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Mastering Your Flash

Wow! Another incredible week at the Santa Fe Workshops. Our instructor, Julia Dean, is an accomplished photographer with a studio and school in Southern California. She is petite but a real fireball of energy with tremendous enthusiasm both for photography and teaching.

Class started with the basics of shooting with a flash on-camera — such as the impact of aperture and shutter speed on the flash exposure. Armed with just this beginner's knowledge, we spread out across campus in groups of three and shot photos of each other — one without a flash and one with. Almost without exception, the former were way too dark and the latter too “flashed” — meaning the light from the flash was quite obvious.

On Tuesday, she gave us more details — this time TTL (Through The Lens) mode; with the flash mounted on the camera or wirelessly off the camera; bouncing the flash off the ceiling or wall; and the use of a diffuser.

We then headed into Santa Fe with the assignment to take photos of clerks, tourists, whatever we found. Some of the students were really accomplished photographers and made some excellent shots. My best that day was a small group of teenage girls sitting in the park.

Ironically, this was almost the exact same spot where I photographed the four kids on a blanket last year. It must be a good spot.

On Wednesday we learned about umbrellas and stands and working with balancing ambient light with flash plus multiple flash units. In the afternoon we went to the New Mexico Penitentiary just a few miles south of Santa Fe for our shoot.

This is the site of a prisoner’s riot in 1980 where 33 inmates were killed and 100 others injured. The exact death count is in dispute because of the brutality of the killings. The prison was subsequently closed and a new facility built nearby. The old facility is now used for training and filming. In fact, the day that we were there, a crew was setting up some pyrotechnics for a movie on a rescue of war prisoners in Iraq.

The workshops provided quite a few models so we paired up, two students per model. Surprisingly, for such a depressing facility, we got quite a few good shots. Pictured to the left is Mawgie, mother of two, planning to move to Utah. She was really sweet and I hope her plans work out after prison (just joking on the last part).



I also discovered that some models were easier to work with than others. For instance, JT was basically a rookie but was so easy to pose. Of course, with his piercings and bandana, he was a natural for this prison location.

He also gave me my favorite photo from the week with the shot to the left. It reminded me of the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean ride (Disneyland and Disney World) where the pirates are trying to entice the dog to give them the key so they can escape the burning prison.

This shot actually presented a real problem — how to get enough light on his face without making his hands appear too "flashed". The solution was a gold reflector, held by my partner, catching a bit of natural light and directing it to his face. Thanks Lucy — for the great assist.

Sam was another of our models who was quite delightful. Yes, that is "Sam" as in "Samantha" and yes, her mom was a big fan of Bewitched. She said it was a choice of Samantha or Tabitha and she was glad her mom picked the former. In the first photo below, she got tickled and I snapped it while she was doubled over with laughter — so cute.

The second photo shows, at least in my opinion, that she has a slight resemblance to the late Audrey Hepburn.

Thursday had us talking about shooting through an umbrella rather than reflecting off the interior (you generally get more light with the former) — both methods give wonderful soft light. We then went to Eaves Ranch — a western movie town just south of the prison. My class last year went to the same location but I did find that it had become a bit more run-down. I hope they can get some new business from films or commercials (bigger money than the Santa Fe Workshops, I suspect) so the place can be fixed up a bit.

The cowboy is called "Fiddles" because he plays the fiddle. His real name is Fidel but he did not want to talk about that.

The other model is Mawgie (same model as in the second photo above). I guess she escaped from the prison and is waiting for the stage to take her west to Utah or San Francisco or some other place where she can blend into society.

There are a couple things to remember about these photos. First, every one was shot with a combination of ambient light and one or two flash units. The second point is that Julia has a background in photojournalism and did not want us to use Photoshop for image enhancement. She did permit us to do a limited number of corrections but only if they could be done in a traditional darkroom. Thus we could crop a photo but not much else. That was good because when we worked on our photos for review, we did not have much editing to do — allowing us to get a little more sleep each night than if we had extensive Photoshop work to do. However, it was more of a challenge to get it right on location.

And to be perfectly honest, those little LCD screens on the back of your camera are not really adequate. It would be so much better to be able to download your images to a laptop computer and get a bigger image that more accurately reflects what you captured on silicon. Of course, since we were already so laden with camera, flashes, stands, umbrellas, etc.; we would need an assistant or two to carry the computer gear (and help with the flash paraphernalia too).

Our class was paid quite a nice compliment from one of the other instructors. She was teaching a class this week on creative lighting such as you might see in advertising or fashion magazines (and her students did great work). On Saturday, she stopped by to tell us what a great job we had done and that she was "blown away" by the images that we had captured.

I really learned a lot this past week — both from Julia and from some of my fellow students. Another great week in Santa Fe.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com