In this feature length article I look at how you can emulate the look of big budget fashion shoots with just one battery powered flash head and a few accessories.
The world of portraiture has always been influenced by the fashion industry with big budgets to lavish on the images that make the brands. Image is everything and it usually takes a team to make them. A fashion editor, stylist, hair artist, make up artist, art director and of course the photographer with his or her assistants. This circus is very powerful and focused. The question that has been on my mind for some time is ‘can social photographers come close the results of the fashion greats without the big budget, and can they produce these images in sufficient quantity to make a living? The answer is definitely yes. For my editorial work I often shoot a dozen finished frames from which a magazine editor will select six or so. My portrait clients want twenty plus images from each shoot to work together in an album. With this in mind I have had to speed up my shoot rate and select my lighting kit wisely.
I started my journey towards the unnatural beauty of flash dominated imagery three years ago when my clients started to take ‘lifestyle’ images on their sub £500 SLR’s. I had to raise my game way beyond the look achievable at home. I started with a wonderful 400ws portable flash system from Quantum. Amazingly the Quantum Qpax system worked in TTL mode with my Hasselblad H1 and Phase One P25 back. It’s the only big flash unit to do so and made shooting wedding groups really easy. The Quantum kit opened my eyes to the opportunities I had to refresh my portrait look. Three years on, and now I use Canon cameras, with flash at the heart of my everyday portrait toolbox. The evolution of my photographic style has been so important in this age where standing still has become commercial suicide. Clients demand that professional difference, and getting to grips with ‘big flash’ has empowered me to meet their demands.
My current portrait big flash system of choice is a Broncolor Mobil kit, at 1200ws it gives me just enough power to work with the sun in the frame. It is light enough to carry in one hand with my camera bag over the other shoulder and the flash head is tiny when compared with the competition. This is a big advantage when you are working on your own. I’ve used the Mobil kit on beaches, boats, and in palaces. My other equipment includes a Canon 580ES11 Speedlight, a lighting stand made by Lowel, and brollies I bought online for £15 each. I’ve flirted with various radio trigger systems over the past three years but I have settled on Pocket Wizards – the industry standard kit.
I use the Mobil flash head on a stand in one of these three set ups:
1. Bare faced, without any diffusers to give me a single point light source. This is ideal for creating crisp, hard shadows and gives the most light output.
2. With a brolly – A silver lined brolly when working outside as it puts the vast majority of light in the right direction whilst giving me a broad (softer) light source. A translucent shoot through, white nylon brolly when working inside. Half the light is reflected up and back into the room while the other half is transmitted towards my subject.
3. With a lightweight fresnel lens attachment to create a pool of light. This adjustable spot of light is perfect for the subtle jobs where you want to create a natural unlit look and it’s great at making dramatic pictures too. It is my favourite way of using flash by far.
Occasionally I use the Canon Speedlight off camera bare faced or with a Stofen diffuser. I trigger the flash with a trusty STE2 transmitter that gives me full TTL control. When I work inside I find there is enough infra red pulse reflecting off surfaces to trigger the Speedlight reliably whatever direction it is pointing in. When outside, the STE2 struggles to trigger the Speedlight if it is not in direct line of sight. In these circumstances I use the Speedlight flash unit on a manual setting and trigger it with my Pocket Wizzard system. Breaking away from TTL metering was easy for me because I’m used to working a flash system and my camera manually in the studio, but some of my delegates struggle a little to create the fine flash/ ambient balance adjustments required. I spend extra time on my workshops getting these factors right and empowering my delegates to take full manual control.
I have tried ring flash and have developed a love hate relationship with it. It may just become a major part of my future kit but for now I’m sticking with conventional flash. I have my eye on the amazingly good value, lightweight system from Flaghead that adapts a standard Speedlight into a ringflash, but at the time of writing it is not made for the 580 ES11 flashgun. I’ll just have to be patient.
Here is the 10-step system I use to create my big flash portraits:
1. I start with the end in mind. Having a good idea about how I want the image to look is vital. Unless I know the mood or effect I’m after it’s hard to choose a lighting balance. Is the picture stand alone and can have any look I want, or is to be part of a set where a continuity of style is important? High key or low key? Soft and fluffy or hard and edgy?
2. I then design the image, choose the perspective, and background. I look for lines, shapes, and other design elements to work with and plan a lighting approach.
3. Next, I work with the model or client to create the pose. I make final position and composition tweaks at this point prior to rigging the lights etc. Just in case I come up with a catch 22 scinareo. Often it can be imposable to maintain the camera to model height needed without having intrusive background elements for instance. Then I relax the client while I do a quick technical rig.
4. I use the camera to take a light reading for the background. For this I put the camera in manual mode with 125th set as the shutter speed and adjust the aperture until I get an exposure reading of typically one to three stops under. This depends upon the look I’m after. Under exposing the background will have the effect of increasing saturation in highlight areas like skies, sunsets etc. I can tweak the background exposure later without altering the flash level if required.
5. I then rig the flash to give me the direction and quality of light I want.
6. I set the flash to half power, (600ws) take a test frame and adjust the position or flash power to taste. Moving the flash just a small distance makes a big difference to exposure. Using the flash at half power increases the recycle time and the number of flashes available. I’ll use the extra stop of light when I need to. It’s a bit like using an f2.8 lens at f4, It’s nice to know the extra stop is handy when you need it.
7. The model or client then takes their place in the frame and I shoot a test frame. There is no rapport building, moment creating direction at this stage.
8. I get the technical bit spot on using a test and measure procedure. Subtle lighting and exposure tweaks are often needed at this point to get the foreground / background balance the way I like it.
9. With the technical stuff sorted out I can now go to town on creating a moment to capture. A key benefit of working manually with professional kit is that each exposure is going to be identical irrespective of small framing adjustments made during the shoot. I give my client or model 100% concentration adjusting the pose and creating moments to capture. Having a fun rapport is vital to keep life in the pictures.
10. Post production is the crucial final step in obtaining the look required. All the pictures here have had a degree of post production to bring them to life. I aim to get the image as good as I can in the camera and Marko my picture editor finishes the job on the computer.
Using exposure balance…
Setting the camera to give a two stop under exposed background with a belt of flash really starts to make the shot look stylised. By contrast, working the background at just one stop down with a splash of flash from a silver brolly can look like fading sunlight on an otherwise overcast day. Very subtle use of flash from a large source like a soft box will just lift the contrast in a face enough to create a healthy glow and radiance.
Using light modifiers…
Controlling the direction and relative size of the light source can greatly affect the power of flash required. When I’m competing with the sun and want to use a brolly to soften the light I will switch the Mobil pack to full power. The top fashion photographers often use packs many times the power of my kit. This enables them to use soft boxes and other diffusers at greater distances. The good news is you can get 95% of their look with just 1200ws of light.
A fresnel spot attachment on the front of my Mobil head gives a controlled beam of light that can be easily focussed. It is far more flattering to use a Fresnel lens rather than a snoot, as the soft edged fall off of the projected light creates a beautiful transition into shadow. This type of lens was used in the classic Hollywood studios last century and it is easy to see why.
1. Rigging a light on stairs or sloping ground requires a stand with what’s called a ‘lazy leg’. This is where one leg of the stand can extend to nearly double its length. I use a Lowel ‘Grand Stand’ that extends to just over 3 metres and features a lazy legJ
2. For extra stability when I rig my Mobil kit I attach the power pack to the base of the stand with a Velcro strap. I raise the centre section to lift the pack off the ground a few inches and this process creates a low centre of gravity. Once you have a brolly on the top the whole rig is like a kite!
3. Out on location, radio triggers are king. I find sync leads are rarely long enough and always seem to end up in the shot whilst infra red triggers fail to work reliably in bright sunlight.
4. A Mobil kit will give 150 flashes on full power with fast recycle set from one battery charge. This is just enough to get most jobs done. I plug the battery into my car via an inverter to recharge between locations.
Natural light alternatives…
Once you know how to light fashion portraits you can create pictures that look like they have been ‘lit’ with big flash by using just a hand held Speedlight or even natural ambient light. Once you can recognise the direction and shape of natural light sources, you can make use of them to form classic looks.