Portable Flash is Your Buddy
Flash was no pal of mine when I began shooting. It didn't fit my M.O. It was available light or nothing. Flash photos looked like flash photos, so forget it and, believe me, I forgot it. When digicams finally rolled around, they had their own little built-in pop-up flashes that were impossible to escape. Light too low?—pop!—you were flashing whether you liked it or not, and there wasn't much to like. Subjects looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, or rats with rabid "red-eye." Not to mention those ugly shadows and solid black backgrounds...what the hell's that all about?
No subtlety, no style. Portable strobes were for crime scene photographers and the paparazzi mob. Even when I knew better (i.e., I saw how good flash could look when I used big studio strobes) I still avoided wireless portables. Why? Guess I didn't want to do the math, calculate the distance to subject, etc. If I had any talent for math I'd be an accountant.
When I finally got my hands on a review unit of the Nikon Speedlight SB-900, all that changed. It was like a barn door being thrown open in my brain. Flash was actually doable, flexible, powerful, portable. No math required, no cords to trip over. I could trial and error my shots and learn from experience.
I made a classic mistake the first time I tried to test-fire the strobe off the hot shoe in "Remote" mode. Everything looked fine, appeared to be working, the SB-900's ready light was on, but when I pressed the shutter nothing happened. I called photographer Drew Wyeth and grumbled, "Must be a defective unit, huh?" He chuckled and asked, "Did you remember to pop up the camera's built-in flash?"
Uh, no. (Doh!)
When you're using a Speedlight untethered, as a wireless remote, something has to trigger the unit, and that's where the camera's built-in flash comes in. If you don't put that little flash up, the Speedlight goes to Vegas.
I was on my own now, a tourist without a map . . . didn't know Joe McNally from Rand; had never heard of legendary shooter David Hobby and his maniacal cult of Strobists. All I knew was that flash provided those double O's that are the lifeblood of creativity: options and opportunities.
My first true test of the speedlight came on assignment for Zoom Street Magazine to shoot photos for a special "Noir Issue." I was hanging my hat on Coronado at the time and scoped a retro coffee shop that looked like a promising location. I paid a visit to the cops and arranged permission for a sidewalk night shot. (It was quiet and out of season, so no "event insurance" was required.) The magazine's DV editor (and former actor), Wendell Sweda, agreed to play the heavy. He drove down from Santa Monica armed with a fedora and a hard-boiled attitude. Alas, he forgot his trench coat, and there was no time for rentals. (Always pack a spare TC.)
We arrived on location late, leaving only about 15 minutes for the shoot. It was dark, the atmosphere dead-on, and no pedestrians were in sight, so there was no need to block off the area with crime scene tape. (Actually, yellow "caution tape"—a handy accessory available at any hardware store.) One minor flaw I hadn't noticed while casing the joint during daylight: although it was late January, the coffee shop still had its Christmas lights up, strung along the facade's Alamo-style roof. Oh well. I could clone out the holiday spirit in Photoshop.
Pressed for time, there was no elaborate setup... I had the speedlight mounted on the hot shoe of a Fujifilm S3 Pro. I rotated the flash head and bounced the light off a gold reflector clamped to a C-stand. I hand-held the camera and shot wide at 18mm (1/125 sec at f/5.6; ISO 100).
As you can see in Fig. 10, the strobe knocked out the puny illumination of the holiday lights, leaving just the scraggly cord. The Speedlight was so powerful, in fact, that its spill illuminated the interior ceiling. Feisty sucker.
Fig. 10 My first shot using the Nikon SB-900 Speedlight.
Those dual spotlights above the lettering might've been distracting, but they actually worked within the composition because they echoed the subject's eyes. Credit, of course, must go to the model, whose range of menacing expressions would've made Orson Welles proud. In my experience, actors make the best models, but rarely vice versa.
For me the killer shot was Fig. 11.
Fig. 11 One portable strobe produced this killer shot.
I dialed the SB-900 down to –1.16 and again bounced the light off a gold reflector that was positioned at left just outside the frame. The light caught the subject's eye, threw a dramatic shadow, and revealed the stucco wall's texture. An incremental step up the power ladder would have overexposed the face and blown out the highlights.
But before you go calling me a genius, I gotta confess I didn't nail the perfect exposure off the top of my head or with a tape measure. It was the old T & E (trial and error). That's the beauty of the SB-900; you can quickly adjust the output via either a button or a dial. I fired a shot, checked the result in the LCD, adjusted the exposure, shot again—lather, rinse, repeat—until I had the light I wanted.
The SB-900 is packed with cool features. You can use it as a commander to trigger an entire army of Speedlights. (Talk about a power trip!) I like to keep things simple on location—one strobe and some reflectors. I leave it to guys like Joe McNally to conduct an orchestra of Speedlights and make a symphony out of light.
The SB-900's flexible flash head is a bouncer's delight; you can rotate it horizontally 180 degrees to each side and 90 degrees vertically. A lot of coverage!
Let's slip outside for a second while there's still light and grab some tests to illustrate adjusting the output setting.
In Fig. 12, the strobe is too bright and overpowers the ambient light.
Fig. 12 Too much flash power squashes the ambient light.
Fig. 13 shows what happens when you dial down the setting one stop to –1.0. The mix of ambient/flash appears more natural.
Fig. 13 Dial down the flash power until you get a blend.
Fig. 14 is a montage I made using a photo from the noir cover series and a shot of the moon, which I blurred in Photoshop. I wanted a grainy film effect, so I treated it to a heavy dose of the Add Noise filter, and then converted it to black and white. The most interesting part of the photo is that double shadow. I'd love to be able to tell you I intentionally lit the scene to achieve it but, truth be told, it was a gift from the Flash gods.
Fig. 14 Double Indemnity, anyone?
Nope, I can't explain it. Might have been the way the reflector was positioned, or maybe I inadvertently jerked the camera and wound up with a Buy One Get One Free. Double Indemnity.