Last evening, I was privileged to watch my granddaughters perform in a dance recital. They did a hip-hop themed number that was… well amazing.

After the event, I wanted to grab some quick shots of the girls. In front of the high school, there is a row of large white columns. Thankfully, these were in open shade, so I did not have to deal with direct sun entering the shot. Sadly, the sky was still fully lit by the sun that was still high over the horizon.

In my camera bag, I had one Lumix GH3 and two old Vivitar 283 flashes. a snoot made from and old mouse pad, and a raggedy old popup reflector. It is always a challenge to overpower the sun with small flashes. Here is how I did it.

I set the camera ISO to 200. The shutter speed was set at 1/160 because that is the camera sync speed and nothing faster was available. My only complaint regarding the GH3 is the slow sync speed. Panasonic really dropped the ball when they failed to deliver a sync speed of 1/250 or faster.

I started shooting the sky at the exposure recommended by the camera. This produced an ugly and washed out sky. So I repeatedly stopped down the 19mm Sigma lens and shot again until I had a richly colored sky that looked more like dusk than mid-day. I don’t recall exactly, but I suspect the sky was underexposed two or three stops. The final setting was f16. This exposure produced a nice sky, but without benefit of lights, would have rendered the girls as dark silhouettes against that sky. The alternative was to expose for the girl’s and sacrifice the sky. Either image would have been a flat and ugly snapshot. I brought out a few inexpensive strobes to make the portraits because available light was just terrible.

Tierney Miller
Tierney Miller

Tierney was my first model. I had a three foot pop up reflector with a gold side that has nearly all the gold rubbed off. My wife held it over my left shoulder and pointed a single speedlight into the center of the reflector. Even with the light turned to full power, we were not getting much bounce out of the reflector. I tried to judge my exposure by looking at the camera’s LCD display, was is pretty difficult under a brightly lite sky. I checked the histogram and it looked kind of sketchy. My best judgment was that Tierney was simply too under exposed. So, I dumped the reflector and began lighting her with the direct flash. To my joy, once I got these exposures into Darktable, the images lit by the reflector had enough information in her face to work with. I masked only her face and brought the exposure up, leaving the rest of the image dark. I added a little clarity just because I always do. Her eyes recorded a bit dark, so I punched up the color just a touch. The last step was to crate a mask to protect her face and use tone curves to affect the rest of the image. I moved the black point in only a whisker. This did some pretty cool things to the sky and her tee-shirt. Too weird? Who’s to say, there are no rules… right?

This image is a good argument for shooting RAW. If I had been shooting jpeg, it is likely that I would never have been able to recover the beautiful face that is Tierney.

Having unnecessarily abandoned the reflector, I began to photograph Rheagen. The main light was a single flash. I shot the camera with my right hand and held the light about two or three feet to the left and slightly higher than the lens of the camera. Direct flash is a very hard and harsh light. When shooting girls and women, it is important to find a way to soften it some. In this case, the direct light from the flash was coming in from her right front. The white column caught the incoming light and bounced it into the left side of their faces. The light is still quite specular as you can see by the way it picked up the glitter in Rheagen’s makeup. Some still might argue the there is a hard quality to the light, but it can be quite pleasing if you can find a way to open up the shadows.

In Darktable, I rotated the image of Rheagen to produce a pleasing angle. In the case of things that ought to be perfectly horizontal or vertical, it is important to either correct any lean or rotate things enough to show an obvious and intentional act of artistic liberty. A tiny but noticeable lean will always look like a mistake. While in Darktable, I added a bit of clarity.

For both girls, a second flash was fitted with a CTOB blue gel and a snoot.  An assistant held it behind the girls and just out of frame at the left. This light was pointed at the back of the girl’s heads and produced a nice edge light to separate them from the background.

I finished off both images in Gimp where I did a final crop and removed annoying power poles.

Scully Miller
Scully Miller

My grandson, eight year old Scully, was not about to let his sisters get all the glory. When they were finished, he jumped in front of the camera and struck his wrestling pose. If he ever looks at you this way, you have two choices and only seconds to decide. Fight or run! I generally go with option two.

Scully was lite exactly as Rheagen, except, by leaning forward, he lost the fill light from the column which resulted in a masculine shadow on the left side of his face. I wanted to give his image a rugged and gritty feel. In Darktable, I changed the color temperature to bring in the orange cast. I also masked the ground and sky to Scully’s right and used curves to darken the masked area. Finally, I increased contrast and saturation a bit.

I brought the image into Gimp where I created a duplicate layer of the original. On the duplicate layer, I did some creative magic with a high pass filter. The two layers were combined to increase the grittiness of the final image.

These images illustrate the ability to create powerful portraits in minutes with minimal lighting equipment in terrible lighting conditions. We were in and out of this shoot in about fifteen minutes. It is all a matter of knowing your equipment and working with the environment God gives you, which is generally pretty amazing.