Saturday, October 01, 2011

Off Camera Flash or How to Add Spice to an Otherwise Dull image

I've just fallen in love with my new radio controlled Flash Trigger.  Just for those who need to know what brand I got:  It is a Pixel TR331 also called  "The Knight". (  This is not the latest product and is around for a while so I will not right a review for the product here.

Why a radio trigger? The SB900 from Nikon can be remotely triggered via master flash as well, but I found it has a number of shortfalls? The triggering system from Nikon uses light for the flash units to communicate and that has some disadvantages. Firstly you require line of sight for this triggering mechanism to work. Secondly, I found in the harsh Summer Sun around midday the communication between the flash units is not working very well. Last but not least the distance that the flash units can be apart and away from the camera is limited especially in harsh conditions.

The radio trigger is quite cool you simply connect the transmitter to the hotshoe of your camera  and connect the Speedlight to the  receiver and of you go. Now the Speedlight is connected to the camera as if the Speedlight is mounted  directly to the camera. I use an old Velbon tripod as my light stand, but will probably invest in a Manfrotto Nano soon to use as a light stand. Main reason is that the Nano can be extended to 1.90m and is lighter than the tripod.

So now that I have hopefully satisfied all the Gear addicts I would like to move on discussing what we actually can do with this equipment to improve our creative techniques. One advice that I got once from a photographer was to lose the on camera flash.

One technique that I use is bouncing the light from a wall. I use the Lastolite 80/20 which gives you some (20%) direct light to fill and bounces the rest from the ceiling or a wall. I love it because as a Solo Wedding Photographer this device is not bigger than a bounce card and weight is an issue when you carry your gear for 12 hours.

Since I got the trigger I did some test shots and the one shot that I would like to use for this Blog to demonstrate the power of off camera flash  is a photo that I took at our last camping trip. I got up at around 6am and walked to this bridge. The photo below was the first straight shot I took when arriving at the scene with no flash.

A nice scene with the river and the bridge over it. The problem was this location is in a very narrow valley no sunlight is yet touching the scene.
The result is that the image looks somewhat flat. Have a look at the main subject the tree. Because most light is coming from the clearing over the water this side of the tree is in the shadow. This makes the photo look dull and the tree is not perceived as the main subject. The lighter bridge is taking over and pulls our focus away from the tree.

We can fix this in the darkroom to an extend and I will use this image for another blog to show you some tricks in Photoshop to fix this up, but here we want to first enhance the image in camera with some additional light.

To do so I placed the Flash to the left of the tree and of course remotely triggered it. The result of this exercise is shown in the next image without any manipulation.

As you can see the scene has changed quite dramatically. The tree is now lit better and also we have some spill light on the rocks below, which quite nicely continues the line across the image created by the bridge.

There is a nice shadow cast in the rough surface of the tree that gives it some nice texture and models the tree stump with light. So with a little bit of flash light I was able to light up the scene and now the focus is on the Main subject as which gives the  scene some depth.

Straight out of the camera this is already quite nice. I played further with some other angles, because the background is quite busy. However, in post production I found that the focus was not on the tree any more.  So I decided to keep this angle.

Now these days we can improve an image further with applying some simple adjustments in our image manipulation software. I use Adobe Lightroom for most of the basic adjustments and only use Photoshop if I want to get fancy.  The next version of the image is my lightroom adjusted version.

I made the following adjustments:
  •            Contrast: up to about 80
  •          Temperature:  Warmer
  •          Exposure: up
  • \ Clarity: up
  •         Vibrance: up
  •         Saturation: up
  •         HSL:
    •     Greens: down
    •     Yellow, Red, Orange: Up
  •          Sharpening: up / masking
  •          Post Crop Vignette

I love the sharpening tool in Lightroom because of its masking function. Funny enough this is much easier to use than Photoshop. The masking allows me to sharpen the edges and leave the rest of the image untouched which is just the effect that I am after. You need to understand how sharpening works to fully appreciate what the masking is doing.

I cranked up the Saturation a fair bit. Every modern Landscape Photographer today is using very high Saturation setting in their images. Combined with some High Definition Range (HDR) techniques and a very high contrast setting the images get this special punch that you see in many photographs today. I had a close look at one of Ken Duncan's absolutely beautiful images and he had cranked saturation up to a point where some posterisation happened in parts of the image. The overall result is stunning so don't be a afraid to use the saturation slider.

Colour Temperature is another factor in the image. I like my images warmer. The extra yellow in the image improves the highlights and gives a warmer nicer mood. However, the effect needs to be carefully applied because if the complete image is made warmer it sometimes ends up having a yellow colour cast. This brings us to the point where we need to move the image into Photoshop where we can mask the effects and apply them to parts of the image.

So far I am already quite happy with the image, but there are still a few thinks I don't like. The background  is too busy and also I was envisaging a dreamlike image maybe with some fog. So I have to leave Lightroom and use Photoshop. You can use any other imaging software. I am used to Photoshop after using it now for over 5 years. But Gimp a free open source system is pretty good too.

First thing in Photoshop we always copy the background layer. This will give us the possibility to go back if we stuff it up. I also make heavy use of the snapshot feature. When I reach a point where I am reasonably happy I take a snapshot. You find this feature in the history view. Main reason is that Photoshop only keeps x amount of history steps and sometimes I overdo it and than cannot go back. This means I have to start from the beginning which is pretty annoying. Snapshots are good points in the process to go back to.

First thing I did was to get rid of the clutter on the left side of the image. I did not like the trees there. I used the stamp tool to just remove it. "Stop", many will shout, " this is not right!  As a photographer I should not change the scene." If I would be a purist photographer I would agree with you, but I regard myself as a Digital Artist and hence I use my artistic freedom to do to my images whatever I like. I also believe we should be using the tools that are at our disposal. Let's call that progress.

Next I increased the brightness and contrast using a curve layer and a brightness and contrast adjustment layer. I cropped the image differently. Normally I use Lightroom for cropping but I can control the vignette better in photoshop.

Still the image has too much detail so I am applying the Classical Softfocus filter from the Color Efex suite. You can achieve a similar result by creating a new copy of your current image in a new layer and apply some gausian blur. I used a layer mask to reduce or remove the effect in certain areas. In this image I cleaned the tree and the rocks which now are separated from the background even more.

So that is pretty much it. With the soft focus in the image I now have a more dreamlike look, but I also managed to reduce the clutter in the background.  Here is the final product. You can clearly see where the Flash improved the scene and added light where it is needed.