George Wilson: Creating a true black background with the FlexFlash 200W

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The best light to work with is the light that you have available. On location this of course means ambient light. It also means any flash or hot light you may have in your bag or equipment closet.

My dog has been a model for me for the past eleven years. I have chronicled her life and personality through a series of still images. Her name is Jazz and she is a beagle. I do not know if she actually realizes that she is being photographed, only that participation yields small delectable morsels during the entire process.

To start I positioned her in front of my sliding glass door leading to my patio. I am cautious about working with her in the backyard as I have waterfront property. In Florida there are two types of freshwater bodies, those that have alligators and those that will. Caution dictates I keep a curious and adventuresome pet under a watchful eye.

In this shot I wanted to use the side lighting from the window to highlight Jazz’s profile. Sidelight is perfect for emphasizing texture, defining depth, and emphasizing patterns. Using sidelight makes texture “pop and is more effective with portraits because it helps you emphasize the emotion and depth of your subject in a more dramatic way. In the resulting image of Jazz, there is a bit of mystery as she emerges from the dark. The elimination of everything but her from the frame focuses the viewer on her. Capturing the image in black and white, my favorite method, helps with conveying emotion.

Using only ambient light, I will often pick up bits and pieces of the background. This creates distractions to the viewer. Yes, I could wave the magic wand of Adobe Photoshop, cloning out the distractions, but that is contrary to my methods.

When beginning to “work” a scene, I think lighting first. What and where is the predominant light? Is it the strongest ambient light? How does this combine with getting the viewer’s attention, getting them to stop and look at my image? With fill flash, I manually set my exposure for the ambient or stronger light with the ISO set at 100 and the shutter speed less than the camera’s sync speed. ISO100 is the established ISO for Guide Numbers. (If I choose to use ISO 200 – 1 stop more sensitive, I would multiply the Guide Number by 1.414 to get the adjusted Guide Number. For every 1 stop increment, multiply the previous by 1.414 for the new value. This is a handy cheat sheet for your camera bag). Using the sync speed for the camera ensures the flash fires when the shutter is fully opened. Flash is controlled by aperture. Shutter speed controls the coordination.

When using fill flash, the goal is to illuminate the subject in a light equal to the ambient light. This method results in an even exposure throughout the photograph. I am basically sharing the lighting responsibility 50-50 with the ambient light. If, for example, I metered an outdoor scene for a portrait and my exposure equation was ISO100, 1/160 at f4. Because of shade I would have to open up to f2.8 for proper exposure of the model. This would dictate the use of fill flash. I would set my camera for ambient exposure of ISO100, 1/160 at f4 and set up the FlexFlash 200W (this works with any flash unit). The aperture value of f4 dictates the flash distance. Using the predetermined Guide Number of 100 and the exposure circle, the flash distance is calculated - GN of 100/f4 = 25’. This is a bit far away for me, I prefer to be closer to keep the light focused on my subject and not spill out into the rest of the scene. Once the calculation is done, the full power distance is determined. Moving the flash 50% closer to 12.5’ cuts the power to ½. Closing the distance again by another 50% means ¼ power at 6’ and ⅛ power at 3’. For this situation I would use ISO100, 1/160 at f4 and set up the FlexFlash 200W 3’ from my subject using the ⅛ power setting.

Now, I stated that with fill flash, the lighting responsibility is shared. What if I want to weight that responsibility towards the flash? I can achieve darker and darker backgrounds with just minor adjustments. Again, flash is controlled by aperture, not shutter speed. By exposing the background for darker appearances without changing the ISO or shutter speed, I can achieve progressively darker backgrounds to a point where I am lighting 100% by flash and 0% by ambient sources.

So, let’s put this into practice, I placed Jazz in a well-lit area in sunlight coming through my patio sliding door. With the camera set to manual, ISO100, 1/125 I adjusted the aperture until I got and under exposed black image – completely black.

The exposure equation was ISO100, 1/125, f11. The Photoflex FlexFlash 200W has a guide number of 100. Referring back to the exposure circle, I see that GN/aperture = distance. This means that 100/11 = distance. I set the Photoflex FlexFlash 200W nine feet from Jazz. This position however, would allow light from the flash to illuminate other areas. I needed to close the distance between the subject and the flash to “focus” the flash output a bit.

Each time the distance is cut by one half, the flash power can be reduced by one half. Moving the flash to 4.5’, I cut the flash power to ½ power. At just over 2’- it was reduced to ¼ power. I added a Photoflex 30" RUD Umbrella so I would not blind man’s best friend. This decreases the exposure by 1 full stop. I could not move the flash closer; therefore a power increase to compensate was needed – back to ½ power.

Jazz is perfect, holding a pose no longer than 3 seconds like a pro model. It just takes numerous images to get what I am after. In post processing the image is sharpened slightly with just a touch of contrast.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com

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