Workshop at Valencia

Workshops are a blast, and working with the awesome students at Valencia College were no exception! An officer of the Valencia Photography Group saw my portfolio online, later approaching me to teach a hands-on ‘Night Lighting’ workshop, which would include artificial lighting and natural light techniques.  Because I believe that all lighting setups are closely related, I taught in terms of general lighting, with a focus on night and low light.  Two people made the workshop a success, including Michelle Renee Mercado was an excellent model.



Before this invitation, I hadn’t thought about night photography as a genre or specific skill-set.   As any experienced photographer will tell you, workshops can make you stop and reflect on everything you have learned in a new light; thinking out-loud makes you more conscious of your workflow, and question why you do things a certain way.  Looking over my recent portfolio additions, I starting noticing a plethora of night and sunset photography. When and why did that happen?

My Lighting ‘History’

Back in 2004, I began shooting with off camera flashes in my days at the FSView Newspaper, long before the whole strobist trend (which I love, btw). Not for anything creative, per se, but to  give people a nice clear pop while shooting indoors. Eventually, I started using the flashes outside, inspired by my college roommate back in 2005, Michael, who started giving me creative ideas about positioning lights underneath, on top, from behind, etc. Rather than using elaborate lighting, we used anything around the house and one 580EX off camera. While I had mostly been a natural light shooter with an off camera fill, Mike challenged me to think in new ways and use the lighting itself as the main feature of the photograph, rather than just as a fill.  When the summer ended, I retreated back to my natural light style.

After purchasing the 5D in 2006, I began to develop my hand-held, natural-light, night time photographs; prior to the full frame 5D, most DSLRs were pretty awful at available low light photography.  My best examples were at a candle-lit Vietnam Memorial Wall service; my college newspaper, the FSView, used my photos across a several page spread in that weeks edition.  Further, shooting clubs for Edge magazine helped me learn night focusing and how to deal with fast changing and unpredictable lights in a dark environment.



When I started shooting weddings and models back in 2008, back came the strobes again. This time, I was armed with a set of 580EXIIs and PW TT5 triggers (which are just awful, I’ve switched to the PW Plus IIs recently and I’m much happier). Multiple modifiers, including softboxes, gobos, umbrellas, gels, etc.  Back-lighting, rim-lighting, and center spot beams; from all different directions in different configurations.  My lighting setup was portable, elaborate and challenging, giving my photos a unique and fresh, modern edge.

Changing Photo Philosophy

For years, I had been a natural light elitist, a perspective born from a mix of my large format film photography, as well as some intimidation from learning lighting and deciding between the multitude of equipment types.  I had success with natural light galleries in the past, but in modern photography, getting the look I wanted was impossible without manipulating available light.  I still shoot my classic infrared landscapes for my art exhibitions, but for professional work, I stick with strobe lighting for consistency and vibrance.  Plus, I’ve found that strobes can reduced computer time and speed up my commercial and wedding workflow.

After years of experimentation, I’ve begun to simplify my lighting technique again, often bringing only my smallest modifiers, if any, and sticking with one or two lights.   Many times, I just shoot bare flash, without needing cumbersome softboxes.  Hard light gets a bad name in the digital age, in my opinion. If used correctly, you can still maintain soft, gorgeous skin tones, while giving my work a 3D pop.  Simple lighting setups allow you to focus on the shot and get more creative, as well as shoot more angles and locations.  This will be the main theme of my workshop.  Simple setups and cheap equipment will bring you the best photos.  Don’t let the internet or any one workflow tempt you into thinking you need to dump all your money for a special type of look.  Instead, look at someones workflow to help you better refine or develop your own style and methodology.

After some heavy thinking, I put together a sideshow and power-point; now I was ready to teach the workshop.

The Workshop

About 20 students had strolled in by about 6:30PM, and we all had some nice doughy, undercooked pizza and cookies, along with some sodas.  Mmmmm.

Almost everyone in the room owned a DSLR and brought it along; after a few background questions, I learned that they understood the basic of exposure, aperture, and shutter speed.  This will make things ALOT easier on me, and allow a more hands-on style workshop.  I memorized some points from the beginning Q&A for later integration into my presentation, especially those involving how much new equipment the students thought they should purchase.



First, I went through my portfolio of night photography, both natural and artificial.  My selection focused on my photos that could be achieved with inexpensive setups.  Explaining my process, thinking, challenges, and mistakes was great fun.  I included a sample from shoot with my roommate back in 2005, with just one light, a cheap SLR, and anything lying around the house.  Further, I included more advanced and elaborate setups for inspiration and variety.

Knowing that everyone, with a few exceptions, understood the basics of DSLRs, I quickly blew through my carefully prepared sideshow and let the students ask questions.  Then we went right for the good stuff: the outdoor workshop.  We all walked outside, including the model, Michelle.

To keep things simple, I stuck with a two light setup, with a gold reflected strobe and a second bare strobe, or just two bare strobes.  The full equipment list is attached for those attending the workshop.  We started off by splitting the group in two, with my assistant and I separately explaining the operation of the hot shoe flash, including power, zoom, and angles.  One student, Collin, has an old school Vivitar, which I explained would also work just fine.

Michelle Renee Mercado, our model for the workshop, was dressed up in an awesome pin-up outfit.  As a photographer herself, she was very creative and easy to work with; plus her classic style gives the photos an extra edge.  She is also a photographer, check out her fanpage on facebook.

Light was going down fast, and I wanted to demonstrate how to quickly set up and shoot with dwindling light.  We set up in three areas I scoped out in the front of the building.  First, I tried some back-lighting on Michelle angled toward the road, but I just didn’t like the setup, and the back-lighting wasn’t strong enough for the effect I wanted, so we moved onto the fountain.  I explained technical concepts of key and fill, max shutter speed with triggers, exposure compensation, aperture, the benefits of the lights on camera settings, zooming the flash, etc.

Next, I moved onto creative angles,  and explained my philosophy and style of shooting; various vantage points, close to the model, using a wide-angle lens.  I laid down on the ground, with a Canon Fisheye, and fired away.  I took off the umbrella and shot Michelle with gelled, bare flashes, for an edgy, modern look.  I started to see the students also lying on the ground, getting various angles and bouncing around all over the place shooting like I was.  They were getting my style.  Michelle came up with some great poses, leaning up and around.

Next, we moved onto the bricked area behind the fountain, which to my surprise, ended up with some amazing photos.  Simple, clean, but unusual backgrounds can make some pretty spectacular shots.  My assistant had the idea of back-lighting the see-through bricks (from a recent workshop she did at Photoshop World).  She set the flash to full blast, and the resulting image speak for themselves.  Further, Michelle, again, came up with some great poses and put the finish touch that the composition needed.  Having a fellow photographer model really makes things easy.

From a quick workshop, I was already getting professional results within minutes; was there a lesson to be learned here?

Twilight was coming, and I wanted to demonstrate my ramblings about shooting a jewel blue background.  Michelle set up in front of the class building, and again, I shot with the fisheye lens from down, framing her into the shot.  It took a few tries to get the lighting right, as now the flashes had total control.  She jumped in the air toward me; what a trooper, she could jump and land on her heels.

We went back inside, and quickly did one last indoor shot of Michelle informally, and I uploaded the files and hooked my Macbook to the projector

Editing Workshop

The more time you spend in post process, the less money you make, and the less time you spend on other shoots.  I don’t always take my own advice on this, as other photogs are guilty I’m sure.  With the clock running out on the workshop, I didn’t have time for fancy-pants photoshop tricks and gimmicks, although I had planned on mostly sticking to Lightroom 3, anyhow.

I showed them the most important parts of my workflow, including starting with calibration, then working your way up to color balance, brightness, contrast, exposure, fill, and color palette.   Next, I used the brushes tool to selectively improve skin tone, as well as dodge and burn (by request) and desaturation.  Along the way, I hit the before/after key, and got some nice ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ ; some feeback that I was doing my job as the instructor.

It was getting well past 9:00PM, and it was time to cut the workshop short.  I really really wanted to show them some cool PS sharpening techniques, but I think that would have been too advanced anyhow and drifted from my main point of getting the edits done and moving on in the learning process.

Afterward, I was asked some great questions, including when to go pro and what it takes to become a full time photographer; other lighting gear I use, etc.  What a great workshop and group of students!

When arriving home, I further edited in a nice cloudy sky from Cocoa Beach, and further enhanced the shots and posted them on Flickr.

Lessons Learned

I think their was a lesson I’m learning about myself here: take off the pressure and stop taking myself so seriously; give myself time limits and deadlines, and once I get the shot, stop firing and move onto the next location.  Digital has given all of us the bad habit of shooting over and over again, and editing over and again.  Having a time frame and clear goals in mind really helped.  In this case, 45 minutes tops, with a variety of shots to demonstrate proper lighting, creative techniques, and changing the lights for different scenarios.

In a way, those same goals could be used in my commercial shoots; be decisive, get the shot and move on, based on my intuition of what will work.  Further, explaining what I was doing outloud helped me keep things moving, and my mind focused and fresh.  With a short time period, I achieved porfolio quality shots.

The editing.  Because I took took the shots correctly, and had to demonstrate a decisive editing style, I quickly browsed, edited, and color corrected each of my favorite three shots within minutes.  A few hours later, I did some fast, ‘fancier’ editing and posted them to flickr.  Within hours, they had more than 100 views. Shot, edited, and uploaded on the same day, and I’m perfectly happy with the results a week later.  I don’t need to edit over and over again for hours to get things right.

Lastly, I went to a location I wasn’t familiar with, picked a spot, and just starting shooting.  If I didn’t like what I saw, I moved on.  I tend to over-plan every shoot, which sometimes prevents creativity.  Perhaps I need to do this on personal assignment to keep my mind fresh and creative.

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