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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lights, Locomotive, Action!


Getting the sun, the earth and a train to align for a perfect shot

The Little Lights That Could. The next logistical hurdle was to determine what type of flash units I was going to use to light the large steam engine and the station. Fortunately, the holiday lighting of hanging “icicles” on the station were doing a great job of bathing the station in warm-toned tungsten light, to the point where I wouldn’t need to add any flash light there at all. That warm glow of the hanging lights also would provide a highlight along the side of the train cars behind the engine.

My first thought was to use some of the bigger AC-powered Dynalites that I’ve owned for decades. I used the heck out of these lights when I was doing a lot of corporate and industrial photography assignments. For the power they put out, they’re remarkably small and light. But AC power, at least for lights placed away from the station, would be a problem, and I didn’t want to get into renting generators (this being a self-financed project!).

I was left with my trusty SB-800s. Over the years, I’ve accumulated five of them, and I find I’m doing most of my lighting work with them these days. Would they stand up to lighting a big, black steam engine, coal car and the like? I knew I could get excellent results from my D300 at ISO 400 and higher, so I decided to give them a try.

When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.
The first day that I was home during the prime shooting time was a frigid, blustery Sunday evening. With the help of Josh, a photography student from my local high school, I wheeled over two Hardigg Storm Cases filled with the five SBs and five SD-8A auxiliary battery packs, stands and some PocketWizard radio remotes.

My first choice with the SBs always is to use Nikon’s Creative Lighting System with its wireless control of remote units. However, I knew that I needed to hide at least one or more of these lights behind the engine and that the Creative Lighting System needed a clean line of sight from the on-camera controller to the remote flash to work, so I opted for the radios and using the flashes in manual or ratio mode.

My plan was to kind of triangulate the light. First, I’d have a light hitting the front of the locomotive from about a 45º angle. Then, I’d have a light raking the side of the locomotive facing the camera from behind at a 45º angle, knowing that it would create a big highlight along the black car because the “angle of incidence” (the 45º angle from which the light was coming) would equal the “angle of reflectance” (the 45º angle at which I was standing). You get big highlights when the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflectance. Most of the time, you use that old-school lighting knowledge to avoid reflections. In this case, with the black engine and coal car, I used it to create the highlight!
Currently, my pet project is working on a long-term multimedia slideshow about an historic steam railroad that runs scenic trips out of my town... I try to gather some sound and shoot some new aspect of the railroad, all with the hopes of putting together a really nice multimedia piece for my website and for the railroad itself.
Finally, to highlight the steam coming from the locomotive, I’d place a third light behind the engine, aimed up at the plume of steam coming from the stack. I did all this light placement when the engine train wasn’t there, but I knew from experience where it positions when waiting to take on passengers and used that as my guide.

I took a stab at the lighting ratios and had the two backlights on full power and the front light on half power. I did a rough exposure check using my student helper as a stand-in for the locomotive (he’s a lot smaller), but I got an idea that with the dusk sky and my 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 Nikkor set on ƒ/5.6 and the tripod-mounted D300, at ISO 400, set to about 1⁄4 sec., I’d get a good blend of flash and the available light of the fading twilight sky. Now all we needed was the train.

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