How I Lit This Shot - Mixing Flash With A Blue Sky

Mixing ambient light with flash is a tough technique to get around. I can do it no problem, but when someone asks me to explain it I draw a blank. There’s a very good reason why it’s hard to understand - you’re smashing two distinct schools of lighting an image together. You could be the best studio photographer in your area yet don’t dabble with daylight pictures. Likewise you could be a natural light photographer who has found flashes to always be super overpowering and look “flash lit”. 

I’m going to break down a great shot I lit for my photographer friend Andy Hoang. We gained special permission to shoot at 5am in Cabot Circus in Bristol, a large shopping centre which a giant suspended glass roof. Our goal was to get the blue sky of the morning to mix perfectly with the flash, and not one look more powerful than the other. We also didn’t want to edit it much in post (because, if you have the knowledge to light properly, you can save time by not messing about in Photoshop correcting the mistakes).

Lets start with the basic image first off. We got down to our shooting angle, beneath the model shooting upwards so the sky is behind him. Our initial goal here is to get the ambient level to how you want it, within parameters that flashes can work in. That means we wanted our ISO to be pretty low ish, somewhere between 100-400 ISO (any higher and the flash on even its lowest setting will be too powerful). Our shutter speed needed to be somewhere between 1/30 and 1/125 sec (any slower and you’ll get blur, any faster and some flashes might not fire). Aperture can be whatever it needs to be to let in enough light to exposure properly. I guess you could say the easiest way to get this is by using shutter speed priority, taking a few test shots and transferring those settings into manual mode.

To recap: we only want to get our ambient exposure sorted at the moment, so keep the flashes off. Stay away from slow shutter speeds and high ISO. You’ll probably end up with your subject as a silhouette or darker than you’d like, but focus on getting that sky exposed. If you want the sky to be more saturated and deep blue, you can underexpose it a little to get that.


So we’ve got our ambient down. The next thing we need to know is that ambient can be controlled by nothing but the shutter speed. If you see that sky starts to get a little to bright, change from 1/100 to 1/125. If its looking way too dark, change it from 1/100 to 1/60. You know how to do this part - if you don’t refer to the exposure triangle articles on the web and learn how to increase of decrease light coming into your camera.

Right. You can now take silhouettey shots all day with this setup - but lets bring in the light. We used a Profoto B1 on a stand, with a small portable beauty dish. As we were shooting about 30m from any power port, we needed a battery powered flash unit. The beauty dish was used as its small, gives direct light with no hotspots (if you need more advise on which modifer you need for a job, theres millions of videos online.) We stuck the flash pretty close to the model on camera left side, aiming down so we get a side light.

So we were lucky and the flash was spot on from the first shot of turning it on. But what if your shot the flash is too dark or too bright? Don’t change camera settings just yet - use that flash power adjustment! This way you don’t end up in a whole world of confusion by tweaking the camera, going back to change the ambient, then flash, for ever and ever.

If you’ve exhausted your flashes power capabilities, and it’s still either too bright on its lowest power, or too dark on its highest, then i’m sorry you’ll have to change those camera settings. I’d suggest tweaking that ISO first - using any ISO setting up to about 800 ISO nowadays is completely fine. Failing that, change the aperture. Just be aware that changing either of these will have an effect on the ambient light level, so you need to go back and get that adjusted with the shutter speed.

It really is that straight forward. As long as you remember the method and which bit to adjust first, you should never have an issue with mixing your flash with ambient. Shooting outdoors will need more powerful flashes, indoors you can get away with less powerful, like just little standard flashguns. 

One last time: Get your ambient - Add your flash - Adjust flash to match - Adjust camera if the flash is out of usable range - Go back to step one and repeat.

I understand a lot of photographers out there will know this already, if you do thats great! This is more for the intermediate photographers who struggle with the process of mixing light, much like I did when I first started trying it out.

Jon Sparkman is a photography educator, lighting technician and fine art photographer from Cheltenham, UK. 


Fashion Shoot On Entirely Rented Equipment

Having your own kit is great, if you’re a working photographer and need a core set of lenses day in day out, I urge you to spend your hard earned cash and get the kit of your dreams. However if you fancy using the most advanced, high end equipment on the market (without spending lots in the process), then renting is something you should look in to. 

I recently collaborated on a fashion shoot in Bristol, UK with the kind permission of Cabot Circus. The only stipulation was that we start pretty early - 5am to be precise. They wanted us to be all packed up and done by the time customers started to file in for their morning shopping at 11am. All the right people had been brought in for the shoot - makeup, an agency model, stylist and second (and third) assistants to help manage the quickly changing lighting and of course, the photographer. We wanted to make sure that the kit would do the entire teams efforts of scraping out of bed super early justice and we weren’t let down. 

What quantifies as high end kit? Well let me do a run down of the kind equipment Calumet rented to us for the day.

The camera:

Canon 5d Mk IV

Canon 24-70 2.8L II USM

The lighting: 

2x Profoto B1 

Profoto 2’ OCF Beauty Dish 

Profoto Umbrella Deep Silver Small 

Profoto 5’ Octa 

Calumet Double Riser Stands

1m x 2m Scrim

Profoto Air Remote Trigger

The film camera(s):

2x Canon C300

Panasonic GH4

2x Canon Canon 70-200 L 2.8 IS Mk II

Tamron 45mm 1.8

Thats a lot of kit - retail cost to buy all this outright comes to a staggering £25,987 (camera kit £5,298, lighting kit £4,865, film kit £15,824). We’ve actually skipped over a few things such as monopods, sandbags and the like, but you get the rough idea, it’s a lot of kit to buy.

Now for the rental price - for three days (picked up Friday, dropped off Monday) £595. Thats a difference of 97.7%.

Lets put that into a cost-per-shoot basis. Say you’re a high end photographer, making some nice cash shooting big campaigns twice a month. It would take you 43 shoots before it would become more cost effective to own this kit. You could rent the top equipment available for nearly two full years before needing to get your own. By that time you should have your foot in the door of a big agency, being sent custom gold-plated cameras in the post by the reps and 23 exhibitions world wide, right?

Lets not forget about the fact that you can switch kit out for the kit you really need for the day. Doing an interior shoot? Get that high end tilt-shift lens you always wanted. Doing a sports event? Hire out a humoungous 400mm lens without breaking the bank.

Now we’ve cleared up what we used, it’s time to see how we put that kit to good use. As we were shooting in a shopping centre at 5am, there was no power available. This is where those Profoto B1’s come in super handy - they’re battery powered and so completely portable, yet still have enough power to throw light from one end of a shopping centre to the other. We softened those powerful lights with a shoot through diffusor/scrim and bounced it into an umbrella to get that light source bigger whilst keeping the setup relatively compact. We added in a second light with the beauty dish just to give a bit more direction light on the darker side of the face. 

I’m only going to lightly touch on the filming work as it’s not my forte, but the two person crew were busy getting into all kinds of creative positions to capture their shots. The majority of the work was on the powerful C300 cameras and they used the GH4 for some impressive 4k super slow motion filming. I’ll post their resulting footage at the bottom of this video when its been uploaded.

Moving on from that initial umbrella-scrim setup, we varied the modifiers to a huge 5’ octabox and used the space in the shopping centre to our advantage. The sensor size on the Canon 5d Mark IV gives us enough resolution to still get a quality print even if we need to do some cropping because the model is so far away from the camera.

The shoot continued throughout the early morning until pack up time - with a variety of lighting situations and challenges throughout. With the amount of kit we rented out, we could tackle anything with no mess like wires and power cables lying about. Battery powered flashes really are the future - but at the moment only available to the higher end photographers. By renting you can access this lucrative kit for the date you need, get the job done and get it published.

I’d like to thank Calumet for letting us borrow all this fine kit, the entire crew from the day. These high end fashion shoots are truly a collaborative effort - even if you work best on your own you need a stylist, wardrobe, makeup and behind the scenes photographers to help document and share your experiences.

I’ll be doing some reviews on the Canon 5d Mark IV shortly, comparing it against its predecessor and original Mark I - which should be a fun comparison on the forward progression of digital technology.

About the authour: Jon Sparkman is a Cheltenham, UK based fine art photographer. He discovered his love for using flash completely by accident and now centers his work around conveying a message through his photography. You can find his work at www.sparkman.photography and follow him @sparkman_uk on Instagram and Twitter. 


Canon 5D Mk IV vs. 5D Mk III

Or if you’d like a more clickbaitesque title, “You won’t BELIEVE the new features on this Camera!”. 

A few weeks back I had an opportunity to test out the Canon 5D Mk IV from Calumet in Bristol, in order to help film a video for their YouTube channel. Once that’s online I’ll post a link so you can watch me wax lyrical about the advancements this camera has to offer us. The night before I called in a few favours with some photographer friends, and managed to secure a 5D Mk III and a Mk I (more on that in a future blog post), so I could run some comparison shots side by side. For this post I’m only going to compare image quality of the Mk III and Mk IV, as I want to let you know how much better the new 30MP sensor is on the Mk IV.

The File Size

Straight to the point, the reason why we’re probably looking at this post. The 5D Mk IV boasts a huge new 30.4MP sensor, in an ever increasing sensor resolution war against other competitors. As of mid 2016, companies like Hasselblad and Fujifilm are starting to bring out Medium Format Mirrorless cameras, capable of huge resolution images, so the DSLR makers have had to up their game and increase the resolution of their flagship cameras. 

Crunching some numbers we find that the 5D Mk IV has 6700 pixels along its longest edge, compared to 5760 of its predecessor. In the same physical sensor size they’ve managed to squeeze 15% more pixels in just along one axis. This gives the new sensor a resolution of 30.4MP compared to the Mk III’s of 22.3MP. The difference is between the two cameras pixel wise is 30.74%. That’s 30.74% more pixels in your sensor, 30.74% more pixels to capture the detail and the light, and 30.74% larger images. It’s like giving the Mk III a steroid injection - looks the same from the outside, still takes the same lenses but now we’re dealing with some serious muscle power. 

For more statistics, the file size of the 5D Mk III RAW is 24.8MB, whilst the new 5D Mk IV is 63MB. I hope you have a large hard drive! If you shoot weddings, 30 a year and 2,000 images per wedding (this is a conservative estimate), expect 3.78TB worth of raw data per year coming out the Mk IV.

Note: At the time of writing this article, Adobe Lightroom haven’t give us the feature to try out the new Dual Pixel sensor that sets the 5D Mk IV apart from its other competitors. When they make this feature, I’ll adjust the blog to show my findings.

On another note, I didn’t include the original high res images for those pixel peepers out there - The file sizes would take too long to load and even JpegMini won’t compress my Mk IV file - it’s too big for even their processing engine!

The Processor

Now I’m not one to get technical and obsess over processors, all I can say is the 5D Mk IV has a new DIGIC 6+ processor, beating the older Mk III’s DIGIC 5+. What does this mean? Much like the evolution of computers, newer processors means faster camera functioning. You can take more photos in burst mode before it buffers, you can shoot at a higher ISO and with less noise and you can focus faster. It’s a speed boost for your camera, but unfortunately there’s not much information online to help us get statistics for you. The jump between DIGIC 4 and 5 was a 17x improvement in speed, so I’m going to hazard a guess that the upgrade from 5 to 6+ will be similar to that. With 60MP raw file sizes, you need that extra processing power to help file them away!

Touch Screen

I had a great time testing this out, I almost forgot about the feature completely when making the video review. As I’m usually shooting with the camera next to my eye, Live View takes a back seat along with video. This isn’t something to be sniffed at though, the touch screen isn’t like the squidgy screens of old. No longer do you have to keep tapping the same spot over and over to prompt the camera to function, the 5D Mk IV’s screen acts exactly like my iPhone. 

Pressing the Q button to bring up all the camera shortcuts on screen, it was a nice surprise to find out that I can just navigate and change settings by touch. Focusing on Live View was a breeze too, tapping on screen would bring the focus in quickly to that subject, then track it even if the cameras moved about. We all know touch screens are the future, but to finally use a “good” camera touchscreen marked the start of the revolution for me.

4K and Slo-Mo

As I was testing out the camera functions as a photographer myself, I left this feature out. When we have a video to shot you with the features, I’ll be sure to include it right here.

Physical Size

There’s not too much to be said about this one - they’re pretty much the same camera on the outside. Everything looks the same, but there’s a couple of extra buttons and switches here and there, all programmable to take your favourite shortcuts. It’s all about increasing productivity with the Mk IV. They still take the same lenses as before, however there’s a fun “aberration warning” setting if you put third party lenses on. When I put my Sigma 50mm lens on the camera for part of a shoot, every image taken had two concentric circles around them on the screen display - at first I was worried that this was Canon’s attempt to stop you using third party lenses - I soon found out after that it is just an easily removable warning system put in place to let you know that the camera can’t correct the chromatic aberrations of the lens internally. You can even put the Mk IV next to the Mk I and notice very little physically, except for the button layout and screen size on the back. The point I’m trying to make - you could easily buy one of these new bodies and sneak it past the missus for months before she realises you’ve upgraded.

Extra Features

The little add-ons and features that make the Mk IV the best all round camera come from other Canon line cameras. There’s Wi-Fi and GPS built in to the pentamirror area of the camera, which if it’s anything like my 6D, means you can control and view the camera through an iPad app. The FPS has been upped from 6 to 7, which might just give you the edge in certain situations. The ISO, as mentioned before can now be handled better thanks to the processor, so its top reachable ISO is at now 32,000, compared to 25,600 of the Mk III

A Worthy Upgrade?

The Mk IV is one of those cameras that will be the camera of choice for professionals of all disciplines until they release the Mk V. The 5D series has always been the great “all rounder” of the Canon line, ever since its inception. If your’e a photographer who works all day long shooting a variety of different jobs, this will be the camera for you. Now you can hone your slo-mo and 4K skills too, as the Mk IV brings high end cinematography in to your camera. There’s more pixels in the sensor, a faster processor and more functions that make it a competition killer. 

About the authour: Jon Sparkman is a Cheltenham, UK based fine art photographer. He discovered his love for using flash completely by accident and now centers his work around conveying a message through his photography. You can find his work at www.sparkman.photography and follow him @sparkman_uk on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. 


Why The Golden Ratio Is Better Than The Rule Of Thirds

A long time ago I was a young art student, being told about the “Rule Of Thirds”. I was told it’s one of the most important fundamentals of art and photography, as it helps you get the right composure in your images. Overlay a tic-tac-toe/noughts and crosses grid over your image and crop or move your picture around so that the “points of interest” lie on the lines or line intersections. Sounds simple, it has been the basis of countless millions of images throughout the centuries. But is it perfect? No! Is there a better, more badass brother to the grid? Yes! Enter the Golden Ratio.

Just to slow things down a bit, here’s what the Rule Of Thirds (I’ll call it the ROT grid from now on) looks like on a plain black background. Chances are you’re familiar with it, you’ve seen it pop up on your cameras viewfinder or as an overlay in Photoshop or Lightroom. 

Here’s its superior, wiser and elusive brother - the Golden Ratio, also sometimes called the Fibonacci Spiral. It is the result of when you do some complex maths on a rectangle to the tune of: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.61803398875. Theres no need to memorise this, you can find the overlays everywhere on internet image searches to download and paste over your images, as well as being built in (but very well hidden) to Lightroom. To access this spiral, press R to get your cropping function open, then cycle through the available overlays with O until you find the spiral. Turning it around is done by pressing Shift + O. There are eight variations to it.

If I put the two overlays on top of each other, you can see how similarly they intersect. The tight spiral of the blue ratio almost marries up with the lower right intersection of the red overlay. There is a reason why the golden ratio gets oft pushed away, because it’s murder to have all its eight variations displayed on a screen at once.

So if the golden ratio is more hassle than the ROT grid, why should I care about it? It all comes down to the long sweeping arc of the spiral. Putting your subjects along a curved line rather than straight grid lines draws the viewers eyes around the picture, forcing it to go closer to the tight coil of the spiral where you’ve placed your point of interest. It’s like a giant subliminal road sign pointing the eyes towards where you want them to go. 

I hope I haven’t lost you yet - Here’s a few real world examples of the Golden Ratio in practice on a few of my images, one without an overlay and one with. Hopefully you can see how many times the images follow the sweeping curves and conclude with the focal point of the image in the tight coil.

There’s a whole host of different ways you can use the Golden Ratio, from portraits, landscapes, even sports and street photography. Start looking out for the Golden Section when editing your pictures in your favourite cropping post-production programme and see how it can take your pictures from “yeah” to “oh yeah!”. I have to admit once I discovered my love for the Ratio, I started flicking back through the past few years of shoots to re-crop images in the Ratio. These newly cropped pictures feel more dynamic, interesting and forcibly lead the eye around the pictures. 

As always, it’s entirely up to you to take my advice, but I just want to be able to show that there’s more to the world of art than a criss-cross of lines. Lets just call the Golden Ratio “The Rule Of Thirds, Plus Some More” (TROTPSM for short.)

About the authour: Jon Sparkman is a Cheltenham, UK based fine art photographer. He discovered his love for using flash completely by accident and now centers his work around conveying a message through his photography. You can find his work at www.sparkman.photography and follow him @sparkman_uk on Instagram and Twitter. 



In Defence Of Flash

Flash is a complicated beast, let’s put it that way. 

Say you’ve spent the last few years of your photography journey perfecting natural light, and you know the exposure triangle by memory. Flash comes in to the picture and ruins that perfect triangle, making it more of an exposure square. Where once you could take on all ambient light challenges, flash messes up your previous knowledge base and confuses you from the off. Now you have flashes extra factors to consider - its power, intensity, direction, modifiers ambient-to-flash-ratios, fill ratios and relative size. Did I say its a square? More like an exposure decagon now. Now would be the perfect time to turn around and walk away, but if you’re still interested to know why I think flash is worth learning, read on. 

1. It’s not that hard.

Sure, it takes a while to learn how each modification to your lighting affects your image, but you’ve already learnt so much about photography, this is just the next step. A simple trial and error is all it takes to realise how versatile having flash can be. Have you ever had to spend time in Photoshop lightening a persons face because it wasn’t lit enough? Flash is there to help you. Have you had blurry motion because it was too dark, making you drop down to a slow shutter speed? Flash is there to help you. Just purchasing a flash with off camera capabilities will open up a whole new world of wonder/terror and only by learning, can you control the beast.

2. It’s not that expensive. 

Sure, you can pick up some amazing flash units like the £1,600 Profoto B1 heads, but you can also pick up some little Yongnuo YN-560 flashguns for £50. Unless you’re trying to illuminate large swathes of an outdoor scene, you won’t need those big flashes. I’ve used my cheap Yongnuo flashgun for the past four years commercially and its never let me down. Buy a few of them with triggers and you can start to play around with off camera flash lighting, which is the holy grail of photographic lighting.  Having multiple flashes illuminating different parts of the scene is much more preferable to having one huge singular flash lighting up everything.


3. You can light so it doesn’t look lit.

This is a technique thats hard to explain, but easy to show. Unless you’re in a pitch black room at night, theres going to be some ambient light that your camera can see. For the first job, dial in a setting so that your camera starts to pick up that ambient light, however weak it may be (think back to the exposure triangle). Now thats done - bring your flashgun in on lowest power, and fire off a shot. Start ramping up the flashes power (leave those camera settings alone), until the flash blends in with the ambient. It will blend eventually and if you want to then bring your ambient down a little bit, then read on to the next point. 


4. You can adjust ambient light to taste with one dial. 

This is true on every camera, ever made that can shoot with flash. Say you’ve got to that perfect mix of ambient light and flash, and you’ve fired off a few test shots. Suddenly the sun comes out from behind a cloud and that ambient you worked so hard for gets brighter, and messes with your exposure. Do not fear, a simple technique will fix this - your shutter speed. Moving the shutter speed settings around will not affect the flashes power, or how much flash power is coming in to the camera, it’ll just restrict (or let more in) the amount of ambient light around. When I figured this out it blew my mind. Theres a simple dial on my camera I can twizzle that can affect one part of the two piece ambient-flash exposure. Now I can choose how bright I want my wall lights to be in a picture, or how much glow I want from a candle. You think by slowing down the shutter speed will cause your subjects to blur slightly if moving? Not with flash! The flash freezes the subject that its pointing at, so this is really a win-win-win situation. Use that shutter speed as much as possible to control that ambient, just don’t go above the sync speed for the flash.


5. It can define a feeling.

 I love using flash (can you guess), finding out how different colours, sizes and directions of flash can give a picture a completely different mood. By just having a small flashgun in a different room, you can take an image from being one dimensional to two. You can now light to accentuate a mood, to highlight certain things. It takes you beyond capturing whats in front of you, now you can use flash to guide the viewers eye to different parts of the picture.

Give flash ago, you might just like it. Ignore the internet videos that show you the “right way” to light an image, go it alone, test and test again, find out what works for you and add flash to your gear bag. There is no right way, there is no wrong way. There is only what you think is good. 


About the authour:
Jon Sparkman is a Cheltenham, UK based fine art photographer. He discovered his love for using flash completely by accident and now centers his work around conveying a message through his photography. You can find his work at www.sparkman.photography and follow him @sparkman_uk on Instagram and Twitter

This blog was republished with permission by PetaPixel here on 30th September 2016.

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