This weekend I did a photo assignment for SummerSearch, a non-profit agency that provides guidance and support to low-income teens. I did it for free. This was partly because I support their mission and partly because it would give me a chance to exercise my professional photography muscles. By that I mean the ability to anticipate and overcome challenges that might otherwise result in images that cast doubt on my skills as photographer.
The challenge for the teenagers was having to complete an Outward Bound activity that involved strapping on harnesses, climbing twenty feet into the air, and then either jumping off the top of a telephone pole or walking across a 60 foot long steel cable to the other end.
The challenge for me was that their activity took place in a heavily forested park on an overcast day. Light levels were low. It didn’t help that I was using two zooms that both had a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at the long end. I would need to be at the long end a lot because the kids would be at least twenty feet away after their climb.
Another complication was that most of the kids were dark-skinned African-Americans who were heavily backlit by the sky above. Increasing the exposure enough to prevent them from being silhouettes would require increasing the ISO (thus increasing image noise), the shutter speed (thus increasing the changes of image blur) or both. The extreme backlighting would also increase lens flare and veiling glare.
Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring along a Pentax AF-540FGZ flash unit to use for flash fill. (The pop-up flash of the Pentax K-5 I brought couldn’t provide enough light at the distances and apertures I was using.) I simply set the flash exposure compensation to – 1.5 stop, which would be enough to lighten shadows and separate foreground subjects from the background without overpowering the daylight. The auto-exposure and white balance systems did the rest.
I was also lucky that most of the kids were on the ground manning the ropes and waiting their turns to climb upward. Although the light intensity was low it was also low in contrast. That meant I could shoot from practically any angle without having to change exposure. The vibration reduction feature of the Pentax K-5 I was using took care of the camera shake and the kids weren’t moving fast enough for subject motion to be a problem.
Despite all the challenges (did I mention it started raining while I was shooting?) the photos turned out remarkably well. The kids had a great time and so did I. If I had to do everything over again and if I could afford the cost and weight I would have brought zooms or primes no slower than f/2.8. The two stop advantage over f/5.6 might not sound like much in theory but in practice it can make a big difference in your ability to shoot comfortably in low light.
I’d definitely still bring the flash though. When you’re in situations where there’s just not enough light or it’s coming from the wrong direction, it’s damned convenient to have a battery-powered solution ready and waiting in your camera bag.