Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Monday, April 16, 2018

Add a Spark to Your Lighting With Gels

Natural and or existing light can be and is often very dramatic. However, the problem with natural light is you can't control it very well. Using shade, or a reflector, or some kind of diffuser gives you some limited ability to alter the light, but over all you are pretty well stuck with what nature gives you. Speedlites provide an alternative and versatile source of light, but even those have limitations. I do enjoy using speedlites and in recent years have turned to them more and more as a way to shape the light around my subject. What is exciting about speedlites is their ability to add color to your images thru the use of Gels.

Gels are simply thin transparent plastic sheets that fit over the head of the speedlight. They come in all colors but generally they are used to add warm or cool light to your image. Although they are relatively inexpensive to purchase, you can make your own quite easily. I have used colored, clear plastic document protectors cut to fit my lights. They work great, however the ones you purchase probably do have a more precise color cast to them.

One drawback to using gels is they will often reduce the power output of your lights. Depending on which ones you use and how many are stacked together, you can lose as much as a full stop of light output. This is easily overcome with some simple exposure compensation.

The best use of gels is to use them in such a way you do not realize they are there. A subtle cast of warm light or a gentle cooling effect is often all you need. Most of the time it is best to use them to enhance colors that already exist. The image above is a good example of this. Taken at the Corvette Cafe, we discovered lots of natural occurring bright colors as part of the 1950's diner experience. To create the image I used four speedlights and one 20x30 softbox. One of the lights was placed in the right hand corner of the cafe and used a pale blue gel which helped to enhance the chrome along the diner counter and provided a gentle rim light around our model. It also matched her dress. A pale blue light like this can often liven up dark corners and add a sense of cheeriness to the atmosphere. In the corner directly behind our model a light with red gel was used to fill in another dark space and to provide a matching contrast to the various red splashes found in the cafe. The gelled lights were set to a low power output to prevent overwhelming the image yet they added to the flavor of the scene. They looked like they belonged there and offered a subtle, pleasing effect.

There are times you might want to go for broke and use a strong color to add drama to your image. Bold colored gels can often transform an ordinary look into an image with a great deal of drama. The image below of the classic T-33 / F-80 Shooting Star is a good example. Taken just after dusk, I basically killed all the ambient light with the exposure settings and then built a bubble of light around the aircraft bouncing it off the tarmac so the airplane would define itself within that bubble. The bold nature of the light created a powerful look and transformed this wonderful static display into an image that jumps off the page.

Using Gels can be an exciting way to spice up your images. Used creatively you can turn what might be an ordinary picture into an image with a spark of excitement, one that generates an emotional response. The trick is to make it look like it belongs there.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Combining Two Images to Make One is Sometimes Better Than Simply Shooting One Image

Sometimes I over-think things. I tend to get caught up in details of how and why something is the way it is. I've even been told, subtly mind you, that I over-complicate things and sometimes create a cluttered view of what I am talking about as a result. I know this to be true and do take it to heart, no really I do, but I just can't help myself when it comes to something where there is a revelation of sorts that seems to jump out at me. Take for instance the subject of this article. Based on the title you might be thinking, well, there he goes again. You'd probably be right, but hear me out, because I do believe this actually makes sense.

So, why is combining two images to make one, sometimes better than simply shooting one image to start with? Well, let me explain. First of all, this idea does not always apply to every situation.  In most cases a single, well-lit photo of a subject is more than adequate to create an appealing image. However there are circumstances where capturing two or more images, then combining them into one will create a more powerful looking image.

Let's take the picture above of an F-4 Phantom aircraft as an example. In recent weeks I have been concentrating on this particular shoot for several reasons and have included commentary in several blog posts about it. The more I began to study the outcome of this image, the more I began to realize  the final result could not have been made without the combining of two separate images. Had I used lets say six or seven flash units all at once, I potentially could have captured this image in a single shot. However, it would never have looked the same and might have even been inferior to the final image created using four speedlights and two combined images.

The reason is this. Had I used six or seven flash units at the same time, they would have been working against each other. Part of the appeal of this image is the dramatic use of light (red light in this case) bounced off the tarmac and then reflected back into the underside of the aircraft. Two other lights were used to illuminate the outside edges. This combination created the first image. Take notice how the light and shadows along with the reflections created a strong dramatic appearance.

After re-positioning the lights, a second image was created by pointing two lights toward the canopy and filling the front, top, and underside of the aircraft with ordinary white light. This flood of white light bouncing off the tarmac is what would create the problem if they were used at the same time as the wing positioned red lights.

In the final results, the second image was layered on top of the first image. The dramatic red light was then revealed by erasing portions of the top layer and leaving the  top half of the layer alone. Had I used six flash units at the same time, the additional two units pointing toward the canopy would have diluted and washed out the red light and shadows coming from behind the wings. The dramatic red light would no longer have been there, at least not at the same intensity levels. Also, most if not all of the Vanishing Point depth and dimension created by the shadows would have been lost.

By combining two separate exposures, the lighting effects of each individual exposure were fully realized without interfering with each other.

The image above is a sample of a similar aircraft that was captured in a single shot using seven flash units at the same time. Notice how the white lights seem to have washed out the power and strength of the red gelled lights. It's a nice photo, but without the drama that could have been, had we used two separate shots. Not every situation lends itself well to this technique, but, sometimes thinking through a problem and observing the results, however unexpected, can often reveal an exciting outcome.

So...maybe I do over-think problems a bit too much. I suppose it is a bi-product of 30 years of mainframe computer programming where that is what you do...everyday. Building a final image from multiple shots is not a new idea, but combining multiple images with creative lighting just might offer a way to experience the power and versatility of speedlights in a unique way. It sort of occurred to me just how much merit this concept really does warrant.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Shaping Light to Fit Your Subject

Dusk was upon me before I was ready and the bright display lights at the Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green kicked on as the daylight faded. The lights were much brighter than I remembered and I was concerned they would interfere with my planned shooting for that evening. Turned out my apprehension was premature because in fact they actually helped out because they provided enough illumination so the camera could easily focus, but not so much to drown out the lighting I was planning to use. About the only issue with them was they created a florescent glow the camera wanted to interpret as a greenish cast. A simple tweak of the White Balance eliminated the threat, and I was confident the speedlights would provide enough horsepower to overcome any adverse affect they might have.

As part of the Adventure Photography series, my project for the previous two weeks was to capture the historical aircraft on display at the park. There were five beautifully restored ones all having a connection to Bowling Green and Kentucky. Capturing vintage aircraft such as these in such a way as to avoid reproducing the standard cliche images requires a bit of thought. I had to ask, then answer one question; How do I shape my light to fit my subject?

I could have taken the normal approach and simply pointed my lights at the aircraft and flooded them with light. I knew this would never fulfill my creative desire to capture them in a unique way. I also ran into the problem of having only four speedlights to work with when I actually needed six or even eight to do the job effectively. As I walked around the F-4 Phantom, a huge aircraft even though it was an air superiority fighter, I realized there was no way I was going to capture this magnificent piece of history without taking a multiple image approach, then combining two images into a new single image. The idea was to first illuminate the underside of the aircraft, then photograph the topside. These two images then would be combined to create the final photograph.

My first decision was to decide from which angle to shoot. The F-4 carries itself well from most all angles, but the most striking appeared to be from straight on. Using this angle allowed for a dramatic use of what is known in the art world as a Vanishing Point, where all straight lines tend to point toward a single converging point thus creating an illusion of three dimensions. This also created a sense of movement and speed.

The next problem to solve was how to light this enormous aircraft using just four speedlights. It was much too large to capture in a single photograph. Dramatic lighting was a requirement and to create this drama I was going to use a set of homemade red gels to cover two of the lights. The gels were made from a document protector cut to fit the dimensions of the flash units. Two other units would remain uncovered and provide a basic white light. The idea then was to indirectly light the underside of the aircraft by bouncing the light off the tarmac. Two lights each were clamped to the back edges of both wings with the lights pointing down with a slight angle forward. This lighting setup effectively illuminated the underside of the F-4, but the top part of the airframe remained relatively dark. The lights of course were fired remotely from the camera.

I placed the camera on a tripod and aligned the composition. After some test shots I settled in on an exposure of f/5.6 at 28 mm with a shutter of 1/15 and an ISO of 800, using a remote cable release. Part of the problem was to also eliminate or kill off most if not all of the ambient light spilling over from the background. Once that was confirmed as the best exposure to accomplish this, I locked the camera in place on the tripod and left it alone. The first image was captured.

I now had to capture the second image. With the underside of the airframe captured, I needed to position the lights in such a way as to throw some light across the front and top portion. To do this I used two tall light stands one each positioned just outside the wingtips and somewhat in front of the airframe angled toward the canopy. Leaving the camera setting alone effectively prevented any movement of the camera that could throw off the critical alignment of the two images when blending the final two shots into one.

Again it required several test shots and power setting adjustments to get the desired results, but once I had that accomplished, I was pretty well done for the night. All that was required from that point on was to blend the two images into a single new image and do some tweaking in Photoshop to clean up the image.

The idea of this entire exercise was to avoid simply using light to illuminate the F-4 but to use light to shape the subject. The tarmac in essence became part of the main sources of light. Drama was demanded for this aircraft, to do justice to its classic lines, its history, and to its legacy. Using speedlights to shape light so it fits the subject requires not only an understanding of composition, but of the versatility of using off camera flash. It also required stepping away from the ordinary and looking at the problem in an extraordinary way.

When the normal way of doing something falls short of your expectations, don't be afraid to shake up your approach, try something new, something unique, because only then will you be able to truly gain a comprehensive command of the photographic process. Always doing the same ole thing the same ole way can result in ordinary pictures of things. To create the extraordinary, to capture drama, requires a  unique and extraordinary approach. Shaping light to fit your subject, how better way to use the power and versatility of speedlights.