For natural-light shooters, photography can be a little too much like fishing sometimes, i.e., a lot of waiting around. Because lighting is so important, photographers are always looking for that narrow window of time when the light is perfect, whether it’s sunset, the “Golden Hour,” or an overcast day when the light is soft and flattering. Of course, this approach tends to lead to a good deal of uncooperative weather, frustration, and missed opportunities.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With the powerful lighting tools we have available to us nowadays, we can reproduce the look of that perfect hour with the help of artificial light. This means you can catch that proverbial big fish on your own terms.
Mission: Overpower the Sun
For this shoot, I set out to create some images of dancers on the Hudson waterfront. With flowing fabric and dynamic poses, I was hoping to capture a graceful sense of movement and freedom. I also wanted to capture a sense of moodiness by isolating the subject against a darkened sky.
On an ideal evening, this might have been a fairly straightforward shoot. Because I wanted to prove a point, however, I set a couple of hurdles for myself. The main hurdle was that I purposely chose terrible conditions for portraiture: a hot, humid, hazy summer day around noon. Usually, this results in hard shadows and blown-out highlights. By overpowering the sun with artificial light, however, you can underexpose the background while getting perfect studio lighting on your subject. For this shoot, I kept my gear to a minimum by bringing out the new Impact Venture TTL-600, an exceptionally compact battery-powered monolight that offers a robust 600 Ws of power, high-speed sync (HSS), full TTL, and 500 full-power flashes per charge.
The other hurdle was that I would force myself to shoot in TTL to test the Venture’s smarts. Being both old-school and a control freak, I drive a stick-shift and shoot exclusively in manual, but I thought it would be a good learning experience to try out some newer lighting approaches.
My goal was to prove that you can overcome any lighting adversity if you master your strobes—even when surrendering some manual control and trusting the machine!
90 Degrees and Sunny
On the day of the shoot, I’ll admit I got a little more than I bargained for. Not only was it one of the harshest days of the year in terms of sunlight, it was also 90 degrees, hazy, and muggy. We were at the tail end of one of the hottest summers on record, and you could definitely feel it.
Still, armed with the Impact Venture, my Canon 7D, and a 24–70 mm 2.8L lens, we set out as planned, hiking across mid-Manhattan to the Hudson River around 11 o’clock. I was accompanied by a couple of assistants and two great models/dancers I’ve worked with in the past: Libby, a professional dancer who was trained at a classical ballet school, and Ashley, a salsa dancer and lawyer who runs a life-coaching business called MeTox.
When we reached the deck at the waterfront, there was no shade, and that glaring sun was shining right at the lens. It was hard to see without squinting. The only relief was the (warm) breeze coming off the water. To give you an idea of what we were up against, here’s a shot without any help from the Venture.
As you can see, the sun was so bright that setting the exposure for ambient light meant all the background detail was lost to blown-out highlights. And even though Ashley is properly exposed here, the lack of any help from an artificial light source makes her image look flat, with no sculpting or dimension.
Taming an Unruly Sun
The first step was to restore the details of the sky, water, and skyline in the background by decreasing the exposure. This is usually done by increasing either the f-stop or the shutter speed.
At first, I tried the more traditional approach of closing down the aperture, maxing it out at f/22. Unfortunately, the sun was just too bright for me to get the 2:1 subject-to-background ratio and sharpness I wanted.
The lackluster results made me realize I needed to use the Venture’s high-speed sync (HSS) functionality, which allows much faster shutter speeds than your typical strobe. Because HSS mode reduces the maximum intensity of the light, however, I swung to the opposite extreme and opened up my aperture as wide as possible, to f/2.8. This also happened to be a great choice aesthetically, because the shallower depth of field helped isolate the subject.
To balance out that wide aperture, I put the pedal to the metal and set the shutter speed to 1/8,000—the maximum on most DSLRs. This gave me the nicely darkened background that I wanted.
Enter the Venture
With this decreased exposure, of course, my subject would now be significantly underexposed. It was the Venture’s time to shine. I went with a fairly standard setup, placing my monolight at a 45-degree angle to provide wraparound light and the dimensionality I needed. I also set it at a 15-foot distance from the subject to make sure I’d get full-body coverage.
Though I originally intended to use a white beauty dish, the extreme sunlight made it necessary to use the Venture’s silver-beaded 65-degree reflector for its extra efficiency and directionality.
Bam. We’ve got great detail on the background, a darkened, moody sky, and Libby just pops with detail and dimension. The insane shutter speed really allowed me to freeze the action, giving me terrific sharpness on that fluttering scarf. I was impressed!
From this point on, the shoot became a no-brainer, thanks to TTL. I brought out Ashley next, and this time I didn’t have to think twice about whether I’d get the shot.
Again, spot-on. The image is full of motion and drama, with the fast f-stop really pulling the subject out from the background. This level of expressiveness wouldn’t have been possible if we had worked only with natural light, and a speedlight simply wouldn’t have had enough horsepower to light the subject this fully.
While this experience won’t make me give up the traditional studio lighting techniques I’ve used for my whole career, it does give me a newfound respect for TTL. I did have to relinquish some control here, but that meant I was able to shoot with greater efficiency and less fuss. As an old-school diehard, I wasn’t sure whether I could trust the machine, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Cheers to the Venture!
Have you had a similar experience creating mood while shooting outdoors on a sunny day? Tell us about it below, in the Comments section.
This is a guest blog post by fashion photographer Joey Quintero, of Impact Studio Lighting.
Does the strobe fire in HSS/TTL in both fast and power modes?
The Impact Venture monolight can be used in HSS/TTL when set for Quick Mode or Power Mode.
Why does this monoblock not get more exposure in the marketplace? Am I missing something here? 600w monoblock in a small package. I like portable equipment that I can take with me on trips.
So in the video it appears you have a filter (hood like) attachment on the front of your lens. Is that for a ND filter to cut the amient light?
Hi Gary: I was there at the shoot it it was only used as a lens hood - no filters.