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Nebraskaland Behind the Scenes: Speedlights & Bikes

Story by Eric Fowler
Photos by Alex Wiles

View Eric Fowler’s featured July article on Platte River State Park Bike Trails HERE.
When it comes to photography, “light is everything.” That’s what Jon Farrar, who spent four decades filling the pages of Nebraskaland with spectacular photographs, once told me. That simple statement is so true. Capture an image of the most striking landscape in the world in harsh mid-day light and you will likely have a photo that is average at best and will never be worthy of a drop of ink. Capture the same image in the golden hours around sunrise or sunset you might get the cover.

Well, some assignments simply don’t lend themselves to those two hours of the day with sweet light. And in some locations, the light can simply be hideous. But you can always make your own light.
That was my approach when photographing the mountain bikers you see in the July issue of Nebraskaland riding the new trails at Platte River State Park near Louisville. The mix of lighting I would face at the obstacles and trail locations I chose ran the gamut –full shade, shade with bright sky in the background, backlit and dappled and full sun. Ugh.

Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the days when flash photography required a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or less were thrilled when that jumped up to 1/250. But that still meant small apertures to use flash outside. High-speed sync, allowing flash with any shutter speed, was the game changer. With that, you can freeze the action and use large apertures to maintain a shallow depth of field.

I’ve played with high-speed sync on my Nikon Speedlights for a few years, but not to the level I should have. Attending a Summit Workshop’s Adventure Photography course last fall with an array of outstanding instructors, including Dave Black and Michael Clark, was an in-depth lesson in the use of strobes outdoors. I recently TOOK Black’s advice and picked up four new Nikon Speedlights and a FourSquare bracket. The latter lets you mount all four strobes on one stand and use them as one light, giving you enough light to overpower sunlight.

For the mountain bike photos, my son, Mace, served as my assistant, holding the strobes out of the frame. I set my exposure manually, in most cases underexposing the background. I shot wide open at f2.8 or f4, depending on the lens, and set the ISO high enough to get a shutter speed of at least 1/800. In most photographs, the flash served as the main light source, bringing the riders out of the shadows and separating them from the background. It’s pretty cool.

The flashes were fired wirelessly via infrared control, a technology that has been available on several generations of Nikon Speedlights. That control requires line-of-sight communication, which can be problematic. In most cases I was able to fire all four speedlights, but in some setups the range or angle only allowed one or two to fire. I can’t wait until Nikon figures out its production issues and I can get the adapter that allows for radio control of the SB-5000s. Then I will be able to put the softbox on that FourSquare bracket and take the edges off the lights. That will be really cool.

About eric fowler

Nebraskaland Regional Editor Eric Fowler was born in Hastings, graduated from Ogallala High School in 1988 and completed his Bachelor’s at Chadron State College in 1993. After six years as a writer and photographer with newspapers in Chadron and Scottsbluff, he joined the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1998 as Publications Editor and has been a member of the NEBRASKAland staff since 2001. Fowler spends as much time as he can in Outdoor Nebraska. When he’s not photographing wildlife, landscapes or people enjoying the state’s outdoor resources for the magazine, he’s enjoying them himself while hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking or camping with family, including his wife and son, and friends.