I like to think I’m pretty comfortable with my camera by now. I know my aperture from my exposure compensation. I know how to take a decent picture of the cat and a flower and a child running full tilt away from the camera. The one thing that continues to intimidate and elude me, however, is how to properly use my flash.
The flash is one of the first accessories we bought to use with my D40, way back in 2009. I think I used it about four times and gave up when it made everything look like a deer caught in headlights. I took a workshop at Henry’s and realized I was supposed to take it off camera, but that my camera wasn’t properly equipped to take advantage of that functionality, so I lost interest again. When I upgraded to the D7000 last year, I figured I’d solved the problem and pulled out the flash again, and even bought myself an umbrella kit. And my flash pictures? Still sucked. I started researching and reading, internalizing concepts like guide numbers and the inverse square law and balancing ambient light.
I ran into a bit of a circular dilemma. Books and magazines and blogposts are good for some theory, but you really just gotta get out there and take the pictures. But when I looked at the pictures, they sucked and I was discouraged. So I started looking around at photographers I admired here in Ottawa, wondering if I could approach someone to do some mentoring, or maybe just sit down with me for a day and walk me through the basics. And that’s when I stumbled across a workshop at Harry Nowell’s studio for on-location portrait lighting. Eureka! This was EXACTLY what I wanted. I was so excited I tried to register on the spot – and found out it had just sold out. I was so disappointed, and equally delighted when a few weeks later Harry said they’d be offering a second workshop in the summer. I’ve been patiently waiting ever since.
The workshop was three days this week, and the instructor was Ottawa photojournalist and wedding photographer Blair Gable. If you ever get the chance to work with Blair, as a client or as a student, do it. He’s a good teacher, probably one of the best I’ve had in various photo classes over the years. But more compelling for me, he specializes in exactly what I love most about photography – people and storytelling. We spent a couple of hours in the class looking at some of his work for Reuters and Macleans, and discussing both how and why he chose to light them they way he did. And then we had to (gasp!) get out of our chairs and actually take some pictures.
This was the first time I worked with a professional model, and it was a lovely change of pace to be photographing someone who was not actively trying to resist me. And I didn’t have to bribe her with Oreos or video games, either. On the other hand, knowing she had probably posed for more than a few photographers who didn’t forget key steps like actually turning on the flash was more than a little intimidating, as was working while being watched by three classmates and the teacher. (Funny, by fluke the class comprised all female students – I’ve never been in a photo class or workshop with just women before!) This is the most successful of a few shots I took during the class. The flash is behind her, providing what was supposed to be gentle rim lighting to separate her from the background but I kind of overcooked it a bit.
Learning how to balance the ambient light and the flash was one of the major goals I had for the class, so I could make photos like this one I took the next day in during our most excellent Wakefield adventure.
While I got the exposure right (and Simon is awfully cute) I think the overall composition worked better in this one, which is why I ultimately chose it as the photo of the day.
I’ve been thinking about this shot ever since I attended the Joe McNally workshop (also on the use of flashes) a month ago. My dad has such character in his face, with the fur and the lines, and I wanted to use a flash to bring that out in an interesting way. Turns out that’s a lot harder than it looks. My sweet dad sat through probably 50, maybe closer to 100 shots as I moved the flash around, tried shooting through and reflecting out of an umbrella, rolled paper into snoots and even tried diffusing with a piece of tissue. I could not for the life of me get the shot I wanted, and he was so patient with me the whole time. There’s something to be said for still being Daddy’s Girl well into your forties.
In addition to being a week of fascinating lessons and flash photography, it was the last of three weeks of vacation for me (well, for now. More on that later.) So we did some fun stuff like visiting the splash pad in Barrhaven to chill out.
And we made another little day trip (how grateful am I that my boys are good in the car) down to Morrisburg to check out what turned out to be a very boring antique show and a very interesting St Lawrence River shoreline.
A sunflower, because I simply can’t resist them.
And last but certainly not least, a fun shot from a funny family porch portrait session this week. On one of the hottest days in 2011 I chased this little guy around a park for portraits, and this year it was blessedly cooler when he and his family came out to the porch for photos. He really wasn’t much more interested in standing still for the camera now than he was a year ago, though!
(He’s chasing the bubbles that you can just make out over his head. There is something about this posture that I absolutely adore. Three year olds are my muse and my nemesis in equal photographic measure!)
Now I just have to commit to learning to use my flash with the same ease and comfort with which I use natural light. If you see Willie squinting and twitching a lot in the next little while, you’ll know it has less to do with Lucas chasing him all over the house and more to do with being glareblinded by me.
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