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Photoflex Lighting School

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lighting an Alaskan Ultra Runner Outdoors

Lighting Equipment

Outdoor photographers know that the best light can sometimes be the most challenging to work with. If you have strong light falling on your background, your subject often ends up in shadow. One way to get around this is to use supplemental lighting gear, and with the portability of lightweight battery powered strobes like the Photoflex TritonFlash™, you can make a huge difference in your shots without burdening yourself with lots of heavy gear.

In this lesson, Alaskan adventure photographer Dan Bailey showcases the TritonFlash™ and the Photoflex FlashFire kit and demonstrates the effects that even a single light can make on your outdoor action imagery.

(Click on any thumbnail image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  •     Concept and Location
  •     Setting up the TritonFlash™
  •     Exposure
  •     Getting The Shot
  •     Switching to the Short Telephoto
  •     Portrait
  •     Final Thoughts

Equipment Used:

Camera/Media

  •     Nikon D700
  •     14mm lens
  •     24mm lens

The most important thing for me an adventure and action photographer is to go fast and light. Even when it comes to remote lighting equipment, I tend to travel with a minimal amount of gear, which is why I like the TritonFlash™. When broken down into the main flash head, lithium-ion battery pack, cables, wireless trigger kit and the included OctoDome® NXT soft box, the entire unit easily fits into my photo backpack, along with a camera and a couple of lenses. Strap a light stand to the side of the pack and I’m ready for just about any situation.

Concept and Location

My idea for this shoot was very simple. I wanted to capture a dynamic snowshoeing shot that literally exploded with excitement. In my mind, I saw a closeup, wide angle shot with snow flying everywhere in the frame. For a model, I enlisted my friend Beat, a seasoned ultra runner who had just completed an extreme 350-mile winter foot race here in Alaska, as I knew that he’d be up for just about anything.

I chose a location that had a nice mix of open snow and pine trees to provide some background interest. We planned for late afternoon so that we’d have a nice rich, blue sky. However, knowing that would leave the field in shadow, I planned to bring additional lighting. I chose the TritonFlash™ because, aside from its packability, it’s powerful enough to keep working and recycling very quickly in the cold, even after a few hundred shots.

Setting up the TritonFlash™

As I mentioned earlier, the TritonFlash™ is highly portable and it sets up very quickly. I keep the strobe head inside an insulated sleeve in my backpack, which helps to protect it, and also helps keep the battery warm and dry when I’m shooting. After removing the flash head from my pack, I set up the light stand, pop the head onto the stud and tighten down main knob. [Figures 1, 2 & 3]

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

The TritonFlash™ kit comes with the OctoDome® NXT soft box, which is my favorite portable, high quality light shaping tool. It gives great light quality in a relatively small package, and it’s extremely durable, which is key for an outdoor shooter like me.

Setting up the OctoDome® NXT just takes a few minutes. After removing it from its nylon carrying case, I insert 8 flexible rods into the OctoConnector, which gives it its shape, then attach the Velcro inner baffle and front diffusion face. [Figures 4 & 5]

Figure 4

Figure 5

To attach the OctoDome® NXT to the TritonFlash™ head, I simply remove the protective cover on the strobe, align the OctoConnector with the three tabs on the flash head, twist to lock, then tighten down with the knob. [Figures 6 & 7]

Figure 6

Figure 7

After plugging in the Lithium-Ion battery pack, I’m ready for action. [Figure 8]

Figure 8

We moved off the packed trail and set up the strobe out in the middle of the open meadow, pushing it down in the snow so that the head was about three feet off the ground. My plan was to shoot low angle with a wide lens, so I didn’t need the light to be very high up. Since I’d be shooting fairly close to the flash, I just connected it to my camera with the included sync cord. Using the direct connection of the cord allows me to use higher shutter speeds than if I were using radio triggers. [Figures 9 & 10]

Figure 9

Figure 10

Exposure

First we tried some shots without the light, just to see what we were dealing with. As you can see from the example image, even though we have a nice sky, there is no direct sunlight on Beat. He ends up being way too dark to get anything usable. [Figure 11]

Figure 11

Knowing that I wanted fairly even light on Beat, I had him stand about 3-4 feet away from the flash, while I tested exposure with full power. I then had him do some test runs by me so that I could set up my framing and check the light output. You can see that the first shots that I did were too hot, so I dialed the flash down a bit. [Figure 12]

Figure 12

With the combination of shutter speed and aperture that would give me an acceptable background and still freeze the action, I found that setting the TritonFlash™ to around 1/4 power gave me the results I wanted.

Also, I’ve discovered that when shooting in the snow, I need to angle the flash head up about 35-40 degrees to compensate for the high reflectivity of the snowy foreground. Otherwise I get a big hot spot, as you can see in the example below. The OctoDome® NXT has enough “spill” at the edges so that even when it’s pointed up, I still get enough light on the subject up close. [Figure 13]

Figure 13

Getting The Shot

When we were good to go, I had Beat do some passes towards and away from me while I snapped away with the 24mm lens. Under normal conditions, the TritonFlash™ can keep up with my 6 fps Nikon D700, but in the cold, recycle times slow down a bit. This forced me to be a bit more selective and precise about when I snapped the shutter. Sometimes I looked through the lens, while other times I shot from the hip, or rather “from the snow,” so to speak. [Figure 14]

Figure 14

The running was extremely strenuous, and we could only manage a couple of passes through the waist deep snow before Beat needed to rest and catch his breath. Still, we got some good shots from this series. Here's one of my favorites. [Figure 15]

Figure 15

After nailing a few frames with the 24mm, I switched to the 14mm lens, which gave me a much wider angle of view. This meant that I could either get more environment in the shot, or else more REALLY close up action, with the snow and snowshoes right in my face. When shooting subjects like this, I often try to get as close as possible, which presents obvious hazards. [Figures 16 & 17]

Figure 16

Figure 17

During this shoot, I never got kicked, but I did get a camera full of snow, as can be seen in this example. A quick shake and brush off with a cotton cloth and I was back at it, though! [Figure 18]

Figure 18

You can plainly see the difference between the frames that are lit with the TritonFlash™ and those that are not. Even if I’d wanted to shoot silhouettes, there’s almost too much ambient bounce in the snow to make that possible. In this case, the light from the TritonFlash™ made all the difference. [Figure 19]

Figure 19

Switching to the Short Telephoto

After the wide angle shots, I decided to try a few with a short telephoto and a different lighting angle. For the next series, I put on my 85mm lens and switched from sync cord strobe connection to using the FlashFire™ wireless triggers. This allowed me to get up and move around more freely. Leaving the TritonFlash™ where it was, I had Beat stand about 20 feet away and pointed the light so that it hit him from an off axis of about 45 degrees.

I stood about thirty feet away from him, shooting at 1/160th of a second (max sync speed for the FlashFire triggers). From that distance, the light was a little more direct and made Beat really pop off the page. [Figure 20]

Figure 20

Portrait

I often like to finish my action shoots with a quick portrait. By then, the ice is well broken (so to speak) and my models are usually very comfortable, after having endured the rest of the shoot.

For this shot, I positioned Beat about three feet away and slightly behind the TritonFlash™ so that the light that hit him from the side would be fairly soft. Remember that the the further away you place the light from the subject, the more harsh the quality light will be. [Figure 21]

Figure 21

Final Thoughts

As you can see, having that one light made all the difference in this photo shoot. Without it, we would have walked away with nothing. I could easily have used a speedlight instead, but with the limited time we had to get this shot done, using the TritonFlash™ made it so that we never had to wait for the flash to recycle. Plus, the unit kept firing, and would have kept firing with fast recycle times for another few hundred frames. A normal flash would have really started to slow down, especially in the cold.

And as for Beat, who had just finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational, he survived the photo shoot. Although he did say that it was more tiring than pulling a sled across 350 miles of frozen Alaska!

Figure 22

Lighting Equipment

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