The Game of Ratios

I do blogs about all manner of things photographic, but clearly, one subject I return to consistently is the nature and quality of light, both natural light and flash light. This is not unique to me, or this blog. Lotsa folks out there talkin’ bout flash. Big flash, small flash, up close, far away, here, there. What occasionally gets overlooked in the “all flash all the time” conversation is the importance of shutter speed. Now, folks who have been shooting for a while know the ins and outs of shutter speed, to be sure. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve taught a class and come up on a team in the field, trying to shoot inside a factory, and, because the class is about flash, they are using a “flash” shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, rendering the scene as utter darkness. They thus burden themselves with the task of lighting the whole damn factory. With two speed lights. This, I tell them, is not possible. And I say that with the complete certainty of one who has amassed a 30 year history of engaging in utterly Quixotic flash follies, doomed to irretrievably embarrassing failure even before I put my camera to my eye.

My opening comment, when I view a location foray such as I describe above about to go off the rails, is often something along the lines of, “Shutter speed is your friend.”

I shot both of the above for Kelby Training video that came to be titled, Making Pictures in Bad Weather. Trust, me, I didn’t head to Tampa with that title in mind. But it turned out that we were trying to shoot through the tail licks of an offshore hurricane, and hence, we bagged a lot of the locations, and found shelter. That class ended up being one of the most fun classes I’ve taught for the Kelby group. It was a hoot, and was just like being on location for a magazine and needing to get it done ’cause the editor who assigned us doesn’t give a rat’s ass if it’s raining anvils. You have to shoot pictures, and shoot through all manner of shit.

The two pix above were shot in the same tiny bathroom, and these views of that little room have very different feels to them. And the differences do stem from the different qualities of light. But, what enabled the difference was shutter speed.

First pass. Window’s glowing and available light dominates the room. One hot shoe flash employed, on the hot shoe. It’s cranked backwards and flying the light up the wall I’m leaning against. It fills the shadow side of the model, just a little. It’s running at low power, no light shaper, except the stock in trade dome diffuser. It bounces partially off the wall and partially off the ceiling. Adds detail, and that’s about it. It fulfills the classic definition of a fill light: A light you don’t notice until you turn it off.

Below is camera info.

And here is more specific flash info, off Nikon software….

The second shot is darker, moodier. No glowy window, and fairly heavy shadows. Reason for that is I chucked available light, and put a Quadra flash out in the rain, cloaked in a baggie, firing off a radio, with no light shaper. It is about 5 feet from the frosted pane of glass, and it’s just a simple blast of light. The frosted glass becomes my light shaper. And because I don’t let any available light in, all the exposure comes from the flash.

Again, camera info.

No coded flash info here, as it is a third party flash, and doesn’t communicate with the camera. But the Quadra is providing all the light, and is well within its power range and capability.

The flash style, power and direction are truly different, to be sure. But the real difference, to me, in the two shots is a simple shift in shutter speed. The f-stops are quite similar. Shutter speeds aren’t. In the open, window blown away version, the shutter speed is 1/8th, and in the more controlled, moody version, the shutter rang in at 1/250th.

Shifting the shutter enables the game of ratios, which is a game forever played on location. You walk in, and you observe what light already exists. Then you factor how much, or how little, of that light plays into your photo by cranking your way through the shutter speed dial. You can allow the natural light to dominate, and thus making your flash a bit player, a reserve coming off the bench, and not the star. Or you can use the shutter speed to snuff the light entirely, rendering darkness upon the land, which you then replace with custom made flash treatment.

A game we always play. What exists, and, what do we layer over what exists? The flash we bring to location can be an unseen infiltrator, a thief in the night. Or it can be a thundering herd. The thing to remember, always, is that the determining factor in how many flashes (if any at all) we take out of the damn trunk is the existing light, and it’s volume and quality.

As as  location “flash photographer” the most important light you always wrestle with is the ambient light. And when it comes to ambient light, shutter speed is the judge and jury, and your friend.

More tk….

For the technically minded, the gear used above was Nikon D4, 14-24 f2.8, 24-70 f2.8, Sb-900 speed light, and Ranger Quadra.