Upon reporting from Cuba in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ira Block was smitten. The longtime National Geographic photographer began to formulate a plan for a large-scale project that would afford him the opportunity to dive deep into the culture of the island nation he had come to love before it was inevitably changed forever. While attending a baseball game in 2009, Block realized his personal love of baseball was shared across the island nation and that, by combining his fondness for Cuba and baseball, he had the perfect subject for his next book. Cuba Loves Baseball will be released on opening day this spring.
One of the hallmarks of a National Geographic photographer, Block included, is a breadth of knowledge of photographic technique—and the ability to choose whatever is right for a given project. For Cuba Loves Baseball, Block wanted to make the most of the island’s vibrant color palette, and for that he would augment the bright Cuban sun with flash. Here’s how, and why, he did it.
First, The Access
“I knew I wanted to do something expansive,” Block says, “and I had a very good connection in Cuba that was very high up in the government, connected to very high people. A great entrée, she was able to get me to the ministry of sport, and she opened those doors. It helped that this is not a political story. And that’s what I made clear to the government officials at the sports ministry: This is about baseball. Baseball is not very political—well, except for the defectors. So I had an entrée, I used it, I explained what I wanted to do, and I got a very receptive response.”
From there, Block’s next step was to hire help on the ground. A fixer serves as part translator, part photo assistant and the person who generally helps to ingratiate the photographer with potential subjects. Block looks to hire this sort of help no matter where he’s shooting, and he hopes to hire a photographer to do it.
“They have to understand what you want to get, what you need,” Block says, “and they also have to understand photography. I hired a great local assistant through another photographer there. You need someone that understands light, you need someone that understands graphics and what makes a good picture. I need someone that’s a version of me. You need someone that can talk to people, ask the right questions, can fill in the road map. You need someone that people will like, people are willing to help out.”
“And then came the style of photography,” Block says. “The Caribbean is known for colors and graphics so, you know, I figured make use of the color. People think of the colors of Cuba being the sort of Caribbean hot colors and stuff. So when I realized that I wanted color to be a part of this style, I realized that some things would be innately colorful, but other things wouldn’t be as colorful. So how to make those things colorful? That’s where the strobe came in.”
With a strobe, Block could provide anything from a subtle fill light or a low-level key to illumination bright enough to overpower the Caribbean sun and everything in between. The key, he says, is in using at least some flash. It adds something special to the images by controlling contrast and, most importantly, making the colors pop.
“There’s got to be some color,” Block says of a given scenario, “and then I just enhanced it using a flash. I tried to use flash whenever it was feasible to do so, because I just wanted to have that bright, sparkly look. Flash is a contrastier light. Like sunlight, it makes color jump out. But sometimes it’s too harsh, so with sunlight you’ve got to wait for the shadows, and you want it more directional, but this time it was using a flash and doing that. You’re directing, you’re controlling the direction of the light, and you’re controlling the contrast in the picture by the light, whether you’re using a diffuser on it or a harder light.”
Which lighting effect Block selected depending entirely on the context of a given image.
“With the portraits of the players,” he says, “because the background had that nice color, I didn’t want to darken the background too much and make the players too bright. There was just a twinkle of light, so to speak, that would put a catchlight in their eyes and would also give a little highlight especially on the darker skin. It was a little bit more than a fill. A subtle key? Yeah, I think that would be one way to explain it.”
For the portraits of veteran players against a beautifully aged stadium wall, Block used his preferred lighting tools on this trip—a battery-powered Profoto strobe modified with a three-foot Octabox. The Octabox is a lot like an umbrella, but it provides a little more directionality and power, sending all of its light out the front diffusion panel—a panel Block would sometimes remove to give the light a bit more contrast and sharpness.
Keeping the light close to the portrait subjects helped keep the light soft, while moving it back makes the light more even but sacrifices softness. Block chose a position in the shade because it offered him control. It’s a technique he suggests as the ideal place to begin working with strobes outdoors.
“The portraits look a little more natural,” Block says, “because the background was so good, and I wanted a certain continuity to them, so I just used the strobe there to get things to pop, and strobe also cleans up color temperature. If you’re in the shade, you’ve got a color temperature issue and there’s no direction to the light, whereas if you pop in a strobe, you get a little cleanup on your color temperature and you get a little sparkle to things.
“Those player portraits were all shot in the same place,” he says, “with the same background. I wanted them in shade, and I wanted the background in shade, and then I could just pop in that bit of light, because then I could control the light. As the day went on, the sun would be moving and changing what the background would look like or what my little area would look like. Shooting in shade is a good way of starting to learn. You learn the strobe, you learn how much you can put in and see it, and then, when you get in sunlight, you can decide how much you’re going to put in to fill, how much you’re going to put in to create a dark background, and so on.”
Block used the same lighting equipment—the Profoto and Octabank—to entirely different effect when photographing a women’s baseball team next to a black scoreboard. The sunlight provided the primary ambient exposure, and the strobe simply added enough fill to tame the contrast and add a bit of sparkle. It’s sort of the magic of strobe in sunlight, evidenced, he says, by the shot he made when the team left. Block shot again and reveled in how the strobe added just the right amount of sparkle.
“When the women left,” Block says, “I noticed there was a kid sitting on the wall next to the scoreboard watching us. I still had the light set up, so I did a shot, and it sort of opened him up, and it also made this black scoreboard with white writing, it made it pop. It was normal midday bad light. And even in the black on this scoreboard, it gave it a sheen, a little bit of a glow.”
Block prefers to control his exposure with manual camera settings, but if the strobe is smart enough, he’ll use its capabilities such as high-speed sync or TTL control to achieve the desired effect.
“While I usually work in manual,” he says, “a few times I worked high-speed sync when needed. Other times the camera was in manual, I’d get the ambient exposure, and then I would bring the flash in. Sometimes the flash would be TTL but the camera is on manual. Other times the flash would be manual. That’s the beauty of digital; when I used to shoot film, I’d be doing Polaroids and you’d have to stop everything, you couldn’t be as spontaneous. But with digital, you get some idea from the preview of the shot and can take it from there.”
Sometimes Block would rely on his assistant to become a “smart” light stand. This is another example of how helpful it is to have a fixer who understands what the photographer is trying to accomplish—even when it comes to lighting.
“There were times where I was moving, and my assistant would carry the light on a stand and just handhold it,” Block says. “I’d say, ‘Move off to the left a little bit,’ or ‘Get around them more,’ or ‘get it higher up.’ And there were just a couple times where I was in, like, a crowded stadium, and there I just used the little flash. It wasn’t really on camera, I think the assistant was holding it. There’s usually not enough power, but a couple of times I did use that. It’s just part of the experience with your equipment and knowing it better the more you use it. And having your assistant being pretty good and knowing, say, if you’re off to the side and you’ve got a line of people, you’ve got to feather the light out so that you’re not blowing out people in the foreground.”
When mixing strobe with sunlight, Block says there’s no secret formula for the ideal balance. Sometimes you may want to darken the background to give it less prominence, which is done by underexposing the ambient while normally exposing the strobe. It’s a technique Block did on occasion in Cuba and can be aided in bright sunlight by a flash with high-speed sync. Other times, though, the flash may just be providing a hint of what Block regularly calls “sparkle,” even when sunlight is doing the heavy lifting. There’s no way to plan for what’s going work best, according to Block.
“You know it when you see it,” he says. “It’s just sort of deciding on the balance. If you want it super-dramatic, maybe you go two stops under. Sometimes maybe you just want a stop or a stop and a half under, so the background is there but the foreground is really nice and poppy. It depends on how busy the background, how complex or simple it is also, that’s another thing that you have to look at.”
Seeing it on an LCD on a bright and sunny Cuban afternoon isn’t always so easy; for that, Block relied on histograms as well as technical advantages of the Sony a7, a7 II and a7R II bodies, with which he shot the bulk of the project.
“Sometimes if you’re out in the bright sunlight, your LCD is going to look different than if you’re indoors,” he says. “And that’s what’s so nice about using the Sony mirrorless is that instead of looking at the LCD; I could actually look at the image in the viewfinder and not be as concerned about how much of the bright sunlight or the darkness is affecting what I’m seeing on the LCD. That was part of the reason for my switch to Sony. I wanted to be able to look in the viewfinder to see what the picture looked like as opposed to on the back.” DP
William Sawalich is a photographer, writer and contributing editor for Digital Photo, Digital Photo Pro and Outdoor Photographer. He teaches photography at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Visit sawalich.com. You can see more of Ira Block’s photography at irablock.com and follow him on Instagram @irablockphoto