, in the air right now) to Peru so this is the perfect time to write about an image I made last year at the fabulous Virgen del Carmen festival in the pueblo of Paucartambo. If you have been following my posts about photography you know that I enjoy photographing at night with fill-flash. Of course, this is not easy (another reason I enjoy the challenge) and I am used to making a lot of mistakes. In fact, I mostly make mistakes; but that is part of the process. There are a lot of inhibiting factors photographing a festival at night. First of all, at Paucartambo, it is extremely crowded and you never really know what is going on (even if you speak Spanish well, which I don’t). I am used to “wiggling” myself into a good location. I knew where the dancers were coming from (inside the church) but not when, so it was important to find a good location early, and maintain it. That wasn’t easy. I was in a great place and then, just before the action, the police (kindly) moved me. I wiggled back into another location that I actually liked better, and crouched low, so as not block anyone behind me. (I bless my good knees.)
I was aware of the yellow temperature of the incandescent streetlights. Even though it was dark they provided plenty of ambient light. I usually work with Daylight White Balance and decided to keep this setting to maintain the yellowish light temperature. Instead of putting a balancing warming gel over my flash I just used a dome diffuser with the flash straight on, to throw a whitish light onto the warm scene. I hesitated using a high ISO with the Canon 5D Mark II (I preferred to stay at 800 ISO or less), but I knew at night I needed 1600 in order to preserve some depth-of-field since focus was going to be tricky. So, it was very important to have the correct exposure; I didn’t want to have to open up any of the shadows in the RAW processing and expose distracting noise.
Certainly, I wanted a bit of a slow shutter-speed to have a bit of blur in the background for the appearance of action since I knew that my flash burst would preserve sharpness on the actors/clowns/dancers. 1/30 of second seemed perfect with a -1 EV on my flash set on TTL exposure. I was sitting on the curb so I was about 10 feet from the performers in the parade (praying the police wouldn’t move me again). I felt good about my location because I saw I had a bit of the dark sky (it was 6pm, more than an hour after sunset) and if I could place a dancer right there in the dark sky I felt it would have impact. And, there they came! I glanced at my histogram and flash exposure. I worked with different shutter speeds. I panned. I stopped action. I maintained my position, against many odds, until the police moved me and 20 other people, kindly, across the street. Oh well, I thought I had my image. And, I did.
Any questions? I’m back at it again this year!
Hasta luego amigos y amigos!
Although this image was made in the long ago days of film, it highlights a number of technical considerations that are still relevant and important. First off, I would like to give a Shout Out to those of us who learned how to make exact exposures on celluloid! I was consistently in a state of Exposure Angst while photographing in difficult light. If the exposure wasn’t within 2/3 stop, the image was too light or too dark. So, my images had to be double-perfect coming out of the camera: the composition and content had to be impeccable (you couldn’t crop slide film unless you brought out the scissors or gaffers tape) and the exposure had to be spot-on with the intended saturation.
And, guess what? It is still critical to make the correct exposure in low-light situations. Although noise reduction is getting better and better in new cameras, if your image is underexposed and taken at a high ISO, you are going to have problems when you begin brightening it in your editing program. Noise is inherent in all shadows, especially if you are using a lower-end camera with a small sensor, and is more pronounced at high ISOs and long exposures. As you move those brightening sliders you will begin to see discolored pixels that makes your image look grainy and odd. Film has plump pleasing grain; digital has square slovenly pixels that are best hidden in the shadows.
And, another Shout Out to Spot Metering! Although most of the time I use Evaluative Metering (Matrix, Segmented, etc. to non Canon users), high-contrast situations beg for the more precise Spot Metering. I have always used the in-camera meters; I find them very accurate. There is no reason to carry more gear than necessary.
So circling back to the above image: I was in Vientiane, Laos photographing the magnificent That Luang Festival. Many of the festival events take place during the day but my favorite time to photograph was in the late evening when people circumambulated the lit That Luang Stupa holding candles. Since I was using Kodak Ektachrome SW transparency film ISO 100, pushed to 200, there was not enough light to stop the action without panning or using a flash. I decided on the later since I wanted the beautiful That Luang Stupa sharp in the background. I put my camera on a tripod in the vertical position, set my meter to Spot Metering (2% coverage on the Canon 1V) and aimed the focusing/meter point at the stupa. I don’t know what exposure I used but I am guessing that it was about one second, maybe longer. Although people were carrying candles there wasn’t much ambient light in the foreground, plus the That Luang was so bright that the rest of the frame was bound to go dark (slide film only has a latitude of approximately 4-5 stops exposure range).
I can’t remember if I put the Canon flash directly on the hot shoe or was holding it with a TTL wire; either way would be a very similar result since I would not have held it too far out. I powered down the intensity of the flash output probably to – 2 EV. Finally I added a Lumiquest FX diffuser with an amber gel.
I took a couple of frames and (vision of light bulb going on) I realized that my flash was set to Front Curtain Sync (1st Curtain Sync), which meant that the flash was going off at the beginning of the exposure. At a fast shutter speed that doesn’t matter but at the slow 1 – 2 second exposure it meant that the flash (about 1/800th sec) would illuminate the people but then the shutter will remain open for the rest of the exposure. The stupa would have the correct exposure but, the bright candle flames would show up as a trail of light in front of the people. That would look strange; the candlelight needed to trail behind. So I set the flash to Rear Curtain sync (2nd Curtain Sync) to correct this problem. Of course that created, yet another, problem. I had judge when to click the shutter when a person would be in the right position in the frame when the flash went off. That wasn’t so easy. I would see a likely looking person; click the shutter to begin the exposure; then, they would stop to talk to someone and no one was in front of the camera when the flash went off. Or, they would slow down or speed up, or someone would pass them at exactly the wrong moment, or… so many possibilities for a bad image! Since it wasn’t possible to review the images in a film camera (ah bless the digital LCD screen), I had absolutely no idea if I was getting a useable image. So I just kept at it. I learned early on, in difficult situations, click deliberately and copiously! It is still true
When I got home to my light table I reviewed the images and most ended up immediately in the trash. (I just loved tossing slides away, so cathartic!). Finally I found this image of a young child looking up at the camera at eye-level. I was thrilled. Notice the candle flames neatly trailing behind. And, it was a perfect exposure as well as a compelling frame.
“Everything has to matter in an image.” I always say.