Tricking the Light

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Like most Americans, we like to celebrate Independence Day with food and fireworks. When it comes to the fireworks part, we do leave the big stuff to the pros, but we like to let the kids get in on the action with some of the smaller, non explosive type fireworks like Sparklers. The instant we bought the Sparklers I had a vision of the pictures I wanted to take with them; black background, lots of swirling tracers with my daughter in the middle of scene having fun. I started thinking about how to create it from a technical standpoint, and what settings I’d most likely be using.

First off, to get the cool “light writing” effect I knew I’d have to have a long shutter speed and figured that 1 to 2 seconds would probably suffice, depending on how much sugar the kids have consumed. Next I knew I had to illuminate my subject with a flash since the Sparklers would most likely not be enough light to do my subjects justice. At first I thought about using a small softbox and put the flash on a light stand in a flattering position, A.K.A. getting it off the camera. But I figured I’d be moving around much too fast to manage another item, which did turn out to be a very good decision. I settled on a Stofen Omni-Bounce diffuser to try and soften the flash a bit.

XE2-9360Now, how much light was I going to need? I really had no idea and wasn’t sure exactly how close I’d be to the kids’ flaming eye pokers, so I was going to go with my good ole standard of half power at f5.6 set on ISO 200. I’m sure that would have probably worked given the flash diffuser, or quarter power without it, but I figured that I was already going to be running the flash on the camera, so this would be one of those times where I might actually want to use TTL. Hey there’s a first for everything, right?

And finally, I wanted to have the flash pop at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning, so I would be seeing my flash to “Rear,” which is the second curtain sync setting. So when I pushed the shutter release button the first curtain would open for my chosen time of 1.5 seconds, and just before the second curtain slid over the sensor to end the exposure, the flash would pop. If I were to leave it at the default settings, the flash would pop right as the first curtain opened and would then the shutter would stay open for 1.5 seconds.

So now I had my starting place, but like all great plans, there would be a wrench thrown in that I’d have to take into consideration. It doesn’t get dark here until around 10 o’clock and some of the kids were certainly not going to make it that long, so the parents decided to let them fire up the Sparklers early. Clearly they didn’t understand that decision threatened my photo op, so I was going to have to change my plans. I needed to be dark without it actually being dark yet, so I needed to work the light to my advantage.

Without turning my flash on I took an exposure to see where the ambient light level was. At ISO 200 and very long shutter speed, I was going to have to really stop down to limit the amount of light reaching my sensor. I started at f8, too much light. f11, getting there, f16, boom! Darkness. So I was basically tricking the scene by eliminating the ambient light, leaving only the Sparkler and the flash any room to be seen by the camera which gave me the nice black background that I was looking for.

XE2-9381I snapped the first image and took a peek at the LCD to see if it was anywhere in the ballpark, and much to my surprise it was dang close to what I wanted. The light tracer was a little too short since obviously not enough sugar was consumed, so I bumped the shutter speed to 2 seconds. The flash diffuser was a poor move since it caused my flash to do a full power dump which had me sitting around doing nothing while the flash charged back up, and it lit up too much of the scene. The grass in the foreground was much too visible and distracting, so off came the Stofen. I took another shot and was just what I had envisioned. Now that my setting were in place I could just have fun and get some great pictures of the kids having fun with their Sparklers.

So my final settings were 2 seconds at f16 set to ISO 200. Rear curtain sync on my Fuji EF-42 set atop my Fuji X-E2 with my 14mm f2.8 prime lens.

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