I was recently in Venice during the Carnival celebrations, leading a workshop there. One of the things we wanted to teach our attendees was an introductory lesson on off-camera flash photography. This is kind of a necessity during the heyday of Carnevale di Venezia, which can be pretty crowded and chaotic. Forget about taking photos of the most extravagant costumes during the day, because your subjects will be constantly surrounded by crowds of tourists who only want to take a selfie together with them.
Challenges When Using Natural Light
These circumstances are far from optimal for a workshop, are stressful for the models, the students, and the teachers and not conducive to taking good photos. Knowing this, we had a couple options. One was to shoot early in the morning, before 7AM. Many revelers will congregate near St. Mark’s Square every morning, starting around 6AM, because they know only the serious photographers and not the throngs armed with selfie sticks will be up that early.
Unfortunately, the photographers who come to Venice for the Carnival are a crowd on their own, as this photo shows clearly.
Since we begun our workshop during the first week of the Carnival, the situation wasn’t as bad and we had some quality time right after sunset on a couple of occasions, but as the celebrations started to pick up steam, that option become quickly impractical.
The alternative was to shoot indoors, in private locations. We did a lot of sessions inside our hotel, Palazzo Priuli, which has beautiful antique furniture and kindly allowed us to use the suite and other spaces.
Both situations, however, meant photographing where available light was scarce and of poor quality. Supplementing available light, be it natural or artificial, with the use of off-camera flash solves a lot of problems and can be fun and creative. Adding more light where there isn’t enough is only the most obvious advantage of flash, but it’s far from being the only one.
Controlling Light With Flash
You can use flash to control very accurately the direction and the quality of light. Here is a photo taken inside a very dark hotel room, where the only light was provided by a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and fitted with fluorescent lamps. Definitely not enough light to hand-hold comfortably the camera, without resorting to insanely high ISO values. Its color is also horrible and its direction unchangeable.
The solution? Putting a flash inside a softbox camera left and slightly above the subjects’ faces gave us enough light to be able to shoot at a reasonable ISO 800. Soft, directional light created shadows that enhance the tridimensionality of the subjects. The color of the light is very natural. Flash was used, but it isn’t obvious, which is an effect I almost always aim for.
Another thing that flash can do brilliantly is bringing life to a subject’s eyes. Many of the costumed models wear very thick masks and this means their eyes are quite recessed. Lighting them from the top with direct sunlight or a chandelier is a surefire way to get portraits with two black, lifeless spots where the eyes are supposed to be.
Just a flick of flash can be very effective in not only brightening up the sockets, but also in adding some nice catchlights.
Another situation where flash shines (pun intended) is when you want to play with the ratios of natural and artificial light and with the difference in their respective colors, which can be changed at will in the case of the latter.
This can be very effective at the edge of the day, during sunset, sunrise, and the blue hour. This is also when I sometimes throw my restraint to the wind and don’t care much if the presence of the flash is obvious.
This is all for part 1 of this multi-part article. I hope I have given you some hints of the potential of off-camera flash. All of the images contained in this article were taken with a single flash as we didn’t want to make things too complicated for our students during a workshop that was mostly not about lighting. We also didn’t have much time to waste, so setting up and tearing down our rig had to be done very quickly before moving to the next location. Finally, none of our models are professional.
Given these constraints, I think those photos speak for themselves and for the amazing possibilities that proper and creative use of flash can afford any photographer. In the next installment of this series, I will reveal all the details about the equipment and the techniques we used in Venice.