As photographers on the go whether its for a commercial job or just for a fun trip, we’re often thrown into situations that are less then ideal. Moments we just have to capture but don’t have the time, circumstances, or equipment to do it how we might like to. Harsh unbalanced lighting with bright highlights and dark shadows, or even lack of lighting completely. Choosing the right lens and finding ways to make due with what you’ve got is often necessary. Traveling for commercial work usually translates to lugging around light stands, backdrops, multiple strobes, etc – sometimes with no one to help and this can really make you earn that paycheck.
Shooting for fun – Tips for Hobbyists and Amateurs…
When it comes to travel and shooting for myself, as a tech junky and perfectionist I always tend to overpack and want to bring every lens I own, maybe even a backup camera and at least a hotshoe flash but this translates to a heavy pack and painting a target on yourself for thieves. Also, it takes a little bit of the spontaneity out of an otherwise casual fun time.
One problem I have is I love my 5D (full frame) but it has no built in flash and bringing a hotshoe flash is just more gear. My 50D has the pop up flash but I avoid it like the plague because of the direct harsh lighting. Solution for that… Gary Fong Pop-up Diffuser and if you dont have one and dont want to carry that, you can also use a business card to bounce the flash. I still almost always choose the 5D because of the full frame and will pair it with a fast lens. There really is no replacement for a good fast prime lens.
Choosing the right lens to carry can really make your experience more positive and give you better results to match your personal style. A lot of people become too reliant on zoom lenses and never experience the benefits of a prime. Personally, I started with full manual 35mm and 120mm film cameras and zoom lenses simply didnt exist. But philosophically prime lenses feel more organic to me – it forces you to be more actively involved in framing your shot instead of just twisting the zoom ring. The effort will reflect in the quality of your photos.
Also, cheap zoom lenses suck…. a low-medium priced prime will almost always yield sharper images with better color/contrast, and are typically faster aperture capabilities. The Canon primes all start at around $300 and large aperture ranges from F1.8-2.5, most have more metal construction versus plastic and overall make you less dependent on flash.
If you are stuck on zooms – do yourself a favor and invest in a good one. The Canon 28-135 IS is one of the better “non-L” lenses in a moderate price range ($400). If you can afford it, the Canon 24-70 F2.8L and 24-105 F4L IS and will last forever if you take care of them.
Tips for Shooting in Low Light…
Low light situations are always an inconvenience and I am always seeing friends frustrated with blurry photos. Don’t be afraid to use the timer on the camera and set it on a table or railing, or even the ground. Also, you don’t always have to sacrifice depth of field to squeeze that extra bit of time for shutter speed either. Dont be afraid of higher ISO settings. In the digital world even ISO 1600-3000 has less digital noise/grain then most ISO 800 film has. Also, that can be improved in editing afterwards through noise reducing plugins (see Noiseware).
Example: Eiffel Tower at Dusk – Although it looks fairly well lit this shot was taken at dusk and the sun was just passing the horizon. This was shot with 24mm glass on my 5D set at F18 shutter open for 2.5 seconds ISO 1600. The camera was resting on a cement pillar for shot.
Balancing Exposure for Harsh Lighting:
Digital sensors have improved over time but one of the constant battles is their sensitivity to highlights and trying to maintain balance between highlight and shadow areas. This is when editing software can really be our friend in restoring details in extreme conditions. To make the most out of it though you still need to balance exposure in camera. The cameras meter will never give you what you need so just use it as a basic guide. As a general rule of thumb I will meter for the highlights and add 2-3 stops depending on the amount of difference between shadow and highlight areas. With software you can usually use simulated fill light and highlight recovery as well as color mixer to help bring details back into the shot.
Example: Magna Carta Memorial Trail Landscape in England. There was a 6 stop difference between the highlights and shadows and to make matters worse the tree was directly back-lit. I wanted some of that silhouette affect but still keep some details to avoid completely buried shadows and keep the textures and glowing parts of the leaves. I chose an exposure 3 stops brighter then the highlights and used the fill light and highlight recovery tools in Adobe Lightroom along with the brightness and hue controls for the green and blue color mixers to keep the sky a deep blue and the greens balanced.
For traveling pros…
Traveling with studio gear is always cumbersome. Traditional ways of lighting with separate key and fill lights, backdrop lighting, and more are not always feasible when you have to check equipment on airlines and take taxis and such. Also, just because you’ve been told you’re shooting 1-2 person groups it doesnt mean you wont be given large groups of 6-7+ people and expected to make it work. There are a few hardware tips I have found to minimize equipment load and are extremely flexible in application.
- Alien Bees ABR800 Ring Strobe with Moon Unit Diffuser
- Alien Bees Parabolic Light Modifier (PLM) – I use the 51″ and 86″ versions paired with a B1600 Monolight
- Photek Backdrop System
When used correctly you can usually manage to get great results (even full length with high key backdrop) with only 1 light. Dont forget if you’re only bringing 1 light, bring backup bulbs or an extra backup source to use just in case. Sometimes if I need a backlight or an extra source for fill or highlights I’ll use my hotshoe flash in manual-slave mode.