Update: This blog post has seen more traffic than I ever imagined it would. Obviously there is an intense interest in the topic of off-camera flash photography fueled by the likes of David Hobby, Joe McNally, Dave Black, Neil van Niekerk and others. Please check those guys out if you haven't already. If you have questions, please feel free to ask me about my methods and techniques. Thanks for stopping by.
Today marks a red letter day of sorts — I'm publishing my first blog post. The subject is one that has generated quite a bit of interest in amateur photographer's circles, both in camera clubs and Internet forums: off-camera lighting. Much has been written already and my goal here is not to reinvent the wheel; I just want to give you a practical, real-world example.
A few years ago I was approached by a gentleman, a certain Mr. King, who had access to a 1998 Viper GTSR. This is a rare automobile (only 100 were built), so the opportunity to photograph one doesn't come around every day. Mr. King had a specific time requirement for the finished photos, one which frankly was at odds with my normal method of shooting. We started discussing the project in the late fall of 2009 and the photos had to be finished a few months later, in early February of 2010. Since shooting couldn't begin right away, this time constraint meant that the shoot would take place during the winter... in Indiana. Those of you who have any familiarity with the Hoosier state know that the weather can be unpredictable, but December and January are just about guaranteed to be cold and wet. Since I’d always shot cars outside, the idea of rolling around on the frozen ground didn’t sound all that appealing. As it turned out, it wasn’t the weather that was going to be the problem.
Mr. King, being very resourceful, also had access to a vacant, heated warehouse and it was agreed that the shoot would take place there. With the weather issue put to rest, I didn’t worry too much about other details except for being mildly curious about the quality of lighting in the warehouse. Turns out the warehouse had warehouse lighting (who’d a thunk it?) which was completely impractical and totally unacceptable for shooting a car. Not only did the high-intensity lights create hot spots all over the car’s finish, the lights themselves were of various color temperatures which made creating a custom white balance impossible. If I balanced off the front of the car, the back half was blue; if I did it the other way around, the front half was pink.
Not the best look for a white car.
I could launch into a long discussion about the types of studio lighting that the pros use to shoot cars for manufacturers and magazines, but suffice it to say that the gear takes up a lot of space and it's really expensive. I couldn’t afford to rent it, let alone buy it. So what to do? In what could be called a serendipitous event, I had become aware of Ken Brown’s work a few weeks before the Viper job materialized. When Ken started out shooting cars, he did it with a single light and a simple modifier. And he did it in the dark. Seeing him do that generated my AHA! moment: the way to deal with crappy lights is to turn them off. There are some youtube videos floating around that document his process if you want to hunt them down. His current website is here http://www.kenbrownart.com/ and it's certainly worth a look, especially if you like cars.
Essentially, what Ken did was use a technique called light painting. He set his camera on a tripod, tripped the shutter using a long exposure (20 seconds or so), and then ran around the car, lights off, popping his flash to create multiple exposures on a single frame. He got some amazing results. Me, not so much. I got a couple of usable shots using his method, but I could tell it was going to take some time for me to learn it well enough to achieve consistency — and time was of the essence. So I modified Ken's approach to one that worked better for me: I ran around the car in the (near) dark too, but, using radio triggers, every time I popped the flash I shot a new frame. Every finished shot from this project is the product of 15 to 50 individual frames, combined in Photoshop. A small sampling of those shots can be found here.
Below is a storyboard showing the raw material used for an interior shot. The frames were loaded into Photoshop as layers, then, using the Lighten blend mode and layer masks, bits and pieces of each layer were combined to produce the final image. When I say "bits and pieces" I mean exactly that. With some frames, I used only a single highlight or element needed to accent or define some feature of the interior.
And, finally, we conclude with the finished shot.
That's it, hope you enjoyed the show. I know that there's maybe not quite enough detail here to make a real how-to tutorial, but I think I've included enough information that you can fill in the blanks using your Google-foo. Have fun.