Flash Phobia – I’m so over that

I’ve made my mind up, 2019 is the year I finally get to grips with the flashgun.

In my decades long experiment with being a photographer I’ve had a mixed relationship with the flashgun; ok, look, ‘_speedlight_’ wasn’t a thing in 1977 and it’s not going to be a thing now, it’s a flashgun. I mean I’ve owned one since the first camera I owned which didn’t have one built in, but I’ve never really felt like I wanted to use it. The first thing was a little two AA thing, can’t remember the make, certainly I couldn’t afford a Vivitar. Anyway we’re talking your classic early, one step up from the bulb, flashgun. Camera to 1/60, guess how far away the subject was, set the aperture from the table on the back and bob’s your uncle. So long as you got the steps right it didn’t turn in a bad job really. But I didn’t really use it much, mainly because I didn’t really think I needed to as most of what I photographed was outdoors. A couple of years later I traded up to one which took 4 AAs, and had a cable so it didn’t have to sit on top of the prism; still got it. Okay, sidebar, a year or so back my mother in law gave me all her old camera stuff she no longer had use for, in it was a Vivitar flashgun! Yep, at long last I have one, you know, when it’s obsolete..

Well I did use that one more, I’d graduated to taking photographs indoors a lot by that stage; museum exhibits and so forth that being the days when you could detonate an old fashioned flash gun in a museum gallery and nobody cared. I’d also begun to use it to photograph people, with the aid of an impressive bit of engineering called a flash bracket which moved the flashgun off to the side, think press photographer in the 50s and you’re there. Again, it was all down to remembering to set the flash sync speed of 1/60, distance, aperture off the table, job’s a good-un. Or more often than not, it wasn’t. I blame the lack of comprehensible instructions as we didn’t have ‘online’ then, just the occasionally helpful article in Amateur Photographer (or Amateur Pornographer as it was widely known then). Or I blame the fact that in the days of film it was too expensive to practice systematically. Actually I think I need to blame the fact that I didn’t put in the effort. It wasn’t something I thought you needed to ‘learn’, it just happened.

So fast forward to today and, as a result of a lot of Youtube one thing is clear. Flash photography bloody well is something you need to learn, you can’t just pick it up and go for it. There’s a whole world of modifiers, light stands, C stands, reflectors, ttl, ettl, manual triggers, etc out there. Compared to my old ‘not a vivitar’ flashgun it’s like commanding The Enterprise. Last year I decided to at least make the investment in a decent modern flashgun, based on advice on the Interwebs I opted for a Yongnuo as a budget beast. But still I wasn’t actually using flash, it was all about ‘natural light’, what the hell would be ‘unnatural light’, does it mean you’ve summoned Cthulhu or something? Essentially though, I just don’t believe that I can get a decent photo with a flashgun because in all this technology I’m going to stuff it up. At least with available light I know what I’m doing. But this year, in 2019 CE, 1440 if you’re a muslim, 227 if you’re a lingering French Revolutionary and 2772 if you’re holding out for the return of the legions, _I’m going to learn to shoot with flash_.

It’s occurred to me you see that, actually, I’m ducking this bit of kit for no good reason and potentially I’m just not taking the best photos I could. So many great photographers use flash because they need to in order to get the results they want. Also this year I want to do more people photography and I don’t want to limit my options to only being able to shoot outdoors during the day when it’s not raining. I short enough of subjects as it is, I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. Also, there are creative options I’m not able to explore at the moment to use light in an imaginative way. So I’ve decided to get out the Yongnuo, work through the tutorials on Lynda on using Flash (no they don’t sponsor my blog), and take loads of flash photos. I finished the first part of the beginner’s flash course on flash as fill light. Simply this involves sticking it on the top of the camera and using the flash compensation to get the right degree of light. And took this rather nice photo of Suki the cat, which I couldn’t have done with the available room light.

Photo of Suki the cat

So it’s opening up new creative opportunities already, right now I’m just working with the flash on top of the camera with a small softbox attached to the front. The Lynda course I did was pretty much all about that method so I’m going with that; given that almost all the tutorials you find on Youtube are about off camera flash with a radio trigger and stands it’s a relief. I suspect that having to get out ‘the stuff’ before I could practice was one of the barriers, while now I keep the camera with the flash attached on the desk and periodically I just get up and photograph the cats, or something inanimate around the house, or anything just to get used to the idea of using the flash. I’m just working with the TTL mode on the Flash and using the inbuilt compensation on it rather than moving on to manual flash adjustment straight away.

Don’t know what flashgun phobia is…but I think I’m cured of it.

Looking for somebody edgy

I’m a fairly regular, though by no means exclusive, film shooter; of course coming from the pre-digital days what all the hipster types are calling retro I’m just treating as normal. I’m not especially brand loyal, but I do tend to buy HP5 like I did back in the 70s. Side note of course, back in the 70s I mainly bought Kodachrome….all hail Kodachrome….bring it back….pause for nostalgia.

Okay, nostalgia break over and back to the post. I was looking on the Lomography site and found they were offering a film called Berlin Kino 400. Now I’m self-knowing enough to realise that this is buying right into the whole aesthetic of an arty, edgy middle europe, the one in which Bowie re-invented himself and wrote Heroes, in which people created art communes in the shadow of the wall, of students sitting around talking about important things, etc. Heck I know what’s going on here! On top of that the reviews and sample images from people who’ve tried it were positive, and now I can do my own monochrome processing (you did read my blog post on that didn’t you?) it’s more economical and fun. Also, got to admit the packaging is gorgeous (it’s actually a colour pack, but hey, it’s a mono film)!


So I bit the bullet and ordered 5 rolls of it, I’ve never actually bought film by more than a single before so this was a bit of a first; I have ‘stock’. My wife is very good about not commenting on the erosion of the top shelf in the fridge door to film too..

Well, the thing is of course, I want to use it for, well, photos which have the air of something Bowie might have appeared in while heading to the studio, photos with an edge, perhaps a bit of somewhat run down industrial (I do like a bit of run down industrial). I want to consider the images I want to make, and then go out and make them. I want to look at them and be pleased with them and how they fit in with my vision. But, and there’s a but.

What I really need now is somebody with the right sort of 70s or 80s continental art student edgy look: the Cotswolds is a bit from the Brandenburg Gate for that.

Doing the Prime Lens Challenge

A few weekends ago, Sue and I went to Glastonbury for a couple of days, it’s a town we both know and like and it gave us the opportunity to visit some gardens: Barrington Court, Forde Abbey and Chalice Well if you’re interested. I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut lately and was looking for something to pull me out of it a bit so I decided to do the prime lease challenge.

For those who don’t know, you go somewhere and take only one lens, which can’t be a zoom. Traditionally it’s a 50mm so I took my Canon 50mm 1.8, however on a crop body it’s actually the equivalent of about an 80mm, but it’s still a prime. My rationale for doing it this trip was that it’s somewhere we’re going to to go again, and frankly which you could do for a day trip, so if there was something really great which required a different focal length I could always photograph it next trip. So I put only my 450d and 50mm in my bag and that was that.

80mm equivalent is a very strange lens to work with! It was consistently either too wide or too telephoto, but I think that was the point. I realised how much of my composition relied on being able to get just the right focal length based on where I felt like standing rather than standing to get the best image. I did a lot of shuffling back and forth, and finding a different angle when the one I started with wasn’t working. I also found the ladder to the snake in that having that 1.8 aperture not only let me get natural light interiors I wouldn’t have felt confident with before, but also allowed me to make some other photos with tight depth of field which wouldn’t have worked with the zoom lens.

As an older person the exercise tool me right back to my roots, as back in the 80s everything I shot was on either a 35mm, 50mm, a 135mm or occasionally a 300mm mirror lens. Zooms were either really expensive or really pants so I didn’t own one. Looking back I never really considered creative choices in the process of lens selection, it was based on what I wanted to fill the frame with.

Has it changed my photography for ever? Well no, but it has made me more aware of the effect of the focal length of the lens (which frankly I never know because I just zoom to what looks right) and the effect it has. It’s also made me want to get out my old MX and prime lenses from the 80s and so some more photo shoots with those; on film of course which would be even more limiting. I wonder what only having a 300mm on the front of the camera would mean….?

Personal Projects: so much more than the photography

Personal projects.

We all love them, for amateurs they’re all personal projects. But they’re where we get to express ourselves.

I’ve realised that for me the fun lies not only in taking the photos, but in the planning and preparation which goes with it. Actually taking the photos is the tip of the iceberg. Once I’ve had the idea, I play around with it in my head, expand the idea, create a Pinterest board, think so more. I wanted to do some portrait shots of my wife a while back and had loads of fun making the backdrop: buying fabric and dye, tie-dying, seeing how it turned out.  I wanted to do a floral still life and so got to make a base board out of discarded tongue and groove timber, put on some distressed paint, etc.

Amateurs like me are lucky, we have the time to make all our shoots like this without the pressure to deliver for a client to time and budget!