Young people, Chinatown and a lighting experiment

Last weekend I was shooting pictures of the lights and buildings in Montreal’s Chinatown at night. A group of young people saw my camera and tripod and asked me to take their pictures.

It’s been a while since I’ve done much people photography in anything other than fairly conventional lighting. And all I had was the pop-up flash on my Nikon D300, and the tripod. No external flash and no reflectors, etc. When trying a new technique or one you haven’t used in a while, it often takes a bit of experimenting to get it right.

At first I just shot the group with the pop-up flash and a normal flash setting. They arranged themselves in a pose, and I was mainly concerned about how the lighting would look. The result was OK, but the background was very dark, and the light on the kids was harsh. It had a snapshot look.

Group of young people, Chinatown, Montreal

Young people shot with pop-up flash and regular setting

I immediately realized that if I wanted to soften the light on them and bring in more details from the background, I would need to try something else — like a slow-sync flash setting.

A regular flash shot uses a fast shutter speed just long enough to allow the flash to completely light the subject. Slow sync, on the other hand, fires the flash, but the shutter stays open in order to properly expose the background and other areas that aren’t lit by the flash. It’s like two exposures in one — a quick exposure with the flash, and a longer exposure for the background similar to what you’d get if you just took a long exposure without the flash.

The problem was that I didn’t know just how long the exposure would take. And the kids, after seeing the flash go off, assumed the picture was finished, and they moved away. The result was a strange, but interesting ghosting effect.

Young people in Chinatown, slow sync and ghosting

In this shot I used a slow-sync flash, but the kids moved before the exposure was finished.

In the result above, the boy in the front has stayed relatively still. The flash records the features of the others sharply, but then as they move or leave, there is a blurring and ghosting effect as the slow shutter continues exposing for a few seconds without the flash.

So I tried again.

Young people, slow-sync flash 2

Another attempt with slow-sync flash.

Here they held still for longer, but still didn’t quite wait for the camera to finish exposing after the flash went off. I was communicating with them in a mix of English and French, and realized I had to be more clear that not only should they not move, but they should hold the pose until I indicated the shot was finished. I tried again with the whole group.

Young people in Chinatown, another slow sync

Trying again, but asking them to stay still.

They tried to stay still for this one, but to get a group of nine excited young people to stay absolutely still for several seconds just wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard they tried. So I tried again with just three of the boys, again emphasizing that they had to remain absolutely still.

Young people, Chinatown, Montreal

Slow sync with the kids not moving.

I liked the result of this one the best of the series, even though some of the ghosting ones had an interesting effect. The slow sync brought out the lighting of the background and softened the light on the kids. There’s still some ghosting of people moving by, but they are in the background and so less distracting.

It gives me more to experiment with next time. In hindsight, I should have taken more time and tried a few different apertures and shutter speeds to vary the ratio of the exposure time with and without the flash. I’d also like to try it with an external flash and perhaps a reflector. Finally, I should have spent more time choosing the right background, and working with the kids to get the best poses.

About Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.

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