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Flash, camera, and action

Rory Laubscher is an Auckland-based professional photographer who contributes tutorials on flash photography for D-Photo magazine; the following is an in-depth expansion on his high-speed sync article in D-Photo Issue No. 50.

12 September 2012


Rory Laubscher is an Auckland-based professional photographer who contributes tutorials on flash photography for D-Photo magazine, the following is an in-depth expansion on his high-speed sync article in D-Photo 50.

The greatest thing about getting out with your equipment and pushing your boundaries is that the experience very often attunes you to the limitations of your gear.

The good news in all of this is that figuring your way around the problem invariably opens up a number of new possibilities…

And so begins an interesting cycle of problem solving and further experimentation.

A while back I had the urge to head down to the local skate park to shoot something that placed me out of my comfort zone.

This spur of the moment decision has lead to a number of repeat visits, new techniques and skills and a few new contacts made over the course of the past 18 months.

It’s been an interesting process, with a number of really useful lessons, which I’ll now share with you.

Firstly, a minor disclaimer

Most of the images I’ve included are images that emphasise a point, and are definitely not what I’d call my best work.

However, the point we often forget is that we need to shoot a fair amount of crappy images before the hero shots start happening more regularly.

As photographers, we need to suck at times.

However, that is all for nothing if we cannot recognise where these images fell short and then take steps to improve them.

Not knowing what you don’t know is hard.

Hopefully, this post will teach a few lessons without you needing to have first rammed your head against a wall.

I got very addicted to off-camera flash some time ago.

Initially it was all about heading somewhere interesting with fellow photographers and then taking turns shooting each other and seeing what the gear would do.

Admittedly, when you’re starting out, a speedlite through an umbrella is a great start, and suddenly you’re producing images which are amazingly better than what you’re used to. But shooting colleagues quickly got stale, and something needed to be done to step things up a little.
So the decision was made to head out to the skate park.

Any doubts or concerns I may have had about approaching a bunch of strangers (kids and teenagers no less) were quickly dispelled once the lights were set up. By and large, these kids love their bikes and decks as much as I love my camera gear, and once I’d explained what I was there to do, getting a few willing subjects was an absolute piece of cake (and to the women who may be reading this, please let no one ever tell you that men cannot be vain and image conscious!)

The kids pulled out all the stops, and some of them are exceptionally talented. And pretty soon things were moving along quite nicely.

Since I write these posts to share my experiences and offer a little advice for fellow photographers, it would probably be wise to start off by explaining how we set things up. The basic setup for this was a Canon 580 EX II on a light stand, triggered with an Elinchrom Skyport.

I opted to use bare flash for a number of reasons:
1) Hard light mixes well with afternoon light
2) Hard light had a good effect on the subject matter I was shooting
3) A softbox or umbrella would sap way too much light and almost negate the value of using fill flash in the first place

The shot below gives an idea of the setup as well as the location on the day.

The interesting thing about this first shoot was that it introduced us to all the variables that need to come together to get an image that works (points you only realise when you’re sitting in front of the PC going through the images you shot).

1) Focus

A good action shot needs to be crisp and in focus. Knowing how to pan/pre-select a focus point and which camera auto-focus settings to use are skills that take time to get acquainted with. For those of us who don’t shoot action regularly, it often takes a little warming up before things are doing what they need to do. A camera with decent AF and fast glass make a huge difference as well, but this is definitely a skill that needs to be honed and kept sharp.

2) Flash coverage

Getting the image sharp is useless if you don’t capture your subject in the area where the flash is firing.

3) Be wary of your background

It may be fine for a start, but photographers are generally pretty picky and finding a way to remove the onlookers without resorting to Photoshop would be fine. Obviously this would require shooting on a quiet day, but more on this later.

5. Background-Distraction

4 Shutter speed

The single most important lesson on the day.Shooting using flash immediately puts you at the mercy of sync speed/x -sync. Check this out if you need a better explanation (1/200s is not exactly fast enough to freeze the action we were shooting, as the image below will prove).

5) Consistency when using manual flash

These guys are moving pretty fast, and though you know what line they’re following, even the smallest movements towards or away from the flash can have big effects on the image (sometimes disastrous).

6) Know what they’re doing

Being in the right spot with the light aimed perfectly helps nothing if your composition sucks. When shooting skaters, be wary of how they skate and which way they’ll be turning or coming through; you want to shoot their faces and not get a frame full of butt or back when you press the shutter.

As mentioned in a previous post, I make a habit of writing down my problem list as soon as I can after a shoot, while the issues are still fresh in my mind. All in all it was a great first attempt, and aside from the problems that experience would prevent in future, the problem list and solutions I opted for looked something like this:

How to get a faster shutter speed to freeze motion

This posed a slight headache. The premise here is that I’d need to use high speed sync, which is impossible with a Skyport transmitter.

I had three options:

a) Buying a second flash and using it as an on-camera master to trigger the off-camera flash, which would make high-speed sync possible

b) Canon ST-E2 transmitter which seemed a cheaper option (but I had concerns about line-of site for triggering)

c) Pocketwizard Flex and Mini units – awesome, reliable but expensive

These would also solve the problem of manual flash, as they allow wireless E-TTL flash, which would make problem fve a thing of the past.

Maintaining consistency with manual flash

The only real solution to this problem would be to either:

a) Keep the guys coming through at the same distance from the flash – which is impossible and therefore not an option

b) Find a TTL method of off camera flash (both options b and c above would work)

Achieving Focus

Instead of relying on auto-focus to do the job, in most situations I now make use of focus-lock. Planning is important here, so your talent knows what line to maintain, or what position of the ramp to pop up on.

Mark the spot, and get him to stand still there. Compose the shot, get the focus and engage focus-lock. I find this works quite well, as it negates the need to be watching their approach; just maintain your composition, look through the eyepiece and fire when they’re in position. This has resulted in a much higher rate of keepers when editing.

Distracting Backgrounds

The only way to solve this problem is to shoot on a day when the park is deserted. Playing prima-donna and chasing people away from your field of vision would be abhorrent and unfair. I solved this issue by approaching Carl Mason (check the title shot) and arranging a pro-bono shoot during a weekday, when everyone else was at school. Aside from the weather, which forced two cancellations, this option worked fine.

So essentially, the problems basically fit into two categories: those solved by experience and those solved by improved equipment.

After looking at the issues I needed to resolve, it became increasingly clear that the biggest improvement would be made by acquiring the gear needed to work at faster shutter speeds (as odd as it sounds, it does feel good to spend money on gear which you know you’ll need and will make a difference, than biting the bullet and buying something expensive on a whim).

I thought long and hard about it, and eventually opted for the Pocketwizards. I am a big believer in buying quality, and buying once if I can afford to. Though it did take a few months of saving, I now have the gear to do what I need without any problems.

I also invested in a second flash, partly because I have to have a backup in emergencies, and partly because high speed sync causes a lot of power loss from the flash: having two would be a huge advantage.

The setup I now use consists of two Canon 580 EXII flashes, connected to pocketwizard Flex receivers secured to a flash bracket which attaches easily to an umbrella tilting bracket.

I also invested in two battery packs for the flashes and enough rechargeable Nimh batteries to provide power to the flashes, battery packs and provide spares.

I love the set-up!

So it was with this setup that I headed back to skatepark. Honestly, I noticed a huge difference in the sharpness of my images, as I was now shooting at speeds in the region of 1/2000s quite comfortably. However the big problem that now surfaced was that, in some areas, the lightstand just could not be safely placed close enough to where the action was (steps, rails etc…) and because of this the distance was too great for the reduced light that the flashes spit out in high speed sync.

I remembered a post on strobist which ultimately provided the solution I needed, albeit after a few headaches. The Kacey Pole adapter allows you to mount a flash onto a standard painter’s pole, with the idea that an assistant can then extend the pole and direct the flash wherever it needs to go (in this case, just by following the skater/biker as he moves into frame).

Provided the assistant has good aim, the light will always be pointing right at your subject when the shutter fires.

(And because I’m using the pocketwizards in TTL, the flash power is almost always exactly what I need it to be).

Coincidentally, the Kacey pole adapter is not available in NZ (surprise surprise) and I opted not to have it shipped in from the States as I wasn’t certain if the thread was compatible with NZ paint poles.

My solution? I bought a decent painter’s pole from Bunnings Warehouse and went to a local engineering firm with what I needed. Though it cost me around $150 ($70 for the pole and $80 for the adapter) I now have a very versatile tool up my sleeve which has come in quite handy on a number of occasions.

(I’m still waiting to use it with sunset shots in the water, but that will probably have to wait until summer).

This is what the complete assembly looks like.

Admittedly, my next modification will be to add a small crossbar to make it easier to keep it level, as it has the tendency to twist in your assistant’s hands. Here is a close-up of the head of the unit (note the wires for the battery packs, and the orientation of the umbrella bracket adapter).

So there you have it, a few little lessons learnt through trial and error.

Again, my thanks to everyone who was around to help and share the experience over the months it took. Firstly, to Shelly, Heather and Joz who have helped out as human light stands and company during the shoots, and secondly to Carl for literally putting his body on the line in my quest for some great images.

Head on over to the Facebook group page to check out the keepers from Carl’s shoot.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I’ll try and keep subsequent posts a little shorter.

Happy snapping!

Rory Laubsher runs worshops on flash photography at his Firefly Photography studio in Auckland. His next session takes place on November 17 – visit for details or visit his blog for more posts like this.