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Sunday, 27 April 2014

A wild life at the BBC...

Over the last 12 months I've done a few commissioned shoots for the BBC; BBC Wildlife and BBC CountryFile. I've worked off and on with CountryFile for a number of years but usually with stock images or writing short walking routes for the out and about section. But it's the proper commissioned photo-shoots that you really want and it took a while to earn that trust.
I finally got the go-ahead, first for BBC Wildlife magazine and then CountryFile. I've shot several stories now.  I really couldn't afford to screw up so each one was carefully planned and executed. You know that old saying; if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!
With that in mind, I looked at the first shoot brief with a mounting sense of...errr, well, nervousness to say the least.  I would be spending the day with Amy Jane Beer, a conservationist with a love of the great outdoors, who stops at nothing to explore the wildlife on her doorstep. We would be (I was assured) hiking, riding, canoeing and swimming our way around her neighbourhood, so I had better go prepared! Amy proved to be super-enthusiastic, funny and quite unstoppable.

With all the ingredients in place; interesting, photogenic person to work with, excellent weather (honestly), stunning, Yorkshire scenery and selection of energetic activities, what was I going to bring to the party? Answer: creative lighting. My USP in all of my editorial work these days is to make my pictures stand out through creative lighting techniques and try to go the extra mile. First up was a bit of bird watching.

A short walk to a nearby viewpoint, teetering on the edge of a slippery, grassy hillside would be our first location. SB800 on a stand with a shoot-thru brolly, bungied to a fence post to stop the wind blowing it away, provided key lighting. Ambient light provides the fill, and you'll notice a separation light giving highlights down the Amy's face and hands (camera right), that's a bare SB600 on a super-clamp, clamped to the fence too. Background ambient is dialled down with 1/250 @ 5.6 at 200 iso. A slower shutter speed would have brightened up the ambient without affecting flash exposure but I like to keep a separation going on between the two, so I generally shoot the shutter speed as fast as I can to get the background about a stop less than the flash.

A couple of hours later, the sun was out and we'd been road and mountain biking and wound up looking at a very ancient oak in the woods - a favourite wildlife haunt. I found the ambient exposure (1/160th at 5.6 - 800 iso) and put up my shoot-thru, SB800 combo to camera right, selected an 18mm focal length and a low angle. I also threw some light at the tree with the SB600 spread with a wide-angle diffuser dome. See how the top branches and surrounding trees are dark? That would be the oak, too, without the extra illumination. The SB600 is camera left and low down, on the floor, pointing up at the tree.
Next up was a badger set near-by. The photo at the top of the page shows the location. With afternoon sun streaming through the back of the trees, all I needed was some equally soft light on Amy and the sandy foreground and I was done. That one came out at 1/60th @ 5.6 at 400 iso. SB800 brolly combo again. I used the backlighting as a hair light, didn't have to do anything, it was just there. Finally it was time to head for the river.

Water can be a risky environment for camera kit of course, so it pays to be prepared. I use clip-top food containers to water proof my flash guns. Using Pocket Wizards means that I don't need any physical connection to the flash guns, so they can go right into a waterproof box, along with their PW triggers and be placed anywhere I like. PW's have a massive range too, so I could light this from anywhere as long as the flash had enough power to reach. As it was, I actually had the SB800 with diffuser cone on a Manfrotto super-clamp and extension arm clamped to the canoe gunwale at camera left. The sun is camera right (see the sun flare bottom corner) and is providing most of the lighting but we just paddled into the shade, which is good because now the flash will stand out a bit and provide some interesting light. This one came out at 1/160 @ f7.1 at 200 iso on an 18mm focal length. Now I needed a head shot and the late, low afternoon sun looked perfect for a backlit portrait...

This is 1/250 @ 5.6, 200 iso, shot with a 120mm focal length to soften that background. Simple portrait technique here, put your subject against the sun, throw up a shoot-thru brolly, nice and close to your subject for maximum diffused light (here at camera right) and at about the subject's eye level, to generate a nice catch light in their eyes. Test your ambient without flash, looking to get a silhouette with well exposed background - adjust shutter speed down to get a more washed out background if you want. Now test your flash at f5.6 or thereabouts to keep a short DOF. Adjust your flash power until it looks great. Job done.

The last location shot was to be wild swimming and I had actually brought along my dry suit and a water housing so I could get in the water but it turned out to unnecessary...Amy could swim just off the river bank and I could shoot at ground/water level from the beach without any fuss. Simple is always better. You'll notice that Amy is swimming in the shade, with a sunlit background? I just skimmed some flash (SB800 in the food box/waterproofer) from water level to bring her exposure up a bit. 1/250th @ f5.6  @ 200 iso. 100 mm lens.

That was that, back to the house and welcome cup of tea at the end of a long but fun day. I was pretty confident I had nailed it and was happy with my take. It was while I was chatting with Amy, in the last of the afternoon sunshine, enjoying tea and flapjack on the patio, that it hit me. I had completely forgotten a key image. The whole point of this story was that Amy does all this active, adventurous wildlife watching in a radius of only 5 miles from her house and what she was saying is that brat opportunities exist for all of us to explore out local flora and fauna right on our doorsteps. And I should have shot a photo of her actually planning her route or locations on a local map, to emphasise that point. Dohhh!

Luckily, my 6th sense of having missed something kicked in and literally as the sun faded, here are the last and perhaps most important shots!

And you guessed it...no flash at all. Just ambient light with a telephoto lens, handheld, no tricks, gimmicks, bells or whistles. Simples, squeak!

Thanks to Amy for tea and flapjack. This feature appeared in the January edition of BBC Wildlife magazine and this shot (left) was a lead image. Until next time...