Sunday, March 8, 2015

That's One BIG Umbrella!

I was doing a pre-event  photo for a charity fashion show that had a Japanese Garden theme. Immediately, my mind was spinning in possibilities! It so happens that we have a Japanese Garden in San Mateo's Central Park, and that it opened at 10:00 am. I scheduled the shoot for 10:15 (or so) so everybody could go about their business as soon as the shoot was over.

Photo #1
The Scout: The day before the shoot, I dropped by the Garden at 11:00 am to size up the location. I wanted to keep the Japanese Garden theme, and decided this tea house would make an interesting background (Photo #1).

There was one major problem: The Tea House would be lit from the font at our 10:15 shooting time. This was a big problem because my subjects, standing in the foreground, would be facing into the sun. They would surely be squinting, and have deep shadows on their eyes. Sure, I could fill the shadows with an additional speedlight or two, but that would require a delicate balance between the light I was adding (speedlight fill) and the light that was already there (the direct sunlight). I'd be piling light on top of light, a tricky situation at best. If there was a way to "scrim" (block) the light that was hitting my subjects, I could then add back the as much light as I wanted using those speedlights.

Overdressed: I was way over-equipped for this shot, and I knew it. I brought the following:
  • 2 DSLR bodies
  • 3 lenses
  • 3 dedicated speedlights
  • 2 complete Norman 200B units with Quantum heads with umbrella holders
  • 2 Eilenchrome Skyport radio flash triggers for the Quantums
  • 2 7-foot Westcott Umbrellas (One shoot through, one silver)
  • 1 60-inch Westcott shoot-through umbrella
  • 1 paint pole
Photo #2
I brought the two Westcott 7' Parabolic Umbrellas (one white shoot-through, one silver) which I've used as traditional bounce umbrellas in the past. I also brought the 2 Norman 200B flash units in case I needed lots of additional light. I figured that I could easily use the silver umbrella both as a scrim and a bounce surface, if necessary. But I also thought that the translucent shoot-through umbrella could be used to diffuse the direct sunlight light all by itself. After mounting it on a paint pole, I grabbed  quick shot of Cissie standing behind it, allowing the sunlight to softly sidelight her face. As you can see in Photo #2, it produces a soft, directional light that doesn't need any additional fill for the shadows. Notice how I "choked up" on the umbrella. These seven-footers are heavy, and the closer to the center of mass you clamp it, the better.

Photo #3
From this close-up (Photo #3), you can see how the light softly transitions from highlight to shadow. When I saw this shot, I knew we had a winning combination.

In anticipation of the shot, I had made some enlarged "invitations" created from the event logo glued to the suitable piece of scrap cardboard. I also brought some borrowed parasols to use as props, just in case.

Lights! Camera! Action! At the appointed time, the "talent" arrived, along with the event publicist, who made the introductions. As soon as everyone was settled, we started shooting (Photo #4). You can see how nicely the enlarged event invitations turned out. This was one of the first shots in the series, so some adjustment of the height of the invitations and some minor adjustments in the hand positions were still to be done.

Photo #4
I was a little bothered by the branches in the background, and changed my vantage point several times to avoid "tree hair" on my subjects. And while I hadn't noticed at the time, my middle subject looked a little strange with her hands hidden. And while I would have been content to submit a variation of this image, Cissie suggested we add a shot with the parasols, since we brought them. A better suggestion has never been made!

And The Winner Is...: The parasol addressed those issues beautifully. The round outline hid most of the tree branches, making the image much less busy. And now I could see the hands of the middle subject. Photo #5 was one of these last few images, and was a lucky combination where everything worked well together.

Photo #5: ISO 100, 1/250 of a second, F 5.6
Picking Nits: When using this technique, it's important to remember that my subjects, positioned in the shadow of the translucent umbrella, received less light than the background. The difference may have been as much as two stops of exposure. This means that a dark background would be rendered lighter (as it was here), or a bright background overexposed beyond recognition. I could have substituted my reflective silver umbrella, which would have blocked all the direct sunlight, and added a speedlight or three to bring the lighting level on the foreground up to the same level as the background.

Looking back, I feel a little humble that my planning actually came up a little short, but Cissie's suggestion gave me the win. The photo was a gift I may not have deserved.