Cant beat the sun

After a quiet winter and an amazing trip, I’m back to photography related topics. As you may (or may not) know I have been trying to sell my current camera and strobe equipment for some time as i feel limited and i have to move on to something that will allow me to up my game. I have been drooling over some newer and ridiculously more expensive toys which I will talk about in some future post. For the time being I am left with my current camera and the crappy lens it came with, six years ago and have been since then collecting dust on the bookcase. Through all this mess and the sad-for-equipment leftovers, I was asked to do a photo-shoot for a good friend who is starting her own clothing business. Once I assessed the situation, I gathered my entire poor photographer’s arsenal I had in hand and made my way to the venue.

Once at the venue, I didn’t remember anyone greeting me; the place was pleasantly chaotic. Models were running around, my friend shouting instructions, the make-up artist preparing some of the models and a few spectators sitting around and chatting. Apart from the livestock, there were clothes everywhere, make-up equipment scattered on every levelled surface and a few snacks for everyone to eat; all in all, a proper photo-shoot atmosphere. Given the tight time frame  we went down to business, almost immediately. I grabbed my camera, the strobe equipment and moved outside. It didn’t take long for problems to start arising. A few minutes into the strobe calibration, I noticed one of the flashguns stopped operating. The damned thing went dead. Thinking it was the battery of the remote trigger, I quickly swapped batteries. That didn’t seem to solve the problem. It was only when I removed the flash from the light stand that I noticed the burned plastic smell. Have I been somewhere confined and less windy, I would notice the problem immediately. I should have anticipated this though; the flashgun was literally older than me. It had served its purpose well.

The second problem was apparent and expected. I cant beat the sun. It was too high on the sky and I was asked to shoot directly under it. Without getting into much detail, after a few trial and error shots I abandoned the remaining strobe altogether. It was time to go back to basics and work with whatever I had; the available light. Photography 101 states that unless you have a good reason to, never take pictures under direct sunlight. The light is unflattering and will create harsh shadows which are virtually impossible to remove in post-production. The pictures turned out to be OK looking, but not appealing to my taste. A good two hours have passed between the photo-shoots, the changing of clothes, the make-up and the setup to the various places. The sun started fading and direct sunlight started giving its place to shade; my kind of game.

We moved away from the swimming pool and the garden and settled in front of the building entrance which had nothing complex to take into account for. Plain white walls, strict corners, stairs and hard edges. I tend to follow the rule that “Simpler is better” and the outcome of the pictures in that environment are proof of the concept. Predictable ambient light provided plenty of space for tweaking but most importantly reopened the door to my beloved strobe. Since one of the two strobes went up in smoke, literally, I had to work with one; and boy did that yield in some great results. For these shots I have used a new-to-myself technique I will be experimenting with in the following months: For some technical reasons (which I won’t be outlining here) the digital sensors found in every digital camera, tend to record a lot more information in the brighter areas within the frame than the dark areas. As a draft rule of thumb, to achieve the most detail in your shot, try overexposing the image up to the point you don’t start clipping the highlights, i.e. observe the in-camera generated histogram of a taken picture and try pushing it towards the right side as much as possible, by increasing the light hitting the sensor; that being by, using slower shutter speeds, opening up the aperture, increasing the ISO or varying all three variables per demand. You can then turn down the lights in post processing. This way you can achieve the greatest retention of detail. Doing it the other way round, i.e. trying to brighten up dark spots in post processing for a digital shot will yield the exact opposite: Details will be lost in pixel level resulting in random colored artifacts when zooming enough.

There are quite a lot of lessons learned through this experience. Some are very basic while others are less common.

  • Don’t shoot under direct sunlight. Unless you have some powerful light sources, you just cant beat the sun. If the client wishes so, kindly explain the drawbacks and provide alternatives.
  • Visit the venue beforehand and ideally a few days earlier but on the hour of the day the event will take place. You’ll get a good feel of the place and will have time to think about the best setup for the photo shoot.
  • Try different angles. This is crucial. I was dumb enough to go for the traditional straight shot until a friend woke me up and provided some really good, alternative angles
  • Have backup equipment. One flash died on me but thankfully I had a second one
  • Have plenty of storage. I managed to fill all my memory cards space hence I had to revisit all pictures and delete some to make space.
  • Try overexposing without clipping the highlights and then darken the pictures in post processing to achieve maximum detail
  • Be prepared to work under stress and in tight time frames. Know your stuff. You won’t have time to experiment and make great adjustments during the photo shoot.
  • Have i mentioned that you cant beat the sun?