The Power Of Portable Light

portable light

Moai Statue At Sunset. Nikon D3, 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens, shot at 1/50 sec. at ƒ/8, Nikon SB-800 used off-camera to light the statue.

I have traveled 4,625 miles to get this image. I’m stumbling through the volcanic landscape in the murky predawn darkness trying to find the Moai statues. The salty breeze and crashing surf remind me of early-morning shoots in Hawaii. But this isn’t Hawaii. I’m on Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. And if I don’t get this iconic shot of the Moai statues at sunrise, I’ll never forgive myself. I need this shot for my photo essay of the island.

But I have a problem. The clouds are turning pink and orange, and the statues are silhouetted nicely against the fiery sky. And this image is just that—a dark shape against a vibrant night sky. I want a three-dimensional image with foreground, one that reveals the fallen Moai statues scattered around the lava field. I take a test shot to confirm my fears. The foreground is pitch-black, no detail at all. If I change my exposure compensation to let in more light, I get foreground detail, but the sky turns pasty white and dull. An HDR shot would even the exposure out, but would have no drama or edgy light. What to do?

Luckily, I have a solution in my camera bag. I bring out my trusty Nikon SB-800 and attach a warm orange gel to the flash. I set up my camera on a tripod, connect my wireless transmitter, and set the self-timer for 10 seconds. I trigger the camera, quickly walk over to the fallen Moai, and aim my speedlight at the scene. At 10 seconds, the camera fires, my orange flash lights up the Moai statue, and this two-dimensional snapshot is transformed into a powerful three-dimensional page-opener. Using one handheld light, I just turned a “tourist shot” into a storytelling editorial image. Mission accomplished.

In this era of rich editorial imagery, photographers have more tools than ever to tell their story. And one important tool is the simple speedlight. About the size and weight of a small zoom lens, a speedlight offers creative and technical solutions to take your image-making to the next level.

A Flash Looks Artificial

I can’t tell you how many times I hear this statement on travel workshops. Most often the real reason behind this statement is a lack of understanding flash and the creative possibilities it offers. I’m not saying a flash image is better than an available light image, but flash photography does solve technical challenges and offers creative options you can’t achieve with available light.

portable light
Egypt. Nikon D2X and 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 lens, shot with a Nikon SB-800 to add catchlights to the subjects’ eyes in the bright overhead sun.

At its simplest, flash opens up shadows. How many times have you been photographing in midday light and your subject is wearing a hat? The dreaded dark shadow under the hat brim shades your subject’s eyes and face. But by adding just a pop of light from your speedlight, you can open up the shadows and add catchlights to your subject’s eyes. Mastering fill-flash technique is easy. Using your speedlight in TTL mode, the flash and camera work together to determine the proper exposure and output, giving you natural-looking results. A correct use of flash makes the light invisible to the user; the result should just look like a well-exposed image.

Adding fill-flash is just the beginning of speedlight possibilities. Another attribute of strobe lighting is its ability to direct the viewer to important parts of the image. What is bright and lit will attract the viewer’s attention before dark and shadowy areas in the shot.

Recently, I was in Maine photographing the fall colors, quaint coastal villages and interesting people who live along the rocky coast. In a small fishing village, I noticed an old barnacle-encrusted anchor exposed by the receding tide. The anchor just said “iconic Maine coast” to me, so I knew I had to photograph it. The anchor was in deep shade, and I knew it would be overlooked in the photo. To direct the viewer to the anchor and minimize the contrast between the shade and sunlit fishing boats in the background, I used my speedlight to light the anchor. The anchor popped out in the dark area of the image and blended nicely with the bright fishing boats in the harbor.

Adding flash to portraits does more than just open up shadows. Speedlights produce light that is approximately the color of daylight. Adding flash on overcast days improves color and skin tone. I was hired to photograph an outdoor guide in Alaska for a magazine piece about his company, and on the day of the shoot we had torrential rain. I tried a variety of images using available light, but the overcast, drizzly sky just made my subject look terrible. Out came my speedlight, and just a small burst from the flash dramatically improved color in the image. Now I had a portrait I was proud of and, more importantly, a shot my editor could use.

Exploit The Transformational Quality Of Speedlights

A magazine editor once told me, “Pictures don’t talk.” Pondering this statement, I realized what he meant is that my images had to tell the story visually, without words. Since photography is “writing with light,” anything I could do to alter the light would help my storytelling.

Using a speedlight can completely change the mood, drama and tension of your shot. This transformational quality gives photographers huge opportunities for storytelling. Almost the opposite of fill-flash, adding shadow and contrast to your image transforms a flat scene into a three-dimensional, compelling shot.

On Easter Island, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to photograph a resident wearing traditional dress as he danced cliffside over the crashing Pacific Ocean. A stunning sunset was developing, but my subject would be a silhouette if I exposed for the vibrant sky. Using a speedlight off-camera, I added light to the dancer and transformed the shot into a dramatic, powerful shot. Using one speedlight improved my ability to convey the rich Polynesian culture of this remote island.

Another speedlight technique I frequently use on assignments is adding a gel to my light. A variety of companies sell convenient packs of gels that easily attach to your speedlight. Colors range from color correction like CTOs (color temperature orange) to theatrical gels like purple, red and yellow. You choose the color based on the effect you want.

portable light

portable light
TOP: Scotland. Nikon Df and 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens, shot at 1/100 sec. at ƒ/7.1. In this before shot, the telephone booth appears lifeless without flash. ABOVE: The same gear and settings were used, but by using a single speedlight, the telephone booth comes to life. A Nikon SB-910 was placed in the booth and fired off-camera using a Nikon SU-800 transmitter.

I was in the Netherlands photographing tulips and landscapes and had the chance to take a tour of a windmill. Outside the skies were gray, and inside the windmill, the light was dim and flat. At one point, I discovered some metal weights used in the mill operation, but the available light just looked dull. Windmills are an iconic part of the Netherlands, so I wanted to create an impressive shot of these weights. To solve this problem, I attached an orange gel to my flash and fired it off-camera almost directly to the left side of the weights. One second I had dull, flat light, the next I had warm light streaming through the room.

Another possibility with speedlights is the ability to control the ambient light separately from the flash exposure. Adjusting the ambient/flash lighting ratio can dramatically change the mood of the shot. If I add flash and keep my ambient exposure at the correct value for the scene, then my flash will improve color and skin tones, but be almost invisible in the shot. But if I set the ambient exposure to -2 stops underexposed, the lit subjects will stand out against a moody, dark background, creating a dramatic shot.

Use The Wireless TTL Advantage

Some photographers don’t use flash because they think it’s complicated and difficult to learn. How do you figure out the flash exposure? What flash mode is best? How does wireless flash work? Modern speedlights are easy to use, and the flashes do the hard math.

There are two popular flash modes to use with speedlights, Manual and TTL. Manual mode ensures that your flash output is consistent for every shot. If you have a static subject and flash distance, you can adjust the manual output to the correct exposure, and every frame should look good. But what happens if your subject is moving between different lighting conditions? This situation would be ideal for using TTL mode with your speedlight because the camera will shut off the strobe light when the camera determines the shot has the correct exposure.

In TTL mode, you’re using all the technology the camera/flash system has to offer, and instead of missing a fleeting portrait, you get the shot. My default mode is TTL since I often photograph in fluid travel situations. If the flash exposure is slightly off, I just adjust the flash output.

Going Beyond Speedlights With TTL Monolights

Imagine having the advantage of a TTL speedlight, but with more power. If you want to create a dramatic portrait under the intense midday sun of the Atacama Desert, you need a light that has a lot of power. Speedlights have about 60 watts of juice; imagine if you had a light with 500 watts of power, the equivalent of eight speedlights. Imagine no more, because the new TTL strobe systems are here.

Three new strobe systems offer TTL flash: the Bowens XMS, the Interfit S1 and the Profoto B1. All of them offer TTL flash using Nikon, Canon or Sony cameras, with a wireless transmitter to fire the flash from your camera. The Interfit S1 and Profoto B1 are 500-watt lights; the Bowens comes in 500-, 750- or 1000-watt options. These systems are monolights, meaning the battery and controls are all located on the flash head, which means no wires or cables on location. Just attach the monolight to your stand and you’re ready to go. The batteries are rechargeable lithium-ion. The Profoto B1 gives 220 full-power flashes per charge, the Interfit S1, 350 full-power pops, and the Bowens XMS cranks out 500 full-power flashes per charge.

Since you can use TTL mode, the flash exposure should be accurate with your first shot, no flash metering necessary. These strobes weigh around 6 pounds on up; that’s not as light as a 1-pound speedlight, but you gain a lot more power. If you want a fast, powerful TTL flash system, these new TTL monolights might be for you.

Take Your Storytelling To New Levels

Being able to tell a captivating story through images takes planning, intuition and photo craft. As photographers, we need to express our ideas through a visual medium using the tools we have available. Lens choice, aperture setting and location are just a few aspects to consider. But remember, photography is based on light. Speedlights are a valuable tool to bring your story to life. The next time you need to add some catchlights or change the mood in your shot, grab your speedlight and go to work.

To see more of Tom Bol’s work, visit his website at

Leave a Reply