Make the world your studio ~ feature article

May 20, 2009 | Flash, Location | 13 comments

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.

Key and kick light provided by a pair of Speedlights on a grey day.

Key and kick light provided by a pair of Speedlights on a grey day.

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.

I love grey backgrounds and the bland white sky obliged once it was two stops under exposed.

I love grey backgrounds and the bland white sky obliged once it was two stops under exposed. A 580EX2 Speedlight on a stand fitted with a Lovegrove flash bracket provided the illumination.

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.

On camera flash with the right backgrounds can be a winner

On camera flash with the right backgrounds can be a winner

The Kit:

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.

Please feel free to comment below.


  1. Roger George Clark

    Most interesting!…I once interviewed the American photographer, Arnold Newman, who pioneered environmental portraiture. He told me he used available light as much as possible and just added a little extra light to brighten up darker areas. The result was natural-looking pictures.

    Your pictures look artificial. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difference in styles.

    Norman Parkinson photographed his subjects against the light. He then used flash to brighten the shadows.

    • damien

      Hi Roger,

      I like to leave fill flash well alone as I think it looks unnatural. It’s all subjective. Cheers, Damien.

  2. damien

    Hi Karl,

    You raise an interesting point. Information can be considered to be almost worthless now that it is available for free or nearly free online. Knowledge, internalised information has potential and knowledge times experience is more powerful still because this leads to wisdom.

    For instance you can find out almost all the information there is to know about the human body, ailments and diseases on the internet but does it make you a doctor or a surgeon? Of course not, diagnosis and treatment is best dealt with by trained professionals. The knowledge of how to use a camera doesn’t make someone a pro either. Successfully running a full time business based on taking pictures that people buy makes you a professional photographer. An ability to use a camera and know how TTL works is only the start.

    What separates the pros from the amateurs is the ability to create a product, put it to market, convert leads into sales and return a profit. Then the process needs to be repeated as many times as is required to earn a living. A wedding photographer shooting 35 weddings a year is being a photographer less than one day in ten.

    I benefited from the top pros who shared their knowledge and wisdom with me (for a price) this enabled me to leave my BBC career and turn pro. And now it’s my turn to share my knowledge and experience with the next generation of talented professional photographers.

    The survival of the fittest is part of our modern market place and those photographers who have a unique product that customers want to buy will be well on their way to success. I help pros to evolve and I help those wanting to turn pro to do so. I can’t make someone creative or give them the ability to charm their clients. The creativity and personality has to come from within. Our industry is personality led because for the most part a client chooses a photographer, the person. If their work is exceptional then the photographers personality is perhaps less important part in the process of getting bookings.

    • The majority of the information needed to be a successful professional wedding photographer is available for under £20 in my wedding photography book.

    • In my DVDs I show how to shoot, the settings and techniques etc.

    • On my workshops I teach the process of ‘seeing’ a picture. This experience is the most valuable practical training I give and is priced accordingly.

    • At our one day special business building event Gregory, my business consultant and I will be sharing the secrets of building and running a successful photography business. There are over 100 photographers who have booked already and they will have a big advantage over their competitors as a result.

    • Finally our ten month Evolve programme is the complete training package for photographers destined for success.

    The fact that you read my blog, understand the techniques that I am sharing, and see the value in them, means that hopefully you will return again as I post more and more information. It’s time for me to give something back and if as a result of reading my blog you get more from your photography I am delighted irrespective of how much you earn doing so.

    Kind regards,


  3. karl

    excellent article damien, but do you not think you are putting the power of pro photographers skills into the hands of keen amateurs with all the info you give away, as I’m sure many of them also read your blog, with the amount of training available today up and down the country the ranks of Pro photographers is being ever eroded and so is the publics perception of who is pro and who is not. I think we need to ask ourselves is this a good thing?

  4. Heinz Schmidt

    Hi Damien,

    Great post which gives us a good look into how the pros do on location lighting. I’m a bit of a strobist, a bit of a techie/technogeek I guess and love reading about the gear used to achieve a specific result. I recently bought ‘The Hot Shoe Diaries’ written by Joe McNally and although I’m a Canon man and Joe uses Nikon, he does really do a great job of explaining the technicalities of the job on location, just like you do in this post.

    I think I might buy your portrait lighting DVD next, right after I’ve watched your ‘Big Day’ DVD a few times.

    Thanks for the post and for sharing your expertise with the rest of us.


  5. damien

    Hi Phil,

    I’ve watched the Radio Popper option for a while now and I was expecting the UK version last July but it has yet to materialise. It may be that they are having issues too. The Canon 580 has an unprecedented level of RF (radio frequency) noise that tends to squelch the trigger signals to some extent.

    I understand the worst case scenario is 10 metres of accurate TTL with the units directly connected to the 580 flash unit. 10m is enough for any of the photography that I do. I will have a TTL cord to hand in case I should ever need the full 100m range.

    It is worth mentioning that the 430EX2 doesn’t suffer from the RF noise problems of the 580 series flash units. I’ve just bought a 430 flash unit and I’ll be using it for back / kick lighting that is usually further away from the camera and I’ll be able to place it around corners rather than stick with line of sight.

    I also have a pair of the Pocket Wizard Plus 2 units that can be triggered using the same transmitter.

    The usable radio frequency for this kit is set by the home office and I’m sure that Radio Poppers are up against the same issues otherwise we would have seen them over here ages ago as their system is at least a year ahead of the Pocket Wizards.

    The PW’s use the Canon TTL language and don’t require an ST-E2 to piggy back. That saves an instant £150 and the inconvenience of a big lump on the camera.

    The real deal breaker for the PW system is the flash sync re timing facility to give an extra stop of flash power balance. All will be revealed. I’ll be running PW training days in the autumn once I’ve really pushed the system to the limit.

    I hope this helps, Damien.

  6. Phil

    Hi Damien,

    Regarding the new Pocket Wizard TTL units, there seems to be some concern over the maximum range of these units when using the 580EX/2.

    Have you considered the new Radio Poppers ? They are due out in the UK in July.


  7. damien

    Hi Josh,

    Thank you for your extended comments and wise words. The new Pocket Wizard TTL units allow a closed loop calibration to shorten the camera sync speed when using Speedlights. This will give at least one more stop of ambient control in most cases.

    I’ll be trialling my demo set ASAP and will report back with my findings.


  8. damien

    Hi Simon,

    You are right about line of sight, especially when working outdoors. The difference is that in confined spaces infrared trigger signals can bounce off walls and other objects in the room. That is why Hifi and TV remote controls can often work when pointing away from the units. When outside the infrared light emmiter on the ST-E2 must be in line of sight of the receiver on the flash gun.

    Up until now all radio transmitters on European frequencies have been limited to non TTL control. We are expecting our first deliveries of the new Pocket Wizard TTL units imminently and are taking pre orders online at Lovegrove Consulting now.


  9. Josh

    Hi Damien

    A brilliant essay on lighting – thanks again. In my own experience your insights are spot on with regard to keeping one’s work above the reach of your keen amateur weekend shooter. Although many amateurs are able to produce professional looking results, pros can still have an edge in natural light with regard to preparation i.e. Clothing, hair, makeup, shot design and telling a story combining wide establishing shots and tight details.

    I agree that Speedlights provide excellent value and punch when used correctly. Running out of exposure control in bright outdoor conditions is the biggest challenge. I’d like to know your thoughts on high speed sync. I have used this in the past to shoot low f values. I understand that the xsync shutter speed is the fastest setting where the curtain exposes the full sensor area in one instant. Higher shutter speeds are effectively achieved by the curtain forming a slit that sweeps across the sensor area, and the short burst duration of a flash is not fully recorded. Am I right in saying that high speed sync is achieved by a longer burn duration of the TTL flash so that the full sweep across the sensor plane is recorded? I used high speed sync recently for some swimming action shots using both ambient and Speedlight sources. Despite a 1/400th shutter speed, close examination of flash highlights recorded in splashing water revealed a slight blur, suggesting the suspected longer flash burst. A two head big flash setup would certainly have been welcome on the job, as I would have relied less on ambient and I would have got the freeze frame pin sharp.

    Kind Regards


  10. Simon

    Hi Damien….another great post….I have tried using 2 speedlites, but get very unpredictable results…normally resulting from the canon st-e2 not always firing the speedlights….I understand it needs a line of sight, but do you have any tips…..I have bought some wireless triggers but they dont support TTL……Simon

  11. John Curgenven

    Yet more gems from your knowledge and experience.

    Once more, many thanks,


  12. Andy

    great post! very helpful in pushing me in the direction of mobile lighting kits! flash guns are great, but sometimes lack the power when i need it. thanks for the insight into your thinking and sharing your knowledge!


Ask a question or leave a comment. All comments get a reply.