Getting started with flash

Off cameraw360_6415757_tutorialbannerfordotmailerSo how do you get on with using flash? If you’re like 90% of the world’s photographers the answer to that will be ‘pretty badly’. You’re never quite sure what it’s up to, never feel fully in control of what’s going on and are never completely happy with the results you get. And that’s a shame because, when you come to think about it, flash is the most controllable light source you have at your disposal. You can fire it when you want, put out lots of power (or very little) and you can even shape or colour the light. Just imagine what brilliant landscape photographers we’d all be if we had the same amount of control over daylight! So, flash isn’t the bad news that many photographers consider it to be, it’s simply a question of learning the functions you have at your disposal and how to bend them to your creative will.  

No doubt, after the rousing words of my opening paragraph you’ll be wanting to get to grips with multiple flash set ups right from the off. But that’s a little like competing in the 100m at the Olympics before you can walk. Let’s ease you in more gently by giving you an overview of the flash features you have at your disposal on a Fujifilm X-series camera and when you might press them into service. In this particular case, I’m heading to the Flash Set-Up menu on an X-T10.

Within that menu you’ll find the Flash Mode option, which gives you five choices: Forced Flash, Slow Synchro, 2nd Curtain Sync, Commander and Suppressed Flash. The last option is perhaps the most obvious; selecting Suppressed Flash means the flash won’t fire even if it’s popped up ready for action, nor will a hot-shoe flash fire if it’s attached to the camera and switched on. But seeing as this a guide to firing the flash, we best move on.

Forced Flash is the polar opposite of Suppressed Flash. As long as the integral unit is flipped up or a hot-shoe flash is attached and switched on, the flash will fire on every shot, irrespective of how bright the light in the scene is. This may sound a little odd, but you’re actually most likely to use this mode in bright daylight for a technique called fill-in flash. This is where you ‘fill-in’ shadows – typically in a portrait – with a low powered burst of flash, which is achieved by combining Forced Flash and the Flash Compensation mode. Take a look at the two shots above. The one on the left is taken without flash. It’s OK, but the subject’s face is in shadow. By using Forced Flash and -1 Flash Compensation, we got a lower powered burst of flash that filled in the shadowy area and put a nice catchlight in our subject’s eyes.

Slow sync

Next on the menu is Slow Synchro, which is used to add a touch of dynamism to action images or to shoot portraits in low light conditions. Selecting this function and a slower shutter speed produces the sort of image you see above on action shots. Panning the camera during the exposure introduces the blur, but then the burst of flash momentarily freezes the subject so you get this look. The shutter speed doesn’t have to be too slow – the shot above was taken at 1/8sec, but it adds an extra dimension to your shots.

Equally, using Slow Synchro can help capture more ambient light in low light conditions. Take a straight shot with flash at night and you’ll end up with a shot like the one below left – rather dull. Use Slow Synchro and the longer exposure ensures the background appears while the flash illuminates your subject perfectly. In this case you’ll need to keep both the camera and the subject still – we’d recommend a tripod and a head brace. Ok, maybe just the tripod.

Note: It’s worth noting that Slow Synchro is only available on the menu in aperture-priority and program exposure modes. If you want to combine a slow shutter speed in shutter-priority or manual modes you still can – just switch to Forced Flash and select the shutter speed you require.

2nd Curtain Sync is another one for those who want to make movement look natural and, much like Slow Synchro is a question of combining a burst of flash with a longer shutter speed. The ‘curtain’ part of the equation refers to the camera’s shutter curtain. In any given exposure, the first curtain begins the exposure, the second curtain ends it. Typically, when you’re using flash, the flash is fired at the start of the exposure – when the first curtain moves. But switching to 2nd Curtain Sync, the flash fires at the end of the exposure. This is largely irrelevant if the exposure is a fraction of a second. But it’s important with a longer exposure. Take a look at the two shots below. For the shot on the left, the flash has fired at the start of the exposure and then the car has moved to create the blurred light effect. The trouble is, it looks as though the car has reversed. It didn’t, it moved forwards. By selecting 2nd Curtain Sync, the flash fires at the end of the exposure after the car has moved, so you get a more natural-looking effect with the blurred lights.

Note: When using 2nd Curtain Sync with a built in or hot-shoe flashgun, two bursts of flash will fire. The first at the beginning of the exposure, is purely designed for the camera to get an exposure assessment and does not effect the actual exposure. The second flash, at the end of the exposure, is the one that actually illuminates the subject.

Finally, we have the Commander mode, where you can use the camera’s integral flash to fire a second flash away from the camera. This is used for more creative on-location effects, like the one below. It’s simple enough to do and produces professional looking results.

Off camera

So that’s the top line when it comes to shooting flash. Hopefully, this top-line introduction has armed you with enough information to start getting to grips with the flash modes you have available. But we’ll be going into more detail on each of these techniques in subsequent blogs over the next few weeks.

Using flash to capture action

I am currently in the middle of a six-month research stint with the Wild Macaw Association, gathering data on a scarlet macaw population for a study in Costa Rica, associated with Gent University. This remarkable opportunity allows me to study these birds closely and to explore the surrounding area during our two daily treks. To find out more about this very successful project, in which 75 macaws were released from 2002-2012, please check out this link here.

Scarlet macaws are incredible birds, with their bright colours and quirky behaviour making them very photogenic. However, they are often found within the rainforest and this often means in dark conditions, too dark for even the XF50-140mm F2.8 and high ISOs to capture any sort of motion. This problem will sound familiar to many of you in different situations, where OIS is redundant as the problem is subject movement, not camera shake. There is however one way to get around this: add artificial light. It may not be suitable for some situations but with a little bit of time and understanding this can allow for that otherwise impossible shot.

Here is a video showing how I developed my flying macaw photographs.

For me, there are two reasons to add flash to an action situation; we’ll take a look at both of these in a little bit of detail.

You need more light to freeze the subject/scene

In other words you simply can’t get a sharp image without more light. This is the most common reason to switch to flash. Most will start with the popup flash on their cameras and/or then get a dedicated flash and mount it on the hotshoe of the camera. There are photographers who can produce exceptional images using just this simple technique, and if you have a TTL (through the lens metering) flash then this becomes relatively quick and simple as the camera will communicate with the camera how much flash output there should be. Generally this will be fine for most needs, especially if you are short of time and need to take a variety of photos.

If you do have a TTL flash and you haven’t experimented with manual flash outputs before I would highly recommend that you give it a go. This slows you down and makes you think more about what you want to produce – do you simply want the flash to give a little bit of fill light to an otherwise correctly exposed scene? Or would you rather the camera underexposes the scene while the flash exposes correctly, so bringing the focus onto your subject and away from the darker background? These are all fun things to play with.

This all sounds great but flash photography can drive you around the bend if you’re not careful. On current X-Series cameras the maximum flash sync is 1/180sec (except the X100 series because of a leaf shutter allowing 1/1000sec flash sync). Anything more than this will not allow proper flash input. When it comes to action 1/180sec is pretty slow! There is one flash currently available, the Nissin i40, which is different. It offers high-speed sync (HSS), which allows you to use the flash up to 1/4000 sec, this is certainly helpful when adding some fill flash but it does cut the overall output of the flash. The reason for the downgraded power in this mode is because the flash sends out a series of very high speed flashes (instead of one, more powerful flash) that are fast enough to expose the subject within the maximum shutter speeds.

On camera flash
1/180sec flash sync isn’t enough to freeze background movement when following a fast moving subject. This can be fine as it shows some motion. The illuminated subject should generally be sharp because a flash pulse is so fast. However this can be improved by using second curtain/slow sync that I will talk about soon.

If you want to freeze the subject and aren’t bothered by the background then what you want to do is find an exposure combination that creates a totally black image. For example 1/180sec (max sync), F11, ISO200 – a mix which should require too much light for a lot of scenes, thus leaving your image black/heavily under exposed. The next thing to do is to add the flash that will offer all the light on the subject. If your subject is moving quickly then you’ll want to cut the flash output, this sounds counterintuitive, but as you cut the light output say from 1/1 to ¼ then the flash time is four times faster than maximum 1/1 power. This ensures that the subject is completely frozen.

Stopping the feathers in mid-beat, using ¼ power of the flash ensured it froze the macaw. However, when you do this you’ll often need more than one flash to get enough light to illuminate the subject with the ‘ambient stopping’ settings and the fractional flash power output.
Stopping the feathers in mid-beat using ¼ power of the flash ensured it froze the macaw. However, when you do this you’ll often need more than one flash to get enough light to illuminate the subject with the ‘ambient stopping’ settings and the fractional flash power output.

The scene isn’t dramatic enough so you add artificial light

Sometimes a scene just looks flat and no matter what you do images just don’t ‘pop’. This is where some creative artificial light can make an image. In the rainforest undergrowth this definitely applies, as apart from being really dark, there is generally very little direct sunlight so the light is muted. Some images where I panned with the subject came out ok, partly thanks to the wonderful colours of the birds, but I still felt that it need an extra something. This is where the aforementioned video shows the progression from initial photos to more dynamic, off-camera flash images. 

There are countless blogs on creative use of artificial light and I’m not going to pretend that I am a flash master, instead I’m simply going to show the set up I ended up using and why.

First of all I love off-camera flash, it opens up so many more opportunities compared to simple on-camera flash (this is just my opinion and not fact). So I very quickly knew that for the image I had in mind, I needed to use flashes off camera. I experimented from backlighting the birds to using the two flashes one from each side and then from slap bang in front. But the combination that created the image I really wanted involved having both flashes to the right-hand side, where the bird was flying. One flash was in line with where the birds fly over, while the other was slightly around towards me so giving a bit of light onto the side of the face towards the camera. This gave sufficient light onto the face to freeze the detail (especially as the face is lighter than the body) but didn’t cast enough light onto the rest of the bird to freeze more detail so creating motion. Here is a sketch to indicate what I did.

Lighting

Different Flash Curtains

There are two curtains in a flash exposure. The first curtain reveals the sensor to the light coming through the lens and then the second that closes the sensor to light, completing the exposure. This is important to understand as it can greatly affect how you use flash.

First curtain flash

Where the flash is triggered as the first curtain opens. This is the most common set up, where your main priority is the flash. The go-to set up unless you’re using slightly slow shutter speeds with subjects or moving lights. It captures the exact action that you press the shutter to capture, if you use second curtain/slow sync then you could miss the split-second moment you were hoping to catch.

1st curtain is great for portraits.
1st curtain is great for portraits.

Second Curtain Flash

As the second curtain is about to come up and finish the exposure the flash fires making it effectively the last light to hit the sensor. This method does send off a flash initially to get a meter reading if used in aperture priority mode (no meter flash in manual mode). I generally avoid this method as it can give weird results (see video).

Look at the weird double freezes, by the metering flash and 2nd sync flash.
Look at the weird double freezes, by the metering flash and 2nd sync flash.

Slow Flash Sync     

Slow sync is only available in aperture priority/auto-shutter speed modes, generally it is the same as second curtain flash but without the disruptive initial metering flash (note that it can only go down to 1/8sec). This is my favorite option for any kind of action photography and is the method I used for the panning images. The reason why this works best is it lets the ambient light reach the sensor first; correctly exposing the background and THEN the flash is triggered reaching and freezing the subject. This is preferential for panning/slow shutter speeds because it prevents ghosting – where the subject is flashed and but there is time afterwards for some light to reach the subject and any subject movement creates a bit of a psychedelic feel!

Slow Sync
Slow flash sync is my favourite option.

Conclusion

There concludes a rough/quick break down of different flash curtain types for the X-Series. To summarise there are a number of ways you can use flash to help your action photography:

  • Fill flash either up to 1/180sec or higher if using a HSS flash.
  • Causing a correctly exposed subject with a darkened/underexposed background.
  • Freezing a subject
  • Capturing motion with a bit of detail while panning with a moving subject.
  • Blending ambient light with directional flash light.

I hope that gives you a little bit of inspiration to get out there and try your hand at creative flash photography.

If you’d like to find out more about the Wild Macaw Association project or even donate to keep the project running then please check it out here – http://www.tiskita.com/macaw-conservation/


A little about Ben

Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at:

Tutorial: To take great pictures first you have to S.E.E.

w360_6415757_tutorialbannerfordotmailerSo how do I take better pictures?

Great question, glad you asked! There are so many ways to take better pictures, but I would say the easiest way to improve is to read tutorials, watch tutorials and try all the techniques you see to develop your skills. Think of every tutorial as a new recipe that you can add to a larger collection, then when you need a certain flavour of image, you just choose the relevant recipe. It not only means you will feel more confident when shooting, but you’ll also start producing consistently good, consistently your-style images, which is very important.

And don’t worry if you don’t quite get a technique straight away, because you will, and when you do, embrace it. Use it over and over until it becomes part of your very own photography recipe book.

So with this in mind, I want to introduce you to a new recipe to add to that book. This is a simple mnemonic that I want you to memorise, and then try out as soon as you can.

S: Search – E: Evaluate – E: Emphasise

S : Search

Being a budding photographer, I can assume that you are always looking for an interesting subject to take pictures of and this is what this step is all about. Search for the perfect photo any time you have a camera handy ( which of course, you always do 😉 ) because an interesting shot can find its way to you very quickly in almost all circumstances. Whether you are doing street photography and suddenly a flash mob arrives, or maybe it’s some landscape photography and you notice a small glint of the sun peeking through some trees. Be mindful of these possibilities and be ready.

Now, here’s the important part – when you find an interesting subject, don’t just shoot a picture of it and move on. This is a habit of many photographers, and it doesn’t mean that they will take bad pictures, on the contrary, they could be good photos. But, to take great photos, consistently, look to the next step..


E: Evaluate

So you have found something to take a picture of? That’s great! Now ask yourself this very simple question:

Why do I want to take a picture of it?

Think about what makes this subject special? Is it the colour of the ladies hair? Is it the shape formed from the shadow of that building? Maybe it’s the emotion that you want to capture? Or could it be the sharp stylish lines in the car? If you cannot answer this question, it probably isn’t worth taking a photograph. But, if you can answer it, take that knowledge to the next step.


E: Emphasise

So now you have a potential shot in mind, and very importantly, you know what makes it interesting. So this last step is to emphasise that point. Here are some ideas and examples to this way of thinking:


The red haired girl

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Let’s say you’re taking an image of a red haired girl, if the reason you chose her as your subject is because of her beautiful hair colour, don’t shoot her in black and white – consider complimentary colours in the background (greens usually work well) to help her stand out from the background. You could even increase the saturation ever so slightly to boost the colour further.

Tip: Your eye is always drawn to the warmer colour palette first in an image followed by cooler tones (blues).


The aggressively styled car

car

If it is a car you’re shooting, and the reason that you chose it is because it looks mean and aggressive, getting down low to the ground, close to the car and shooting upwards can really add to the drama, especially if you add a little dutch tilt as well.

Tip: Using a wide-angle lens like the XF10-24mm or XF14mm can really increase the mood further as it pulls the centre of the frame forward, towards the viewer.


The modern city building

building

If it’s an interesting bit of modern architecture you’re shooting, and the reason that you chose it is because of its modern lines and edges. Consider following one of these lines of the building from one edge of the frame to the other. Look at capturing the symmetry of the building, try it in black and white and also look at increasing the contrast to make the building ‘pop out’ from the image.

Tip: Try shooting in the 1:1 ratio (square crop) to enhance the symmetry and pattern-like nature of the image.


Why S.E.E. can help you

If you don’t go through these steps every time you go to take a picture, there is a high chance that you will only ever take good photos, not great ones.

This process is there to remind you to squeeze out every last drop of special into every photograph you take. After a while you will know this recipe off by heart and it will become second nature, very much like the difference between learning to drive and being able to drive – it just happens naturally with a little repetition.

And most of all.. have fun and keep snapping!

😀

 

X-Photographer’s Spotlight – Doug Chinnery

Tell us about yourself and what got you into photography?

Doug Chinnery headshotLike many children I was given a Kodak Brownie, when I was around seven or eight years old, I think, and I happily cut off peoples heads and sloped my horizons burning through film at an alarming rate. When I was about twelve or thirteen my step-father gave me a Russian Lubitel Twin Lens Reflex medium format camera, a Rolliflex knock off. He taught me the basics of aperture, shutter speed and ISO and I was hooked. I think it was this camera that also made me fall in love with the square format. In the early years of married life, like so many, photography had to take a back seat but as digital cameras began to emerge my interest was reawakened and an anniversary gift of a digital SLR from my wife, Elizabeth, opened my eyes to all of the new possibilities that digital opened up.

At that time, I was working as a sales and marketing manager in an industrial manufacturing company but I started getting opportunities to make some income from my camera; selling prints, shooting weddings and portraits (which I hated!) and then teaching workshops. This gradually grew until I was only working part time for my company. When the recession started my MD wanted me to return to my role in the company full time, something I felt I couldn’t do. So, I pushed the company car keys across the table to him and walked away to become a full time professional teacher, writer and photographer. It was a huge step, but one I have never regretted.

As for my style of photography, I find myself in a strange position. I know in so many books and articles we are encouraged to develop a personal, identifiable style, but I just can’t. I have no style. I can’t shoot just one way, or with one technique. This is why I don’t describe myself as a ‘Landscape Photographer’ or an “Outdoor Photographer’. I am just a ‘Photographer’. I see things all the time, wherever I am I want to photograph and when I see things I visualise the image in different ways depending on the light, weather, the mood, my mood. I look at photographers websites who have a distinct style with envy – they are so slick and flow so beautifully. But I just can’t be like that. I just take pictures and present them in the way that I feel suits the subject, light and mood best. Perhaps having no style is my style?

Doug Chinnery-1-5

Why did you choose Fujifilm cameras?

I lead workshops all over the world and needed a high quality camera system which would stand up to the rigours of professional travel but would be light and inconspicuous. I was impressed with Fuji’s investment in lenses and also they way they were responding to users feedback rapidly. To me they were clearly a company dedicated to producing a customer focused system. My first body was an X-Pro 1 and within a couple of hours of using it I was astounded by the results and delighted by its usability. Since that day I have hardly used my DSLR system at all.

I now use a full range of prime lenses for my personal work and when travelling light can manage with just the 18-55mm and 55-200mm zooms in almost all situations. Although I do find myself lusting after the new 10-24mm!

Doug Chinnery-1-14

Do you have a photographic philosophy you live by?

I believe we should shoot images for ourselves, not to impress others or to conform to rules they would try and impose upon us. There are no Photography Police. Then if others like our work, that is great, but if we are satisfying ourselves creatively it shouldn’t matter to us what others think.

Doug Chinnery-1-3

Key inspirations – What & who inspires you?

I have a number of photographers who inspire me, in fact, I list them all here.

But there are some particular ones I would mention. I love the quiet beauty of Michael Kennas work and would also encourage people to look at the extraordinary work of photographer Valda Bailey whose images truly bridge the gap between photography and painting . Another English rural documentary photographer who has had a huge effect on me is Chris Tancock and especially his long term project Beating The Bounds.  I would also point to another major influence as being Chris Friel, a master of alternative techniques who sees the world in extraordinary ways through his camera

Doug Chinnery-1

Do you have any tips or tricks you could share with us?

When I started using the Fuji system I tried to use it in the same way as I used my DSLR and found it soon frustrated me. I soon realised it is better to work with the system, not to fight it. So rather than working in Manual as I was used to, I switched to working in Aperture Priority. I also found it much easier to use auto focus on the Fuji than manual focus as I did on the DSLR. For this I manually selected which auto focus point I wanted active so I was still in control of my depth of field. I have always only shot in raw on my DSLR, but as with so many Fuji users, I fell in love with the jpegs and so I now shoot in Fine Jpeg + raw. I use the jpegs for social media, my website and so on but then process the larger raw files as my master files for client work. And for anyone wondering if you can print large images from the Fuji sensor, yes you can. I have clients printing well in excess of 2 meters wide from Fuji X-Pro 1 raw files and the quality is stunning.

Doug Chinnery-1-2

What’s next for you?

I am patiently awaiting the launch of an X-Pro 2. I am sure Fuji will have some special for us when it comes out. In the meantime, I am already planning locations for 2016 and 2017 and have personal projects ‘on the boil’. Gnawing away at me is a huge backlog of images which need processing too. One day, when I am ready, I would love to produce a book, but I don’t feel I have a suitable body of work yet, but I enjoy writing for photography magazines and leading photography tours and workshops.

Contact info

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Story behind the photo – Strong Contrasts

I thought I’d put together a blog on how I came about taking this image and the thought process I went through.

It was a grey and gloomy day, not overly inspiring for photography but I thought I’d bring my X100s with the TCL-X100 converter attached with me while I took my dogs out for a walk. Most of the walk was spent either trying to avoid slipping over in the thick, wet mud or turning my body to avoid having a face full of rain. I was shooting with the black and white + red filter preset as it worked well with the gloomy conditions for some moody shots. As I reached the top of the hill I was walking up, I noticed how quickly the clouds were moving across an adjacent hilltop and instantly decided to drive back to this location with my tripod and filters*.

I was imagining the image I want to produce while walking back down with the dogs. There was a strong contrast between the immovable trees and the blustery clouds so I wanted to exaggerate this.

Behind the shot-4
What you can’t make out from this photo is the speed of the clouds moving from right to left. That is because the shutter speed used has frozen the clouds, so there is no sign of movement.

I decided to use the X-T1 and the XF18-135mm lens because it was very versatile and meant I could change my composition with minimal effort! I mounted the camera onto a tripod and attached a filter holder system. I have a collection of square filters, these are very helpful as you can use square filters with a variety of lenses with different filter thread sizes, all you need are different filter adapters. Though the systems are relatively expensive, in the long run they are more economical than circular filters. I also used a remote trigger which means I don’t have to touch the camera and introduce any unnecessary camera shake to take the picture, this is very helpful for long exposures.

Behind the shot If you look at the above photo you can see that I have a filter inserted into the filter holder. I decided to use a gradual neutral density filter as this allowed me to darken the sky while having less/little effect on the ground.

The left filter is a gradual neutral density filter, it isn’t square which means you can adjust how far down you want the gradient to affect your picture. The filter on the right is a neutral density filter, which is constant throughout. This particular one is a 10-stop filter hence why it is so dark as it cuts the amount of light passing through it by ten times, so slowing down shutter speeds drastically.

I put the gradual filter in first and set it up how I wanted it, set focus and then inserted the 10-stop filter. The reason why I set the focus first is the 10-stop filter can make auto-focus very difficult so it is better to have it all set beforehand. On this occasion the 10-stop filter didn’t take the shutter speed below 30 seconds, which means the camera is able to accurately read the exposure required. If a 30 second exposure is still too short once you’ve applied the filter, then you’ll need to refer to a chart that shows the difference.

Behind the shot-12
This was taken with only the gradual filter so the shutter speed was still high enough to freeze the clouds.

Despite the fact that I’ve used a graduated neutral density filter, I’ve deliberately under exposed the picture to keep it dark and moody, hence why the ground is still dark. The slideshow below is a collection of images that used the 10-stop neutral density filter to slow down the shutter speed and as a result capture the cloud motion.

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My photos are dominated by the sky – I deliberately kept the horizon low in the picture as the sky was the main subject for me. With the wider shots, I could have moved the horizon up more but the foreground content wasn’t particularly exciting, the sheep weren’t overly inspiring!

I hope this has been helpful and if you have any questions then please don’t hesitate to ask. There is one colour image above, I’d love to know which is your favourite out of the final four. For me it is the portrait orientated shot as I was lucky enough to capture the sun peering through the clouds.

*If you haven’t already seen my previous blog about photographing winter, then check it out here: https://fujifilm-blog.com/2014/12/31/capturing-winter/