On the Light Side

Lately, I’ve made an addition to what I carry in my camera bag. It is a single Speedlight. Many photographers are reducing their load by going with mirror-less 4/3 cameras invoking the spirit of the Leica gods. Not me. I’ve gotten hooked on the ability to determine both background and foreground subject exposure. With this single strobe I can create mood, attitude and even alter the appearance of the time of day. By using an off-camera flash I also have a wider range of depth of field choices.  This is especially fun when making environmental portraits.

Relying on perfect natural lighting where the light ratios are balanced is just too risky.  Now I make a simple calculation: I initially expose for the background (usually under exposing by a full stop), then I meter the foreground subject. I make up the difference by manually setting the Speedlight for an incremental flash of light. Of course, this can vary based on whether you use it as direct or reflected light.

Recently, I went to four Balkan countries. I wanted to make environmental portraits and a few landscapes. The Speedlight was an invaluable tool to make distinctive photographs worthy of the sitters. In this image of an Albanian Guest House Hostess, I did not want to loose the mood and the mist of the surrounding mountains. However, if I exposed for the background my subject would come out dark, or at best, the same value as her surroundings. She wouldn’t separate from the scene. I deputized the nearest human as my temporary assisting and had him aim the strobe somewhat away from the subject so that only the edge of the light stream feathered the subject. Then I adjusted the quantity of fill light. The result is that she sparkles against the background.

© Nick Dantona

© Nick Dantona

In this next example of a goat shepherd, the sun had already gone below the horizon. I had found him late. Without an additional light source this image would be drab. Instead, by placing the Speedlight at a very shallow angle and firing it into a small, portable reflector, I was able to simulate late afternoon light on the subject and control the depth of field to get the goat just right. Again, I metered the background first and determined which f/stop (depth of field) to use, then metered the foreground subject (the shepherd), then set the Speedlight potency to make up the difference.  This is not a new technique. Photographers have used flash units outdoors since the dawn of portable light. The difference today, however, is that the light units are small, virtually weightless and intelligent. Further, with the use of a digital camera on-the-spot experimentation can take place lickity-split.

© Nick Dantona

© Nick Dantona

Finally, I’ll suggest using a Speedlight as a backlight source for flowers, architectural elements, or other still-life objects. Try facing the subject into the sun or a natural light source (e.g. a window) and under expose it just a tad. Now place the Speedlight behind the subject and give it some power. The results can be impressive. In fact, you can use the Speedlight as a top light or bounce it into the floor so that the light kicks from under the subject. Terrific.

© Nick Dantona

© Nick Dantona

“Less is more” is a sensible guideline especially when shouldering equipment long distances or for long periods of time.  So I’ve jettisoned some stuff. Now I only pack the following:
1 camera body
1 lens
1 Speedlight
1 Speedlight Controller
1 small reflector
Extra batteries and CF Cards
Maybe a small tripod
Simple. Easy. Light.

Much love,
Nick Dantona

Some interesting resources:


Today the women of f/4 Studio welcome long-time friend, Nick Dantona.  When Nick is nearby, the conversation is always stimulating and thought provoking, usually with a splash of humor added.  We thank Nick for taking time to share a little of his talent with us.

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