So far most of my images have been of the statues and carvings themselves, and the people there to watch them. But I realised that I also needed a couple of shots of the people making the statues.
Good thing for me the festival organisers agreed with me and kindly supplied me with a very cold looking model to carve away. (Actually I just happened to stumble across this guy working away but don't tell anyone!)
I had seen a few photos taken of the ice carvers in Susukino before but mostly they involved really harsh, direct flash with gaping black backgrounds. Call me fussy but I just hate black backgrounds. No sense of place.
The reason why you get a black background with flash is your shutter speed. If you have your camera in one of its automatic modes the shutter speed defaults to roughly 1/60th second. This is a good speed for handholding but a shocking speed if you want to see what's in the background. The shutter isn't open long enough for the natural light in the background to burn itself on to the retina that is your digital sensor (or film).
So you need to put your camera in a mode that will let you have a slow shutter speed while using the flash. It will differ from brand to brand, and many cameras even have a Night Portrait setting now. That's the one you want to use. You will suddenly find that instead of 1/60th second or something like that you might end up with 1/15th second or slower depending on how bright it is and your ISO.
In this particular case I was set at ISO 400 and didn't want to go too much higher if I could help it. If I had had a really dark background I would have needed a very slow shutter speed to get my background looking nice so I walked around until I found a nice bright background. Doing that gave me a shutter speed of 1/25th second.
The flash has rendered the subject nice and sharp while remaining fairly subtle. A couple of reasons for that. One I had minus 2 exposure compensation dialed in just to light it a little bit. Two I had my famous orange gel over the flash so that the light was a similar colour to the surrounding ambient light - thus blending the two. If you don't do this what you get is a white carving and carver with a bright orange looking background. The orange gel lets you have your foreground carver (lit by the flash) the same colour as the background (natural ambient light).
If I had left the white balance as I had it set in camera (Daylight) and was shooting Jpeg everything would have turned out funky orange but because I shoot RAW I just cooled the temperature down in the computer so that everything - both foreground and background - looked white and clean.
At 1/25th second with a 28-70mm zoom I was right on the edge of what I can hand hold. I was leaning on a fence and standing very still, looking through the viewfinder and waiting until I sensed that the man's head and body weren't moving so much but his hands were in a flurry of flying ice. The flash is a bit of an insurance policy against motion blur as it tends to freeze movement very nicely because of its short duration. Another insurance policy is to shoot multiple frames in a row with your motor drive set to High. By shooting multiple frames you can usually guarantee that at least one of them will be reasonably sharp! Hopefully. :)