Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bah Humbug (A Strobist's Christmas)

Click for larger view and more info
Even though more likely to celebrate Isaac Newton's birthday or the recent winter solstice (notice the magazine cover?) than anything around the end of December, I still loves me some Christmas gifts. Here, I'm pretending to read the June 2008 issue of National Geographic for a test of my new Honl 1/8 Speed Grid.

I have to say - grids are really useful - I wish I had used them more in the past. It's really something how much control the grid gives you over a snoot or zoomed-in bare flash.

So, enough about that, here's how I shot this... And, if you're not a strobist, and you're thinking "big deal, there's nothing special about this shot!", go try it out for yourself, then come back to finish this post :)

There's a few things I had to consider here. First, I really love the yellow light that the corner lamp produces. I'm big on tungsten. So, I started by testing what the ambient light gave me. It was clear that if I wanted to see any of the Christmas tree lights, I had to take a long enough shot that the lamp greatly overexposed the whole back corner of the room as well as the right side of my face. That was a big shame - I really wanted both the tungsten lamp and Christmas tree lights together. So I setup a fill flash and turned off the lamp. That seemed to do the trick, but the scene didn't look right.

Click for larger view and more infoThe solution? Either quickly unplug the lamp after a split second, or... fake out the lamp with a flash. I chose the latter :)

Why? The flashes release all of their light almost instantaneously, but ambient/constant light needs time to burn in. If I remove all ambient light from the scene except for the Christmas tree lights, I can control the ratio of tree lights to the rest of the scene with my shutter speed. The flashes only need the first 1/250 of a second to burn in. After that, I'm controlling the brightness of the tree lights alone.

Okay, so... I removed the bulb and attached a Nikon SB-26 flash with a Light Sphere Cloud on it to the lamp, underneath the lampshade, zoomed at 50mm. This was easy enough with small bungee cords. I used a 1/2 CTO gel on the flash to give it some tungsten color. The SB-26 has an optical slave mode to it, which means that when it sees a flash, it quickly fires off its own flash, so I didn't need to use one of my Pocket Wizards on this flash. I'd let my wide-angled fill light trigger it.

I set this "lamp flash" at 1/32 power. This was now the most awkward flash to get to, so I used this as the baseline. The rest of the scene was to be setup using the lamp flash at 1/32 power, 1/2 CTO. After firing off a couple of test shots, I found that this was perfect for ISO 500, f/5.

And now for the fill flash. There's not much to this - I just used a Canon 430EX flash on a light stand at 1/32 power, 35mm zoom, and again with a 1/2 CTO gel on it, behind and camera right. I used a Pocket Wizard to trigger this flash, which then triggered the lamp flash with its optical slave feature.

This was fine and all, but I wanted to make sure that the magazine and I stood out a little. As it was, I just blended into the background. So, to highlight the magazine and me, I set up another light stand above and camera left with a Nikon SB-28, this time 1/8 CTO, triggered by Pocket Wizard. To focus the light on the magazine and me, I used a Honl 1/8 Grid and zoomed the flash to 85mm, using 1/64 power. This produced a very tight flashlight-type light on me. It was perfect. The first attempt left a dark shadow behind my head on the couch, so I raised the light up by the ceiling. This seemed to do the trick.

There were a few small adjustments made to the two light stand flashes to get things just right. I would adjust the power if I was way off, and move the light stands closer or further away for minor adjustments.

All that was left was the tree lights - this was the easiest part. I tried several shutter speeds, and settled on 0.8 seconds. It was somewhat important for me to stay still during it, but remember, I'm almost entirely lit by the strobes, and then basically left in the dark. So, it wasn't likely that there'd be any ghosting in the shot. I used a remote trigger and my Canon 40D's 10 second timer to take each shot. One thing I found funny about this was that each time I'd go back to the camera to chimp, the static electricity I built up would trigger my flashes.

Now that you know how this was shot, it seems obvious that it's not natural. Look how bright the Christmas tree lights are compared to the lamp. Can you imagine what that would look like?

Here's a shot of the setup - click it to see each piece of equipment used.

Happy shooting!

Note: If you're interested, here is a great read on how Ken Geiger shot Stonehenge for the cover of that National Geographic.

* Canon 40D, 17-55mm lens.
* Bogen/Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod with 322RC Ballhead
* Light stands: Bogen/Manfrotto 7 foot pro stand and 9 foot basic stand
* Flashes: Nikon SB-28 and SB-26, Canon 430EX
* Light modifiers: Gary Fong Light Sphere Cloud II and Honl 1/8 Grid.

No comments: