Sometimes The Location is Not As Good As Promised.

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where the location is less than perfect.

We were walking up to the Hudson River and the light was glaring, too hazy to make out much and with little natural fill. The surroundings offered little in the way of background or texture and overall it was a disaster of a place to shoot at that moment in time.

Perfect. I wanted to show the workshop folks how you can visualize an image and make it yours even if the background, and the light, sucks.

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This shot was taken in the available light a few moments later. I had forgotten to take the pic with my camera of the scene as it was with no additional light. I think you can see the very bad light and hazy background / blown out sky that the set provided. The use of the speedlight to create the effect is a rather easy one. Just keep in mind that the f-stop exposure will be based on the speedlight, and the ambient will be controlled by the shutter speed.

When a Location Sucks... it sucks: The light as it was on the Hudson

I had Briana come to the railing. It was a piece of background that could be used for its angular lines and something for her to react with. The backlight was brutal so I decided to underexpose the background by two stops. A meter reading told me that f-11 at 1/125 would be the exposure for a dead looking shot with correct exposure. Ick.

I chose to underexpose by two stops so I used the shutter speed to 1/250 for one stop under and then to f-16 for the second stop under exposure. f-16 at 1/250 is two stops under f-11 at 1/125.

We brought the speedlight in close and zoomed it to wide angle. Since I already knew where the strobe would be placed to give me f-11 at 1/8 power, I simply changed to 1/4 power and had f-16. I wanted to make a more interesting shot than to have the flash right on her, so I had Bill aim it away from her just a bit. The result:
How to change a bad location into an acceptable shot with small strobes.

As you can see, the light becomes the interesting thing about the image and the underexposed background looks kinda cool. The hazy, crappy light is replaced by a more contrasty city and gritty looking clouds.

I backed up with the wide angle and got lower so I could isolate Briana from the wild sky. The sun was above her head and the resulting flare ended up being pretty cool. I now had the light moved to be as nearly on axis of the camera as possible. This eliminated sidelight shadows and more fully illuminated her face and arms. Even though the strobe was zoomed out a bit, it was still so close to Briana that it seems almost snooted… a beam of light. Notice the deep shadows coming from Briana’s shoes forward. That shows that at the bottom of the image, the sun was still more powerful than the strobe.

Looking for a shot on the Hudson with really bad light

I realized that fighting the flare would ultimately be a losing proposition even though I kind of liked the image, so I had Briana place herself with the shadow of her head covering my lens. Since she was looking down, it was an easy task for her to make sure she was shadowing my lens. By that action, the sun was placed directly behind her head. Bill came in close with the strobe and we made a few more images.

Creating a Shot with the light when the location sucks

The shot looked pretty good but I wanted a bit better placement of the light so I had Bill lower the light a bit and we took another shot. That is what I wanted to do. Create a shot in really bad light and turn the bad light into at least interesting backlight.

When a location sucks, add your own light and change reality.

The next time you have a location that simply looks pretty bad, try doing something with your speedlight to make it a more interesting location. By lowering the ambient light and using your strobe to light the subject, you create a moody, dramatic image with lots of depth.

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  1. Excellent post on this subject, I am always running into this and I am glad to see I am not the only guy in this position hehe.

    The ones with the blocked sun are excellent. Great idea.

  2. Excellent website! I’m really happy of the discovery and am enjoying all its articles.

    When you write:
    “Just keep in mind that the f-stop exposure will be based on the speedlight, and the ambient will be controlled by the shutter speed”

    Surely you mean that the ambient is controlled BOTH by the f-stop and the shutter speed?

  3. A quick question – did you simply use a bare flash (ie – your 430ex?) or did you umbrella it? Also – is that her underwear you see in the last picture?

  4. wedding_photographer:
    Exposure is of course controlled by both shutterspeed and aperture. But once the exposure has been determined, the flash is separate from the shutter speed.

    For instance, the shot is determined to be one stop under for a flash main. That ambient is a result of shutterspeed being one stop under and will be so in every shot. The flash power will determine the exposure of the subject… matching the ambient results in an underexposed photograph. Increasing the flash only by one stop makes the shot correct, with the ambient still the same as before. Ambient light is controlled by the shutter speed in this case, and the flash can be moved in or out, increased or decreased in power for the subject, leaving the ambient unchanged. That is what I mean when I state that in these kind of shots, determining the ambient light at a shutter speed that will allow flash sync is one part, and then working with that aperture now becomes a function of the speedlight.

    Last shot: No, not underwear… actually the back side of her jean skirt. As far as flash, it was indeed bare. If I had been working with a more liberal time frame, I may have used a Softlighter or Moonlight on the shot. In the lighting workshops we move pretty quickly on some of the shoots getting the technique down, then finessing as time permits. These shots are 4 of only 5 I shot – then the students took over and added lights and fills… It turned out far different as they went about working on it.

  5. Thanks wizwow for your very clear answer. Makes perfect sense.