Open (flash) sesame

In The technique of “open flash,” the camera is set up on a tripod, and a lengthy shutter speed is picked. Then a flash, unconnected to the camera, is fired off manually. It’s usually used for night shots or nearly lightless rooms. The advantage is that you can use one flash as if it were several.

I was asked to shoot the statue the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Stockton in advance of MLK Day. I had gone out and shot it during the day. Photos of inanimate objects can be difficult to photograph creatively (especially ones you can’t move around to catch the light at its best) and the statue, well, it looked just like a statue. I thought about going back to get a night shot, but I had a busy evening and only had a half an hour between assignments. Fortunately, that half hour was during the “blue hour” of dusk, about 5:30 or so at this time of year.

As I got to the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza where the statue is located, the sky had turned a deep blue. I set up my camera on a tripod and took a couple of shots.  The light from a nearby street light was blocked by some trees, and the east-facing statue was still a bit backlit from the last remnants of a dying sunset and the glow of other streetlights. I needed to add some light to bring out the detail in the front of the statue, so I broke out my flash. Not expecting to have a need for a flash I had brought only one.

Using a 5-second exposure, I pressed the shutter button and ran over to the right of the statue and fired off the flash, which was set at about 1/8th power. I checked the shot on the camera’s monitor and saw that I needed a bit more light, so I increased the flash to 1/4-power. Moreover I could see that the light coming only from the right side created dark shadows on the left. I doubled the exposure to 10 seconds and shot again. Again I fired off the flash from the right, but then I ran around behind the camera and popped it off from the left. I checked the camera again, and the picture looked much better. Detail could be seen in the statue, the “blue hour” sky was a deep azure. Wispy clouds picked up traces of pink from the sunset that was nearly gone. A light from a streetlamp the right side and to the rear of the statue just out of the frame created an orangy glow. I repeated the shot several more times, firing the flash from slightly different positions. I must have been a sight running back and forth, but I didn’t care. I was too busy concentrating on what I was doing.

In the end, the night shot was more colorful and dramatic than anything I could have produced during the day.

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