Sometimes I Just Trust The Camera

I use my flash outdoors more than indoors. Fill flash should not eliminate shadows, but merely lighten them. The flash also adds a little bit of lively catchlight in their eyes.

I like to control exposure. When I’m shooting theater, dance, or studio portraits, I use manual camera and flash settings. As challenging as these environments can be, that challenge has become my comfort zone, because I either have the experience (dance/theater) or the time (headshots/portraits) to take control of the light and composition.

Having lost the new stage as a background, I took up a position behind the speaker and caught part of the audience amid the construction materials.

Today I went way out of my comfort zone to shoot a press conference for the group that is rebuilding Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. The press conference took place at the construction site – outdoors in afternoon sun. I was asked to capture some of the dignitaries and press visitors. Beforehand, we thought the event would take place on the newly poured stage, so we would get images of the event AND the building-in-progress. However, there was still too much construction debris onstage, and a decision was made to conduct the event in a different area. Thus, at the last moment, I lost the background that would have told most of the story for me.

I think I'm going to need a lot more practice (and a wider lens) to become a better storyteller at these events. Here, the architect (in hat) discusses the new Libbey Bowl with a visitor.

Bright sun, deep shadows, moving subjects, candid shots. Yikes. I knew I would need fill flash, but this was one of those situations where I also knew the light would be too complex and the moments too fleeting for manual control. So I said a little prayer to Nikon’s engineers and went full auto. I used P mode on the D300 and Balanced Fill Flash on the SB800. I dialed down the flash by 2/3 of a stop because I just wanted a little kiss of fill light. But in effect, I turned my big DSLR and high-powered speedlight into a point-and-shoot camera.

If you reverse engineer the lighting, it's clear that the sun is behind the trees, so the people are obviously lit artificially. I used the built-in flash diffuser for wider, more even light. I no longer use my big diffusers outdoors. I don't mind if there's a touch of hardness to the fill, because it seems more natural in the bright sunshine.

Giving up control of depth of field is no small sacrifice, and too much depth of field certainly saps the energy from some of these images. But the camera’s highest sync speed is 1/250. To get shallower depth of field, I’d have to shoot without the flash, and in many cases that would result in a very sharp silhouette in the foreground and a nice, out of focus, brightly lit background. So I needed the flash to balance the high contrast scenes. I trusted the camera’s computer to manage the exposure, and I think it did an adequate job. Now if only Nikon’s engineers could teach it to handle composition for me…

Today, I was just trying to capture certain moments of the event, and I didn't devote much thought to creating interesting compositions. That's a sin, and I will have to make this a priority next time.

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Filed under Camera Settings, Composition, Lighting

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