A Greek island wedding shoot

Several months ago I learned I was going to be shooting a wedding celebration on the Greek island of Serifos in mid-September. A quick study of the island showed me wonderful beaches and the ubiquitous white/blue buildings. Weather was going to be sunny and warm, perhaps even hot. In contrast to a Caribbean setting, things were likely to be dry and brown rather than humid and green.

I began to consider not only what the island’s environment would mean for photos, but also what equipment I would need.

Environmental wedding portraits are fraught with all manner of potential problems, not the least of which is the balance between exposing for the couple and exposing for the sky, with the usual outcome giving bias to the couple and blowing the highlights (sky). I had no intention of wasting beautiful Mediterranean blue skies, especially if they included clouds.

Expose for the sky and balance the lighting on your subjects with flash

Expose for the sky and balance the lighting on your subjects with flash. This image is unretouched.

The answer is to shoot in manual mode, expose for the sky (meter the sky and in manual mode set the camera’s aperture and shutter to give you the look you want for the sky) and then balance with flash. Things get tricky if you’re dealing with bright daylight. Yes, you can lower the ISO setting, but in all likelihood you’re going to run up against a flash sync ceiling; you’re going to need a shutter speed way above flash sync, and if you try to use flash and a too-high shutter speed, only part of the image will be exposed to the flash.

Stopping the lens down to its smallest aperture to balance with a lower shutter speed is counterproductive, because you want the background to be out of focus (bokeh), and that requires shooting the lens nearly wide open.

If you’re using a DSLR, it sounds like an impossible situation, doesn’t it? And that’s what I was faced with, as I would be using a Nikon D610.

Buried within the D610’s menu is the solution, if a certain type of flash is used.

Nikon's SB-910 Speedlight and 20 mm f/1.8G ED lens, a potent combo

Nikon’s SB-910 Speedlight and 20 mm f/1.8G ED lens, a potent combo

Enter the Nikon Speedlight SB-910. When used with the camera’s Auto FP High-Speed Flash Sync Mode, and Commander mode for the built-in flash, you have a potent solution to using high shutter speeds with flash.

I won’t go into the full details of these settings; there are several websites with the info, in detail, as well as in the D610’s manual (and those of other Nikon models such as the D810, D750, for example). Basically, with the shutter speed set for the high-speed sync mode, the camera’s built-in flash is set for Commander mode, and the SB-910’s on/off switch is set to “Remote.” The camera then uses the built-in flash to remotely trigger the SB-910.

You want the flash off camera. There’s a sensor on the SB-910’s right side you want pointing in the general direction of the camera. Whether you hold the flash in your left hand, or have someone else hold it, or use any one of the off-camera flash holders on the market, or mount it on a stand/tripod, the SB-910 will deliver a whole lot of light punch.

Maybe you don’t like the look of direct flash light. Easily fixed using any number of light softeners, including the one that comes with the SB-910 and clips on the head for either direct or bounce light.

Critical sensor is seen just below my thumb

Critical sensor is seen just below my thumb

One word of caution, bright sunlight can blind the flash’s sensor to the built-in flash’s trigger. I’ve seen people build little hoods over the sensor with duct tape; holding the flash so your left hand’s thumb is just above the sensor looks as if it might do the trick as well. Oh, you’re not limited to having the flash only to the left of the camera; just swivel the head around 180 degrees.

(Using the built-in flash is so foreign to me I will admit to fluffing shots by forgetting to push its on button.)

The light softener which comes as part of the SB-910’s kit does a good job, although it does cut down on the flash’s output and therefore the distance the flash can be from the subject. A few test shots will help you, as will distance charts in the booklet which comes with the flash.

To help, the flash will warble – okay, beep three times – if things don’t go well, giving you an audio alert if you’re not paying attention to the camera’s LCD, and a chance to do the shot again.

The SB-910 has myriad capabilities, and an internal menu system which puts some cameras to shame, so it’s not a one-trick pony, even if I’m just talking about the one capability here.

Nikon's 20 mm f/1.8G ED lens

Nikon’s 20 mm f/1.8G ED lens

And that brings me right back to the Greek island wedding and some specific shots I was going to take, one of them a group shot of the entire wedding party – 21 people in total. For that, I was going to need a wide angle lens. Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 20 mm f/1.8G ED, to use its full name.

If you read a recent post you’ll remember I said fixed focal length lenses seem to be having a renaissance. One reason for that is lens speed, and the 20 mm’s f/1.8 aperture gives you that in spades. That aperture also gives you far greater control over depth of focus and background diffusion.

Lining people up in a row is to be avoided. I won’t go into a long lesson in composition, but the précis is this: lining them up makes for a static picture, like nails in a board, and you want to have motion in the picture. So for the group photo of the entire wedding party I scouted out a spot which would let me place people at different elevations, with space between them, allowing me to pose each person or couple.

The 20 mm lens became a critical component of getting the shot as the desired location was off the beaten path, literally, on rocks beside a pathway which was hewn into the side of a rocky cliff leading to the church on one side of a cove surrounding a beautiful beach. There was no way to move the camera back; there was a rock face behind me.

Shot using the 20 mm lens. The D610 was set to save both raw and jpg files; this is one of the unretouched jpgs.

Shot using the 20 mm lens. The D610 was set to save both raw and jpg files; this is one of the unretouched jpgs.

The shot shown here is one of several taken; we’re going to use Photoshop to combine them into one good shot. When you’re working with a group, it’s rare to get one perfect shot, as there’s always someone looking the wrong way, or a gust of wind blowing hair across a face, or eyes closed . . . Take lots of pictures to increase your chances.

Serifos' Chora below, with Med in background, taken with the 20 mm lens

From Serifos’ Chora, with Livadi below and Med in background, taken with the 20 mm lens

Now since I was on the beautiful Greek island of Serifos, I also put the 20 mm lens to good use for landscapes, for example on an excursion to the top of the Chora, or old town, more than 500 m above Livadi, the port town, with an incredible wide angle shot of the Mediterranean in the distance. I opted to use an aperture which would give me a fairly high shutter speed, as there was a gusty wind blowing and I didn’t want any trace of camera motion in the picture.

One thing you’ll notice in both the group shot and the landscape shot is the minimal distortion, thanks to the aspherical lens elements. (If you’re using Lightroom, you can correct any distortion.) Nikon also notes, “aspherical (AS) lens elements and Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass elements with Nano Crystal Coat (N) combat sagittal flare and chromatic aberration for superb, sharp rendering across the entire frame.”

Comparing sizes: Nikon's 50 mm f/1.4D, 20 mm f/1.8G ED, and 24-85 mm f/3.5-4.5G. The 20 mm lens weighs in at 355 g, while the zoom weighs 465 g.

Comparing sizes: Nikon’s 50 mm f/1.4D, 20 mm f/1.8G ED, and 24-85 mm f/3.5-4.5G. The 20 mm lens weighs in at 355 g, while the zoom weighs 465 g.

The SB-910 has a suggested price of about $650; the AF-S Nikkor 20 mm f/1.8G ED has a suggested price of about $930.

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