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How to practice lighting without models

I’m sure I’m not the only photog out there who gets the urge to setup the strobes and play with light now and then.  Maybe you saw a photo in a magazine or online that you want to try and imitate, or you read about a new technique, or you’re just bored and want to hone the skills a little.

But if you’re like me, then most of the time you’re 0 for 1 in the model department.  Your significant other is busy, your friends flee at the mention of it, your kids and pets hide when you get the camera out, so you’re left with a bunch of gear and no one to practice with.

The solution, as it turns out, is much simpler than expected.  Model for yourself.

The hot seat

The first argument I’m sure I’ll hear is, “We’re photogs, not models – we hate being in front of the camera!”  To which I respond: we’re doing lighting practice here.  Nobody said you had to share the photos with the world, or with anyone – it’s for your own benefit, not to hang on the wall.

The second argument is, “How am I supposed to be in front of the camera and behind it at the same time?”  That’s the classic problem with self-modeling; it’s a real pain in the butt to setup the scene, focus on the spot you think you’re going to be in, then jump in front of the camera, take the photo, and run back around to review it.  Pain in the butt, and a recipe for tripping over gear and breaking something.

Unless you’re smart about it.  Unless you, say, install Canon’s EOS Utility software on your laptop.  EOS Utility comes free with all EOS cameras on the included CD – and can be downloaded free from the Canon website.  Now personally, I’m not much impressed with most of Canon’s software, and I leave those CDs at the bottom of the box in a closet somewhere.  But having a moment of clear thought, I installed EOS Utility last night and gave it a try.  And I like it – a lot.

Canon EOS Utility command screen

This is what you get.  Near-total control over your camera from the comfort of your laptop computer.  You can change settings, adjust exposure, pop up the flash, focus, shoot, review, and transfer photos with ease.  Gods help me, I even turned on the LiveView on my 7D, used Face Detection focusing to make sure my charming lack of a smile was going to be sharp, and then fired off a few shots – and I did it all from the laptop.

This is how you do it:  install the software, and then connect your DSLR to the computer with the included USB cord.  If you have a USB extension cord, that’s even better, as it will give you more working distance.  Turn on the camera & launch EOS Utility on your laptop – it will connect to the camera and give you control.

If you have LiveView, it’s just easier to use it; turn it on with a button on the control panel, and a window will pop up with the feed from the camera.  You can position yourself in the scene then and either shoot via LiveView, or go back to the regular shooting mode.

After each shot, the photo will appear in the review window.  Depending on how you configured the options, a copy will be saved to the camera and/or computer.

For lighting, the trick is obviously to put the camera on a tripod, hook it to the computer, and then setup your lights.  If you’re using a hotshoe-mounted 580EX as a commander, it looks like the EOS Utility may let you control the flash settings remotely.  (It does not, however, recognize the 7D’s commander ability, so all my wireless flash adjustments had to be made from the camera itself.)

I turned my lights on in sequence, starting with a sofbox on a boom to get the base exposure, then adding an umbrella’d strobe behind the camera to boost the main light, followed by a strip light to my right, and finally a BG light.

Softbox (base exposure)

Softox + Umbrella

Softox + Umbrella + side light

Softox + Umbrella + side light + BG light

I’m not really as miserable as I look in those – I’m just concentrating.  I shot the first sequence with the flashes in manual mode, the power levels dialed in my hand; there were several other photos that I left out of the sequence above, where I was fine-tuning the power.  Unfortunately, to make those adjustments I had to go back behind the camera to access the control menus.

Here’s the result when I switched to ETTL mode, set the lighting ratios, and let the camera do the work:

The result?  I’m happy with the lighting (which is a simpler variant of this Strobist setup), although if I had additional Speedlites I could have better reproduced the setup I was working from.  Using the EOS Utility while self-modeling made the whole procedure much easier.  I did still have to get up to adjust the flash settings, but I was able to do all my positioning, focusing, and shooting from in front of the camera, with instant feedback.   Now I know that if I walk into a studio space with a model/client, I can use this setup with minimal fuss and get the shot.  That’s what it all comes down to – knowing that you can get the shot when it counts.  And all it cost me was an hour in front of my own lens.

The one issue I did encounter was with the shooting modes.  At first I used my IR remote to trigger the camera, but the EOS Utility doesn’t like that much.  You have to set that particular shooting mode on the camera itself, and while the computer will still display each photo as it’s shot, some of the control features are disabled.  You’ll also need to pre-focus the camera and switch the lens to manual.

Unfortunately the alternative is to use the shutter button on the computer control panel, which you have to mouse-click for each shot.  When you’re seated, it’s not much trouble to put the computer on your lap and fire away.  For for any kind of standing shot, it could be difficult.

Still, it’s better than doing the old dash-and-run-to-see routine!

**Canon EOS 7D + 17-40mm L + Canon Speedlites (wireless) – all photos unedited, except for resizing to web.

Brent Pennington

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