In this article I explain my strategies, techniques and systems for using big flash and Speedlights on location.
When we are in the studio we enjoy total control of all light. Any light that exists, is there because we put it there. On location it is a different matter – light exists and we have only partial control of it. Modifying ambient light by using diffusers, flags and reflectors is one approach we can use and so too is altering the ambient exposure and adding our own light.
I spent about 40% of my career at the BBC in studios and I loved the elaborate sets I had to work with. Working with a plain cyclorama background however was far less rewarding and it was a lot tougher to make shots look interesting. When I started to shoot studio portraits on my stills camera, I was lost without all the props and sets. I found backgrounds and props hard to come by in quantity because of storage and cost etc. I could not produce much variety in the pictures I shot for my clients. Some photographers are very creative in the studio and are able to work on an abstract conceptual level like my fellow Photo Pro columnist Julia Boggio. I however, was certainly not going to go down the Blue Peter route of having a big white studio space and letting the action just happen. I wanted my work to be different, to stand out from the mainstream. It soon became apparent that what I really wanted to do was shoot on location.
Working on location has its drawbacks too. The weather is the biggest problem. Full sun with a wind that is blowing away from it is a big problem when shooting people with long hair out in the open on a beach or in a field. Rain and the cold are the other problem makers. Most of these issues can be overcome. My favourite weather condition is full cloud consisting of distinct stratas of cumulus that can be rendered to form powerful dramatic scenes or be used out of shot as a big soft box. If the weather conditions are too bright there are often problems with clients squinting and the camera running out of exposure control with the shutter speed locked in at the x sync speed. I’m a bit of a lighting control freak and I like to be able to cut my ambient exposure by up to as much as three stops when I need to. The other worst case scenario is when the sun is in and out changing the light level every few minutes or so.
On location it is far easier to just shoot what you see. When I started taking portraits for a living back in 1998 I was either shooting on down rated high speed black and white film processed in a two bath developer or cross processed slide film to create the look of the era – I shot candidly on a 35mm camera with a telephoto zoom and ‘contemporary lifestyle photography’ was the phrase most commonly used to market the style. It was beyond the abilities of most amateurs at the time and I could charge high prices for my work as a result. Anyone and everyone with the simplest of digital cameras and kit lenses can take natural light pictures like that now, and they do. The mainstream lifestyle magazines as well as the amateur photography enthusiast magazines run regular features on ‘how to photograph your family’. They give advice like ‘place your kids in a doorway’ or ‘shoot into the light’, use your telephoto zoom lens, put your camera in ‘portrait mode’ and away you go. You don’t really need to know how to use your camera for this kind of picture of families or children on location anymore and the demand for the professional ‘lifestyle photoshoot’ has dropped as a result.
There will always be a few masters of natural light portraiture that create art by blending great shooting techniques with exciting and often elaborate post production styles. These photographers keep their picture look unique and valuable as a result. I now choose to integrate advanced lighting flash techniques on location together with stylised natural light images for my top flight clients.
Understanding and using light creatively has always been the key to successful portraits so like many other pro photographers I have taken my studio lighting techniques out on location. The set construction is now easy peasy as all the work is done already by architects in the city or nature in the countryside. The lighting kit I currently use costs less than the price of a pro range DSLR but at £3000 is still out of reach of the amateur. It is also portable enough to use without assistants.
A two head Speedlight kit with a remote commander, and flash brackets costs around£1000 plus stands etc. This gives you about 120Ws of flash power. You nearly always have to use this versatile kit ‘bare bulb’ on location. These small light sources create hard shadows. On duller days, at twilight or in dark locations you can get away with using Speedlights with an umbrella or a soft box. I use a pair of them when I’m shooting on the street for my urban portraits. Rigging Speedlights on stands is fast and with the option of full TTL control, and a zoom function, using them is quite straightforward when you know how.
The next option up is to use studio power portable systems. The 1200Ws of a systems like the Broncolor Mobil, Elinchrom Ranger or ProPhoto will enable you to shoot with soft boxes at near proximity or bare heads at a considerable distance. All these systems are portable and capable of delivering enough power to replicate the quality of light we use in the studio. Around £3000 gets you 2 heads, a radio trigger system, a power pack, extension lead, umbrella holder and soft box speed rings. I often shoot with twice this power by using both my packs and enjoy the flexibility and freedom to shoot with modified light even in bright sunny conditions. You get 10 times the power of a pair of Speedlights for 3 times the price when you invest in big flash kit.
Whatever big flash kit you choose the operating system can be the same. This is the system that I use:
1. have a scout around to suss out the picture, make a note of the frame edges, the camera position, and the subject position.
2. Design the lighting set up. Take into account keeping light stands out of the shot, and light throws with reference to the power requirement.
3. Rig the lights and plug the flash heads into the power pack so that the correct head receives the most power when the ratios are set.
4. Set the cameras shutter speed to the xsync value and the ISO to the minimum level that doesn’t reduce the pictures dynamic range. Take test pictures to determine the aperture needed to give the desired amount of ambient exposure.
5. Switch on the flash pack and take a few test frames to determine the power and ratio settings required.
6. Put your subject into the shot and fine tune the pose and the lighting power as required.
In reality the process is very fast as the exposures and power values needed soon become second nature and a good guess will get you to within 1/3rd of a stop or so. If a light is a bit bright I often just move it away from the subject a little bit rather than fiddle around with power adjustment.
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