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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

Learning how to light

In the 1990s, a photographer friend from the local camera club asked me to help him out and take photos at a Christmas party for children, for which he’d been double-booked. I jumped at the chance to prove myself and take on one of my first paid photo jobs. When the evening came, I grabbed my camera bag, including a flash I’d pretty much never used, and headed out.

This was in the days when digital photography meant VGA-resolution images for anyone but a rich professional, so I was still shooting 35mm film using a manual Nikon. That meant I couldn’t see the photos as I was taking them, which was to lead my to one of my most embarrassing photographic memories.

I wasn’t at all experienced in using a flash back then, and so I had no way of knowing that all of the shots I was taking were bleached out completely: I was over-exposing them massively. To compound the problem, I had assumed that the flash would give me enough light to mean that I didn’t need a slow shutter speed any more. I have since learned that this results in hard photos, featuring people with glowing red eyes, and a complete lack of any atmosphere. A beautiful Christmas tree, complete with sparkling lights? Reduced to a dark shape in the background of an awful photo.

This experience led me to abandon flash and commit myself to natural light. A natural reaction, but one which meant that I couldn’t take good photos in low-light situations; even though films with ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 ratings are available, the size of the grain means that they produce effects similar to those I had made with potato and poster paint in primary school. The experience also put me off taking on any commercial work for a considerable time, and dented my self-confidence enough to make me restrict myself to more creative images, rather than working towards taking photos which other people would pay for.

Fast forward to 2007, when I’d been active amongst the group of photographers who were regularly interacting via Flickr for a few years. After several meet-ups across Switzerland, where a tribe of us wandered around cities and took photos between eating ice-cream, we decided to find out more about the new “Strobist” techniques which were beginning to become popular. We arranged a meet-up in Winterthur to try out these techniques and the “Swiss Strobist” group was born.

Since then, I’ve dedicated much of my time to learning how to light; even learning the simplest technique of using bounce flash was a massive improvement over my early, catastrophic efforts. I took to the technology like a duck to water, and I quickly found that I have a talent for teaching the technique too. Many dozens of people have attended the workshops I’ve led, and many of them have gone on to create some truly beautiful work and surpass what they learned in the group by far.

Having been in the position of a new student, and wanting desperately to improve my technique, it makes me truly happy when I can pass on some knowledge to another photographer. Even professional photographers can sometimes learn new techniques and I’m pleased when I can help them in any way. Such was the case earlier this week, when Barbara and I met over lunchtime to quickly cover the possibilities of lighting with small flash.

Although Barbara has a lot of knowledge and skill with larger studio lighting, we covered the basics of how to mix ambient light with lighting from small flash guns, and I ran through a quick demo of each of the accessories I use when shooting portraits on location. From the basic reflector to both smaller and larger soft boxes, we covered the advantages and problem areas with the technology, as well as summarizing what equipment one needs to comfortably be able to work in this way. The photos accompanying this blog post are some example shots I took of Barbara towards the end of the “mini workshop”, and specifically show the results of using a soft box – the 60cm Walimex I wrote about last year – for both wider, environmental shots and closer, focused portraits.

If you’re interested in learning more about lighting techniques using small flash guns, please feel free to get in touch or join up to the free emailing list, so that you receive a message when I plan the next workshop.