Mountain Biking Photography with Accent Lighting

Bailey 11

Equipment:

As a somewhat hyperactive outdoor photographer, I like to move fast and light. For this reason I carry minimal gear when I’m out shooting. I’ve recently switched to using lightweight mirrorless cameras with compact prime lenses. This is why I’m always looking for lightweight lighting solutions that won’t slow me down. Adding a single strobe can make a huge difference in your photography, and embellishing that light with a decent sized light modifier can make you photos look much more professional.

However, most ultra-portable soft boxes don’t always give wide enough throw for full-body shots, and full-size soft boxes are heavier and much harder to carry when you’re traveling. So, I was quite intrigued when I saw the sizes available in the Photoflex HalfDome. Having used a variety of Photoflex products over the past 20 years, I love how simple, versatile and rugged their soft boxes are. Seriously, I’m pretty hard on my gear, and my LiteDome and OctoDome soft boxes have held up quite well, despite the abuse I’ve put them through.

The HalfDome soft box is essentially a half-width modifier that functions in two ways. It’s big enough to throw a decent amount of light for larger subjects, and it also comes with a removable strip mask that cuts the box in half and creates a much more narrow light source. With the mask, the HalfDome is perfect for using as a strip or accent light. It also works well for creating cool, elongated catch lights. The HalfDome comes in two sizes, medium and small. Again, as someone who once wrote an eBook called Going Fast With Light, the small version seemed like the perfect choice for me.


At 10” x 34.5” x 17.5”, the small HalfDome is still pretty big, but it packs into a thin carrying bag and it hardly weighs anything for how much light it gives you. I usually strap mine to the side of my photo pack, along with a lightweight stand, and the mounting hardware inside my pack. For bigger shoots, I’ll often use the Photoflex TransPac Gig Transport Bag, especially when I’m bringing more gear. It will hold two light stands, two large soft boxes, mounting accessories, cables, connectors, etc.


For this lesson, I decided to see how well the HalfDome would perform during a fall mountain biking photo shoot. My goal was to create two different styles of imagery; an action sequence and a portrait.

Setting Up

The biggest challenge I faced was finding a suitable location that was out of the wind. The day of the shoot turned out very windy and any thoughts of finding a great looking background gave way to finding a spot that provided at least some shelter from the constant gusting wind. Once we found a good stretch of trail, I set up the HalfDome.

Assembly is pretty straightforward. After removing it from the stuff sac, you insert the four rods into an OctoConnector, then Velcro in both the interior and exterior diffusion baffles, attach the box it to the Adjustable Shoemount, and then attach it to your light stand. Please note that depending on your gear, there are a couple of different options for fixing a light to a stand. This is how I traveled light for this shoot.





With the HalfDome ready for action, I attached my Nikon SB-800 flash onto the Shoemount and placed my stand as close to the trail as was possible. I usually follow the rule that dictates that the closer the strobe is to the subject, the softer the light. I wanted my flash to be as soft and even as possible. Also, since the HalfDome is relatively narrow, I figured that placing it close would help minimize light fall off.



Action Sequence

My camera settings for this scene were as follows: Fujifilm X-T2 and 14mm lens, set to Manual Exposure mode, ISO 200, with shutter speed varying between 1/125, 1/60 and 1/30, to get different amounts of blur and sharpness in the background. My aperture fell between f/5.6 and f/8, with the flash set between 1/4 and full power. Flash was trigged with a set of PocketWizards.

I had my rider go back and forth along a short section of trail so that I could get both uphill and downhill shots. Again, the biggest challenge was the wind, which kept blowing the light stand over. I didn’t have any sandbags, so for some of my shots, I stood right next to the light stand and held on to the flash with my left hand while shooting one-handed with my right. We did quite a few passes to get the timing down, since I was popping off single frames as he passed by each time.

The challenge with action photography is that it’s not always easy to catch the right moment. With this type of shoot, your success rate can be pretty low, but that’s ok, you just keep tweaking and popping until you nail it. This kind of photography takes lots of practice, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Eventually, Zach and I figured out our rhythm and got everything dialed in.



In the behind-the-scenes image above you can see how the ambient light looked pretty dull. The shots with flash have much more life and a dynamic feel that compliments the action.

The tall, narrow profile of the HalfDome does a great job lighting Zach’s hands, shoulders and head, as well as the logo on the down tube of the bike. In the horizontal shots, you can see that the light falls off a bit on his legs and the back of his body. To my eyes, this is fine as the extra light draws attention to the rider’s head and harms, and his awesome stars and stripes biking gloves.



I like the feel of the vertical uphill shots the best, with the two below in particular. At 1/125 sec., there’s a little more sharpness, while at 1/30, I have more of a motion blur feel. I made a few adjustments in Lightroom in order to darken the background, which I feel, gives much more prominence to my subject. Even though my exposure and light levels are good, those finishing touches help take these two photos to the next level.



Portrait

Once we’d nailed the action shots, I set up to shoot the portrait. Technically, portraits can be way easier than shooting action, but in other ways, portraits can be tough, because you’re dealing with expressions and any potential self-consciousness your models might have in front of the camera (my hat’s off to all those great portrait photographers out there)

Fortunately, Zach was pretty easy to work with, and we were able to get a nice portrait finished pretty quickly. We had to move fast as he was on a tight schedule, and we’d already spent so much time on the action part. I get so excited when shooting action; I can eat up a lot of time trying to get it perfect. Looking back, I might have shot the portrait first then try and nail the action scene.


I set up a second HalfDome and this time added the Strip Light Mask to both lights. I wanted to reduce the light to the bare minimum and throw the narrowest blast possible for a stylish effect. I positioned Zach right between the two lights and had him move a few inches forward, so that the center of the light was slightly behind him.


For variation, I started with one light. At this distance, I set the flash to around 1/4 power. I switched to my Fuji 90mm f/2 prime lens and shot at f/4-5.6 for relatively shallow depth-of-field. I kept my shutter speed relative fast, at 1/250 in order to reduce my background exposure and keep the focus on my subject.

In the example below, you can see that the tall, narrow profile of the soft box lights all the way down his body, while the strip mask keeps it tightly focused. The flash is placed very close by, in fact, just out of frame to the right. With this placement the light output is very soft and even across Zach’s face and torso.


In my second portrait set-up, the flash was moved a few feet away, which created a slightly harder light on the face. Compare below to no flash used at all (left).


For my final variation, I added in the second light, which created accenting on both sides of Zach's face. This gives a more dynamic “hero” shot and is a great technique for shooting athletes. The strip mask, combined with the fact that the lights are slightly behind the center of his body, create a very defined zone of separation between the two beams of light across the face.

I’ve seen this technique done in varying levels, some extremely pronounced, some subtler. Here, I’m just looking for accent, I’m not trying to make it too obvious and overpower the scene. Even though the flash settings were the same, the dark side of this jersey soaks up the light on that side. It actually makes the shot look less symmetrical and less “perfect,” which I really like. And, the second flash doubles the catch light effect happening in his sunglasses.


Overall, I really like the Photoflex HalfDome. It behaves like a big soft box, but it’s remarkably light and extremely portable. It throws a decent amount of light for its size, and when you add in the strip mask, the HalfDome becomes a versatile tool for creating very stylized images, whether inside or out. It’s also quite durable. If you’re looking to add a little variation into your lighting photography, I highly recommend checking out the HalfDome.

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Written and Photographed by Dan Bailey.

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