Last month I put together an article describing the thought process behind creating more natural looking flash photographs. The goal there was to guide you through the choices made to create the images that I do. However, it seems that some of our readers struggle with the equipment more than others, so today I’ll be taking you through one image from concept to post-production. We’ll jump in from the point I decided to make the image and run through every step until the final image is complete.
Concept / Idea
This photograph was made while I was visiting the Konyak people in Nagaland, India. They were renowned warriors and hunters in the past, and I knew that I wanted to make a portrait of a hunter at some point during the trip. One day, we ducked inside a village home during a squall to keep dry and while looking around, I came across a beautiful hand-woven basket adorned with monkey skulls. When I asked about it, the man said that they were the skulls of monkeys he had hunted. The idea clicked. This would be my portrait.
We agreed to make a portrait after the rain eased up and the man went to prepare himself. I was quite surprised when he came back dressed in in his necklace and traditional warrior’s hat. These are now only used for festivals and to show visitors, but he wanted to make this image special so he got them out for us.
On the trip, I did not have too many equipment choices as I could only carry so much and still enjoy my time. In terms of flash equipment, I had a Godox AD200 with the X1T-N trigger and a large shoot-thru umbrella. The choice I did have to make, however, was which lens to use.
Fujifilm had kindly provided me with a GFX 50S and three lenses for the trip (23mm, 63mm, 110mm). I knew I wanted a wide-angle scene to show the place this man was in, so the 23mm f/4 would have been a valid choice. But, I didn’t want the mountains and village to seem too far away and I also wanted to work with a very shallow depth of field. So, I settled on the 110mm f/2 and creating a panorama.
When it comes to the gear I take with me and how I move it, I have a video that is quite long but details everything I use. You can see that below.
Exposure Choices & Challenges
Now that the concept was settled and the gear was chosen, I set about choosing my location. On the walk over to the house, I had seen a staircase that had a beautiful view over the village and mountains. We decided to use that as it would allow me to get slightly above the hunter, show the beauty of this place, and we’d be close to the house in case the rain started again (it did).
Once the subject was in place, I set about getting the ambient light looking good before I added flash to this image. There were two basic exposure concerns for me in this image. The first was that the greens in the background remained the same deep hue I saw with my eyes. The second was that no part of my subject was blown out. In order to keep the white feather in his hat from blowing out, I needed 1/2000 at f/2 with ISO 100. However, that left the hunter a little dark.
By this stage, my assistant had set up the flash with the large umbrella and we were ready to go. Since the hunter was standing on a staircase with a sheer drop off to camera right, the light would need to come in from camera left. We got it in extremely close and my driver, Pranob, held the stand for me to make sure it would not be blown over.
Knowing that because of my shutter speed, this exposure would require High-Speed Sync. So, I checked that the SYNC option in my FLASH FUNCTION SETTING menu was set to FP (Focal Plane) and set the flash power to full. From experience, I knew that I was going to need every screed of energy from this AD200 in full daylight with a large modifier. A speedlight would not have been enough here, but I would have loved to have my AD600 on hand for its extra power. Alas, we were traveling so I didn’t have that luxury. By moving the light in very close (in fact, the umbrella was actually in my composition) I was able to get the exposure I needed on the subject.
Since that was fixed, I locked my camera in manual focus so it wouldn’t refocus and potentially change the framing and began making portraits and shifting my subject’s gaze to get the expression I wanted. In the end, I made approximately 10 images. Once I was happy with the pose and intensity of his gaze, I moved on to the next step: collecting the images for my panorama.
Photographing the Panorama
As I mentioned, I was using the 110mm f/2 lens which would necessitate making a panorama to get the wide angle-of-view that I wanted for this image. However, before getting to this, I would need a way to remove the umbrella from my first composition. Since I was working on a tripod, I could simply ask my driver to take a couple of steps back, turn off the flash, and photograph another image with only ambient light. That way I would have a complete image of the area around the hunter in case I had trouble stitching the panorama in post-production.
Once that was done, I started making additional photographs to the left and right of my subject as well as several above him. This would allow me to expand the canvas on which I had photographed him. The key to getting an accurate stitch when it comes to a panorama is adequate overlap between images. When photographing scenes with little detail, such as the out of focus areas of this image, I like to have between 30 and 50% overlap for each image that I take. This way, the software will have an easy time matching up the images.
Post-production here, as with all my images, was extremely simple. I brought the files into Lightroom, selected the image of the hunter I wanted to use, and selected all the additional images I would use to build the panorama. Then, I applied a small amount of sharpening and the Classic Chrome camera profile. No other adjustments were needed as I got the exposure right in camera.
From here, I used the Photo→Edit in→Merge to Panorama in Photoshop function to begin stitching the panorama (using the cylindrical projection as I find that it works best for the way I build my panoramas). Although Lightroom’s own panorama stitching function allows for greater flexibility after the stitch, it does not always work well when you want a specific element to remain in the final panorama (such as the hunter) and there is no control over which elements it chooses to use in the final image.
Once the stitch was done, it was easy to see why I used Photoshop and not Lightroom for this process. The software had used a copy of the hunter without the light from the flash on him. However, as Photoshop keeps all of the layers intact after building a panorama, it was simply a case of painting white on the layer mask for that layer to bring the version I wanted back into the image.
From here, I merged all the layers into one, cropped, and added my final contrast to the image. This is one thing I have not found a good equivalent to in Lightroom. By adding a Black and White adjustment layer over the image and changing its blend mode to Soft Light or Overlay, you get a special kind of contrast that I love to have in my images. Finally, I save the image out and we’re done. You can watch the video below to see this complete process.
As you can see, there is no trickery here, no extremely difficult techniques, and nothing too fancy required. You could make this same image with an X-E or X-T series camera using the 56mm f/1.2. I was lucky to use the GFX, but it didn’t make the image. Being in the right place at the right time, asking the right questions, and a bit of luck with the weather were the key elements to this photograph. We made the best use of the short time we had and the existing light in the scene to build an image that I am proud to have in my portfolio. If you’re just getting into flash, following the steps above will get you to this image technically, but practice and vision will get you there artistically. Break out the gear and have some fun!