Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

Nov 7, 2008 - 3 minute read - Photography flash neil van niekerk Photography

Flash photography with Neil van Niekerk

Shooting with natural light can produce a beautiful portrait, but in many real life shooting conditions photographer-added light can improve the quality of the result. In his flash photography workshops, such as the one I took last week in Boston, Neil van Niekerk explains the technical knowledge you need to produce the artistic look you may be seeking and then works hands-on with you to put that knowledge into practice. The techniques that he teaches grew from his experiences working in studios, applied to on-the-go wedding photography: practical, fast, effective. {% img left 333 500 ‘Melissa: indoor bounce flash, camera right.’ %}

Neil favors soft directional light that ideally looks as if flash was not used (motivated light). To achieve this, Neil teaches you to deliberately control the ambient light by setting your exposure manually and then to bring in directional light, either by bouncing an on-camera flash off a nearby surface or by using off-camera lights. He reviews the theory of controlling flash exposure manually (aperture, ISO, power, distance) and automatically (flash exposure compensation, leaving shutter speed, aperture and ISO transparent). With diagrams and live demonstrations, he explains flash technicalities like second curtain sync, high speed sync and the magic of the maximum sync speed.

In the afternoon, we worked with two extremely patient models Tanja and Melissa and went through a number of practical exercises including using the histogram to meter, bounced fill flash and FEC to control contrast, off-camera lighting in bright sunlight, use of gels to control color temperature, indoor bounce flash with modifiers, and a few more. In warmer climates, Neil takes the class downtown to work but things were a bit chilly in Boston so we spent the evening shooting in-doors, working more with off-camera manual flash.

One technical note: Neil recommended that we use evaluative (or matrix) metering instead of spot. He recommends this in order to be sure that the TTL flash metering will correctly set the power for the desired exposure of the subject; he suggests zooming in to a white patch (e.g., of the wedding dress) to correctly set the ambient exposure based on the histogram. Since I use primes mostly, I would prefer to be able to leave the camera in spot metering. Fortunately, the Photonotes Flash Photography with Canon guide seems to suggest that I can: > E-TTL II […] examines each evaluative metering zone before and after the E-TTL preflash. It then calculates the weighting for each zone independently, biasing against those zones with high reflectivity in the preflash. This means that E-TTL II does not have a flash metering pattern as such, since it’s calculated dynamically.

This seems consistent with my usage on the 30D so I will stick with spot metering for now. (Nikon users, pipe up in the comments.)

Neil’s work is meeting a growing demand to incorporate sophisticated flash techniques into photography for better results. He encourages an understanding of the full manual approach and off-camera aspects (a la strobist), but doesn’t shy away from using the intelligence programmed into today’s TTL flashes. He’s willing to answer questions from complete beginners, but the workshop is best (I think) for people comfortable with their camera controls and basic flash usage, and wanting a taste of the more sophisticated. Neil’s workshop is definitely recommended: I came away more confident in my ability to get results using flash having better internalized the fundamentals and gotten some great practical tips. For more pictures from the shoot, check out my photostream on Flickr.