Add a Little Light

Sometimes you'll find a picture that's just about perfect, but the light's not quite what you want. If you're lucky, you'll be able add that little bit of light yourself.

I recently returned from leading an American Photo Trek to Sweden ( These are essentially vacations with lots of different shooting opportunities, the goal being for people to learn and grow as photographers. The Vasa blog entry I posted earlier is also from this trip.

One evening after dinner a group of us decided to explore some of the old streets of Stockholm. In summer Sweden’s known as the land of the midnight sun since the sun doesn’t set until nearly midnight, and is up again by 4AM. Although it was 10pm, there was still plenty of light to see by, though it was getting dim.

As we walked I heard the sound of music coming up from one street. Turning towards the sound we came upon a man playing guitar, asking for donations from passersby. I gave him 20 Kronor and asked it we could take pictures. He said that would be fine.

The light was fairly dim, and even at 800 ISO I could only shoot at 1/15 second at f/4. First step was to put the camera on the tripod I was carrying, a small carbon fiber Gitzo. That took care of avoiding camera shake, but didn’t do anything to help the amount of light on his face. I could pop up the flash on the Nikon D200 I was using, but that would give direct light, which isn’t very attractive. What I really needed to do was get the light off to the side, and there was an easy way to do that.

For years now I’ve always carried a coiled PC cord for my flash, so I could hold it off to the side. Newer cameras and strobes, though, make off-camera flash even easier. With the D200 (or the Nikon D70) I can go into the menus and tell it to use the pop-up flash in Commander mode. That means it will trigger any Nikon SB600 or SB800 Speedlights in the area that have been set to Remote mode, with the proper Channel and Group set. This would let me use off-camera flash, and there were just two more things I needed to do.

First was the problem of getting the flash far enough to the left and still fire the camera. To do that, I used the self-timer, so that after I pushed the shutter button, I had ten seconds to get off to the side where I wanted the light. Secondly, I wanted the light to be just on his face, not all over the storefront. To do that, I used the zoom button on the back of the flash to zoom out to 105mm. That let me narrow the cone of light the flash was putting out, and in this case, create a bit of a spotlight effect.

With all the pieces in place, it was just a matter of shooting enough photos to be sure I had the one I wanted. I love it when technology makes good photography easier.

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