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Here's Sunshine Up Your Skirt! An excerpt from Joe McNally's "Sketching Light"

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Excerpted from “Sketching Light” by Joe McNally. Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

Read the Professional Photographer review of “Sketching Light”

Every once in a while, you try something on a wing and a prayer, and you get a picture that works. You gave it just about zero chance of success when you put the light out there, and then it’s so absurdly first-frame simple, you have one of those “coulda had a V8” moments back at the LCD. Which, of course, you then try to cover up by assuming a knew-it-all-along look, a confident nod, and a quiet, murmured, “Think I’ll just shoot a few more of these.”

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I was on the main plaza in pre-dawn Venice, which is the only time of day that beautiful, historic place is not a sea of backpacks and a jumble of accents and languages. The sun was up and light was bounding out on the waterways, but I was struck by the cool, beautiful nature of the ancient arches, where open shade still ruled.

When trying to work simply and influence a scene with just one small flash, open shade can be your best friend. You don’t have to stress the light by fighting the high, hard sun, and the muted tones introduce the possibility of effectively influencing the color palette of the scene without bringing in movie grip trucks.

This setup was, as I indicated above, crazy simple. I used the little plastic floor stand that comes with the SB-900, put a full CTO warming gel on the light, took off the dome diffuser, and zoomed the flash head to 200mm so the light spread would remain pretty tight, and placed it out there on the ancient stones of the plaza. The zoom feature helps in directing the light right to the dancer, and also keeping floor spill to a minimum. As worn as they are, the tiles on the plaza will pick up light and reflect it pretty well, so if your light is zoomed wide and splashes everywhere, you got a problem. Zooming the light tight sends it where it needs to go—to the dancer—and minimizes the telltale photon path on the floor. A hint of light works fine. A big, blown highlight is not okay. Nuking the floor is always a concern, obviously, when you actually place the light down there. I didn’t need to employ this tactic here, but a couple of simple swatches of gaffer tape on the floor side of the flash head, serving as cutters or flags, works really well, as shown here.

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I just happened to have a ballerina with me. I’d suggested dancers to the group I was shooting with, and it was a notion they embraced vigorously. Bringing a dancer onto the Plaza Venezia in dawn light is definitely stacking the deck in your favor, kinda like flying in a sure thing, but it’s a good thought when seeking subjects for flash portraits. It’s certainly better than wandering the streets hoping an ancient drunk with an interesting hat stumbles into a beautiful highlight. (Unless, of course, you’re street shooting and looking for happenstance. Different mission altogether.)

Repetitive columns and telephoto lenses are made for each other. The lens perspective stacks up the gray pillars nicely, making for a seemingly endless graphic pattern, into which you drop the tutu-clad dancer. The light is off to camera left, outside the columns. One would think that line-of-sight TTL goes out the window. Time for PocketWizards and manual control!

Certainly that would be a valid and doable approach, one with almost certain return, unless the radio fails. But they never do that, do they? (Knowing smiles here.) But I didn’t have a radio with me. So that option went away. What I did was rely on TTL, line-of-sight technology. I strung together three SC-29 cords, thus linking my commander SU-800 with the hot shoe of the camera. A hard wire, in other words. Given the coiled nature of these cords, you can really stretch that commander flash out there a considerable distance from the camera’s POV. I asked one of our group to do me a favor and walk that commander straight out to the left of camera until it saw the main light, sitting on the deck about 50 or 60 feet from the master flash. No trigger troubles at that distance and in that quality of muted ambient light.

So, two units, but only one flash for the exposure. Commander SU-800, handheld, 20 feet to camera left, and one remote SB-900, sitting on the ground, to the left of the subject, firing in between the stone columns. No light mods, no stands. That’s it; that’s the basic physical setup. As I said, simple. But the key to the photo really wasn’t so much the placement of the light, or the color (as important as they were). It was all about maintaining a richness of exposure, and making sure the beautiful scene was a stage for the ballerina—just like in the theater, with the SB-900 as her spotlight.

When most digital cameras, as sophisticated as they are, look at a vista like this, they basically overreact by trying to expose for everything out there; they reach into shadows to bring forth pixels you don’t necessarily want to see. They’re not making a mistake or doing anything wrong. They’re just expressing the souls of the engineers who made ‘em. They’re industrious, these genius cameras of today. They’ll work like the devil to render detail in the whole frame if you allow them to. They are not acquainted with the old expression, “Let a sleeping shadow lie.” They don’t know from mood, or subtlety. If it’s there, they go after it and try to snap it to attention, exposure-wise.

The scene, though, doesn’t need to be exposed, really. It just needs to be there. The result you wish for here is just as faded and worn as the old rocks themselves. They are quiet—background music if you will—while the vibrant youngster of a dancer, dressed in shocking pink, is the crescendo.

Hence the mechanics of this image read out to be –2 EV using Aperture Priority mode on the camera. Those two stops of underexposure give me the right tonality. For me. Not the camera. The camera don’t know. I have to give it direction here, and drive it to a place where, if it could talk, it would probably start debating me. “Are you sure you wanna do this?” Yes. I wanted the scene to be muted. By doing this I’m following that time-honored principle of getting the available light right, then mucking about with the flash.

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And, in this instance, via the mechanism of line-of- sight TTL, I’m able to muck about with the flash pretty easily, just by viewing the results at camera, and asking the VAL holding the commander unit to adjust accordingly. This particular flash exposure worked out in relatively even fashion, with 0.0 compensation at the flash, given the fact that it was already subdued by the –2 EV at camera. The nice thing about working this way is not having to constantly walk to the light to adjust it. With wireless technology, you can effectively signal the light from the camera to do your bidding. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, yowza! Makes your life easier as a shooter, which is something I’m all for.

The 70–200mm lens is set at 130mm, and I am handholding an exposure of f/7.1 at 1/40th of a second. It seemed a reasonable combination to produce a bit of depth of field, and enable me to handhold the lens effectively. There is no magic to those numbers, by the way. I never go into a situation thinking f/7.1. An f-stop like this is still an alien setting to me. It’s basically what was once referred to as a strong 5.6 or a weak 8. When working Aperture Priority, I let the camera speak, then I do the hair-splitting with pieces of f-stops and in-between shutter speeds. My main concerns were getting the image sharp and keeping a bit of depth. The only reason these numbers are special is because they worked at this particular time, for this particular scene.

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As always, I wish I had shot some more, but I was happy enough with the final result. As you can see, genius here didn’t start out thinking about lighting her backside. We started with a couple fairly classical dance poses and, compositionally, I wasn’t happy with her placement relative to the columns. It was working alright, but I was almost at the point of hoofing it down there to direct her a bit better and re-position the light, when I thought of having her stretch and adjust her pointe shoes. [Title page image.]

To me, this move is always touchingly, awkwardly beautiful. When a ballerina wearing a classic, sharp tutu does this, she looks a bit like a duck doing a surface dive. The back end of the tutu snaps upward like a fan and, depending on the material, it often takes light quite well. Here, the shape mimics the overall shape of the archway, which works.

And, if I told you I planned this, I would be a liar. On location, with a camera in your hands and just a few frames to shoot, some things, like f/7.1, just happen.

Excerpted from Sketching Light by Joe McNally. Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.