Saturday, February 4, 2012

Overpowering the Sun

First off, what is this?
Well, in a nutshell, this is basically the act of taking a photo in very bright sunny conditions and via camera settings lowering the exposure to underexpose the ambient and then using a strong light source to properly light your subject.

That's all well and good, but can I do this with my speedlight?
If conditions are not overly bright and you place your speedlight very close to your subject (close as in 4 feet or less), do not use a light modifier and set the speedlight to full power, it is possible, but this is very limiting.

Is there another more effective way?
There are basically two ways to do this, and the primary way that I used to do it was via very high shutter speeds and HyperSync (thanks to the Pocket Wizards).  This always resulted in pretty good quality results, but when things were really bright, it was challenging to get the shots lit properly, because the tail end of the flash lost a little bit of power using the HyperSync method and therefore was not quite as bright.

The second way would be to use an ND filter or neutral density filter on the camera's lens and set the camera to the settings you needed (ie: if ambient was brutally high, such as F/16 at ISO 100 @ 1/250th), with that 1,000 W/s head, you *could* do it a little more effectively as shutter speeds would be under your maximum sync speeds and the full output of the flash would be used.

One of the main reasons this is desirable is I really am not an F/16 kinda guy. I much prefer the shallower depth of field, and this method is the best way to be able to shoot at wide open apertures on the brightest of days.

Last week I ordered one of the finest quality ND filters on the market, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter.  This filter has the ability to change the amount of light that comes into your lens with the twist of it's front element and give you an infinite number of possibilities that range anywhere from 2 to 8 stops of light.  At 2 stops, you already notice it, but, WOW, at 8 stops of reduction, you basically turn the brightest of days into night.  In fact, it gets so dark that viewing a very bright day through the viewfinder is very difficult and very dark, so dark, that I had issues making out what was in front of my camera!  My D700 thankfully had zero issues focusing and locked in even if I had trouble seeing enough to get a proper composition at times.  My solution was to back off on the filter to a drop of somewhere around 5-6 stops of light.

So, what do results look like?  Well, I wanted to stress the setup a good amount, but though I gave it a good try, I am sure there was at least 2-4 more stops in there above and beyond what I did with it today, but I was satisfied with the results.

The location:  The middle of a field covered in perfectly white fresh granular snow... each grain it's own mirror.

The conditions:  a few errant clouds in the sky off in the distance, none even in the same general vicinity of the sun.  It was so bright that even to the naked eye, the sky was quite white.  My Sekonic meter told me it was F/16 @ ISO 100 and 1/250th of a second shutter speeds.

That is very bright, and most knowledgeable photographers would be out there running around looking for shaded areas, but I placed my highly paid models (actually they were my, right out there in the middle of this photographically brutal environment.

My camera settings:
I just brought it down to F/4 @ ISO 200 and 1/250th and played with the filter and chimped until I got what I *thought* was a good exposure via the LCD on the back of my camera.  Now, I normally know better than to trust that LCD, and in the future, I will use the histogram along with the LCD, because though they looked nice on the camera LCD, by the time I got home, I was a minimum of 1 stop too bright on all my shots (it was so bright that looking at the LCD was tough).  Most were in the 1.2 to 1.5 stops too bright.  Since I shot in RAW, this was no biggie to bring down in post, but in the future, I will get it closer to "correct" in camera before starting to take any shots.

To set the scene a little, it was February 4th in Montreal and on that day, though it was not very cold, it was a chilly -10C, and I did not wish to subject my parents to these temperatures anymore than they needed to.  I was lucky to have them there with me in the first place, so I limited my time at this location to no more than perhaps 15 minutes total, including setup, testing, taking a few shots and tearing down the equipment and getting back into that nice and still warm car

As a reward for being great models, I took them out for lunch, as being a model, is apparently quite taxing... lol

Anyways, here are a few photos of the day... I had a great time playing and learning about both the Vari-ND filter and my gridded beauty dish that I received for Christmas, so I was pleased with the performance of both very much.

The basic setup.  In this shot, they are about 10 feet from the light source.  Right after this shot, I ask them to take 2 steps back, so all the later shots are at about 12 feet from the light.  I am using a Photogenic PL2500-DR studio head (1,000 W/s at full power) and it is being charged by a Vagabond II battery pack (which also makes a great "sandbag", as this thing weighs around 20 pounds).

You will notice that my dad's eyes are all scrunched up.  Yeah, it was pretty bright out there even when you were not facing into the sun, but that's all good, as long as one is having fun, right?

F/4 at 200mm gives a very pretty blurred out background.

On this shot, I pumped up the power to full and dropped the background down by around 2-3 stops.  At these settings that bright day started to look like late afternoon.  It's hard to believe that the photos above were taken within seconds of each other and all I did was change my position, ND filter settings and flash power, so that the light was stronger and on camera right instead of on camera left like all the above photos.

Changing angles again and zooming out to around 70mm increased my depth of field and showed a little more of the fairly desolately white location.  By seeing the direction of the shadows, you can tell I am about 45 degrees from the sun.  Thanks to the ND filter I am seeing a beautifully saturated blue sky and thanks to the light source, we are seeing well lit subjects.

Using the sun as a rim light and by shooting from a low position and pointing upwards, adding that sun into the shot as a compositional element (and also adding a ton of lens flare on the bottom right of the shot), we complete this set of photos.

In here I learned:

- to not trust the LCD (as if I did not know that already... lol), but use the histograms as well.

- it takes some practice using an ND filter properly, but its not terribly hard.

- that having a powerful light source is FUN to use outside to overpower the sun.

- If I was at full power already, what could I have done to gain a little more power?   Remove the grid.

- If I wanted another 1-1.5 stops on top of that?  Replace the beauty dish with the base reflector, but lose some edge softness, no biggie, the beauty dish is not known as being super soft.  BTW, my beauty dish is silver, not white.  Most people want white because they think it takes the "edge" off the crispness that a silver beauty dish has.  I would never do that, I love that crisp feel and benefit from the higher efficiency that silver offers over white, but that is a totally personal decision that not everyone would agree with.  To each their own.

- As a last resort, if I needed even more flash power? Bring the light source even closer to the subjects. Remember, they were 12 feet away from the light stand. Bringing in the light 6 feet closer would add about another stop.

- that I never again will hesitate to shoot in extremely, brutally bright conditions anywhere.

- by how much was I actually overpowering the sun? Well, ambient was F/16 at 1/250th and ISO 100. I went from F/16 to F/4, that's 4 stops, but then I went from ISO 100 to ISO 200, so in the end, I was not overpowering ambient very much in these examples (maybe a stop or 2?), but I did lower ambient by 3 full stops and open up the aperture by 4 stops. Lowering the background was not the main goal... it was to use wide apertures in brutally bright conditions.  I could have seen an easy 3-5 stops killed by this setup, though... it would be quite simple to do.

- A small trick that the higher range of Nikon dSLR cameras have... a LiveView feature with auto gain.  Meaning that when using the ND filter at 6 stops or higher, the viewfinder gets dark quite fast, making using these levels of cutting down the ambient, very difficult.  With LV, it gets dark as well, but the auto gain brings it up and it is easy to push the filter even further.  I did not know this at the time that I made this blog post initially, but learned later.  For sure, this is something that I will use, now that I know of it!

- that one can choose settings in a more logical manner that maximizes the effectiveness of your hardware. Things like using ISO 100 instead of 200, using a smaller aperture (F/5.6 for example at 200mm instead of F/4, though I did love the shallow DOF, and starting from shutter speeds of maybe 1/125th instead of 1/250th as base settings and take it from there.

- that the grid in the beauty dish made a more pronounced effect than I first noticed and next time using it with 2 or more people, to remove the grid, but still be aware that the area covered by this modifier is very specific.

- and finally, that it *is* possible to use wide open apertures in very bright conditions with the right tools (yes, I knew this before too, but hey, its nice to confirm these things, right?  lol)

I hope you liked the shots and enjoyed this blog post!