Using a Speedlight for Environmental Images that Pop

Shooting The Natural Environment with Speedlights

I have been working on a personal project, shooting some of the old mining towns in Eastern/Central Arizona. Sometimes I shoot natural light and sometimes I like to pull out my speedlights for a little drama.

Let’s take a look at some easy ways to add a sense of lighting drama with a single speedlight. I use a 430EZ on a tethered hotshoe cord. I could use wireless remotes, and sometimes do, but the tether keeps me working within a set of limits that I like for this kind of shoot.

The tether means it fires every time, and there isn’t a bunch of things hanging off of the strobe or extending it. Anyway, if it wasn’t actually attached to my camera I would probably lose it.

We are shooting the towns of Superior, Miami and Hayden which are just east of Phoenix about an hour or so. They are very damaged towns, and I want to document where they are, because I really don’t know if they will make it or not.

We are working on Friday’s tech sheet now, and it will be really cool so check back.

Now, on to some fun, and easy ways to use your flash to pop the natural landscape and make some cool shots. If you want to try some shots like this, all you need is a camera and a flash that can be fired off camera… not on the hotshoe, but from another place. I handhold mine a lot.

For the shot below I used a home made Beauty Dish. You can see it in action on the video here. It is made from an IKEA light fixture and I compliment my friend Megan for making it for me. I have adjusted it a little, but it is her basic design.

With a 430 stuck in the back of it, I can get pretty good up-close flash power. I think it takes about a stop and a half off the light, so I do have to crank it up a notch. On the other hand, I am using it on a tethered Canon cable from hot shoe to flash. This is a totally manual configuration as the strobe is not a digital era strobe. Still connects for manual though and that is all I need.

What I love about this light is in close the highlights are glossy, smooth and the fall off is quick and edgy. This cactus was standing in the bright overcast day, so I decided to underexpose the background with shutter speed and let the flash ‘feature’ the thorns and lines of the cactus.

Shutter speed is the controlling factor for the daylight when you are shooting outside. I use some basic knowledge of the light (f16 rule in bright sun, dropping a stop and a half under overcast) and the basic knowledge of what the strobe is giving at the settings I use. I know that the beauty dish at about 18″ at 1/8 power is going to give me around f16… so I can make quick, knowledgeable decisions on the run… without necessarily pulling out my trusty Minolta meter. This cactus is in ‘downtown’ superior.

Saguaro Cactus with Beauty Dish.

Jerry and I were hiking around Miami when I spotted this stick leaning up against the wall. I thought there may be an image there… stairs are red, sign is sort of strange out in that environment, light is bouncing back on the stairs, and the patina of the wall was pretty cool. I took a few natural light images and they looked… well, boring.

I decided to add a little wink of flash coming from the opposite side of the sun to add some drama to the scene. Setting the flash on 1/32. I aimed it high and down on the side of the cactus. I kept the shutterspeed/f-stop at the correct point to expose the sunlit side correctly, but adding that little wink of light, the highlight on the stick and the shadow going opposite of the light to the left side of the image made the shot work for me.

Stick Leaning against a Wall in Miami Arizona

This prickly pear cactus was outside an old, run down building in the business district of Miami, Arizona. The sun was coming from camera left a little over my shoulder and casting a lot of shadows. The natural light shot looked like a cactus in the bright sun. Not much drama.

I knew if I could use the spires of the tall trees, the dramatic sky and the three Prickly Pears, I may get something more than a cactus shot. Taking the strobe to 1/16 power, it is literally about 16″ inches over my head. At the exposure I used, it matches the sun for power… but I quickened the shutter speed a stop and that gave me the dramatic dark sky and mysterious spires. I couldn’t really see through the camera lens as it is buried deep in the cactus, but a few ‘chimps’ and I kinda knew where to place the lens. I am using a bare Canon 430 here.

A Prickly Pear shot in Miami, Arizona

Shooting at 1/16, 1/32 power is great as well… it is plenty of power, I only have about 28″ of reach with that tether, so it keeps me close. And the flash recycles very, very quickly.

The Agave plants were at the edge of a parking lot in Hayden, Arizona. I looked at the dramatic sky and all those power lines and knew I had a shot. The sun was coming from camera left, slightly backlighting the Agave and the interesting shapes. Lots of wacky shadows made the shot not work… I decided to bring out the beauty dish and get it in close.

I placed the beauty dish right over the top of the Agave and brought it in close. Putting the camera into the cactus and aiming up, I was able to compose after a shot or two. Then it was a matter of moving the beauty dish around to try and get some interesting shadows, and smooth light on the spires. Agave are very accommodating to photographers I have found.

Beauty Dish and Agave Plants, Hayden, Arizona

One of the most important things you can practice is knowing your f-stop / shutter speed correlations and be able to do them quickly in your head. For instance, I knew that 1/100 at f-16 would be the natural light shot, so changing the shutter speed to 1/160 would darken the sky about a 2/3 stop. The sun shining on the lamp would be slightly darker, but it would still be very bright compared to the slightly underexposed background… still at f-16. The strobe isn’t controlled by the shutter speed, and I brought it in to the distance to give me f-16. The strobe lit side is slightly brighter than the sun lit side, and that is what makes the image have some drama.

Our last shot is of a lamp post in Miami, Arizona. the sun was over my right shoulder and it simply had a side lit shot going on the lamp. I have shot these lamps for about two dozen years, so nothing new there.

I did notice how the light was bright on one side of the wash below and dark on the right side. Deciding to bring in the bare Canon 430 to the shadow side gave the lamp a kind of ethereal light. It took only a single shot to chimp it in and I took vertical and horizontals of it.

Lamp on Bridge, Miami, Arizona. Speedlight and sun combine

For these shots I used a Canon 400D with a kit lens. My beloved 20-35MML is still in the shop. I am not crazy about this kit lens, but it doesn’t totally suck at the wide angle setting.

Take a strobe with you next time you go for a walk. And use to the side, from above, and from any angle you can, to create something that wasn’t seen before.

Thanks for dropping by Lighting Essentials. A Place for Photographers. And if you are interested in doing a Lighting Essentials Workshop, check out the workshop page here: Learn to Light

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

5 Comments

  1. Oh, very nice. Thanks for the reminder that shutter-speed controls ambient. I remember experimenting with this, but the strobes were for fill and not main lights at the time and it confused me. I see what i missed there now – love the prickly pear and spires!

    Reply
  2. A few wedding photographers have been using speedlights on traditional reception detail shots (cake, place setting, etc). You can see some of the unusual results on http://flashflavor.com/blog/6 – keep up the quality content!

    Reply
  3. Really nice work here. You gave me a few things to think about for a similar type shoot I have planned in the near future over here in Taiwan.

    Reply
  4. Hi Don, great site, i notice for all your contact sheets DPP is used. Do you use DPP as your standard Raw converter. Also, do you have any standard/preffered settings for your camera that you could share and pass on. I am also a Canon user with a 350D.

    Thanks Don

    Steve.

    Reply
  5. Hi Steve,
    Yes… I shoot tethered quite a bit, though not on these shots, and I use the DPP for that usually. I am moving to Light Room for shooting tethered soon, but for now I am totally happy with DPP. I use it for conversion on two of my machines, and on the big machine at the studio I have CS3.

    It is a little cranky when first starting up… you have to check and double check your destination folders, but it is pretty quick… and working tethered for a few years now means I have a pretty good idea on how an image converts from the tiny little screen of deception (Camera LCD) to the computer.

    I have a couple of different converters as well as CS, but I gotta tell ya, the DPP works pretty darn good for me.

    Thanks for the kind words, Steve. Hope you come back and visit often.

    Reply

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