Taking Einstein for a hike and a swim; wilderness lighting…

I’ve been distracted from blogging and other fun stuff by a flurry of assignments which does tend to interfere with my valuable goofing off and writing time. Drat… All that self-promotion and working long hours paid off… I suppose that means rumors of the demise of professional photography are possibly exaggerated, thus far. When an ad agency is about to make a many million buck media buy to run a print ad campaign for an international corporation in 12 magazines for 18 months, you can bet they are not going to hire an enthusiastic newbie with a new digital SLR camera… Sorry enthusiastic newbies… Keep making pictures. For major productions, experienced professionals continue to rule.

One of my distractions was a recent worldwide ad campaign where one of the comps required totally freezing an extra-quick dog in midair, a matter easily resolved by choosing Paul Buff "Einstein" strobes, 640 watt-second self-contained power supply units with an incredibly quick flash-duration – roughly 1/15,000th second, at appropriate settings. Using the Paul Buff “Einstein” strobe to stop action on this “midair” ad campaign reminded me Einstein is one very cool, self-contained-power-supply strobe AND it works with either an AC power cord or via a DC power pack, quite a bargain for 640 conservatively-rated watt-seconds and at only $499. (+$250 for battery pack, for DC use)

This wilderness image of a “Woodsy young man with his woods-dog” was made in a tragically dimly lit wilderness location where a Paul Buff "Einstein" strobe and battery pack in the middle of the creek added just enough fill-flash to very lightly fill and smooth-out irregularly or under-lit areas, as well as increasing both apparent contrast and sharpness. Canon EOS 1D / Canon EF50mm/f1.2L USM lens
1/250th sec / f2.8; ISO 800

Thing is, I’d been trying to photograph our own dog, Prudence, an American Alsatian with a really black face, in an idyllic creek location at the end of a long mountain hike. Unfortunately, the light is always tough, dark & spotty beneath the thick canopy of oak and madrone trees where the fallen log crosses the creek, so existing light photography at this location has proven frustrating. Prudence’s black face isn’t shiny and reflective like a black Lab – her hair absorbs light, like black velvet. It occurred to me Einstein could be the ideal solution since it’s lightweight enough to pack into the wilderness and powerful enough to offer the fill I needed – from a distance. It also has bare bulb capabilities (no reflector – exposed flash tube) so it can be used to fling light in all directions, an old but awesome “flash bulb” lighting technique I figured would work well from a stand in the creek.

Kimberly and Prudence hiking in the hills over San Jose, aka Silicon Valley, headed up to climb some logs and go for a swim in the creek…
Canon EOS 5D / Canon EF70-200mm/f2.8L USM lens
1/6400th sec / f2.8 at 195mm, ISO 800

Prudence, our “Direwolf”, appears to be a big lazy dog at home but when in any remote location, she becomes like a Wild Dog, running across logs, jumping up into trees and racing through creeks, generally just being a natural dog, totally at home and extra active deep within the very DARK wilderness, regrettably to this photographer in places where it’s tough to shoot a black–faced dog well with existing light. However, balancing existing light with off-camera strobe fill light cast by a just one (or more) well-placed strobe, can manage most situations, especially if the strobe has both a quick recycle time and flash-duration in order to freeze any action involved. My goal in doing this shoot was honestly just to see what might happen. Simple. We go for a good hike, take a strobe, we shoot our dog, maybe we get something really cool or maybe we just get some nice snaps of Prudence. If you want to photograph dogs, it’s mandatory to be obsessive – actually GO SHOOT whatever lame idea pops into your head, if only to see what happens… Over half my dog shoots are for myself, for fun. Cats, too. Pursue and photograph what you enjoy!

All in a Camelbak, 100 oz hydration pack, an Einstein head, a lightweight folding light stand, Pocket Wizard Radio Remotes and a Super Clamp with stud, for clamping the light to a limb or some other organic element within the wilderness, makes a great little portable yet powerful lighting kit.

SO…we packed an Einstein strobe, a battery pack, a set of Pocket Wizards, a small light stand and a Monfrotto Super Clamp (with stud for strobe head) into my mountain biking CamelBak hydration pack (100 oz H20) and hiked up the steep, sweaty mountain 16 miles (ok, 6 miles…) to a special little creek we’d discovered on previous hikes, a spot where Prudence typically goes primal in a big way. It’s kinda cool having a 640ws strong and a light stand for it in a cycling backpack with 100 oz of water for the hike! Einstein is a highly portable “studio.”

A small, folding light stand is lightweight and is easily attached to a backpack. Note the broad legs for stability. In the wilderness I often carry this small stand and/or a Super Clamp with stud

My goal was to nail a sweet photograph of Prudence being a “wild dog” but previous efforts with existing light – under dense foliage where it’s very dark – had resulted in unevenly lit images which were not at all acceptable as anything vaguely resembling portfolio. I love “the moment” more than anything yet quality is a factor.

Thankfully, our athletic son Forest, a serious athlete/model/photography assistant since age 16, came along on the hike to help entice Prudence out onto the log. Prudence is a very well-behaved dog. She heels off leash and does what we ask almost 100% of the time. However, from experience shooting ad campaigns with dogs and cats I can tell you there’s a huge difference between trying to manage your own dog alone on a shoot and doing the same with a couple trainers working with the animal. Your own photographic skills required for nailing elusive/fun/whimsical/ideal animals are mandatory, but even with skills your odds are greatly increased with trainers encouraging the correct behavior. On the other hand I constantly do private shoots with no trainers where patience and finely tuned photojournalistic skills at capturing spontaneous moments are my greatest asset, after many years of practice and experimentation having fun photographing cats and dogs.

A bare bulb Einstein strobe in the middle of the stream tossed light in various directions to provide a broad coverage area while allowing the flash to be dialed down to produce f2.8 light, ideal for fill.

When there are no trainers your Photojournalistic skills must be well-rehearsed since it’s a fact without trainers we are at the mercy of Dog’s Will… (or Cat’s Will, as the case may be) Scary. There are NO guarantees, especially without a trainer to help the beast cooperate. If you want to be a professional catdog photographer, or simply an effective photographer of cats and dogs for fun (often the wiser choice), it’s a great idea to practice, pursue and photograph any animal you encounter, even if just for fun. We went on this hike knowing Prudence loves logs yet there was no guarantee she’d do what I would ideally like her to do. But, on the other hand, this was to be a spontaneous “whatever happens” sort of picture rather than a lockdown setup as I would do for an ad agency on an official shoot. This was simply a hike with a for-fun shoot added on so there was no pressure. If Prudence did something remarkable – fantastic. If not, no big deal.

Once at the location I unpacked my CamelBak, setup the strobe with Pocket Wizard Radio Remote flash triggers and placed the Einstein smack in the middle of the creek using it as bare bulb lighting. I learned bare bulb lighting at my first staff newspaper job where the older guys had grown up using flash bulbs. Flash bulbs must have been a royal pain yet these guys were great with light so they taught the concept that a bare bulb light throws light in ALL directions SO if you can use a bit of geometry and consider the physics of light, it’s entirely possible to set a bare bulb strobe in such a position that it tosses light in ALL directions. You can light entire large rooms if you are able to place ONE bare bulb strobe on a high ceiling in the middle of a room. In the wilderness bare bulb allowed me to shoot wherever this dog with no trainer might decide to roam. A quick light check revealed I was getting f2.8 light – weak fill light only – covering a very broad physical area. Perfecto! Now, will the dog cooperate??????

The off-camera Einstein strobe provided crisp, sharp-edged illumination for Prudence as she trots down the creek photographed with a 70-200mm lens. Einstein had no problem recycling fast enough to keep up with my Canon 1D motor drive on Low speed.

Once Forest was almost in place, Dear Prudence jumped the gun and leapt up onto the log before her cue, dashed out to our model then whirled and instantly ran back to the creek bank. Prudence repeated this 4-5 times yet each time refused to simply STAY on the log, despite our best made plans, fantasy visions of the ideal image and our amazing dog training skills. (Prudence was having too much fun to listen…) All I could do is shoot as quickly as possible and hope Prudence did something worthy of hauling in gear. During the shoot the Einstein kept up with the Canon 1D motor drive and we were able to nail a few acceptable frames, considering we really had no fantasies of the perfect image.

In the end we had a great time and came back with technically interesting, fairly moody images of Prudence. Strobe light in the wilderness is not something I’m accustomed to seeing. Nice…. It was sweet having that bit of fill light coming from an angle which created the apparent contrast and sharpness strobe is famous for adding to an image. What was a tough situation with existing light was easy with just one off-camera strobe, though when I go back I’ll pack in two Einsteins for a bit more depth. This shoot produced images of Prudence I like but, almost more importantly, it was great practice for the next big national CatDog ad campaign, the one I convince them to let me photograph in a natural setting! I learn something on all shoots so, undoubtedly, this for-fun shoot will come in handy down the road.

The Einstein strobe allowed me to make crisp, sharp, nicely quality, backlit photographs of Prudence sprinting down the creek, for the first time, after casually attempting this shoot with existing light failed twice. Just one off-camera strobe made all the difference!!!

On these shoots you are grateful for little blessings like the Einstein, the Pocket Wizards and the CamelBak with cargo space + precious and essential hydration and that awesome Monfrotto Super Clamp so I can clamp my Einstein onto a limb, need be.

This was a keep-it-simple and do-it-for-fun shoot. NO ad agency Creative Directors; no executive VP’s of marketing from mega corps whispering instructions that the dog needs to be tap dancing across the log, etc. This one, like so many of my CatDog shoots, was just for fun! The look and feel of the photograph of Forest and Prudence on the log is as I would hope, even if it was a shoot-as-quickly-as-possible self-assignment. There are never any guarantees when shooting cats and dogs but the goal is always to make photographs which are surprising or different. If I show up, odds are high I’ll come back with a portfolio worthy photograph. Hone your skills then just go do it!

One firm rule I live by as part of my lifestyle as a professional photographer is to shoot constantly and LEARN something from every one of my many screw-ups. At some point I said out loud at a speaking gig, “I have made EVERY conceivable mistake.” Uh…..well, I later discovered that was a lie. The more you shoot the more mistakes you make. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn (or should) so get out there and make lots of mistakes! I learn far more from taking chances and screwing-up than when I just happen to nail it perfectly.


Alysha - October 16, 2014 - 4:49 PM

Thank you thank you thank you for this blog post!!! I’m determined to do outdoor lit photography and your blog post convinced me to take the plunge (and the risk) and buy the Einstein and battery pack despite the fact that it is costing me A LOT extra to ship it to Australia and I won’t have easy access to the warranty if the event of a problem.

Gary Parker - August 23, 2013 - 7:13 PM

Thanks Malcolm. I find the Einstein a nice general-use strobe especially when you need power in a portable strobe you can use outdoors. I’ve owned one Einstein strobe for a while and recently was provided with two additional units for testing and lighting demonstrations.

One of the point for packing the Einstein into the wilderness – rather than simply using a modified hot shoe strobe – was the fact it puts out great weak fill light far out of the way of any angle I would be shooting.

This very small light source puts our hard light so light relative to subject angle is key in not having a nasty shadow looming.

Malcolm Bramwell - August 23, 2013 - 5:55 PM

Imaginative composition, as always. Your “Einstein” does a beautiful job of lighting the shaded areas and allowing you to capture the action. I assume it does not take an Einstein to figure out how to use it? I like how you have balanced the lighting between flash and natural light and used an aperture to give you that selected depth of field.

Dan - August 20, 2013 - 11:27 AM

I love all the photos of any of the AA dogs .Yours is a great one.We hope to get Angel soon.

Shooting The Sun; The Digital Darkroom Meets An Intense Sunset…

Late in the afternoon til sunset has always been the holiest, most amazing time to be in the outdoors doing any sort of physical activity: hiking, jogging, mountain biking – or just sitting on a well-placed deck. Even just going outdoors as twilight approaches can be magical as low angle, extra warm light casts long, contour-defining shadows as the sun sinks to the horizon. With a good vantage point like these hills we hike and ride, life can be utterly magical on the hillsides at sunset and twilight. Great for the soul AND great for the prepared photographer!

This image of the lovely bride and Prudi hiking into the sunset was created via a very “flat” RAW file, successfully managed with Adobe Photoshop CS6 Mac(see original RAW file below)

Late yesterday the lovely bride and I – along with my old bud John Frusha – took a hike up the mountain at the old Quicksilver mines, heading out maybe 90 minutes before legal sunset with 3-4 miles to cover up semi-steep hills which traverse the hilltops and dip into heavily wooded areas, as well. I carried my Canon 5D camera with a Canon EF50mm f/1.2L series lens since this camera is lighter than my Canon 1D and this particular focal length lens is one of my favorites.

Dense shade during the low light of sunset – especially when hills block part of the sunset – can make it ridiculously dark even when it’s still a nice, bright sunset in the exposed areas on the hilltops.

As we hiked under the trees down by the creek, I had to jack the ISO on my Canon 5D to 1250 at f2.2 just to be able to “attempt” to get a sharp frame of our canine family member playing in the creek, with 125th of a second the quickest shutter speed I could get in that light. At such minimal depth, it was tough shooting a black-faced dog frolicking in the creek; darkness was upon us so we hiked onward.

As we walked in fading light, under dense trees, Johnny and I lagged behind, shooting the bull, as the lovely bride and Prudence walked briskly ahead of us. Suddenly we rounded a corner and – HOLY WOW!!!! – an intense sunset smack on the rim of the horizon beamed straight into the camera lens, a tough photographic scenario, yet a spectacular backlit scene of the lovely bride and dear Prudence!!!

I yelled to Johnny – STOP!!! – simultaneously tossing up my camera, getting off 4 frames, hoping one would be sharp–enough or “image-able”, as the lovely bride quickly walked through that “sweet spot”, a small area where the almost-orange light of sunset was lovely.

Since I’d just stepped out of dense shade where photographing a black-faced dog was tough, my camera was still set at f2.2 at ISO 1250 when that sun smacked me in the face and I saw the glow of ultra warm light rimming around the lovely bride and Prudence!

Using aperture priority, my shutter speed leapt to 1/8000th second, still at f2.2, since there was no time for making adjustments. This was a “throw up and fire” scenario which would last only a couple seconds.

Over years it has become my philosophy that capturing a sweet “moment” which might easily have escaped, is infinitely more important than maintaining highest image quality, certainly in tough, unexpected situations where pausing to change ISO settings would result in totally missing the photograph.

Shooting directly into the sun created a “flat” RAW file – an original lacking in contrast – just as it created flat negatives back in darkroom days. I generally set my cameras’ “Picture Style” to a somewhat flat, low contrast setting so the RAW image file lacks contrast but contains a ton of digital information. I can easily add contrast…

This un-imaged RAW file is filled with digital information, enabling the creation of a compelling image in Adobe Photoshop CS6 Mac (see final above)

Over years of using Photoshop, it became apparent that it’s easier to add contrast than to remove it – so selecting a Picture Style from the Menu which creates a flat RAW file – NOT pretty straight from the camera – actually allows more detail to work with in Photoshop, aka the digital darkroom.

It’s common for non-professionals to think Photoshop is synonymous with a grossly altered “faked” image when, in fact, the Photoshop process is no different than the old-school black & white darkroom. Yes, you can make pigs fly with Photoshop but the majority of Photoshop users create relatively “straight” photographs where only basic contrast and color adjustments have been made – just as in the traditional darkroom.

Although many who appreciate photography regard black and white as almost “holy,” one should remember a black & white negative is NOT reality and the process of making fine prints includes a ton of image manipulation. In order to approximate reality, a negative had to be placed in an enlarger then manipulated a LOT in order to create a fine quality black & white or color print. We used dozens of heavy-handed techniques in the black & white & color darkroom to make a lousy negative created in weak light look great by the time we were finished making a fine quality photographic print. Photoshop is no different… It’s a basic processing tool for digital negatives…not so different from the old school darkroom…

One difference when working with color, as these two images illustrate, is adding contrast to a very flat RAW file can also tweak the colors, that is, it can make the color much richer and more intense than the original, almost ugly RAW file. Yet that original RAW file did NOT represent the reality we witnessed with our infinitely perceptive human eyes. To the human eye – forget photography – this scenario was HOLY WOW!!!! Gorgeous light backlighting lady and dog was easily perceptible, at a glance. The final image here simply displays my vision of what I saw in reality.

No major tricks were used in transforming this RAW file from being like a flat “negative,” so to speak, into this brilliant final result. A lot of contrast had to be added – which I do selectively to multiple areas of the image – while color saturation actually had to be decreased since, in adding the required contrast, the almost orange light of sunset initially went too-red, requiring the selective removal of red to more closely approximate my memory of how the scene actually looked!

MORAL: Always carry a camera for unexpected moments like this one. Learn Photoshop or the image-processing software of your choice since, just as in the days of darkroom legends like Ansel Adams, the adjustments applied in the traditional OR digital darkroom make ALL the difference between a mediocre and a special photograph!