Robert Trawick: Saturday Night Lights

Oklahoma City photographer Robert Trawick recently held a presentation at the DFW PhotoExpo in Dallas/Forth Worth, Texas and then went the extra mile by inviting attendees to join him for a night shot later that evening. Here is his account:

I’m honored to have an opportunity to present to fellow photographers, but I was super stoked to return to DFW PhotoExpo for another year. It’s hard to develop a relationship and understanding with another photographer during a one hour presentation, so I love to invite them out for a live shoot after the trade show has closed and we get a better chance to talk, as well as explore light.

A very talented local photographer helped me secure a super cool vehicle for the lighting demo, but at the last minute, things just fell apart and we punted. Luckily for our group of adventurers, we had a photographer/biker in our midst, a kindred spirit willing to have his gorgeous 2002 Indian pawed by our beautiful model, Avery. Things worked out perfectly and we used different light modifiers and techniques as we learned not to be afraid of the dark!

In the last light demonstration, I wanted to go just a little outside the box, so to speak, and use a light modifier than many might not even consider. I recently picked up a PhotoFlex LiteReachPlus Kit with a 39″x39″ LitePanel. My main purpose for this setup is to create shade at high noon for small families, couples and high school senior photography. The pole included in the kit lifts the LitePanel to over 9 feet in the air, easily cutting harsh sun and keeping out of the camera view. The diffusion material wrapped on the metal tubular frame is perfect for small strobe/speedlite photography. In fact, I was a little more than surprised at the wide softer light thrown about 10 feet from our model and motorcycle and can envision more uses for this setup in the future.

Everyone really enjoyed the hands on light experience and the simplicity of the setup, but I’ve received a few emails from people who wanted a step-by-step playbook for reference. Okay, when I say simple workflow, I mean SIMPLE. We can make anything hard, and many photographers do (in my humble opinion), but I like simple when simple is possible. Shooting at night is much easier than daylight because you have so much more control of light. So here goes the blow-by-blow setup.

Find your subject and background for the shot. I really look for the background first, looking through the camera with the lens de-focused to preview the out of focus area I should get on the final image. Find a good position and plant that tripod. Yes, a tripod. You know the big, heavy beast you constantly complain about. This is going to make things so much easier. Sure you can shoot handheld, but your control is a little more limited and the image might not be as tack sharp, but I’m telling the story so let’s do it my way. LOL!

Now your subject is probably going to be dark so use a flashlight to help focus and compose the shot. Lock the tripod controls down tight and be sure the camera doesn’t try to refocus when you push the shutter button. If you like, you can simply turn the AF setting on your lens or camera to M (Manual focus). Now guess a exposure for the background. As you spend more time shooting nightscapes, your guesses will become more accurate. For this setup, I chose an aperture of f/4, a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds at ISO 200. Season to taste to make the background darker or lighter. Now, listen closely….don’t change the camera settings. Any adjustments will affect the background. Yep, you read that correctly. Unless you have a good reason to change the settings, let them be. Here's the ambient setting result (A):

“Well, that image doesn’t look so great,” you might be thinking. But remember, we’re building the shot. First, we set the camera for the background or ambient light exposure. Some call this the base exposure. But next, you get to add the main light. BAM! Here. we could have just used the Nikon SB-800 speedlite, but being so far away and so small, I knew it would have been too specular and harsh. By placing the PhotoFlex LitePanel about 18 inches away from the strobe, we were able to broaden the light source.  This softer light, combined with a 10 foot distance and the ever-confusing, but very important “inverse square law of light”, helped us achieve a larger area for the model to move around in with changing settings, and illuminate the motorcycle as well. Here's a shot with the main light added (B):

At this point, we knew we were on to something here. The background maintained the same exposure, since we didn’t change the camera settings, but to get the right exposure with the LitePanel and flash, all we did was adjust the power of the speedlite. No rocket science here. Simple, easy and effective. But we don’t want to stop where most everyone else would. We were not just going to look at that image and say “It’s a wrap!” Pack up and go home.” Oh, no sir. Because I love a good backlight, rim light or accent light. A night shot like this needs a little something to separate Avery from the dark background and show the curves of the bike. It’s simple again. We added another Nikon SB-800 behind and to the opposite side aimed at her back. Changes to exposure settings? Nope. You didn’t think we would change the camera settings, did you? In the words of my Aunt Tita, “Naughty, naughty”, with a shake of a finger in your direction. Camera setting stay. We just split the power from the main light and work from there. Again, season to taste and play with the flash to accent that edge, separating the foreground from the background. Here's our final shot (C):

And that’s it, folks! Yes, we could still add more flashes, maybe some with filters, but that’s for you to experiment with. Enjoy the day and never be afraid of the night!

To see more of Robert Trawick’s work, visit:

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