This is a guest post by Justin Van Leeuwen, an Ottawa-based portrait and wedding photographer trying to find his way through the sea of part time photo mommy-bloggers and seasoned, grumpy, veterans of the wedding profession. As a father of two photogenic sons, he loves spending his time with a camera in one hand and a beer in the other. In his
spare timework week he labors for a local charity making sure they raise lots of money but was once fired from Best Buy for giving his supervisor the “double-middle” – which he does not regret.
I’ll preface this article to say that I’m new to the world of wedding photography, lighting, and portraiture in general. I have no classic schooling and have just studied, sought inspiration, and worked my butt off to the point that I’m at; and at this point, there’s a lot of room for improvement. I think, though, that I can help a lot of you out who are interested in a similar style of photography but just haven’t taken that plunge.
The Elinchrom Quadra System
This blog post will be about the Elinchrom Quadra system that I recently used at a wedding. The first question a lot of people ask me is why I got Quadra’s? There are a million different light options out there and all I can say was that this was the right choice for me. You’ll have to do your own research when it comes to using lights more powerful than a speedlight.
Why not just use speedlights?
I can tell you, quite simply, it comes down to power. A Nikon or Canon or “other” speedlight just can’t come close to the quantity of light that a more powerful strobe like the Quadra’s can produce. If photography is all about ratio’s and f/stops of light that increase by doubling numbers then you’d need to double up your speedlights pretty fast to get the same power output that a Quadra system will offer you. If you’re thinking a good flash is $500 – how many of those flashes are you going to need to bungee together to just get one pop the equivalent of the Quadra’s? 4 … maybe 8? Right there you’ve paid for the bigger set with cash left over; so the decision is easily made to grab a good portable Elinchrom System.
Another thing I like about the Elinchrom lights is that it IS a system, a system that pre-exists with snooths, and grids, and softboxes that have been refined and perfected over the years. And with a few adapters I have access to every light modifier Elinchrom makes.
But, at this point I’m working on a very limited budget, I can’t very well afford every piece out there, and with limited (read: no) rental options available to me, it’s buy and try. Luckily there’s help if you know where to look: I put a Tweet out to the pro’s and asked, if they could have just one light mod for the Elinchrom system, which would it be? Overwhelming response was the Deep Throat Octa (sexy no?). The deep throat is great because it’s big, produces a wonderful quality of light close up, and can be easily used backed up to throw a strong (still pleasing) harsher and powerful light in the direction of your subjects.
That’s what I was working with going into this wedding: 1 Elinchrom Ranger Quadra set, 1 Deep Throat Octa, a light stand, a broken budget (don’t tell my wife!), an assistant, and a really windy day.
Lighting The Wedding Day
I’m determined to use quality lighting at my clients weddings. I think it brings a dimension that is not as easily replicated (as in you need the gear and know how to use it) and will help set me apart from other weekend warriors.
Pictured: me adjusting my blackrapid R-strap, with the Ranger Quadra & Deep Throat Octa (outer diffuser removed) on an Avenger C-stand. Photo by David Hicks.
As you can see in the above image, aside from me needing to lose some weight, I’ve removed the outer diffuser of the softbox. The reason for this was that the material does absorb about a stop of light, and since the day was quite sunny (though we weren’t shooting in full sun) I wanted the latitude to change my exposure on the pack and use less power. Using less power per flash would mean a faster recycle time and more “pops” on this formal portraiture shoot.
Setting all this up was dead-simple, the heaviest component being the C-stand (and you want a really good heavy stand when you spend this kind of
cash credit on lights). It was sandbagged but, with a giant wind-sail like the Quadra attached it didn’t matter, it was a very windy day and we required someone to hold the stand at all times.
Pictured: The groom & his boys. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen
I love the contrasty look that you can get by under-exposing the background of a daytime scene – it makes the blues of the sky so much richer, like how I remember them, or how I want to remember them. It also serves to separate the foreground the lit elements (the wedding party), from the ambient light of the day: this really makes your subjects “pop” out of the image.
Pictured: The bride. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen
There are some tricks here and I’ll run you through them. Most people know by now – thanks to visionary teachers like David Hobby, Joe McNally, Syl Arena, and many others – that the ambient exposure is your “available” light and your flash can come in as a key light to add some ‘pop.’ The means to control how much pop is there is pretty simple – your shutter speed will control your ambient light (so 1/60th will let more ambient/available light in, and 1/250th less) while your aperture will control how much flash gets in (so f/2.8 will be brighter than f/8 assuming your flash power stays consistent). And the combination of these two that you choose will all be according to your tastes. Some like to keep the flash and ambient levels balanced to create a more natural look, while others, like me, like to pop it up.
Most digital SLR’s are limited in their ability to sync the flash with the shutter speed. 1/250th is pretty typical, though a lot of 5D users are more in the 1/160th range and others fall in-between. For your model be sure to RTFM. The reason for this is that your shutter doesn’t move fast enough to capture the full power of your flash – leaving a black, or dark, area having only exposed for the ambient light. But there are a few ways to cheat this and even use it to your advantage.
One way, when you’re shooting manual (which I always do for my lit portraits when not using a TTL flash system) is to just crank that shutter speed up anyways. 1/250th? HA – I LAUGH AT YOU! It’s called cheating the sync and, when done right, it looks like a strong vignette on your image. When done wrong you have a horrible black bar across the frame. The thing to know is that whatever shutter speed you choose, will still expose the ambient, it’s the flash that won’t get captured in the region (the bottom of the frame). So you can use it like I did here to still expose, but create a natural vignette highlighting the area of the subjects I wanted to focus on.
Pictured Bride & Bridesmaid the heavy vignette at the bottom is due to cheating the sync to 1/400th of a second, thus the flash exposure was never recorded at that lower portion of the frame. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen
Others can manipulate this technique by turning their camera’s upside-down and letting that vignette hit only the sky – which is usually brighter anyways – or compose in a way that they’ll crop later. Shooting on a now ancient 1DMKII, I didn’t have the MP to spare to crop down.
Another way to cheat the sync, and this I love, is to use a different kind of camera. Point and shoots aren’t SLR’s right? So they’re not bound by the same “rule” of a max shutter speed because there’s no shutter – just a sensor. Sadly, i find, the cameras are still limited in their firmware to a number that is much lower than they’re capable of – if you’re using a TTL system a camera like the G11 is still limited to 1/250th or so. A camera like the G11 (or the Panasonic LX3 which I’ve also used) has a hot-shoe which allows me to put a remote trigger in it (like the Elinchrom skyport that triggers the Quadra flashes: very similar to a Pocket Wizard). The G11 was able to reach the shutter speeds I needed for the day (1/400th), to darken the sky, without the burden of worrying about a shutter vignette. In fact, I could have gone with an even FASTER shutter speed, effectively turning day to night if I really wanted to. To sweeten the deal, the G11 is 10MP (2MP more than the 1DMKII) or if you had a G10 that’s 15MP to put to use.
The groomsmen were shot at 1/1000th of a second. Two other images (above) were also shot with the G11.
Once I’ve figured out my ambient and ideal working aperture the rest of the shoot goes like any other, lock in your settings and keep the distance of light to subject consistent… except when the clouds cover the sun and you’re effectively starting from scratch because your ambient just went down a hole…
Lighting the Group
One thing a single speedlight can’t do very well is light a large group… heck, even a medium group it’d be struggling with if they were spread out.
Pictured: The Bridal Party. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen
Another advantage to removing the outer diffuser panel of the Octa was that it also gave the light a bit more spread – not only would it carry farther, it would spread wider – allowing me to light the group who, otherwise, would have been in shade, unevenly lit and definitely not standing out.
Packing up the Quadra is as easy as it is setting it up, except you’re no longer balancing exposures, you’re racing off to the ceremony that starts in 30 minutes.
For posterity, here’s a shot of the bride with the flash off, and the next on.
After the ceremony we were able to put the Quadra to use again in larger groups for the family formals.
The bride’s family. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen
Finally, I also added a “Photobooth” as an add-on benefit for your clients and a great point of sale for your business. But I found that I need a good amount of clean, wrapping light to do it right – also to get a small enough aperture to capture depth in case someone does something crazy.
Wedding revelers don’t fit my 10’ seamless (which wasn’t seamless after this shot)
Full disclosure: Admittedly, I was inspired by “The Image is Found” Nate & Jacyln Kaiser who rock the Crazybooth like nobody’s business – actually they rock it like THEIR business. And you can buy their secret sauce recipe for how to do it right (which I don’t – YET) here.
What did I need?
An awesome assistant and second shooter. Dave saved my ass that day; he held my lights up in some serious wind, and shot a bunch of photos that I would not have been able to when he wasn’t a living land-sail. I’d argue a good 2nd shooter is always a valuable resource to have at a wedding for both you and your clients – they can also be someone to hold your lights – even better!
Pictured: David Hicks. Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen
Just to be clear, I did not use the Quadra, or any sort of strobes for many other parts of the wedding. They were just a tool that I utilized to give my client a bit of a “studio” experience while producing images that, I hope, will set me apart from some of my competition. The capital outlay wasn’t much more than some of those “L” Lenses I look at (and own), plus it gave us some images that were must haves for the wedding album, and even 12×18 print orders.
I still have a long way to go before I get what I’m really aiming for – these images aren’t perfect – and I can pick them apart. I also welcome you to – seriously – let me know what you think, how they could have been improved, a light in the rear for separation? Shallower dof (you’d need ND filters for that) Just no comments on the subjects okay? They all look awesome.
If you have questions about this or anything else, I also welcome them. You can reach me on twitter @justinvl or by email at justin.vanleeuwen AT gmail DOT com When I’m not taking care of my two kids and taking pictures of them, you can sometimes find me on my photography blog.