Portrait Photography / Blog / Attack of The Autumn Leaves - 3 lights setup to get a grungy look photograph                 Bookmark: Del.icio.us Digg FURL FaceBook Stumble Upon Reddit Google Bookmarks

Attack of The Autumn Leaves - 3 lights setup to get a grungy look photograph

"Flickr labs have been hard at work creating a way to show you some of the most awesome content on Flickr. We like to call it interestingness."

Another of my recent photographs has made its way up to the Flickr Explore Interestingness page. Unfortunately Flickr Explore algorithm is still a mystery, but it looks like that if you submit to too many groups your picture is more likely to be dropped out, but it will get back in if you receive enough comments/faves.

This photograph pictured Frank Williams one of my photographer mates. I went to his place last weekend to practice and test new techniques. We ended up with an outdoor session trying a three speedlights setup in his residential parking. As the sun goes down, the sky was getting dark and dramatic. Playing with the aperture and the shutter speed, I could control the exposure of the ambiance and the one on Frank separately, this is really great as I can decide whether I want the ambiance darker or brighter when maintaining the correct exposure on my subject.

I would then in post-processing fine tune the colors, contrast and lighting and do some editing such as leaves on the face etc..

To achieve the same look you need 3 lights, would it be portable flashguns such as Nikon SB-600 Speedlight or studio strobes.

Exposing the ambiance

I started to take a picture of the landscape in Aperture Priority mode and take note of the shutter speed and aperture calculated by the camera. I then switched to Manual mode and set the camera to the same shutter speed / aperture. This was my starting point. I will have to set my flashes' power to expose Frank at the set aperture. Then if I want the ambiance to be brighter or darker I just need to respectively slow down or speed up the shutter and the subject (lit by the flashes) won't change in exposure.

Autumn Leaves Attack's lighting diagram

Back lights

For this project I have used 2 bare Nikon SB-600 Speedlight flashes on lightstands behind and on left & right to the subject pointing to him. The flash light did create flares but it was windy, I had no sand bags to weight my lightstands so having gobo on the flashes were not great as one of my flashes felt to the ground. So we've decided to remove the gobos and move the flashguns closer to the camera until no flare shows in the test shots. the use of 2 light at the back is creating a nice rim light around Frank's body giving it a kind of 3D effect. I started to determine the exposure for these flashes set in Manual mode shooting some test shots. I started at 1/8 power and then gradually dial up or down the power until I got a nice histogram and that visually, on the LCD, the highlight was not too much on Frank's skin.

Optionnaly you can add a 3rd light on the side of the subject at ground level to bring up a bit of detail on his feet.

Front light

Once I got the good exposure, or at least the one I liked, I've added the front light. It was an Nikon SB-800 Speedlight flashing thru a white umbrella mounted on a lightstand. Thru additional test shots, I would determine the needed power from that front light, all I needed is to bring the flash up so that the histogram stayed nice and that Frank's face is about 1 stop under exposed compared to the rim lights. So I just chimped until I got the wanted effect.

The leaves

Frank gave the idea of throwing up the leaves. He did just grab a handful and throw them in the air and I make sure to capture them when they fill the frame nicely.

Dark ambiance, slow shutter and shadows

When shooting in low light condition, if you are using flash with a slow shutter speed you may end up with some shadow casts around object in movement. You can see what I'm talking about by looking at the leaves and Frank's fingers. Some may like or not. Then you can try:

  • to slow the shutter speed even more and get a stronger shadow to give a sense of movement. Be sure then to set your camera to Rear or 2nd curtain as this will ensure the shadow will be on the opposite side of the movement direction.
  • to speed up the shutter and freeze the movement.

In both cases, changing the shutter speed will affect the ambiance exposure. You will need then to compensate by upping or lowering the aperture and change the flashes power accordingly. For example, if you decide to speed up the shutter by 2/3 stop to freeze the movements, you will have a darker ambiance. So to recover the same exposure you need to compensate by openening the aperture by 2/3 stop to allow more light coming thru the lens, this light includes ambiance's light and flash's light which means the subject is also brighter. So to recover the subject's exposure you also need to lower the flash's power by 2/3 stop.

2009-01-02 Update: I've been contacted by "Practical Photography", a UK photography magazine to have another version of this photograph published in their February 2009 issue (out on the shelves on January). My picture among those of other photographers selected is illustrating their article about Strobist.com and the use of off-camera flash techniques:


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