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HOW TO: Shoot Off Camera Flash with a Neutral Density Filter

Hey SNAPsters.  Did you see our super-duper competition that launched yesterday?  Swing by this post to find out how you can win a place at SNAP 2016. 

Today's HOW TO is brought to you by Rebecca Douglas. Creator of the above image of awesomeness.  If my wedding photographer took this image of me, I'd be thrilled.  It looks like a SPACE SHIP and I love space ships.  

Over to Rebecca to tell us all about it: 

Hello, my name is Rebecca. I love playing with off camera flash, especially after dark.  

Its such a treat to be asked to write this post! I love shooting weddings all year around and for 6 months of the year, darkness arrives during my usual coverage ending 3-4 songs into the evening reception but in high summer it is often another 2-3 hours until it is dark enough to shoot in darkness.

Many of my couples have watched me shoot through winter and really want some dramatic night shots as part of their wedding collection and I didn’t want to disappoint. In May I was capturing Katie & Chris’s Preston Court Wedding and we were approaching sunset and knowing dusk lasts so much longer at this time of year, I had to think on my feet as I had a shot in mind that I wanted to try, to feature the crowning glory this venue offers in its lovely vintage carousel.

A test shot (above - straight out of camera) confirmed that it was no-way near dark enough, but illustrates how bright it was with the settings being f6.3 and a 2 second exposure at ISO200.   

Tucked away in my camera bag was an NDX3-400 filter which I had dropped a pretty penny on ahead of the wedding I was shooting on the day of the solar eclipse in March, but the weather worked against us that day, so it had remained in the bag unused.

Note from the editor - you can read about ND or Neutral Density Filters here.  They essentially let less light into the camera, meaning you can obtain longer exposures in bright lighting conditions. 

You could say it was quietly waiting for this very moment to arise and came into its own when the moment was right!

So, seeing it got me thinking, I could block light going into the camera and a quick couple of test shots confirmed that I could manage a 3 second exposure which I knew would give me enough motion blur from the artificial light on the carousel to achieve the shot I had in mind. I also wanted to let off a smoke grenade for added drama too once the couple were with me. 

Technically speaking, there is a lot going on in this shot. I set the camera up on my tripod, popped the filter on and exposed the scene. I used a high aperture to block more light -when checking the exposure I arrived at f14 with the filter almost towards NDX400.

I used two flashes off camera behind them, as the ND filter was stopping so much light, I needed two on full power, normally I only use one at between 1/4th - 1/16th power when shooting in actual darkness, so the ND filter really required some extra oomph! The flashes were on PocketWizzard TT5 triggers on light stands and were placed to be about 1m behind where I would bring the couple into the scene.

The staff member at Preston Court was a total sweetheart and I talked him through what was going to happen and he was really excited to be spinning the carousel for something that involved smoke too! I made sure all doors were shut near the scene – worth noting as you don’t want to set any alarms off by filling a barn with smoke. 

To summarise key points: aperture: f14 // exposure: 3 seconds // ISO: 200 // ND filter 2 x Nikon SB910s on 1/1 power // 2 x PocketWizzard TT5s and the transmitter // Tripod // 2 x white smoke grenades

Then it was time to whisk Katie & Chris into the scene, I asked them if they wanted to come and create some magic at the carousel. It important to talk your couple through what is going to happen as teamwork really makes the dreamwork!

I asked them to stay super still as any movement from them would result in them being blurry.  I quickly locked focus on them and changed the camera to manual focus, as they were not moving, I knew I need not worry about Auto-focus bouncing in and out when we got the smokes going! My assistant ran through with two smoke grenades, it was such a still evening so the smoke didn’t move too much.

The trick with them is to work out the wind direction, it was coming from behind them, so by the time she ran through, it had gently dissipated and drifted towards me a little. The smoke always over exposes near the light source, so this helped to add a frame around Katie and Chris to silhouette them.

This shot was the first one out of the few I captured for them and is my favourite because of the strength of their silhouette and the shape of the smoke! I really love the contrasting colours of the blue of the sky and the orange from the bulbs on the carousel making it a really bold colour contrast too.

I totally love shooting near or after dark to create really dramatic images, its always so much fun. Guests were huddled around me as I was shooting this and asked lots of questions – they always love the surprise of smoke! I did let them see this in camera as I let out such a big EEEEEEEK when I saw it, they begged to see it. I hope this little write up helps with the techie how–to behind this shot! 

Muchos love,

Rebecca xx