The vast majority of visits to this site are to the "technique" pages. This particular example was shot for The Guardian in late October - just in time for an edition around Halloween. The subject of the portrait works for the Cemeteries department in my home town of Bournemouth. The cemetery itself is near my home, very near to my old secondary school and is the final resting place of quite a few members of my family.


When I was commissioned to shoot a portrait of a grave digger at dusk in a cemetery I was actually quite excited. The possibilities for using interesting light were there right from the start and the chance that we might get a good dusk skyline made the job even more interesting. When I arrived at just after 4.00pm the light was going fast and there was already an open grave. My subject was there waiting and after a quick handshake we decided that we had to work quickly if we weren't both going to get very cold. I was able to get my car pretty close to where we were going to be shooting so I got my Lumedyne kit out, along with some spare Pocket Wizard receivers to trigger some Vivitar 285s and Canon Speedlights should I need them.

I had already thought about using a small clamp to get at least one small flash down inside the grave and had brought a clear plastic bag to wrap around it so that it didn't get too dirty. As I was setting up the sky was a keep and cloudy grey and the sun had disappeared over the horizon. There was no real light in the graveyard itself and so I set up my Lumedyne with a 1 metre shoot through umbrella near the grave. My first few frames were made with the flash off to my left at about 40 degrees from the axis of the lens and just under three metres from the subject. The flash was set at 200 joules which gave me an aperture of f5.6 at 200 ISO. To get the sky dark enough I was working at 1/90th of a second on a Canon EOS50D with a 16-35 f2.8L lens. You can see from frame one below that this gave a relatively flat result:


image 1.   image 2.

I knew that it wasn't what I wanted and I also knew that the client wouldn't be too delighted either so I decided to try something completely different. Instead of the open grave we moved a short distance to a wonderful old memorial in the form of an angel. This shot was lit very differently. I used one Vivitar 285 flash unit with a Lumedyne Cycler as a main light pointing at both the subject and the statue from over 50 degrees from the axis of the lens. It was almost at the same height as the subject's face and just over two metres away on 1/16th power. These old flash units have a manual zoom head and I set it at the 50mm setting. I had a Canon Speedlight further around from the axis of the lens - maybe about 110 degrees - to give more of a rim to the light. The sky at this point was rapidly changing colour and the heavy cloud cover was moving away. I now had some orange light in the sky and an exposure of 1/180th at f8 on ISO 200 for the sky. This, of course, meant that my subject was only lit by the flash. I liked this shot and thought that it would give the client a good option for their "contents" page.
image 3 plan view

With the sky changing quite quickly I moved back to the open grave, knowing that the client wanted that to be the main image. This time I asked my subject to sit by the grave and set my main Lumedyne light two metres off to the side at about 40 degrees from the axis of the lens and about 10 degrees above his eyeline. I placed a second flash unit (a Canon Spedlight) on a small clamp inside the lip of the grave itself and then two further flash units amongst the gravestones and memorials behind him just to pick up some details.

The correct reading for the sky was 1/180th at f8 and so I had to make all four flash units give the right amount of power individually to match this. The main light was on 1/16th power with no light modifier. Flash 2 was on 1/64th power and 3 and 4 were on 1/16th power as well. I had initially put flash 2 on a higher setting but it just looked odd with too much light coming from inside the grave. The more lights that you use, the more time takes to set up and then adjust them all in relation to each other. Four, on the whole, is too many for me when I am working alone. I would prefer to have one or two lights and then make use of the ambient for the rest of the shot but I like the fact that I can break my own guidelines from time to time.

The LCD screens on the back of the latest batch of digital SLRs are amazing. They offer easily enough detail to judge exposure, lighting balance and even a good degree of white balance too. I am currently using a combination of a Canon EOS5D MkII and an EOS 50D. They have the same screen and I find that they help me out a great deal. The ability to judge colour is especially important when you are using more than one brand of flash equipment. The difference between the Canon, Vivitar and Lumedyne units used here is big. Add a light modifier such as a slightly faded (and therefore warm) shoot through umbrella and you have more still to deal with.

I hope that you agree that the whole shot works rather well. Using quite so many light sources is a huge departure for me and not something I do very often - especially in a cemetery after dark!

©Neil Turner January 2009

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