It is a truth universally acknowledged that a photography blog can never have too many lightsaber pictures or discussions about lighting, right?
When using a combination of a slow shutter speed to create light trails and flash to freeze and capture action, you need to decide if you are going to use first or second curtain sync.
The shutter in a DSLR consists of two curtains that work like sliding doors to expose the sensor to light and create the picture. The default flash setting is first curtain sync, to fire just when the curtain opens, at the beginning of the exposure. Second curtain sync means that the flash will synchronize with the second curtain closing, firing just before the exposure is ended. It is traditional, with a long exposure combined with a flash, to use second curtain sync so you can get a trail of movement behind a moving subject, the way you see it in cartoons.
The downside of this is that with a long exposure, such as one second, it is difficult to know when the peak action will occur precisely that amount in advance. With certain types of movement, like dancing and lightsaber dueling, much of the action is back and forth anyway, and one could argue that the direction of the movement and light trails is less important than catching the right expression or the peak action.
In this case, we had only one warrior who was capable of showing expression, since the Darth Vader mask is pretty stoic. Fortunately, the Jedi typically had enough expression to go around.
In situations with little ambient light, focusing is often a challenge. There are are certain factors I stacked in my favor. One was obviously to use glowing lightsabers, which provided excellent contrast. However, the lightsabers were constantly moving, and it was sometimes difficult to get the autofocus point positioned over them.
It is often helpful to lock focus if the lens is already pre-focused to the approximate distance. Before the warriors entered the arena, I used the floor lights to focus, knowing I would need to adjust a little once the battle engaged.
I also used a wide-aperture lens, capable of opening to f/2.8. The camera focuses with the aperture wide open, so even if you set the aperture to something smaller for the actual exposure, you will still reap the benefits of having the wide aperture capability. The extra light entering the camera gives the focusing mechanism more to work with.
I routinely use back button focusing, meaning that I focus my lens with a separate button on the back of my camera, rather than focusing with the shutter button. This is really helpful in this situation, because I didn’t want the camera hunting for focus every time I pressed the shutter and possibly missing the action.
Finally, you may notice I changed up the lights a bit. Since these warriors were similar in height, and would be dueling without choreography, I needed to get light on both of them at the same time regardless of position. Also, because of the dark helmet and hair, they both needed rim lighting to separate them from the background. I kept my lights in a triangle around them, but lifted the lights a bit higher so there would be less chance of one combatant usurping the other’s beauty light.
Darth in particular needs a lot of light to define him as something than a featureless silhouette, since much of his outfit is a light-sucking vacuum. No offense, but I hope that in Episode VII, we can have some arch enemies that are a bit more photo-friendly.