Small Lights Big Effects

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.

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