Muzzle flash and pistol photography

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Before I start this article I should point that in careless hands guns are dangerous. I had access to an empty range and a fair amount of training in both photography and gun handling. The camera is on a tripod and tripped by remote. Remember the four rules.

I've had this in mind for a while but have been really busy with working on video for clients. The main hurdles to overcome are having a safe place to take these photos and the time to do it. The place is a private range that I could have gone to pretty much whenever, but time I had to make. The cobblers kids and all that. I finally I set aside a night to work on a project for me just because I wanted to do it. On a related note if you are married take time to date your mate.

My goal for the night was to shoot a set of photos that were properly exposed for both the gun and the muzzle flash. I also wanted the camera angle to be a bit ahead of the gun so that the inside of the barrel showed and a completely black background. Easy idea. I could have just shot the separate elements and combined them in photoshop, but I wanted to stretch a bit. So the only photoshop here is that I rotated the photos to be level.

Having not brought a black sheet to hang up and wanting the pistol only expose by flash I needed the ambient light to be very low. Nearly black. The range is outside so I had to wait till around 9pm to start working. I set up the pistol shooting position near an over head light with a pull chain. I could see to move around then turn off the light before shooting.
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The muzzle flash is easy. All I had to do is set the camera on a tripod, shoot a slow shutter speed, and time the two together. The camera is ahead of the line of fire so that the photos show some of the barrel but using a telephoto lens (Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS USM) to protect my investment. It was tripped by remote so no one is standing anywhere ahead of the pistol while firing.

Lighting the gun is a bit more of a challenge because it is mirrored nickel. Straight flash will leave a specular reflection (small and bright flare/hotspot) and the rest of the gun will look black. The trick to shooting a reflective surface like the nickel S&W 39 is to light what the pistol reflects. So one flash (Nikon SB-26 1/2 pwr) is on a light stand to the right of the camera (Canon 5d mk2). I use a shoot thru umbrella with this light because I need a large light source for the gun to reflect and it gives a larger margin for error. The position of this light is dependent on the position of the pistol. The camera needs to see the reflection of the light in the mirrored surface. (Angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection) The other light is to the rear of the pistol to provide detail (Nikon SB-26 1/4pwr).
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I was working alone so I had to trip the camera remotely and with the camera ahead of the line of fire it is the only safe choice. If you have an infra red remote it could work but I knew that I wanted use Pocket Wizards to sync the off camera strobes so I decided to let them do all of the work. To have the Pocket Wizards trip the camera and the lights I used relay mode.

 Relay mode is not too tough to do. One Pocket Wizard Plus 2 goes in the hotshoe of the camera with a wire called a pre-trigger cable connected from the port on top of the pocket wizard to the cable release port on the side of the camera. Then a Pocket Wizard Plus 2 is connected to the flash(s) and you have one Pocket Wizard Plus 2 in the hand that is not shooting. The one in the hand and the one on the camera are set to the same channel and the one on the flash(s) are set one channel higher. This way the signal from the Pocket Wizard Plus 2 in hand goes to the camera trips the shutter then sends the sync signal to the flash(s). First curtain sync is the default mode here and it is the one you want. The flash(s) fires at the beginning of the exposure freezing the gun. After the camera flash fires squeeze the trigger on the pistol. The muzzle blast exposes during part of the time the shutter is open. I set the camera for 1.5 to 2.5 to give me time to react to the camera flash and fire.

All of the above I had in my head before I started but there was one major issue I didn't plan ahead of time. I had to find a reliable, repeatable way of focusing on the pistol. Naturally this is is where the crippled auto focus on the canon 5d mk2 is useless. So manual focus but on what? I tried various stand ins for the pistols to focus on but when I went to shoot I could never seem to have the pistol at the same distance and in exactly the same place as the stand in. Little differences, yes, but I was using a 70-200 2.8 lens, so no depth of field at all. In the end I pulled out another tripod to use as a wrist rest. Problem solved with near perfect repeatability. This also helped framing.
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Once the method was worked out I tried other pistols and discovered that the S&W 39 produced the largest blast of any of the pistols on hand. Research after the fact leads me to believe that cheap ammo is more likely to have larger blast. Next time I get a chance (or when I finally force myself to make time) I think I will expand to long guns especially a Mosen Nagant that has been idle in the safe for too long and uses really cheap ammo