Basic Event Photography
25th Mar 2015
As landscape photographers we nearly always use natural light for our images, the only exceptions I can think of is when we have street or city lights in our composition - so its only natural that we will be a little apprehensive when it comes to 'us' having to provide the light for our images.
How would those who say they only use 'natural' light cope in an environment that is almost completely dark?
Yes the modern camera's have amazing ISO performance, you could crank it up to ISO 3200 or 6400 and use wide apertures to make your images but then you will start to loose image quality. The quality may not be so noticeable at the small image sizes used on the internet but should you or your client want to print out your images then the digital noise and reduced dynamic range (the result of using higher ISO's) will be discernable.
So get that flash out and let us make some good images that will also print out well.
The first thing to remember is that we aren't taking portraits, we are capturing for the most part moving action so we want to spot and illuminate our subjects in the best light we can in the split second of time we have. We don't have the time to accurately position our lights, play about with the intensity of our flashes to get the perfect highlight/shadow combination.
So let us get a starting point for setting up for our equipment.
Set your camera on 'Manual Mode', set your ISO to 400 and your aperture to f8 - to begin with, we are going to establish a base exposure for our images. Any image made using a flash is a combination of ambient light and the light emitted by your flash so first of all we need to work out our ambient light levels. (ambient light is a combination of all the available light), usually in Event Photograph this can come from the lights used by the DJ's, overhead lights, wall lights or even daylight.
To keep it simple remember this one rule!
Shutter speed controls your ambient light.
By adjusting your shutter speed, make an image where you are happy with the light levels in the background, don't use a shutter speed in excess of 1/200 sec - for now just accept this limitation as i don't want to confuse things by explaining why.
If you really want to know why look at the bottom of this blog *.
It is best to have your background quite dark to so adjust your aperture to achieve a shutter speed of around 1/80 or 1/125 sec IF these shutter speeds fail to give you a dark enough background, by having a dark background and your subject well illuminated will give your images more impact and make them stand out more.
Once you have set the ambient light levels and found the right shutter speed/aperture combination then its now time to turn your flash on, make sure its attached to the hot shoe on top of your camera first. Once it is turned on then select ETTL (Canon) or iTTL (Nikon) mode, this will allow the electronics inside the camera to determine how much light your flash puts out to illuminate your subject.
If you want to know more about ETTL and iTTL look at ** at the bottom of this post.
Your camera will determine how much light is needed to correctly expose the subject that is being focused on, If you remember back to a previous blog Lytham Proms I mentioned focus points in there.
If you need more help then please email me.
If we point our flash directly at our subject then we will get a harsh, flat light that will provide illumination of our subject but it wont be that flattering at all however if we have a low ceiling that is painted white or a light colour then we can point our flash head at that and use it to bounce light back at out subject.
Think of a snooker game where a player uses the cushions to bounce the cue ball around the table, as a photographer we need to select the right angle to bounce our light onto our subject. We want the light to fall just in front of them and onto their face - we don't usually have enough time to change this position in between exposures so as a general rule point the flash head directly upwards if your subject is close to you or at a slight angle if your subject is further away.
Many flashes have a small white plastic card in a recess alongside the flash head, if your flash has one then pull it out slowly until it locks into position, this is known as the flash bounce card. Its job is to bounce a little of the light forward towards your subjects face to illuminate the eyes. If your flash doesn't have one you can either tape a bit of white card to your flash head or buy one here.
The reason why we 'bounce' our flash is to create a larger light source, rather than the light illuminating our subject coming directly from a small flash head, its coming from a large ceiling or wall. The larger the light source the softer (more flattering) the light.
There maybe situations where the ceiling is so high, the wall so far away or they are very dark in colour, then we have very little choice other than to point our flashes directly at our subjects. Should it be possible to bounce your flash then I would always urge you to try that option first.
Now start moving around and taking some photographs of people, look at the first few on the rear LCD screen of your camera and check your images: is the flash illumination to your satisfaction or do you need more light or less light?
The ETTL and iTTL systems are not infallible and will occasionally get the metering wrong thus rendering your images darker or lighter than you would like so take a few images before deciding if you need to change your flash exposure compensation.
If your images are consistently too dark you can dial in some positive (+ ve) flash exposure compensation or alternatively if they are too bright then dial in some negative (- ve) flash exposure compensation.
The flash exposure compensation (FEC) button on your camera looks like this, a bent arrow with a +/- sign alongside it:
Press it until you get to the FEC menu and then dial in some compensation '+ ve' will make your subject brighter while '- ve' will make your subject darker.
Remember as you go through the evening to keep looking at your images on the rear LCD display to determine whether you need more or less exposure.
As with all exposure metering systems your camera doesn't know what its looking at so will try to provide sufficient exposure to make the tone of whatever is under your focus point a mid grey. If your focus point is over a white clothing it will provide less flash illumination and your image will be darker, if your focus point is over a dark clothing then it will provide more flash illumination.
So try 'always' to put your focus point over your subjects face but be mindful of that persons complexion - are they dark skinned or light skinned?
I'm sure you know by now what action to take in either scenario.
As you practice more and more you will become familiar with the principles and find yourself more comfortable when using a flash.
This is meant to be a brief and simple guide to using a flash in Event Photography situations and not a comprehensive guide, I will write more Blogs in the future to help you build on your knowledge and hopefully give you the confidence to go out and try new techniques.
* 1/200 Shutter Speed - WHY?
Most cameras have what is called a shutter sync speed (read the your camera's manual to find out what your camera's sync speed is), my 5D MkIII's sync speed is 1/200 sec. This sync speed is the time it takes for the camera's shutters to move across the sensor allowing the image to be exposed. Most DSLR's have two shutters known as curtains, the first curtain moves upwards thus allowing light to fall on the sensor, a second curtain then moves up and over the sensor to end the exposure. The fastest this can happen on my 5D MkIII is 1/200 sec, if I select a shutter speed faster than 1/200 sec then the flash will fire as the second curtain is moving across the sensor to end the exposure and this will result in a dark band appearing on our image at the bottom of the frame. The faster the shutter speed we select the more of our image will be covered by the dark band, which is the shadow of the shutter on our sensor a bit like the recent solar eclipse obscuring part of the sun. With using shutter speeds in excess of our camera's sync speed the 2nd curtain starts to move across the sensor to end the exposure before the 1st curtain has fully opened.
There is a way around this, its called High Speed Sync but more about this in a future Blog post.
** How Do Flash Units and Camera's Determine Correct Flash Exposure?
This is a very complicated procedure and it all occurs in a fraction of a second. Basically the moment you press your shutter your flash gun emits a very weak pulse of light which hits your subject and bounces back to the camera. The camera measures how much light is received back at the sensor, it already knows how much light was sent out from the flash gun so it then performs a calculation to establish how much light was lost during its journey to your subject and back again. From this it works out how much light is required to 'correctly' illuminate the subject and tells your flash gun how much light to send out. This all happens in a fraction of a second, so fast that you cant see it with your eye - all we can see is the main flash.