Series::Don’t fear the flash::Shooting backlit flash at a reception

I have been really wanting to do some technical articals that help you people learn some cool new stuff that you can get excited about! Since the biggest change and growth in our skills has been lighting I thought I would do a whole series on what we do, how we do it and why you shouldn’t fear or hate flash like we once did!

We like a lot of people started out as proud natural light photographers. I am not knocking that at all because we still do some really awesome stuff without the flash and I have seen other people use ambient light in amazing ways. But the problem with that is sometimes you can’t control the light and you are faced with a great challenge of making images that look like you should be paid to make them. Like it or not, it’s my opinion that you have a responsibility to your clients to be prepared in every situation whether there is good light to work with or not. Besides, it’s really not as daunting as you think =) I promise I will break you in gently.

My first topic is something I have been experimenting with the last few weddings to get a different and more interesting look at receptions, but it can very easily transfer into our portrait work especially now that I know what things are going to do.

Shooting a reception can be a daunting task if you expect to do a good job anyway! That has been some of the most stressful times during a wedding because there is so many obstacles and sometimes literally 5 minutes to figure it out and make it look epic. The upside is once you know what you are doing and have some cool techniques up your sleeve you can get some mind blowing shots! This portion of our flash series focuses on this technique called backlighting. It’s actually pretty simple to do once you get used to it, but I ran a whole load of tests to see how you get the best looking back light and how to get the most out of your flashes battery capacity and recycling times. Here’s a few cool shots we’ve gotten thus far:

So let me show you how I am setting up these shots:

See the sweet reception venues I get to shoot at? How could I not get awesome shots?!

Anyway, so I have a 580EX II on a stand, an Alienbee 1600 (pointed up at around 45 degrees with a paper snoot attached) behind me both triggered by pocket wizards. We will have another post with all the flash stuff we use so just hold your pants on for now!

So when I scope out a dance floor for shots I look for the most appealing backgrounds, hopefully with some little twinkly lights, or candlelight… So knowing I want to shoot in that direction, I set up my main flash behind me and bounce it over my head for some very soft fill light. Then I just set up the 580EX II across the dance floor so I am for the most part shooting right into it. If I can help it, the backlit flash looks the best when its slightly clipped by someone so the light is cresting them, but it can take a few shots to get it!

See it’s not too hard, just takes a little bit of practice! now lets see what different settings and lenses produce when you backlight.

First let’s test the flash’s intensity effect when I bring up and down the iso or flash output (which after testing both is exactly the same)

For this test I used a 50mm f/1.4 at f/8 increasing power in full stops which for flash would be 1/128th, 1/64th, 1/32nd, 1/16th ect. So in the flashes manual settings if I were to use 1/1 power I would be using the maximum flash power available. So 1/16th power would be, well 1/16th of the flash’s maximum power output.

For ISO, full stops come in 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600ISO ect. So I could change either of those settings alike to get the same results in this aspect.

Remember also that your camera’s distance from the flash will affect the intensity as well. All these shots were from the same distance. I would say the 4th or 5th example would be the sweet spot but it depends on the look you want. So if I wanted the 4th one and my camera was at f/8, 1/180th (shutter speed) and ISO 100 I would need to set the flash power to 1/16th, which is usually what I set it at for this kind of thing (though I adjust my iso through the night)

Next lets take a look at the flash’s zooming function which can be changed on this 580EX II:

Just hit the zoom button and turn the wheel! For this test I did 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm and 105mm. To achieve 14mm you will have to pull out the little diffuser thing. I personally only pull it out enough to get 14mm but don’t flip it down. There’s not a ton of difference but I think 35mm looks the cleanest while still maintaining intensity. The zoom setting is much more useful for bouncing up which I will talk about soon.

Probably the most important way to control how your backlight looks is changing the aperture. Since your lens has 5-9 aperture blades to control how much light enters your lens, when the blades contract they become less round which creates a light leak effect so the light bends around the point where the blades intersect. Thus the smaller your aperture is, the more accute the intersecting angle becomes. At least that’s how I understand it… Even if I am wrong, the results are the same!

For this test to keep intensity consistent I adjusted the ISO to compensate for the smaller aperture. Starting at f/1.4 all the way up to f/22.

Since there is other aspects of your image effected when you stop down to f/22 you have to keep some balance usually unless you dont care about ambient light and have a REAL powerful flash. That being said I would say f/5.6 or f/8 would be the best balance of getting the coolest star shape while not sacrificing the other factors in play. If you are confused by that here’s what I mean: If you are in a normal dim reception with a flash you would maybe need the following settings: f/2.0, 1/60th shutter speed, iso 400 with a flash power of 1/4th. To get f/22 and the coolest star you would need to give up 7 (!!) stops in one of the other settings (or split up) that means you would have to set your iso to 51,200, or bump up your flash to full power and then you could make your iso “only” 12,800 which on any camera looks less then ideal. Since flash output isn’t affected by shutter speed, compensating with that doesn’t so much help. So long story short, if you want cool flair f/5.6 or f/8 would be a good value.

On a side note, If you are using a tripod and just doing other stuff where shutter speed doesn’t matter you can do cool shots like this with super small aperture.

This was my 14mm so cool stars come at “larger” apertures like this one at f/11. To compensate I needed to leave the shutter open for 15 seconds. Partly so I could run around a flash the camera with my 580 while the shutter was open! While we are speaking about different lenses, and their flare characteristics, I did one last test for you.

For this test I set the camera to f/16 and set out to see what each lens looked like when flashed directly. The top image is closer to the flash and the bottom is further back. Interesting how the results change. For some reason i decided to leave it at iso 3200 instead of boosting the flash power, sorry for the graininess. also the further away shot was cropped to match the close shot.

The Sigma 14mm can be fussy with direct light especially in the sun but sometimes it comes though. Sure doesn’t like a close flash though!

The Fisheye also struggles with closer flash maybe because both it and the 14mm were flashed at about 1.5 feet, but when you back up the fisheye has some of the cleanest stars!

The 28mm has always been one of my favorites for flair especially in the sun. It really makes some unique flair and changes drastically through the aperture range.

The 50mm has flair that seems would be ideal in receptions especially for epic first dance shots.

The 100mm Didn’t like it so much until you back up a good amount.

Same for the 135mm (even more so) that lens while ridiculously strong in every other area is very weak with direct sunlight or flash. It’s still good if the flash isn’t in the frame like the bottom right image up top.

Personally my favorite flair machine is still the Canon 28mm f/1.8 which has been an EXcellent wide lens especially for a cost effective alternative to the 24mm f/1.4 II. Check out this image I did with it a while back.

So that’s about it for this part of this series! Next I will tackle understanding flash and how it works with you other settings. Should be a good one so bring your brains =)

P.S. If you want to keep me motivated to keep doing these technical articles then you are going to have to help ME help YOU that means anything you buy from the links you click including the one below helps me have time to do what I do! So spend all your moneys! But seriously is the only place i rent equitment and has been great from prices to customer service. Please give them a try and you won’t regret it!

July 14, 2010 - 5:39 pm

Natalie - Wow…I’m gonna read through this about 50 more times. Will probably be more understandable once I get my equipment in. Thanks so much!!! Great stuff!!

July 15, 2010 - 8:35 am

Melissa - Thanks for this awesome post Ryan!! I’ve been starting to experiment with off camera flash and it can get really frustrating! But I will for sure read through this post a few more times and keep testing things out! THANKS! Can’t wait for the next post!

July 18, 2010 - 6:42 am

Chris - This is some good stuff Ryan! I love to experiment but have a tendency to not be so methodical so I can appreciate some who can break it all down AND have the patience to the test/record thing. I would really love it if you kept right on going with these as I’m sure a ton of others out there would as well. And thank you for selling us the 200L 2.8, loving that lens!!!!

August 23, 2010 - 7:08 am

Julie Nickerson - THANK YOU SO MUCH for your hard work on this article.

It has been very helpful!

Me and my husband have been trying to step up our flash skills esp. during the receptions.


May 26, 2011 - 10:04 am

alison - Love this article! Still trying to figure out lighting and what to buy and the venues in our small town are DARK! Will be following your blog from now on so keep the information coming! Love your work!

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