Words : Kingsley Singleton
IMAGES THAT SEEM to capture a split second are often deceptive. Like an iceberg, there’s often a lot hidden under the surface. Planning and experience, for instance. So it is with Eddie Macdonald’s action images. Action is a style of lighting and exposure that’s very specific to its subject, too; something he learned assisting some very well known names in photography. “One of the things they all shared was choosing the right lighting for the right atmosphere.”
From the studio to working on location, stills to video, find out how six different working photographers use light to create pictures that sell.
Planning first then. “Any movement shots have their pitfalls, and as an image maker it’s my role to iron out problems in advance of the shoot,” Eddie explains. “This means checking the talent’s technique, fitting clothing to save shooting time, and recceing the location to make sure it’s suitable and predicting problems. The weather forecast and the time of day you shoot will often dictate the lighting method, too.”
Using flash for action is often about strongly highlighting the subject, says Eddie, who in the image of the runner above, shot for sportswear brand Megmeister, employed his key light in a high Rembrandt position, as well as backlighting her from a similar angle.
In the key light position, he used an Elinchrom Ranger with an S-head modified by a gridded Lastolite Ezybox Pro Octa softbox, and to mimic the sun an Elinchrom Quadra with HS head at 45°behind her, using a smaller Ezybox Pro Square box. Crucially though, the rear light was used with a grid, but no diffuser, giving the pleasing accent. The shutter was 1/2000sec, underexposing the natural light a little, and making use of the Elinchrom Transmitter Pro’s high speed sync.
IMAGES: Shooting at 1/2000sec, the runner here is lit by a high-up key light fitted with a large, gridded octabox, while rim lighting is generated by a smaller softbox, also set high and with a grid, but with the diffuser removed.
His three main considerations, says Eddie, “are the strength and direction of the sun, the speed and movement of the talent, and the flash duration of the lighting.”
He also tends to light men differently to women, going for the more diffused options for the latter, but still trying to get “a gritty edge to the image”. His main tip though is “always watch for the highlight threshold on shooting as once it’s gone, it’s gone!”
For the jumping dancer, shot in a studio, Eddie integrated several Lastolite’s Ezybox Pro Stripboxes into his set-up. A high-set key (with a gridded beauty dish) and a boommounted hair light with a simple reflector were the basics, with the stripboxes adding defining rim lighting. Placed mostly behind her and feathered off for a thinner
edge effect, these were also gridded, to tighten the source and prevent spread. Shot at 1/200sec, the fast flash duration did the rest in freezing her body; the hair is actually a separate prop.
As a closing tip for action lighting, Eddie says it’s important to remember the demands on the talent you’re shooting; “too often
photographers fall into solely concentrating shots; the techniques I use are dependant on my eye and synchro and my experience, not the speed of the camera’s motor drive – which is more about shooting and hoping, as a good friend once said. To get this timing right, I measure stride patterns and distance, and employ a repetitive system that delivers my pre-visualised shot. The talent appreciates the time and effort that is taken and also relaxes in the knowledge that their efforts will be caught at the decisive moment.”
Charlotte Graham has been a professional press photographer for four years, shooting for The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, but has worked for newspapers for the last 20. With a mother who was a pro photographer from the 1950s to the 1970s, she was brought up with the importance of light.
“PAPERS AND NEWS websites are always looking for an image that stands out,” says Charlotte Graham, “and though sometimes it’s impractical to use flash, if I can use it I will. The trouble is, journalists tend to get 90 minutes for an interview, but we photographers only get five minutes to do an accompanying portrait; it’s true that it only takes a second to get a shot, but it could be 30 minutes to set up and people get bored very quickly!”
But advantages of flash for press photography are clear. “We get to go to some amazing locations, and often to get the best out of those you need extra light, or it’s needed on the subject to make the images pop. The power of flash to overcome the sun is absolutely vital to me in my work, too, as I very often shoot into sun if outside, using it as a backlight.”
“Really,” she continues, “while you can edit an image in Lightroom, messing about with the shadows, if you take the time to put a little extra thought into your shoot you can come out with a creative and dynamic image, instead of something that is just acceptable. And after all, isn’t that our job as photographers?”
This does means extra kit, of course, so Charlotte picks her flash gear based on restrictions in time and space. “Sometimes you can only use speedlights, as there may be a lot of photographers, baying for the that one opportunity, but if I have a little more time then I like to use my Elinchrom ELB1200s and Hi-Sync heads: they’re light enough to lug up a hill and have better power and consistency in the light than small, cheap units.”
For the shot on the right, which made The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post, and which was taken to promote a We Are What We Eat event during Hull’s year as UK City of Culture, Charlotte set up three lights. Two were placed in front of the subject and one behind her, the backlighting of course vital for the glow that’s produced in the cloud of flour.
The shot had to be done outside, to avoid too many problems from the amount of dust that would be produced by hurling the flour around. And finally, a reasonably dark background was chosen, so it wouldn’t interfere with the subject or lessen the impact of the exploding powder.
Charlotte used the ELB 1200’s Hi-Sync function and heads, allowing her to shoot at 1/500sec (at f/2.8 and ISO 200), and thereby freeze the powder as it burst when thrown at the subject’s back. It took “a little luck – and a lot of flour – as you can see in the outtakes,” Charlotte reports, “but we made it, in the end.”
“UNPREDICTABLE,” LAUGHS ALEX Tapley, when we ask what lighting is like for today’s automotive photographers. “One day you could be on an ice lake in Sweden during cold weather testing, the next day you could be on a night shoot in London with four cars in the pouring rain, the next you could get two minutes with a CEO to get a killer portrait.” Many of the shots he’s commissioned for though are beauty shots of the vehicles themselves, often catching the cars for only a little time and working in garages or workshops as makeshift studios.
The Aston Martin Vantage GTE shown here was shot at Prodrive, a motorsport and high-performance company, in its workshop – a typical shoot for Alex in that the location was unknown and then a little restrictive. “Quite often,” he says “you have limited space and a cluttered location to deal with, so that dictates how you choose to light and style the images.” Some time was therefore first spent moving things from the background and tidying the workshop with the help of the cars’ engineers, then the flash came in, in the form of Elinchrom Quadras.
“The advantage of using flash here,” explains Alex, “was I could darken the background in comparison to the Aston, in the aim of drawing some attention away
from the less-than-perfect location and onto the brightly coloured car.
“I had a rough vision for how I wanted it to look; quite heavily lit and edited as the light from the spotlights above was flat and meant there were ugly spots reflecting in the car’s bodywork.”
Reflections in a car’s glass or paint job is a big no-no in automotive shots, just as it is in any product photography, and not only can a polarising filter help with this, but so can how the flash is employed.
“The reflections,” says Alex “dictate the angle you shoot and light the car from, as they need to be avoided. I like to light from directly above, for a spotlight look, so the highest points of the bodywork are lit strongest and the light fades down the sides, leaving a nice crisp shadow. One very big rule for lighting cars is not to have them front lit, it just looks awful.”
But without the luxury of time, or the control afforded by a full studio with huge softboxes, cranes or flats, there are other tricks that can be used, says Alex. “The way I wanted the finished images dictated how I’d shoot and light; I shot many, many frames, separately lit in order to layer them together in the edit, picking individual
frames to give the car even coverage, but so it still looks like the light source is one large spotlight above it.”
The background was underexposed by a couple of stops, and the Aston lit over and over, by the
flash head held above it on a boom and triggered by PocketWizards as he walked around. “It can be a lot of trial and error still and there’s a lot of checking the camera between frames, so it’s much easier if you can shoot tethered or if you have an assistant! The beauty of the Elinchrom Quadras for this kind of work,” he finishes, “is they’re extremely light, portable, powerful and versatile. I can also use two at the same time, either side of the car to get a beautifully lit shot in just one frame, and sometimes I’ve left them in the frame for a more edgy look.”
Andy Hoang started out shooting for an events and nightlife photography company, and with a growing interest in flash techniques and equipment he went on to run the Bristol branch of Calumet for five years. Now he shoots fashion editorials and commercial images between Bristol and London.
ALTHOUGH THE FASHIONS he shoots can be intricate and complex, it’s better to keep things simple in the lighting, says Andy Hoang. “I believe flash doesn’t always have to look overdone, and shouldn’t even be noticeable if it takes away from what you’re trying to sell. At some of the biggest studios in London, clients will demand a big kit list, but only end up using a few lights. So, the simple stuff is often the best solution.”
That simplicity or invisibility in the lighting set-up is what can distinguish pro work from amateur efforts, he says, adding that the most obvious and jarring mistakes he sees are over or underexposed work, something that can be guarded against with a simple flash meter. “Having balanced lighting with a little touch of shadow and contrast is what really elevates an image,” he adds.
Images: Here any used translucent fabric to act as a huge diffuser giving lots of softness to the light.
Depending on input from the client and the type of shoot, Andy picks his modifiers accordingly; so how much input does he get on which to base the look? “It varies a lot,” he says, with some clients “getting very much involved with the mood and theme, and sending lots of reference images.
“Other times, I have more freedom, as they will trust my eye based on my previous work.” The key to successful results though, he adds, is “ultimately meeting the clients’ needs first and foremost.”
For commercial shoots he places more of an emphasis on soft light from octaboxes and strips, but for fashion editorial with “more creative freedom, I will tend to use hard light via barn doors, snoots or just the general reflectors for the flash units.”
For these images, part of a fashion editorial series called ‘Sisters of Nature’, Andy used Profoto Pro-8a 2400 Air generators with Profoto ProHead Plus heads, saying that “the 2400 Watts of the 8as really meant I could light large areas and shoot all day with ease.
“There was a huge set involved as well as two models, so we wanted it to be lit as consistently as possible and the Profoto generators really did deliver.”
In modifying the flash on these shots, he used a combination of diffusion, reflection and deflection, including large black polyboards to “lock in the light and stop spill, but also to create nice shadow detail on the subjects.”
As the set was surrounded by white walls, Andy also used these to his advantage, and avoided pointing the lighting directly onto the models which would have been too harsh. “The solution was to fire directly into the white walls, which acted as a huge reflector. The light then travels back through a translucent fabric to really soften it even more.” Even when shooting down onto the models lying side by side, Andy used the large translucent fabric to act as a huge diffuser, the lights were pointed towards the models, but with the fabric frame in between to give the imagery a quality finish and high-fashion feel.
WE ONLY JUST MANAGE to catch a very busy Ben Bentley. He’s halfway between the NME’s Rock in Rio in Lisbon and about to catch a train to Glasgow to shoot TRANSMT, featuring the Arctic Monkeys’ only UK festival appearance this summer. Yes, it’s the season of music, sun and mud, and that’s taking all of his time. But away from the open air season, Ben also shoots musicians on location for editorial and PR purposes. For this work, he says “flash lighting is vital; it allows me to bring a stylised approach and production values that aren’t easily achievable without.”
Working in a variety of locations means picking kit that’s easily transportable and adaptable, using battery power or mains, and for that Ben has been using the Interfit S1 system “which gives me the much needed portability and consistency that my older Bowens heads and the insanely heavy Travel Pak were severely lacking. There were times when I was paying my assistant their full dayrate to essentially just carry the big external battery unit!”
Ben begins by planning the environment and factoring in if and how he’ll be utilising the available light with the flash. Important for that is high speed sync functionality, as evidenced in the above shot of singersongwriter, Cara Mellor. “We had headed to the East Yorkshire coast to try and catch sunrise on a very cold morning,” he explains, “but it was very contrasty.” Wanting to keep things as simple as possible and ideally use the morning sun as a rim light before it got too high, Ben brought one of his S1s into play.
“For my key light I boomed in an S1, setting it to the High Speed Sync mode so I could get the desired exposure of 1/4000sec at f/2, ISO 100 and reign-in the incredible back light that the sun was offering.” On the S1 he used a 4ft gridded Interfit Octabox, angling it to get the fall off light across Cara’s face.
In terms of other modifiers, Ben always takes a range with him, being “of the mindset that I’d rather travel with the right equipment than kick myself for not making the effort. Quality of light is, of course, a big deal for me. Many of my go-to looks use larger modifiers at fairly close quarters and there’s no way of cheating that.”
LED LIGHTS HAVE BECOME the choice of many pros, particularly those with video duties. This includes Terry Donnelly, who’s adopted Rotolight LEDs for his stills. In the image below, a dark and dramatic old brewery was the location, so lights were vital, and an advantage of continuous was immediate.
“This is my type of set,” he laughs, “but despite the windows, it’s very dark; the thing is, though, we can use the NEO 2s like flashes and the continuous output helps us focus in the dark. With flash I’d need to shine a torch, focus, then shoot, which is old fashioned and leads to errors. This is much more effective.”
With the NEO 2s he used a Rotolight transmitter by Elinchrom, specifically made to work with the Skyport receiver built into the NEO 2s. In the image, the model is framed and backlit by an arch window so the aim was to balance that ambient light with the NEO 2s. “To light Beth,” he explains “we had one NEO 2 in flash mode on the left as the key light, and the great thing about that is it’s soft light straight out of the lamp with no modification.” This of course means there’s less to carry and less time setting up, meaning more time shooting.
“I used a second Neo on the right,” he adds, “again in flash mode, as a fill. And behind her there’s another, augmenting the ambient light. As you can see the constant light is easy to model, and it’s giving us exactly the exposure we require. And the NEO 2s also have high speed sync and instant recycling, so shoot speed is only limited by your camera’s shutter and buffer. They make it very easy!”
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