Faking Sunshine

Most people naturally think that flashes are only useful for portrait photography when the ambient light is too dim.  Well, I am a landscape/nature/travel photographer, but I almost always carry a flash in my backpack. It can be invaluable when used creatively.  One of my favorite tricks is to use a flash to emulate sunlight, when the real thing is not available.

Recently I was asked by a magazine editor to write an article on macro photography, and I needed some fresh macro images for the article as well as the magazine cover. While Ohio is not a very exciting place for landscape photography, you can shoot macro pretty much anywhere.  On a cool early morning I drove a few miles to a patch of grass field that I knew I could find many snails.  I like to shoot macro during morning. The light is soft during the morning, and winds are calm and air is still — winds are probably one of the worst enemies of macro-photographers.

Within a few minutes of arrival, I found this tiny white snail — just 7-8 millimeter across. I quickly set up my gears — tripod, three-way geared head, macro-rails, and my Canon 5D Mark III body and the Canon EF 100mm L IS macro lens.  I snapped a few shots while the snail was claiming up the grass blade. The soft ambient light produces some nice colors, but the images lack “punch”, so I reached my camera backpack and took out a Canon 580EX flash.

Macro photographers like to use flash, because they often work under dim light conditions and have to use small apertures to have enough depth of field.  However, in this situation,   I don’t want to setup the light using conventional way – the white light coming from the front of the subject, which is probably the most boring type of light.  I want something differently.  So I pull out my favorite trick:  off-camera flash with color gels.

“On Top of the World”

Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100mm L F2.8 IS Macro, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Manfrotto 405 Geared Head, No-brand Macro rail, RRS leveling base.


And yes, you can compare the sequence of shots with and without  the flash. The differences are day and night, right?  The only Photoshop work on the final image was removing a tiny piece of dirty from the snail, and some very slight cropping.


A few days later, I used the same technique to shot this image of a grasshopper.


Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100mm L F2.8 IS Macro, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Manfrotto 405 Geared Head, No-brand Macro rail, RRS leveling base.


Tips on how to get this type of shots

I almost always have a Pocketwizard  MiniTT1 wireless transmitter mounted on the hot shoe of my camera, and a Pocketwizard FlexTT5 wireless transceiver  connected to the Canon 580EImageX flash.  MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 communicate via radio signals so I can I remotely trigger the flash — the flash can be placed anyway within the radio’s range. It does not have to be on the hot shoe, which produce the most boring front-lit light.My goal was to use the flash to emulate the warm early sunshine coming from the back of the snail. The problem is , flash is daylight-balanced — it always emit white light around 5500-6500K (color temperature).  The sweet, warm, golden early morning sunshine, on the other hand, has a much lower color temperature of 2000-3000K.  To convert the white light to warm color, I put 1.5 stop CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel on the flash head. The picture on the right shows a Canon flash with CTO gel and Pocketwizard FlexTT5.

I hand-held the flash and put it on the other side the snail and grass, facing the camera lens. I pressed the shutter when the snail climbed near the top of the grass blade.  The flash fired when the shutter was triggered, creating the beautiful, and almost-translucent backlit image of the snail on the grass blade. 

2 thoughts on “Faking Sunshine

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