Shooting Night Portraits – Using shoot through umbrellas to diffuse troublesome streetlights

Rosie (Stranger #86/100), London Soho
Rosie – Stranger #86/100, London Soho – Using a shoot through umbrella to diffuse a relatively powerful street lamp and mix light colours with speedlite.

What with work and family travel, I often end up shooting my street portraits at night.  Of course, it’s a lot more sociable when on holiday with my daughter and wife to shoot once they’re asleep, and with an intense, gripping job it’s not possible at lunchtime in the week.  For street portraiture, however, the night offers both challenge and opportunity in terms of mood and light.  In busier areas, strangers can be more open to shooting a portrait; there’s a permissive openness to the night perhaps, that leaves people more willing to take a risk – in terms of participation and expression.

Martyna (Stranger #74/100), London  Sarah (Stranger #38/100), London Southbank

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Whilst the dark shadow and eerie glow of streetlamps or cars can be a fantastic tool in reinforcing this mood, there is challenge too.  If setting up for a sharp shot handheld, one can easily end up with a black background that fails to express the strange nocturnal world in its full, nuanced glory.

My headshots are shot almost exclusively with the Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Macro on a 5D iii.  On that lens and camera, to get the DOF and background detail I want from a night portrait, within the constraints of a maximum acceptable ISO (1600 for colour) and slowest acceptable handheld shutter (1/50 given the 100mm and IS, I prefer 1/100), I end up shooting around the f/3.2, 1/50 – 1/100 and ISO 1600.  That gives the background a dark, miscreant glow – perhaps still needing a kick of shadow +50 or similar in Lightroom, but in the right region for the mood I’m after for the background.

The trouble is those are pretty sensitive settings.

You need your flash to be on minimum power, yet can easily overexpose a subject even then.  It’s especially tricky if you want your light close (and therefore softer).  I now put a diffuser on the flash to get rid of more light.  Softboxes being too efficient, I recently moved to shoot through umbrellas in a bid to waste more light still and bring the effective flash power down additional stops.

When I made that switch, I discovered something else – that one could place the umbrella in front of a street lamp to create a strangely blended light.  The street lamp, likely carrying the temperature/tint of your foreground ambient light, mixes with the flash to create a soft, smooth, better harmonised output.  On sensitive settings with weakened flash, streetlamps can throw pretty harsh shadows under noses or chins or within eye sockets.  Umbrellas are perfect for blocking streetlamps, being close and wide, yet a powerful streetlamp still kicks enough light through the umbrella to assist in focusing, whilst blending the colour of the light as noted above.

This was the principle used in the large shot of Rosie at the top of this post – a stranger encountered in Soho – lit with an umbrella boomed out over her to block a street lamp by her friend Lois.

To better demonstrate the difference of this technique, here are a couple of shots of a Paris stranger – kind enough to stop with her friend.  I sadly lost my email notes from the trip, and have forgotten her name, for which I apologise.  (If you’re reading here please do email me or comment below – I have you and your friend’s shots processed and ready to send to you!  Sorry not to give you named credit here!).

Sadly I did things backwards here.  The first/left most shot uses the technique described above.  A 43″ white shoot through umbrella is blocking a powerful streetlight (as well as projecting a minimum power flash from Canon 600EX-RT speedlite).  There is, to my eye, a nicely balanced warmth to the stranger and her background.

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The second/right shot is taken a few moments later, having moved forward from the wall for a better blur, but having forgotten in doing so to ensure the street lamp was fully blocked.  The settings and flash were identical.  However, you can see the impact in terms of harsher, unflattering shadows and a nasty mix of light temperatures.  Try as I might I could not recreate the temperature of the first shot – the mix of cooler flash and green/orange street light undermining any simple attempt to manipulate the white balance without a grueling series of masks and layers in Photoshop.

I hope this idea helps people setting out to shoot portraits at night.  I’m looking at larger umbrellas again to help waste flash power and better mask out/mix in street lamps and the like.  Hopefully I will have more examples for you shortly!

10,000 Mistakes – “Play” in learning photography

A couple of years ago, I was struck by a neat Zen quote; “The difference between a master and a novice is 10,000 mistakes.”  It was around about the time I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, sketching the general requirement for one to invest 10,000 hours in mastering a cognitive skill, and so it particularly struck.

As a result I shot a few left of field experimental shots, for example; spraying water in front of a street lamp and blossom during a long exposure, stacking filters to make a 19 stop ND (for a ~500,000 multiplier to exposure times) and shooting images of our cat’s backlit fur with a £5 extension tube on a 50mm 1.8.  All good fun, and a great way to embed lessons about light, exposure and photography in general.

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In shooting these, however, I was always looking for a shot to add to the portfolio.  Little by little, I realise, that experimental has fallen away.  I’ve recently started listening to the awesome Martin Bailey Photography podcast, and stumbled across this interview with David duChemin about his ebook The Visual Imagination.  You can check it out here – it’s fantastic, like all of Martin’s podcasts, and like every interview I’ve listened to with the relentlessly inspiring David duChemin.

They explore the idea of play in practice.  Taking shots to practice, to learn, to enjoy, to play – without any express intention to catch any lasting portfolio shots.  The notion resonated with what I used to do, but have increasingly formalised, so I thought I’d head out to play around with a flash and some subjects on my doorstep – using a bareflash and streetlight on some early summer blossom, a big white shoot through umbrella on a pole over some dense cow’s parsley and then flashing a scene with a nylon sheet over a clothes horse, before swooping my 24mm TS-E off the tripod and down towards a bare white LED buried in bright green leaves (or messing around with focus/shift mid-exposure).

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Whilst I’m not about to add any of the shots to my portfolio overnight, it was incredible fun and massively overdelivered in terms of learnings.  I’d 100% recommend checking out the podcast, have downloaded the ebook (superbly priced like all Craft & Vision products) and look forward to shooting practice sessions with greater freedom, without the burden of expectation and coming to know the tools, craft and possibilities of photography all the better for it.

Hope you’re well and having an incredible week so far.