Do you remember your first eye-opening experience with lighting in photography? I think it happend to me while watching one of David Hobby’s tutorials, realizing that the justification for flash lighting is so much more then just “being able to shoot at ISO 100”. Lighting sets the mood, creates separation, defines spacial relation and, sometimes, makes the impossible possible. Today, let’s look at a lighting trick, I’ve only recently come across together with photographer (and good friend) Ethan Oelman while joining him on one of his personal projects. If you love to experiment with mobile flash equipment as well, check out “The Strobe” section bellow – you can win one of the awesome new Elinchrom ELB 400 strobe packs!
The Concept: Shooting a woman floating in water with its surface reflecting the stars above her. Bird’s eye perspective.
The Location: a 2 x 2 m salty water pool that’s almost completely enclosed by walls. The tub is about 30 cm deep and has a white surface.
The Thought Process
Let me take you through our thought process a little bit, starting with the most obvious solution. What if we pointed a large softbox at the model? The light on her would look nice and soft but the white surface of the tub itself would also be lit, which creates a problem. For the stars to be reflecting in the water surface, we need a dark background. The only angle where that’s possible is from the sides of the pool. Next idea. Put a strip bank at the edge of the pool, maybe even outside, so no light can spill on the bottom of the pool. This would work, but remember that the pool is enclosed by walls. There is only a 5-10 cm ledge between the room walls and the tub (except for a door-sized opening in one wall). Absolutely no space to place even a tiny strip bank. Okay, next solution then, light painting. What if we moved a strong flashlight along the edge of the pool, pointing it at the model. Maybe even put a flag underneath the flashlight while moving it, to control the light spill. Interesting solution, but it calls for a strong flashlight, short in size, even in lighting, if possible neutral color output. I doubt such a light does even exist. But then it dawned on us, stroboscopic flash painting!
The stroboscopic flash mode is something you might know from speedlights (see image above) and some of the higher-end studio strobes, like the Elinchrom ELB series. The result of a stroboscopic flash series is similar to that of a multi-exposure. But while the multi-exposure actually takes different exposures but applies them to the same frame, a photo taken in stroboscopic mode is a single long exposure, where the subject is hit with a series of flash bursts, evenly pulsating. I’m sure most of you have seen photos of athletes or dancers moving elegantly through the frame, their majestic movement portrayed as a series of instants. But what if the subject remained motionless while the flash is moving while in stroboscopic mode? The result is flash painting! The photo bellow was produced in such a way. It’s a prop for one of my other projects on top of a wooden table. During this 15 s exposure, I circled around the table with a pulsating speedlight held at table height, actually, slightly bellow it. This helped avoiding illumination of the table surface itself while still hitting the prop. Eventhough, it’s technically a hard light source (unmodified speedlight), the resulting photo looks softly lit. Try it for yourself.
On location we encountered of course more problems – as always. The most obvious one would be that both camera and model have to be absolutely motionless. Bellow is a shot of the model during a 20 s exposure, being lit with the stroboscopic technique. I think you can see immediately what went wrong…
So we had the model hold on to some extrusions in the basin’s wall. This worked fairly well, but it was a) uncomfortable for her and b) brought her arms and hands in positions that didn’t look very relaxed. Ethan suggested he’d carefully steady the models arm and legs while sitting at the far edge of the pool. Great idea! Finally model Romina was able to float in a position that looked relaxed, while staying in the same spot while I was flash painting. It lit bit of movement remains, as it is very hard to hold something in the same position for 20 seconds.
The camera was released from a tethered laptop in order to avoid camera shake. The camera itself was set to mirror lock-up. The shutter was open for 20 s. During this time I was able to reach along the wall of the basin and hold the speedlight down near water level pointing it towards the model. The stroboscopic frequency was 2 Hz (twice per second) at 1/128th power. A gobo taped to the bottom of the flash, not only protected the speedlight from the salt water (yikes!), but also controlled the light spill towards the bottom of the pool. In the photo above you can see the flash firing as well as the gobo underneath.The amazing thing to me is, that eventhough we shot at ISO 100 and F/10 the flash was powerful enough at 1/128th power, simply because the light would accumulate on her skin due to the 16-20 flash pops.
For the model’s face we wanted to make sure we had a sharp exposure, so we used a small handheld beauty dish (with diffusion cloth and grid) and a styrofoam reflector on the opposite side to take a separate exposure.
The hour of shooting time we had available left us with around 20 shots. We selected the hero shot and used some details from other shots like wonderful ripple effects from the flash hitting the water unintentionally. This composite was done separately and saved into as a Smart Object from which I’d continue to process the image.
Next up. Color and contrast. My favorite part. Here the look of the final image is defined. The goal was to create an impression of moon light, with the water shimmering in a blue greenish tint. I added three low opacity solid color layers in blending mode “Hue”, one for the water and two for the body. The two body hues were split using the blend-if controls, so I could separately color the highlights and the shadows. A global curves adjustment helped to darken the shadows in the background.
Looking good so far, but still missing something – a sort of visual counter-balance to the water ripple effects in the lower left. So I created a separate ripple effect in Photoshop using the ZigZag filter.
The last step was adding the stars. I tried adding some of my own night sky shots, but was never satisfied. So in the end, I painted the stars using brushes and individual bright dots.
Until now you would have been very limited in what lighting gear to use, but Elinchrom just released their new small, mobile studio strobe ELB 400 (and first one with stroboscopic mode) which I had to pleasure of testing behind closed doors together my friends from the Buno Photoshop crew. The ELB 400 is the first mobile studio strobe that also features the stroboscopic mode (along with two other advanced modes inherited from its bigger brother the ELC 500/1000, sequence mode and delayed mode). . I’d actually have much prefered to use the ELB 400 for this project, it features an extremely consistent light output and its frosted flash cap would have made for an even softer result. Also the possibility to use all of Elinchrom’s light shapers would have really helped. If you’re unfamiliar with this unit, check it out on elinchrom website.
By the way, inmybag.net is giving away one of the very first ELB 400 in the “Expose Yourself” contest for which the Bunos (John Wilhelm, Jurek Gralak and myself) will be the judges! We’ll be happy to see your work there and selecting the lucky winner of this 3000$ state-of-the-art mobile flash unit.
- camera: Nikon D800 tethered to a Macbook Pro
- camera settings: F/10, 20 s exposure, ISO 100. somewhere around 24-30mm on a Nikkor 24-70mm F/2.8 lens.
- main exposure: Nikon SB900 manually triggered – strobo mode: 2 Hz, 1/128th power
- face exposure: Canon 580EXII inside a beauty dish with diffusion cloth and grid, 1/16th power.
- post-processing in Adobe Photoshop
About The Photographers
John Flury is a part-time freelance photographer/photo designer from Zurich Switzerland. He shoots for weddings and advertisements, but with photography not being his only income, he devotes a lot of his time to his personal, mostly conceptual projects. If you’d like to see more of his work, diyphotography has written an article about him last year. You can also follow him on facebook.
Ethan Oelman is a full-time freelance photographer based in Zürich Switzerland. He enjoys working for a broad range of clients including multinationals as well as non-profit organizations. The main focus is on people and portrait, as well as sports and motion, photography. Personal projects such as this fotoshooting play an important part of his work, as well as regular exhibits. You can see more of Ethan’s work on his site.
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