Small Lights Big Effects

I’ve had my share of 90-second portrait sessions with important people who are short on time, and the ability to set up refined three-point lighting in no time flat can be the difference between getting the shot and going home with nothing. Photographer Corey Woodruff, a small-strobe specialist, once drove seven hours round-trip to shoot for three minutes in a small gap between rain showers. He got his shot, in part because of the way he outfits his kit.

"Almost all of my work is shot on location," Woodruff says, "and I often work without an assistant. So my entire setup needs to be portable enough to haul by myself. It also has to be flexible enough to tackle as many lighting situations as possible. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve arrived at a two-bag system that works for about 90 percent of what I shoot."

Radio-controlled triggers are a must for every photographer’s location lighting kit. Placing the flash under the umbrella made this shot possible.

Outfit The Kit

The genius of Woodruff’s system is the way he divides the bags: One is his Always kit, the other is the Sometimes kit. The Always bag contains camera, lenses, small strobes and crucial accessories, whereas the Sometimes kit includes things he only needs, well, sometimes—extra lights, more stands and things that may be a pain to drag along all the time. Studio photographers may not give an accessory’s size and weight a second thought, but for location shooters, no bit of kit goes unmeasured. Consider the following for your own Always lighting bag.

Cold-shoe brackets make it easy to mount strobes to light stands; they usually offer adjustability for aiming the light and an attachment for mounting an umbrella—the exact same umbrella you might use in the studio. You also can find adapters that allow you to affix your small strobe to any number of standard softboxes from makers like Chimera, Interfit, Westcott and Photoflex. While umbrellas pack more conveniently than softboxes, you can still use your favorite big softbox even with a small strobe. Or you can consider small softboxes tailored specifically for use with handheld strobes—like the Interfit Strobies, the Chimera OB2 PRO kit, the PocketBox from Westcott and the Extra Small LiteDomes and OctoDomes from Photoflex.

What really makes a road kit shine is keeping it compact. For that, small accessories built specifically for hot-shoe-mounted strobes really fit the bill. Rogue FlashBenders are shapeable light modifiers designed to affix to a handheld strobe and reflect light (thereby softening or focusing it) in order to precisely control its output. Rolled into a tube, the FlashBender becomes a snoot, and the same piece can be flattened out to become a large bounce that emulates a softbox. (A diffusion panel also can be attached, turning it into a literal softbox, as well.)

In a tricky environment like this laboratory, use flash to augment the available light. The window is the primary illumination while the flash adds some fill to allow the subject to stand out from the background.

Rogue also makes honeycomb grids—perfect for focusing light when a snoot would be too tight—and gels that can be used for special effects (a bright blue or red background, for instance) or simply to balance strobe illumination with ambient lighting. Many accessory makers offer gel kits like this, but the old-school approach to gelling small strobes simply calls for cutting a piece from a large sheet of gel or tearing small gels out of sample packets. If you’re doing it yourself, be diligent about labeling so you can tell your 1/8 CTO from your 1/4 CTO on the fly.

Photographers who often use one-light strobe setups may appreciate the slightly different approach taken by Gary Fong. His Lightsphere is a simple device that can achieve many different effects. Sure, you can use them with multiple lights, but they really shine as a great way to turn an on-camera flash into something marvelous. Depending on how it’s positioned and accessorized, a Lightsphere can approximate a small umbrella to produce diffused and scattered light, or it can become a focused spotlight with the addition of a PowerSnoot. It can be warmed with the AmberDome, or turned into other bright colors, thanks to accessory gels. The collapsible Lightsphere packs into a shoulder bag more easily than the original rigid model, something run-and-gun shooters are sure to appreciate.

When working with multiple small strobes, an additional concern is finding a way to trigger them. Depending on the model, your flashes may communicate with one another wirelessly via radio or infrared, but even if you’re using fully manual flashes, you can trigger them remotely without resorting to miles of cable. Remote transmitters like the RadioPopper PX and PocketWizard Plus III provide long-distance triggering. While you can certainly invest in multiple transmitters and receivers of any stripe, you also can use photosensitive optical slaves to fire additional strobes once the first flash has triggered.

All this equipment does you no good if you don’t know how to put it to use. And that usually means when you’re under the gun and short on time, you’d better have a previsualized plan in place for what you might like to accomplish. To that end, here are a few suggestions for some common run-and-gun assignments.

The "in your face" look comes from the flash mimicking the glaring overhead lamp.

Flashing In The Street

Street photography usually involves plentiful daylight, so why add a flash at all? Because you can mix flash and ambient daylight to tremendous effect, whether you want to create an intense "in your face" effect or simply add a bit of fill to keep shadows from being devoid of detail. For the bolder approach, try an unmodified flash either mounted on the camera or held at arm’s length (to add a bit of directional shape). The hard-edged shadows will really set your subject apart from the rest of the scene—especially if the ambient is at all flat. When handholding the light to increase the illusion of depth, trigger the flash via a TTL cable to maintain communication with the camera and auto flash exposure. Underexpose the ambient and boost the flash for more drama, or do the reverse to up the appearance of authenticity with just a hint of fill. If you want to emulate sunset light, hold the flash low and gel it with a half or even full CTO orange gel for warmth. Even with just one handheld strobe, great lighting is possible on the fly.

The Environmental Portrait

Whether you find yourself in a CEO’s office or a musician’s living room, environmental portrait sessions are the ideal place to put a small strobe kit to good use. Mixing strobes with ambient light—whether it’s daylight from a window, tungsten lamps or overhead fluorescents—is a great way to keep an image looking authentic with subtle flash. If room lights are fluorescent, a green-gelled key flash (you’ll then adjust your white balance to compensate for it) will make room lighting appear neutral. For daylight, balance your flashes with blue gels and use orange on your strobes if you’re attempting to match warm tungsten bulbs. Even if you’re going to eliminate ambience and provide all the illumination with your strobes, you can use the same three-point lighting setup every time. That’s one light as a key (perhaps softened with an umbrella or a so
ftbox), one light on the background (maybe snooted or gelled for effect) and one light as fill. I frequently use a reflector for fill and reposition my third light to provide an edge on the subject. High and from behind, then snooted or gridded to keep it focused and not spilling into my lens, this light creates a highlight edge to separate subject from background—especially important if a dark suit or dark hair blends into a dark background.

Use Color For Special Effects

Whether shooting an industrial location or a computer scientist, sometimes a bit of lighting drama can be helpful to give an otherwise drab scene a little bit of pop. Gelled strobes are perfect for this. Instead of matching the ambience, consider a bright red gel on the background light to create the illusion of heat, intensity or danger. If you’re going for a clean, sterile feeling, consider a blue gel on the background to play up the clinical, high-tech storyline. And remember that you don’t necessarily need to gel a background light to create a color shift—gelling the key light warm orange and then compensating with a custom white balance (so the key appears neutral) will make the ambient illumination shift toward blue—especially if it has any daylight in it. Working with customized white balance affords the digital photographer a whole new tool in the run-and-gun lighting repertoire.

Augmenting Architecture

Even a single handheld strobe can have a huge impact on architectural photography. When you’re photographing a structure from a fairly close vantage point, a properly aimed on-camera flash can fill in foreground shadows and provide detail in the darkness. With longer exposures, you can walk around the structure and fire the single strobe multiple times from multiple positions to practically paint the scene with light. (Consider using an ND filter to allow for longer exposure times.)

But what about when you’re photographing a larger structure from a distance? Can you really use small strobes when shooting a skyscraper from a half-block away? With wireless triggers, yes, you can, to an extent. If you position those strobes close to the structure and hidden from view, they can have a huge impact on the illumination of portions of the building. Another great approach, if you have the time and assistance to move lights between exposures, is to composite multiple shots together in post to create a finished product that makes use of nine lights—even if you only have three in your kit. An orange-gelled strobe placed on the interior of a structure creates a warm glow in windows that balances nicely with tungsten interior lights and glows warmly in combination with blue sunset exterior illumination. Positioning a strobe so that light rakes across the façade of a building or backlighting a foreground subject are wonderful ways to add to the appearance of three-dimensionality in your scene.

Must-Have Accessories For Your Lighting Kit

Aside from the obvious, like strobes, a well-stocked lighting kit also includes these essentials.

1 Wireless triggers, optical slaves, TTL cables and PC-cable backups so those strobes actually can be put to use.
2 Compact tripods and light stands designed to save space and weight. These bulky items can be a real pain if you don’t plan for them accordingly.
3 A variety of gels, including at minimum orange, green and blue for color correction when mixing strobe with tungsten, fluorescent and daylight.
4 Pony clamps, cold-shoe mounts and maybe even a Gorillapod. You never know where you’re going to be able to mount your strobes.
5 Rubber bands, gaffer’s tape and C-47s (otherwise known as clothespins), perfect for affixing gels and accessories, and for all the things that you may need to fix in a pinch.
6 A neutral gray card is necessary for white balancing in tricky mixed lighting scenarios and really helpful even under normal lighting conditions.
7 Batteries. Strobes suck down lots of power. You have nothing but paperweights on your hands if you aren’t prepared to recharge or replace batteries on site.
8 Backups. If any of these items is absolutely crucial to your success—whatever it may be—you’d better be sure to bring along a backup.

You can see more examples of Corey Woodruff’s run-and-gun photography at Bill Sawalich is a frequent contributor to DPP and a professional photographer in St. Louis, Mo. He also teaches a studio photography course at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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