Using Flash in Near Darkness

Last year for Loy Krathong I cruised the same klong in the same area and dedicated myself to not using a flash.  This means I was shooting at ISO 3200 which was the cameras limit and shooting wide open at either F2.8 with my 70-200/2.8 IS zoom, or F1.8 with my 20mm wide angle prime.  The images were ok, but challenged.  This year I was determined to do something different trying for the same effect but with a much higher image quality.

Flash in Near Darkness

To achieve this I set the camera for manual mode and used a wireless portable strobe in manual mode.  This effectively gave me a optimum working distance of 15-20 feet, and I could push the exposure in RAW out to about 30 feet with good results.

Flash in Near Darkness

What, no automatic flash?  I have never met an automatic flash I can count on and I’ve had many including Nikon SB800’s and Canon 580ex’s.  I still own and sometimes use the 580ex’s.  Used in carefully selected controlled environments they do indeed work in automatic mode.  However, they are very limited in power output, recycle time, and light quality when compared to my Quantum 5d.  You can look at it here.

Flash in Near Darkness

The Quantum Qflash’s are awesome professional units with an array of accessories and options and most first timers study their site for a long time before even knowing what to order to get started.  The light quality is outstanding and I use these all the time for impromptu model shoots while on the road, weddings, and outdoor portraits.  A great professional tool!

Flash in Near Darkness

You can always tell when you have a great light quality when the skin tones of different races appear correct.

Flash in Near Darkness

How dark was it out there?  So dark that with the naked eye you could usually see only shapes, but not detail, no eyes, and there was no way for the camera to autofocus because it was just too dark for the autofocus sensors.  Looking through the viewfinder all you could see was dark shapes and movement.

Flash in Near Darkness

So how did we focus?  I placed the sensor on the candle flames and let the camera lock focus automatically and then with my hand on the manual focus override gently pulled the focus in the desired direction while holding down the shutter release in a burst of 4-6 images.  One or two of these images turned out to be in focus or very close to in focus and usable.  This might sound haphazard but indeed it’s very close to the technique I use when covering live events on the streets.  You might get 4-5 images which are unusable, but you can easily live with the 1-2 images which are.  It’s just another way a DSLR becomes more usable in the field than an SLR film camera.

Flash in Near Darkness

Each time we got to an interesting scene I’d ask the sampan pilot to move within range, slow down, turn the boat sideways if possible, and then I’d frame my shot, notice that my guest playing portable light stand was locked in as well, center the center AF sensor (the center AF sensor is the most sensitive of your AF sensors) on the candle flame and lock in AF, and then manually “pull” the focus either forward or backwards depending on where the main subjects were in relation to the flame.

Flash in Near Darkness

Using this technique I was able to shoot at ISO 200, 1/100th, and I’d manually vary the aperture between F2.8-5.6 depending on the estimate distance.  The flash was set to half power to ensure a quick recycling time for the bursts of images I’d take.

Flash in Near Darkness

Once dialed in it was just a matter of looking for the right scenes and firing off a burst of 4-6 images.

Flash in Near Darkness

By limiting the power I limited the range of the flash, ensuring I was illuminating the subjects, but at the same time not the background.  A high percentage of shots were my reward for this technique with an unusually high image quality for this type of shooting.

Flash in Near Darkness

It only took a few minutes to dial in the settings and technique and from then on I sat back relaxed and looked for the shots I was after.

Flash in Near Darkness