"Ever since the beginning, flash has been a nightmare for me. It's the most difficult tool in photography, and I didn't like studying the lighting ratios," says Canon Ambassador Alessandra Meniconzi. A surprising statement, perhaps, from the winner of the People category in the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest 2018, among other prestigious awards, who is known for her beautifully lit portraits. But having an aversion to the technical aspects of artificial lighting has worked to Alessandra's advantage – it means she has had to figure out a method that takes the emphasis away from numbers and ratios, and makes it all about the final picture. The result is lighting that feels natural even if it isn't, in a style inspired by classic Flemish and Dutch Master painters.
"Before I started using Speedlites, all I used was a collapsable reflector disc and I took my pictures by understanding the natural light. But if I was in a dark place and had to use slow shutter speeds, it was very hard to avoid blur. Now, I try to achieve the same effect as when I was shooting only with natural light, but using the flash," she says.
Here, Alessandra shares her five golden rules for getting natural portraits with Speedlites.
Alessandra mainly photographs indigenous people in various regions of the world, from Greenland to Mongolia, but her methods work just as well in other contexts, such as the Alpine Beard Festival in Chur in Switzerland, where she photographed a series of men showing off their long beards and traditional folk costumes. No matter where in the world she is, she finds that involving the people she wants to photograph will make it easier to get the subjects to relax and forget about the professional photography equipment she has brought along with her.
"If I work with children, I turn the session into a photography school, and they get to look inside the viewfinder. That way, they're more relaxed because they know what's going on. If it's a family, I try to make everyone work as a team. When I photographed the men at the beard festival, I only had a minute or two with each. I tried to make it a fun and relaxing experience by not telling them what to do, and with some of them I asked them to hold the softbox, to make them feel that they were helping."
At the beard festival, Alessandra stood a couple of metres from the subjects, with a Speedlite 600EX-RT at a 45 degree angle, using a 70-200mm lens. She had tested the lighting on a friend before commencing the shoot. "I only had one flash, and I was shooting in a narrow, dark storage room. I knew that some of the subjects might be shy and might get uncomfortable if they had to pose for an hour, so I used a friend as a model, set everything up and placed the subjects in the same spot so I could get the shots really quickly."
Alessandra always strives to portray local culture in an authentic way, and her stories are often about cultural heritage and customs that are disappearing. "Ever since I was young, I was interested in people who carry their culture in their heart, who believe in it and don't want to lose it. For me that's very important now, in the age of globalisation, and I want to record it before it's gone," she says.
When Alessandra arrives in a new place, she prefers to spend a week meeting the people before she starts photographing them. "The first thing I do is hire a guide, and it's really important to get a good guide to take you around. The first time I went to Mongolia, my guide and I went from house to house, explaining what we were trying to do. I took the time to look at people's faces, but also to gauge who believed in my project. Some families only wanted to pose for the money, but I wanted to photograph people who were proud of their culture. They're much easier to work with, because they want to show you everything. That matters when you're trying to tell a story, as opposed to just taking pretty pictures," she says.
Alessandra uses either one or two 600EX-RT Speedlites for her portraits, depending on the situation and the result she wants to achieve. If she wants to portray someone in their house, she looks at where the window light comes from, and enhances that by placing her Speedlite outside, pointing through the window. She uses an ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter, mounted on the camera, to communicate with the Speedlite. That way, she can adjust the power without having to step outside during the shoot.
"I try to create the same light that you see from the window, but the flash freezes the frame, so [even] if the subject moves a little bit, you don't get a blurry image that you have to throw out. That's especially important in very dark houses where you use slower shutter speeds, so that even the tiniest movement can create blur," she explains.
In some cases, if more light is required, she places two Speedlites outside the window, pointing in. "But then I don't use the flash on full power – that would create a very white look. I'm only interested in avoiding blur, so I make the flash look like natural light."
Alessandra uses the shutter to control the ambient exposure, and the aperture to control the flash exposure. In ETTL mode, the power of the Speedlite is automatically adjusted according to the aperture, so if Alessandra changes her aperture, the Speedlite's power will change, too.
When shooting a portrait outside, she underexposes the landscape in the background to make sure that the flash doesn't make the image too bright. "That way I can use the Speedlite on low power and just add a little bit of light to the face," she explains.
In some dark locations, such as the little storage room at the beard festival in Chur, the darkness combined with a powerful flash is enough to create a dark background. This is thanks to the inverse square law; as long as the light source is close enough to the subject, all the light will hit the face, and none will reach the background. But Alessandra also makes sure she takes a dark background with her, especially when photographing people in their homes or at other locations where she can't control the environment.
"If the house is very dark, I'll just set the power of my flash to 250 and the background will look dark. But in other places, for example yurts in Mongolia, they have a lot of red and yellow textiles. I also find that nowadays, people have a lot of plastic in their homes, which reflects if you use flash. In those cases I need a black background," she says. "In future, I'd like to experiment with illuminating the background a little, and maybe using coloured backgrounds. For that, I'll probably need another Speedlite."