Monday, August 6, 2012

Off Camera Lighting on the Cheap!

Are you one of those folks that would like to try out off camera lighting but are hesitant to because the gear is too expensive?  Or maybe, you're fairly competent on the shutter but find that those expensive dSLRs we so know and love are somewhat limiting.  If either is the case, then this next bit of info might inspire you to try something different.

A few weeks ago, I was inspired by a video (see at the bottom of this post) of Zack Arias being challenged by Kai of Digital Rev TV to try and take interesting portraits of folks on the street with a 'junky' point-n-shoot and (I think) a Nikon flash.  Now Zack is a highly well-regarded, talented photographer and educator, but if you think this was an easy challenge, you might think again.  Street photography is not an easy thing to do... or at least be good at, but aside from that, Zack had to figure out on the spot how this cheap little camera worked and how he could get an off camera flash to work with it.  So that had me thinking...

Practically everyone these days has a point and shoot camera.  They're everywhere, and with good reason too as most of them these days, take extraordinarily good pictures if you're not too overly anal about the process.  That being said, I knew I had an old one around that I let the kids use from time to time so I thought this might be a good moment to try something new.

The point and shoot I have is an old Fuji FinePix F10 that in one point in a not-too-distant-past, was considered to be pretty darn good in low light with its fancy ISO settings... which now is quite laughable.  So the trick was, how to get my off camera flash to fire with this particular camera.  Since the Fuji doesn't have any ports for attaching a sync cable or even a hotshoe for flashes, the only option was to use the built in flash to trigger my off camera flash optically.

This is actually where you can get by pretty cheaply doing off camera flash photography.  All you need is a camera that has a built-in flash (one that you can ideally, dial the flash power in manually--mine doesn't) and a flash that can be triggered optically.  NOTE:  if your flash can't be triggered optically, then a cheap fix is to get an optical peanut like this one to attach to your flash.

So now I've figured out the syncing method, its time to see what in camera settings I can get control of.  Unfortunately, the only settings the Fuji has is Manual (sorta) and full auto.  In 'manual' mode (if you want to call it that) I can only dial in exposure compensation up or down to two full stops different... so not a lot of manual control really, but it might be enough to do the trick.

For this first portrait, I simply dialed in minus two stops of exposure to darken the background a bit, then, I placed a Lumiquest SBIII modifier on my flash, set the flash to SU-4 mode (optically syncing) and took a quick test shot of my more than thrilled model.  I was hand holding the flash above and slightly to the left of my subject.  Several things I noticed right off the bat is... since my Fuji has an electronic shutter and not a physical one, its not limited to a flash sync speed, meaning that this camera will fire at any shutter speed and still fire its on camera flash.  Another bit of useful info is that the on camera flash really isn't powerful enough to contribute anything to the photo at the exposure settings I created other than a minute amount of fill (which is actually kinda cool) so it really has just enough power to trigger my off camera flash.

This first photo didn't turn out to bad and I was actually quite pleased with the quality of light.  I don't remember what my actual flash power setting was, but I'm sure I started off around 1/4 power or so and adjusted it as necessary to get the exposure I was looking for.

So I decided to get another, more slightly easier-to-work-with model and try a few more.  Again, the great thing about the Fuji is, no limiting sync speed which allows me to really create more interesting and saturated backgrounds by dialing in a little negative compensation and relying on those higher shutter speeds.  Unfortunately I would have preferred to be able to dial in my own aperture and shutter speeds but I was working with what I had available to me.

Trying to find a more pleasing background... um, in my yard, we switched spots and I tried another few portraits.  I realize none of these photos are Pulitzer material btw, I was just trying to test what this technique would yield.  Something else I noticed to be beneficial, was to get my model in a little open shade, which meant my flash would not have to work as hard, then I simply exposed for my background... which is essentially how would do it with the dSLR.  Also, note that all of these photos were taken on a bright, sunny afternoon around 3pm.

One off camera flash, nowhere close to full power (and modified with the SBIII), and one outdated point and shoot camera were cranking out relatively decent pictures with little to no planning involved.  Giving a different set of parameters, like forethought to background and a model who's hair and makeup were less just-got-out-of-bed, this simple setup can yield some pretty cool results... and on the cheap too.

Would I use this setup for a client?  Most definitely not, but this setup does get more seasoned photographers out of the same line of thinking making them do something a little more off the cuff, and for folks that don't have the money to drop on $1500 camera body, this could be a good way to start experimenting with off camera flash.

All of these portraits were taken with shutter speeds in the neighborhood of 1/600 to 1/1000 of a sec and apertures anywhere from f/5.6 to f/8 ...which I really didn't have control over.  The cool thing though is, those shutter speeds!  I will be taking the time to experiment with this setup a little more, using better composition and lighting techniques just to see what it will yield, but a small point and shoot camera and one flash can fit in any bag and go with you just about anywhere.

To see what Zack accomplished with his shoot (and some of the troubles he dealt with) check out the video below!

I challenge you! Knock the dust off your old point and shoot camera, grab a flash and see what you can come up with, you might be surprised!