What the Flash?

I am not a newcomer to photography or photographic education, but I am new to the KelbyOne family. I’m honored to be among many of my photographic heroes. My goal is that after you read this blog post, you will be motivated to join me on the journey and exploration of lighting.

Light is at the core of our creative practice; without light, it would be impossible to create photographs. Although with the advanced technology of today’s cutting edge cameras, you can make a picture by moonlight, not all light is good light. I photograph people, and I strive to capture them in their best light, both figuratively and literally.

Off-camera flash, in particular, Speedlites, is my tool of choice. The power and possibilities of off-camera flash allow me to overcome many of the challenging “What the Flash” situations I often find myself in. I never want to be a victim of poor available light!

Let us begin with a little background; I started my career as a photojournalist way back in high school while working on the school newspaper. I freelanced for a string of weekly community newspapers selling photographs of our football team, which happened to be in the running for the state championship. Once I learned, I could make a living as a photojournalist. I set my sights on the Chicago Sun-Times.

I reached my goal in 1983, and I’ve been a working photographer ever since.  My cameras have been a passport to the world. I have been fortunate enough to photograph every President since Ronald Reagan. I have been fired by President Trump and captured the pinnacle moments of  Michael Jordan’s basketball career with The Chicago Bulls.  

I left the news industry in 2004. Burned out on bad news, I embarked on the second act of my photographic career starting our wedding, portrait, and event studio. After a large commissioned project for Oprah, The Legends Event, my wife and partner Dawn Davis joined me in this creative endeavor forming Bob and Dawn Davis Photography and Design.

Dawn is not a photographer, but she is the glue that keeps everything together, and I would not enjoy the success I have without her. She has that rare ability of the left brain, right brain. Dawn was an accountant with a passion for graphic design and postproduction.

I think of us like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. They create their music in two rooms, Bernie writes the lyrics and Elton writes the music. I can see the photograph before I press the shutter, in my mind, I see all the elements coming together, composition the moments unfolding, and the light. I am a seeker of light. Dawn sees how the image can reach its full potential with a timeless classic look, and knows Lightroom and Photoshop the same way I know lighting. Together we have created our brand and style. To this day, we pinch ourselves and do the happy dance each time we receive a request to photograph someone’s most special day. We are blessed to work with A-list celebrities, athletes, and people who love photography.

Let us explore the power and possibilities of off-camera flash. The photographs I’m going to share are from the engagement session of Lauren and Ryan.

Time: 5:48:46 PM
Model: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
Lens (mm): 142
ISO: 200
Aperture: 5.6
Shutter: 1/200

The couple envisioned a romantic scene as the sunset over this lily pond in Chicago. I don’t always have the luxury of shooting during golden-hour, I have to work around my client’s schedule. On this particular day, the skies were gray, and the rain was coming.

One of my core beliefs is always to be prepared. I packed the Think Tank Photo FirstLight 40L backpack with the following:

  • Three Canon 600EX RT Speedlites.
  • One Westcott FJ400 strobe, which is compatible with Canon’s RT wireless radio system.
  • Two camera bodies: Canon EOS 1DXMII and EOS R.
  • The trinity of lenses: Canon EF 16-35 f2.8 L USM vIII, RF 24-105 f4, IS L USM, 70-200 f2.8 IS L USM vII, and the RF to EF lens adapter with the control ring.
  • I have two light stands strapped to the sides of the backpack, a variety of Rosco gels, gaffers tape, and MagMod Mag Spheres, grids, and gels, and one long-throw reflector for the FJ400. 

As the days leading up to the engagement session approach, I keep an eye on the weather and prepare for all the possible challenges. As photographers, our job is to overcome the difficulties each scene presents to use and how to accomplish the photograph. Knowing the skies would be gray, I packed enough CTO (Correct To Orange) gels and cut the Rosco CTO gel to fit the FJ400 strobe with the long throw reflector. I was going to have to create the warm look and feel of late afternoon light.   

Time: 5:49:58 PM
Model: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
Lens (mm): 123
ISO: 200
Aperture: 5.6
Shutter: 1/160

The area of the lily pond is gorgeous, the small pond filled with lilies, a Japanese tea house, low waterfalls. I choose to place Lauren and Ryan at the water’s edge. I knew I wanted to create the warmth of late afternoon sunlight and capture their reflection in the pond. I placed the main light, the FJ400 across the pond from the couple with the full CTO gel. I put a second light, the 600EX RT Speedlite, also with a CTO gel far camera right to add warm highlights for the lighting to feel congruent.

I choose manual mode, so I have complete control over the exposure. Keep this rule in mind. ISO is how sensitive the camera is to light and how hard the flashes have to work. Shutter speed equals ambient light, and Aperture equals flash output.

By following this rule, I choose the ISO first. ISO 200 is my go-to starting point for outdoor scenes. I prefer the Aperture f5.6, and I wanted enough depth of field so both of their faces would be in focus, and not so small of an aperture that the Speedlites couldn’t be effective. Last the shutter speed. The look I desire is for the ambient light to be one to two stops underexposed and the add my lighting to draw the viewer’s eye to the subjects. This is kind of pre-touching the image instead of shooting away and fixing everything in Photoshop. The shutter speed is 1/160th of a second.

Notice how the warm light directs your eye to the couple. The main light in Group A, the FJ400 across the pond was 1 ½ stops brighter than the 600EX RT Speedlite in the trees in Group B. I used the Canon STE 3RT Speedlite Transmitter on the 1DXMII to send the instructions to the off-camera flashes. Both flashes were in manual mode from frame to frame consistency.

Look at the foliage camera right, notice how much depth the second light offers. Working in two-dimensional media, we have light and shadow to create depth. Like my colleague Charles Glatzer says, “Light illuminates, shadows define.” 

Look at the difference in this photograph where the flashes did not fire. It’s flat.  Did I need to light the scene, no!  Cameras can make a picture in any light, but ask yourself, is it good light, does this light bring out the best in the scene and the subject.  Sign your work with excellence; after all, it’s your name under the photograph.  Every day, I lived or died by my byline in the newspaper.

Time: 5:49:37 PM
Model: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
Lens (mm): 182
ISO: 200
Aperture: 5.6
Shutter: 1/200

Here’s another view from the lily pond area. The scene was flat because there was no sunlight streaming through the trees. But using one strobe, the FJ400 with the long throw reflector and CTO gel, it looks and feels like late afternoon sunlight.

Time: 6:02:37 PM
Model: Canon EOS R
Lens (mm): 33
ISO: 800
Aperture: 5.6
Shutter: 1/200

Notice the ISO, I increased it from ISO 200 to ISO 800, kept the same shutter speed and Aperture, using the EOS R and EF16-35 for a wide shot of Lauren and Ryan walking along the wooded path. Look towards the top of the frame camera right, that’s the natural light. If I did not light the scene, the photograph would fall flat and it would not showcase our look and brand, or we would have had to reschedule and hope for better weather.

As the shoot continued into the twilight blue hour, the couple wanted to takes photos with the city in the background.

Time: 8:49:48 PM
Model: Canon EOS R
Lens (mm): 24
ISO: 1250
Aperture: 4.5
Shutter: 1/50

This is a two-light setup, but I’m using all the light available in the scene and creating the mood through light, color, and exposure.

I shoot in Kelvin white balance. This gives me the most control over the color tone of the photograph. The higher the Kelvin temperature, the warmer the picture. For example, 10,000 degrees Kelvin renders a warm image, 3200 degrees Kelvin is cooler and makes the image cooler.

In this photograph, I used two Canon 600EX RT Speedlites with MagMod Mag Sphere + full CTO, and the front light included a MagGrid. The Kelvin white balance set to 4000 degrees, the sky was not as blue as it appears, the couple’s flesh tones are slightly warm because of the Kelvin I choose. Now it’s like cooking, what’s your flavor?

The front light was on a light stand in Group A in ETTL, and the backlight was on a light stand in Group B in manual mode. I always choose manual for the backlights, understanding ETTL and how it works, I know that sometimes if both front and backlights are ETTL, the camera may sense too much light from the backlight and shut down, underexposing the scene.

In closing, remember the exposure rule of ISO equals how sensitive the camera is to light, shutter speed is equal to ambient light, and aperture is equal to flash output.

If you would like to learn more and further your knowledge of lighting, try my KelbyOne classes What The Flash? or Shooting Dreamy Wedding Photos.

You can see more of Bob’s work at BobAndDawnDavis.com, and keep up with him on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

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