Ask an Expert: Lighting Demystified With Neil van Niekerk

Thanks for tuning in for another week of Ask An Expert. Today, we share advice directly from our photography expert Neil van Niekerk, in response to popular questions asked by our community members within our Facebook Photography Club. If you have a question you’d like to see answered be sure to submit it here– whether you’re interested in knitting, quilting, cake decorating, cooking, art or more– and tune in every week to see if it’s been answered.

Now, onto this week’s new questions and answers from Bluprint instructor of Off-Camera Flash Photography, Neil van Niekerk!

Neil van Niekerk Taking a Photo, on Bluprint

What I can’t quite comprehend is this: You shoot with the camera in manual mode. How do you manage to change the settings quickly enough in such a fast-going event as a wedding?

Neil van Niekerk: With the reception for example, my ambient is under-exposed to some extent. It varies BUT this doesn’t immediately concern me, because the TTL flash will give me correct exposure. You have to think in terms of two exposures … flash and ambient. So while the ambient light might vary (and would’ve required real dexterity with the camera controls), the TTL flash evens things out to give me correct exposure! With the ceremony things are more static. But the light also doesn’t vary that quickly. I will make a mental note that in certain spots, I would have to vary my aperture ie. f/4 when they step up on the altar, f/2.8 lower down at the aisle, and so on.

I’m a Canon shooter and use the tt5/tt1 combo with 580exII flashes. I find them to be somewhat unreliable even with all of the fixes for “radio noise”. Any suggestions or other ETTL triggers you might suggest?

Neil van Niekerk: You’re not going to like my reply. Or perhaps you are! My suggestion … sell the flashes and triggers, and go with the Canon 600EX-RT flashes. Then there are fewer connections and batteries and switches. It’s all self-contained in a great flash. I think if you do some homework on this, calculating how much you’d get for your gear and how much the replacement 600EX-RT units would cost you, it might not be that prohibitive.

What do you think about the Canon 70-200 2.8, the old one from the 90s? Is there a big difference with the newer ones? Thanks and love your work!

Neil van Niekerk: I liked the older 70-200mm f/2.8 but didn’t think it was all that sharp wide open. I felt I had to stop down to f/4 to get crisper images. I have no hesitation to use the ver II lens wide open though. It is noticeably sharper where I need it most: wide open. A definite upgrade for me.

I am shooting a gig in a pub at the weekend. I won’t be able to use flash. I figure my fastest 1.8 50mm prime. Any tips?

Neil van Niekerk: You have no other option but to ride your ISO as high has you can, and use a slow shutter speed.

Can I get a good photo of the milky way with a standard 18-55 canon lense? I’ve tried the other night and the milky way shows, but it’s just impossible for it to focus, and I’m not sure if I’ve found the infinite focus

Neil van Niekerk: Some zooms can focus past infinity, so you can’t always just rack your focus to the extreme end. Focus on the distant horizon, that should be close to infinity, and a stop or two down from wide open, will give you sufficient depth-of-field with a wide-angle lens.

Currently I own only one speedlight. What is the largest softbox size you would recommend that I can use with one speedlight?

Neil van Niekerk: This would mostly have to do with your mobility. So most practical would be a 24×24 softbox. If you need to scatter the light wider, then an umbrella is the simplest option.

I would love to buy a Nikon D7100, do you think it is good choice? Also, I have trouble in taking photo’s of darker skins, they seem to be more shiny. How can I reduce the “shiny-ness”?

Neil van Niekerk; The Nikon D7100 is an excellent choice. Their best crop-sensor DSLR. I often use a Photoshop plugin called “Shine Off”. It’s the best $50 you will spend in a Photoshop tool. It really reduces the shiny-ness with little effort on your part.

Do you really find it beneficial to use two more more speedlights on the bar thing? I use just one with an umbrella and it seems to work just fine. I’m afraid having more than that would make it look too flashy.

Neil van Niekerk: On the bar, I think you mean the flash mount bar where I had the four flashes mounted for the Bluprint class? I rarely use more than two speedlights. If more than that are necessary, it is easier to use something like the larger Profoto kits. I have that bar (with 4 flashes), because in a workshop, I have a mixture of Canon and Nikon shooters with a variety of triggers. I even get Sony shooters. And I need to be able to accommodate them all. So I will set up multiple speedlights to be triggered by the various people in a workshop. So with that, it shouldn’t often be necessary to have that many speedlights ganged up.

What is your favorite subject to shoot?

Neil van Niekerk: I like photographing people, most of all. More so than landscapes, for example. Interacting with people makes the photography process more dynamic than compared with photographing something else.

How many cameras do you have on you during a wedding? If two, what straps do you use to switch between them quickly, safely and comfortably? Or do you have just one camera and you change lenses?

Neil van Niekerk: I work with two bodies, each slung over a shoulder. (Or one in my hands.)

D4 + 24-7pmm f/2.8
D4 + 70-200mm f/2.8

I do bring other lenses in my bag, but these two lenses do 99% of the work. I use the camera straps that came with the bodies. I try not to change lenses. Partly because of dust problems.

What is the best setting to get sharp reception pictures? Love ambient lighting but makes things blurred sometimes.

Neil van Niekerk: The main reason why photographers get soft images … their shutter speeds are too slow! Somehow, the idea that 1/60th is handholdable has become widely accepted. In my opinion, it is too slow to be hand-held for most photography. So my first advice is to look at your shutter speeds. My take on this: I can fix high-ISO noise to a large extent. But I can’t fix camera shake in post-processing.

Three lenses on a canon full frame body wide mid and long fixed or zoom…. Desert island scenario.

Neil van Niekerk: Tough call, I don’t rate the Canon wide-angle zooms highly at all.

But the mid-range and tele, the two choices are obvious:
24-70mm f/2.8 II
70-200mm f/2.8 II IS

When shooting outside using on camera speedlite and on a very cloudy day what can help me decide where to bounce the flash from? And also if I have to use direct flash what can help me decide ho ettl or manual?

Neil van Niekerk: Outside? Then off-camera flash is the best decision.

In terms of TTL vs manual … if your subject is static in relation to the light, then Manual flash is best. If your subject is moving, or you and your on-camera flash are moving, then TTL is the easiest.

What program do you use for your basic editing (contrast, exposure, saturation, etc.)?

Neil van Niekerk: Bridge. (same engine as Lightroom)

What are you primary go-to lens for weddings?

Neil van Niekerk: 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 (stablized). Those are my two workhorse lenses.

If you’re not shooting a bride or someone wearing a white piece of clothing, how do you determine your correct exposure? Do you still use histogram in some way? Also, do you have a specific way of calibrating your computer monitor?

Neil van Niekerk: I mostly rely on experience then, along with what my image looks like on the back of my camera. Yes, I use a Spyder 3 to calibrate my monitors.

I am going to Prague and Munich for a two week vacation, just a vacation. I like to take good pictures, but I can’t decide if I want to take my canon G15 or 6D, which one would you take? And which one would be better for rainy weather?

Neil van Niekerk: I’d go with the lighter, smaller option. BUT … it depends on the final use of the images.

What are your thoughts on the new Canon 70D? I shoot mainly family activities and portraits occasionally and shoot video for my job. Do you think this would be a good fit? Any better suggestions?

Neil van Niekerk: The 70D has superb spec but I would still aim for a full-frame body if it is within budget.

I am shooting a social event in a restaurant from 2 to 5pm. There are some windows to let in some natural light but not that much. I usually bounce off the ceiling behind me but the ceilings are black. Would you just shoot straight on from the camera with a modifier of some sort? I have a Lumiquest Pocket Bouncer and a bracket for portrait orientation.

Neil van Niekerk: Something like the Lumiquest that you’re using, would be the easiest and most practical solution. Not ideal, but we’re often in these non-ideal scenarios.

In situations where you cannot bounce your flash are you currently using the SpinLight 360 or do you have another preferred modifier?

Neil van Niekerk: When I can’t bounce my flash, and off-camera flash ins’t an option either, then I use the SpinLight 360 it gives me a large white card to bounce my flash off.

I bought the Fuji X100 as my “always with me” camera. I really felt the “prime effect” with that camera. You really do value the right composition. Shall I buy a prime to my 5d MkII to get the same effect? 35mm? 50mm?

Neil van Niekerk: An 85mm f/1.8 would give you a more distinct prime look, with the slight telephoto effect.

For more help from commercial photographer Neil van Niekerk, be sure to sign up for Off-Camera Flash Photography, and gain exclusive access to his insights and answers to all your questions!

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