A reader asked:  "How did you make those captures in near darkness like those in the readers questions area last week?" 


How Did He Do it?

I'm sure some of you are also wondering, "just how did he capture these images in stark darkness?"  There are many techniques for using flash, and each one will net you a certain number of "acceptable" captures out of your total.  This year I hit about 95% that I wouldn't hesitate to publish.

Sure, you could get a standard speedlight like the Nikon SB-800/900 or the Canon 580ex II, mount them in your hot shoe, put everything in automatic, and get about a 50% hit rate, yet this type of light will have a limited appeal in the way it looks, and the distance you can use it and still get decent coverage.  It will help to get the light off the camera and to the side, and to get close in to your subjects, but the automatic modes still won't be consistent.  Manual modes are available with these speedlights via the menus on the LCD and I'd really recommend you take the time to learn how to use them.  Consistency is key, and manual control gives you reliable consistency.


Quantum Strobe

For about 7-8 years now I've been using the Quantum portable strobes with great success.  They offer every automatic feature your OEM speedlights provide, but the interface is greatly simplified, the light has much more power, the quality of light is much better, and as a complete system strobe you have many more options/accessories available.

I use my portable strobe in manual mode 99% of the time.  I'm the "decider" so manual mode works well for me:)  Automatic control isn't nearly consistent enough.  To set your camera up for use with a manual strobe you select an ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.  Your shutter speed should be within the capabilities of your maximum sync speed.  I routinely use 1/90th-1/125th with great results.  I then mount the wireless transceiver in the hot shoe, and set the strobe so it knows what settings I'm using. 


Strobe Settings

The rear LCD asks four questions, aperture, power output, ISO, and the subject distance is displayed.  As you adjust the power output up and down, the subject distance will change.  Each setting you change is calculated and the distance is adjusted.  You merely ensure the flash is that distance from the subject to obtain perfectly exposed images.  100% of the time.  As you change any of these variables (ISO, aperture, power output) the distance scale calculates and then displays the recommended distance to the subject.  Nothing could be easier.

Using this system for Loy Krathong on a moving sampan meant two things.  The camera to subject distance would only be as consistent as my sampan driver could follow directions, and the distance I could move the strobe away from the camera would be limited to the seating arrangements in the sampan.  The changing distance to the subjects meant that the required power output would be constantly changing.

Now we're left with a choice, do we change the power output on the flash which would mean someone would need to set the controls on the strobe each time the distance changed, or perhaps there is another way?  There is.  At these distances (10-20 meters), and considering the types of subjects (people, individual and in groups), any aperture which provides a fairly sharp image would do.  This gives me the option of changing apertures from roughly F4 to F16 on this particular lens.  By selecting ISO 400 and 100% power output from the strobe, I can see by the distance scale that I'll get my 10-20 meters of camera to subject distance and then some.  So, effectively, all I need to do is 'guesstimate' what aperture is needed by estimating the current camera to subject distance. 

Changing the aperture in manual mode is done by simply turning the control wheel on the camera.  Since you can easily do this while looking through the viewfinder, it's much easier to change this setting rather than the power output on the strobe itself.  What disadvantages will there be by doing things this way?  First, you'll get a good working aperture, but not the perfect aperture.  Second, because you're firing a full power pop with each exposure there will be longer recycle times (as opposed to a lesser setting) and the battery won't last as long.  This is okay, Quantum strobes recycle much faster than stock speedlights, and their batteries are good for well over 1000 full power pops per charge.  I can live with these disadvantages to gain the advantage of speed and convenience.


Making the Capture

Once my choices were made and the settings set, all I needed to do was frame my subject with the zoom, achieve an acceptable focus, and 'guesstimate' the necessary aperture by estimating the subject to camera distance.  Also, because I was shooting in raw, I was afforded further 'headroom' with the exposure.


Achieving Acceptable Focus

I know, you have another question.  Way ahead of you.. :)  "How do you achieve acceptable focus when it's pitch black?"  Good question.  This is more a matter of experience and taking advantage of your environment than anything else.  You need a minimum amount of light for your AF sensors to work.  During Loy Krathong, what is there an abundance of in every scene you'll want to capture?  Yep, candles.. The light from a single candle is sufficient to achieve autofocus.  However, the candles are never on the same focus plane as the subject.

When photographing people we want the faces to be in focus.  A persons face and their expression is most often the crucial part of the composition.  Use the candle light to achieve focus on the krathong, and since the krathong is almost always right in front the face, you simply 'push' the focus out a bit using manual control.  With Nikon AFS lenses and Canon UM (ultrasonic motor) lenses, you can over ride the autofocus at any time by simple turning the manual focus ring.  So, you achieve autofocus on the krathong using the light from the candles on the krathong, and then 'push' the focus out a bit to achieve perfect focus.  How much you actually move the focus ring depends on the lens and the distance between the krathong and the subject, but it will be a small amount and you'll easily pick this up with just a bit of practice.



Taking quality photographs in the near darkness of Loy Krathong festivities might seem daunting at first, but as you can see it's simply a matter of effectively using your tools.  Once you've thought out the problems and decided on a solution, the actual execution is almost as simple as shooting in full automatic mode.  I hope to see a bunch readers submissions coming in from your own attempts!

Please submit your questions to QandA@Bkkimages.com  All questions will be answered and most will show up in the weekly column.