Lighting a C-130 using speedlights...
As a follow up to a recent project Doug and I worked on with the 94th Airlift Wing capturing some air to air images of their C-130's we offered to host an aviation photography workshop February 1-2nd for PAO airmen from various squadrons.
As one of the featured topics Doug covered the use of off camera flash and the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS). All of the attendees were shooting with Nikon cameras ranging from D90's to D800's so everyone was able to follow along and get some hands on experience with this built in capability. After starting with the basics Doug moved on through controlling multiple speedlights using the group settings in the Commander Mode menu along with the incorporating exposure and flash compensation giving the students the base knowledge to start exploring with this powerful and creative feature.
We gathered at the public affairs office well before sunrise on Sunday February 2nd for the mornings photo shoot. The base was covered in dense fog and misty rain creating a very cool glow from the vapor lamps illuminating the ramp. As we crossed through the access control point you could barely see from one aircraft to the next as we made our way out to the C-130 we would be working with.
Everyone started setting up their cameras and tripods to shoot some longer exposures of the aircraft when Doug and I had the bright idea to have all the students get out their speedlights, which consisted of SB-700's, SB-800's, SB-900's and a couple of SB-910's (there were even a couple SB-R200's thrown in there as well!), to try and light the C-130 using Nikon CLS and the built-in flash on my D-800. We wanted to reinforce what Doug had taught in the classroom the day before as well as expand on the off camera flash shooting they practiced during the sunset photo session on Saturday.
I started off by placing my tripod directly in front of the C-130 using a 24-70mm f2.8 lens (@24mm), I then put the camera is aperture priority and fired off a couple of test shots to get a relative gauge of the exposure. From here I switched to manual mode to get the ambient light were we wanted it in the images, leaving the camera in aperture priority with the flash on was giving me a 1/60th sec exposure while shooting at f7.1 (you can see with lighting in this test shot below we would need A LOT more speedlights than we had available as well as we lost all of the ambient light in the background that helped us expose the aircraft create the more interesting image).
With the camera now in manual mode, set for a 1 second exposure at f7.1 ISO 100, we proceeded to layout the available speedlights we had to best cover the C-130. trying to get it all in one shot. All of the flashes had their dome diffusers removed so that we could zoom the flash heads (I believe we had most of them zoomed between 50-85mm) to ensure coverage. With all the flashes set to Group A Channel 1 (using TTL) we started firing off shots and using our VALS (Voice Activated Lightstands.. aka Doug and a few students) to reposition the lights. We were fighting against the light as sunrise was fast approaching as well as the ground crews needing to start their work (we should have done this the night before after the sunset shoot but this mornings mist couldn't be passed up!). Here is a sequence of shots showing some of the repositioned speedlights. Doug had brought along a couple of Manfrotto 5001B Nano light stands which helped get some of the lights up off the ground and closer to the subject, we could have used several more of them (you can see them on the left side of the image)!
Sunrise quickly arrived (although masked by the clouds) as well as ground crews starting to work on the aircraft so it was time for us to pack up our gear and head off the ramp. I was satisfied that we had a sequence of images that we could pull sections from to ensure coverage. Since we shot it all on a tripod everything lined up easily within Photoshop CS6 (just open all the images as layers in a single PSD and use the Edit => Auto-Align Layers function) and then use layer masks to blend in sections of the images that you wanted to use. If you use Lightroom, select all the images in your set and use the following menu option;
Below is the final Photoshop image prior to removing the lightstands. In all, it took 7 speedlights to create this shot with pieces from 3 images (though it could be done with less speedlights, you would just have to layer more images together as you reposition the lights after each shot).
Maybe you don't have access to a C-130 but give it a shot by lighting something smaller like a motorcycle, car or perhaps a Cessna at your local airport!