Lovegrove Speedlight Mastery Review

I'm always looking for inspiration for my portrait photography.  Some time back, I stumbled across some of Damien Lovegrove's work and I was attracted to his style.  In particular, it was his urban location portraits that caught my eye.  His shots have a punchy look and he typically incorporates the environment in his shots of models.  I wanted to learn more about how he gets his signature looks and I was thrilled to discover that he produced a video course on speedlight photography.  After asking a few questions about the content (Damien and his staff are very responsive and helpful, BTW), I placed an order for a download copy of his Speedlight Mastery video tutorial.

The Speedlight Mastery course has several things I was looking for in an instructional video series.

  1. Damien shoots most of the shots as what I would consider to be an environmental portrait.  It's very common for portrait photographers to attach a fast lens to the camera, open the aperture wide, and blur anything behind the model to a soft bokeh.  That works for a lot of shots and it is certainly a good way to focus attention on the model by eliminating a distracting background.  Frankly though, I think this technique tends to be a little overdone these days.  I find it much more interesting when a model's surroundings can be integrated in a complementary way.  Blurring a background through shallow DoF is somewhat of an easy way out - not to say that there isn't considerable skill involved in nailing the focus and getting an appealing bokeh in the background.  It is more of a challenge, in my opinion, to work a background and a model's surroundings into the shot in a way that supports and complements the subject.
  2. Obviously, the course is all about shooting with speedlights.  I like to travel light and have no desire to drag studio strobes and battery packs around town.  
  3. A compact kit is used for almost all of the shots in this video tutorial.  Most are done with 1 or 2 speedlights.  Damien carries around a shoulder bag and 2 light stands throughout the video series.  It is a kit that travels easily and sets up quickly.  For each shot, you see him setting up the shot from scratch and he still gets the shot done in about 10 minutes or less typically.
  4. Most of the shots are done with bare speedlights.  Hard light, baby!  This was the biggest selling point for me.  It's a lot easier to get good looking light with a 60" umbrella or a large softbox.  I love using modifiers like those but not dragging them around town.  I've had the wind take my umbrella stands over enough times that I'm amazed my flashes still work.  For run and gun shots on the streets, especially when shooting solo, big modifiers suck.

The tutorial is comprised of over 30 individual videos, one for each shot.  There is over 2 and a half hours of material.  The videos were shot in HD with several Canon 5DmkII cameras and the quality is excellent.  Each video is relatively short, making it easy to watch them as you have time.  In each video Damien walks you through the shot concept, sets up the lights, and positions the models.  You see everything from the time he arrives at the location until he gets the shot he wants.  Damien is a very energetic and enthusiastic photographer and I found it a joy to watch him work his shots and interact with the model.

The videos are shot such that the viewer will feel as if he or she is accompanying Damien on a photoshoot.  This is not a formal workshop by any means.  There is no structured lesson plan.  It is more like a "thinking out loud" sort of thing.  Damien explains what he is after and how he intends to get it.  You get to hear how he problem solves as things come up.   There is not a lot of technical detail in the videos.  You're not going to hear any in depth discussions of lighting ratios, light modifiers, or anything about the inverse square law.  This video set is simply Damien getting effective location shots with speedlights as quickly and efficiently as possible, explaining what's he's doing along the way.

One interesting aspect of this video series is that Damien shoots with Canon and Nikon cameras.  There is no brand loyalty here and no one in either product camp has any cause to complain!  He also mixes things up a good bit by using both Canon or Nikon proprietary wireless systems as well as Pocket Wizards.  A few shots make use of an umbrella or small softbox.  There is one video that demonstrates the combining of speedlights with battery pack powered studio strobes.  The vast majority of the videos involve the use of 1 or 2 bare speedlights.  

I learned how to light through Dave Hobby's great Strobist blog and videos.  I'm a full manual lighting guy and I have to say that I was a little disappointed that the Speedlight Mastery videos are virtually all done with the flashes in TTL mode.  I do wish that Damien would have dedicated at least a few of the videos to manual flash control.  This video is about how he works though and I can appreciate that he's a TTL guy.  TTL can be a good thing and it's probably faster to dial things in for a lot of scenarios.  I was a bit jealous watching Damien dial down his flash power from the camera since I have to trot over to my flashes to make any changes.  TTL is an expensive game though and for me it's just not worth the price of admission right now.  He also uses high speed sync a good amount.  That's almost cheating, but certainly more convenient than ganging two or more speedlights together to compete with sunlight.  Regardless of the expensive TTL speedlights and wireless triggers, this video set is still perfectly relevant to us Strobists - just be prepared for different terminology and you can roll your eyes as flash exposures are entrusted to the camera's meter (sorry, Damien, couldn't resist)! 

The best part of the videos for me was seeing how Damien builds the shot.  He is very skilled in pre-visualizing the final result and making it come together.  He is masterful at integrating the model into the background, making use of elements such as reflections, textures, and patterns to complement the model.  I also enjoyed how he turns seemingly mundane locations into gorgeous settings for his models.  Damien puts the old "I just don't have anywhere interesting to shoot" excuse to bed.  Great shots can be made just about anywhere with a little creativity.

I came away from watching these videos amazed at how good bare flashes can look.  Yes, there are deep shadows with sharp lines.  Damien shows how you can still create flattering shots with as simple of a configuration as a single flash on the camera's hot shoe.  With a couple of flashes, a shot can really come to life.  Damien usually zooms his flashes as tight as they will go and sculpts the light perfectly.  It's OK to leave the umbrellas at home; these videos are proof.

Each video ends with a few looks at the final shot.  Several of the images obviously have a decent amount of post production work and I was a bit disappointed that Damien didn't devote any time to giving a quick software workflow sample of at least one shot.  Hard light can present some challenges and I would have liked to have seen how he handles skin retouching, color, and contrast enhancement in post production.  

The cost of the Speedlight Mastery video set is £80.00, about $125.  That's not chump change but it's not terribly expensive for close to 3 hours of training.  Is it worth it?  It depends on your style of portraiture and your level of experience.  This is probably not the best course for a beginner.  You should be comfortable with your gear, have a solid understanding of exposure, and perhaps have a little experience working with off camera lighting.  If you like dramatic images, environmental portraits, and working with speedlights then this is a fantastic resource for examples, tips, and inspiration.

Note: All photos in this review are shots by Damien Lovegrove from the Speedlight Mastery video, copyright Lovegrove Consulting Ltd, used with permission.

Location Portraits with the Fujifilm X100

I enjoy doing portrait photography on location.  Dragging around a heavy bag of equipment can really take the fun out of it though.  It's especially unpleasant in the Texas summer with temperatures hitting the triple digits all too often.  Lately I've been leaving the heavy DSLR at home and shooting with a smaller rig using my Fujifilm X100.  I have to say, I'm really loving it!

The X100 probably doesn't sound like much of a portrait camera.  It sports a wide angle lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length.  That puts it more into an environmental portrait perspective and I'm OK with that.  Take some of the features of this little camera into account and it is a actually a superb tool for location portraits.

Model: Brittany - 1/125, f/2.8, ISO 400

First, you have the image quality.  The APS sized sensor in this camera is awesome.  I really don't miss my full frame Canon 5D when I shoot with the X100.  Yes, the image quality is that good.  Then there is the f/2 lens.  It captures great images wide open.  I usually stop down just a bit, maybe to f/2.8 to make sure I've got all the facial features in focus.   The sensor is large enough that you can get great background bokeh if that's what you want.

Model: Stephanie - 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 400

The X100 keeps the noise low.  I have shot portraits at ISO 1600 and the images are fine.  I have to admit that I haven't always done that on purpose.  Daylight in the sunflowers didn't need it but after a long day I forgot to check my ISO setting and fired some shots.  It didn't really matter and nobody knew without me telling them.

Model: Eight - 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 1600

I was able to keep a hot shoe flash on a low setting, popping it into a decent sized softbox as fast as I wanted to click the shutter at ISO 1600 in the moody shot below.   For a shot like this, the higher ISO grain is pleasing.  Meant to do it that time!

Model: Eight - 1/500, f/8, ISO 1600

When I'm shooting with a flash I can confidently take my ISO up to 400 or 800 to keep my strobes at a lower power for faster recycling or to boost ambient light.   The results above at ISO 400 and above are cleaner than what I get out of my 5D.

Model: Carol - 1/15, f/4, ISO 400

The coolest thing about the X100 for flash photography is the leaf shutter Fujifilm used in this lens.  We're talking blazing fast flash sync speeds.  Have to shoot in harsh daylight?  Drop the ISO down and crank up a fast shutter speed.  My Cactus V radio triggers and Nikon SB-28 flashes have no problem firing at 1/1000 sync.  That's how I get shots with the sun blazing in the background.

Model: Brittany - 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 200

Another really cool feature is the built-in ND filter.  It comes in handy for bringing down the daytime ambient when a wide aperture is desired or for making a cloudy day even gloomier.

Model: Carol - 1/500, f/2.8, ISO 200, built-in ND filter

The small size and weight of the X100 makes it great for quickly moving around to different locations.  I find that I am more apt to stay out longer with a willing model, seeking out suitable locations to set up a shot on the fly.  A strobist kit built around the X100 carries in a small shoulder bag, perfect for run and gun flash portraits around town.

Model: Eight - 1/125, f/8, ISO 400

The X100, of course, can't match the versatility of a DSLR.  It's a one trick pony with its fixed lens and the 35mm focal length isn't for everyone.  If your style can accommodate it, the X100 is sure easier to carry around and its features give a DSLR a run for the money.  I find it creatively liberating.

Model: Eight - 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

Escape From Oz

A while back my good friend and model, Eight, had an awesome idea. How about getting the characters from the Wizard of Oz out of their element and into a modern scenario? Wouldn't it be cool to have them sitting around playing cards or shooting pool? Maybe we could even get the Wicked Witch to behave herself and join in the fun. Eight recruited myself and Atmtx to shoot this concept with her and a few other talented models.

Last week, we got the opportunity to put this concept shoot together. The original bar we had in mind closed down, so there was a last minute change of location. We were able to secure a spot at Slick Willie's pool hall in Austin to make this happen.

The costume, jewelry, and makeup artists and designers did a great job getting the models into character. I really like the minimalist approach they took. Apart from some makeup and some straw (the latter of which got scattered about our pool table by the end of the night), the models could just about pass for regular folks.

Being that this was a typical dark pool hall, we needed lots of light. We pulled the shoot off in strobist style with a few hot shoe flashes and an LED video light. For the group shots, we used two flashes, one on either side of the group, fired through umbrellas. Another flash was high and behind the models for some separation from the background. An LED panel provided fill.

We shot a bunch of poses that carried along a little story. The game started off cordially with Scarecrow doing the break while the others watched on. There was some trepidation about the Witch being there, but Tin Man agreed to play on her team.

The Witch and Tin Man got control of the table and things seemed to be going her way for a while. It looked like Dorothy, Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion might lose the game.

Tin Man missed a shot and the Witch wasn't happy about that. At her urging, Tin Man got a little testy with his friends. Dorothy admonished him to be a good sport. It's just a game, after all!

Cowardly Lion stepped up for his turn. While setting up his shot, the Wicked Witch decided to try and distract him with a seductive look. Oh no, the Lion missed! Dirty pool, Witch!

"Two can play that game", thinks Dorothy. Tin Man loses concentration on his turn. Things are heating up now!

All of the attention is on Dorothy now and the Witch was steaming mad!

Turning away for a second, the Witch dropped a bit of a mysterious potion in Dorothy's drink. "Have a drink, my dear", she said with a sly grin. "No, Dorothy!", exclaimed the Scarecrow!

Her plan to poison Dorothy foiled, the Witch tried to make things a lot hotter for Scarecrow!

"Leave Scarecrow alone!", exclaimed Dorothy! And so what started as a congenial game of pool quickly degraded into a bar room brawl. Even though far from Oz, the Wicked Witch once again showed her true colors! Be careful, Dorothy! She fights dirty!

I had a blast shooting this! Thanks to all of our models, designers, and artists for their hard work putting this together. Special thanks to Slick Willie's for use of one of their tables!

Strobist HDR

It's no secret that I love HDR photography. I've also been enjoying strobist photography lately. Two great things...can they work together? My photog friend Atmtx and I decided to find out. We worked with Model Eight to create some scenes where the blend would be appropriate. Atmtx got some great shots in a dark alley way and you can check his results out here. I was so impressed with his images that I had to try my hand at it. I thought a sunset would make a great background for this sort of image and I'm happy with result.

So, how do you go about combining a strobe lit model with an HDR image? Well, the model and the background get shot separately. I captured the background first. My camera was set up on a tripod and I shot into a sunset, grabbing 6 exposures at 1 stop intervals. I shot in manual mode at f/16 for good depth of field. In retrospect, it would might be better to capture the image with the model first. This is because you may need to tweak the lighting and the model's pose, which takes time. In my case, I was losing the sun with each passing moment! Assuming a simple lighting setup that you can pull out of the scene quickly when you're done with the model, I'd suggest doing the model shot first. Here is the image that would become my background, after HDR processing.

I captured the image of the model with an off camera flash. A single light fired through an umbrella was sufficient to provide some fill light on her against the sunset. A big, close light source is important to avoid any harsh shadows. I opened my aperture up a couple of stops to get a bit more ambient light as well. The aperture change didn't matter since I was just going to be masking the model into the background image. Here is what the model shot looked liked. It doesn't matter that the umbrella is in the shot; I'm only using the model herself from this image.

Using Photoshop CS5 and Topaz Labs Remask, I carefully masked the model into the HDR image. At first, she seemed to pop off the background a bit too much. I tweaking the image further by blending in a bit more of the surrounding area around the model in places and using a dark Curves layer to add some faint shadowing where appropriate. This is rather painstaking work to make it look right! Here is the result:

There is a bit of a surreal feel to the image. Followers of my HDR work know I tend to process things just on the edge of reality. I could have added some tonal contrast to the model or even tonemapped her single exposure to make her more of a fit in the HDR surroundings. No, I didn't think that was the way to go. I rather like the contrast of an ordinary person placed into an HDR world. What do you think?

Check out another glimpse behind the scenes of this shot and a humorous look at why photographers can be terrible assistants!

Off-camera Lighting

Gabriela

One of the things I have wanted to learn in photography - actually what motivated me to move beyond the world of point-n-shoot - is how to take better pictures of people. Until recently, I have been content to shoot in available light. I've got a couple of fast lenses that let me do this in a lot of lighting scenarios. I do have a hot shoe flash, but frankly I don't know how to use it very well. I've had great success using it for macro shots and not so great luck with anything else.

In recent weeks, I've attended some workshops that piqued my interest in flash or strobe photography. I had always been intimidated by the this sort of thing because it just sounded so complicated when I heard photographers talking about it. Lately though, I've seen some photographers work with very simple, minimalist lighting setups and I've decided that maybe I can learn to use off-camera lighting effectively. The Austin SmugMug group recently held an off-camera lighting workshop that gave me a little hands-on time with a minimal pro lighting setup. Tim Babiak of Exquisite Photography in Austin was kind enough to lead this workshop.

I got to plug my camera into Tim's wireless transmitter and take my first "real" portrait! This is Gabriela, a professional model with the Wilhemina Brown agency. She is illuminated by a single White Lightning strobe behind an umbrella high and to her left and a white reflector low on the other side. Tim had me zoom out to 200mm for the most flattering capture of our model. This probably wasn't the best idea without a tripod because the exposure he had me setup for was a 1/250 shutter speed, which is a little slow for hand held at that focal length with my Canon 30D. The shot came out though and I'm very impressed with the difference good off-camera lighting can make.

I performed some minor touchups to smooth Gabriela's skin out a bit (yes, even professional models have some blemishes and the strobes bring everything out.) The light may be just a touch harsh, but I'm happy with the result and I'm encouraged enough to further pursue learning the art of off camera lighting. I plan to purchase a new flash with manual flash control soon. My current flash doesn't have manual adjustment and it doesn't seem to do that great with ETTL metering either. I also plan to get an incident light meter to assist in my learning how to "read" the light in a situation.

BTW, in my research of flash photography, I came across a great site: the Strobist blog. There is a great tutorial there and I'm learning a lot as I go through it. I highly recommend it!