The Balancing Act Of Flash On Location

As professional photographers let go of their expensive studio spaces and make the world their studio, it’s time to examine the needs of a photographer on the go. When studios were the norm, most pros had a space where they’d keep a number of power packs, stands, heads and all manner of modifiers. Today, we’re all working meaner and leaner, and our lighting gear is evolving with our business models.

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Most of my shooting is in a run-and-gun mode where I have to get the shot and the lighting set up fast. Also, because I want to travel light (read: carry-on), preferring not to leave my photo gear at the mercy of baggage handlers, I find that my ideal setup is to carry a number of portable flash units. Any lighting kit will have a trade-off. By carrying a small flash unit, I’m getting portability at the expense of power and some modifiers (although a number of companies are offering sophisticated modifiers for my kind of flash, it’s still an area where the advantage goes to other setups). I could carry self-contained monolights or full-blown battery- powered packs and heads, but their increased bulk and the need for stands and heavier battery packs don’t work for me. I seldom need that kind of power. (See the sidebar “The Right Light For The Job.”) I’ve refined a number of techniques to get the most out of a single flash unit. None of these has “reinvented the wheel,” but they have certainly helped things run smoothly and have lightened my load and saved my back—that’s a very real consideration, especially for travel photographers.

Crafting My Look

For my travel magazine and reportage work—especially in places like North Korea, Iran and Myanmar—I’m a one-man band. That means traveling light and low-key. My key to using flash is subtlety. In general, I want it to positively affect my photography without the image screaming, “FLASH!” While some fashion photographers want that “paparazzi” look, it’s not for me.

Lastolite Triflash Bracket

The first step in removing artificiality from the use of flash is getting the flash unit off the camera. I usually handhold my Nikon Speedlight SB-800 above my head and off to one side. This drops the shadow created by my flash down behind the subject in a more realistic manner, one that could be created by the sun or a ceiling light fixture. For indoor scenes, I like my lighting to basically replicate the direction and feel of the existing light sources while giving me the added ƒ-stop, shutter speed, fill light and color balance needed for a given situation.

One of my favorite techniques is a combination of a long exposure with multiple pops from a single flash. To illuminate two statues hidden in the recesses of a stupa (a kind of pagoda) in Bagan, Myanmar, I fired two flashes from my Speedlight SB-800 during a 20-second exposure. I approximated the same value as the large Buddha that was illuminated by sunlight. After locking down my Nikon D3 with a Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 on a tripod, I set the camera to timer. An aperture of ƒ/16 not only gave me great depth of field, but also gave a long enough exposure time to run from one statue to the other without being recorded by the sensor. I taped a 1?8 CTO (color temperature orange) over the flash head to slightly warm up the cool daylight-balanced flash. This last part, color balance, is vital for a realistic look.

In today’s ultracompetitive business environment, a pro needs to have the ability to be mobile; a large studio space is a rarity. You have to be able to work on location and travel light. Mark Edward Harris has built a reputation as a top travel and location pro, in part by mastering ultraportable lighting techniques. He sets up fast and he gets the shot.

Mixed Sources And Color Temperature

While we can use presets, such as sunny, cloudy or tungsten, and adjust white-balance values in Kelvin (on professional cameras), as well as shoot RAW and adjust color, none of these will correct a color imbalance if the image has mixed light sources, e.g., tungsten and daylight. Processing a RAW file twice, then putting the images together, requires time and effort, which I’d rather use creating imagery rather than “saving it” in post. It’s better to get it right on the initial capture.

A basic understanding of the Kelvin scale will aid in this endeavor. The scale was named after the Irish-born physicist, mathematician and engineer William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who was instrumental in the development of an “absolute thermometric scale” in the mid-19th century.

Basically, higher color temperatures (5000 K or more) are cool (bluish-white) colors. Lower color temperatures are warm (yellowish-white through orange to red). Daylight film emulsions are calibrated to approximately 5600 K, as are the daylight settings on our digital cameras.

When I was starting my career shooting stills on The Merv Griffin Show, I shot with tungsten-balanced film with a 3200 K temperature to balance to the studio’s hotlights. These days, a quick adjustment of the white-balance button to the tungsten setting on a digital camera is all it takes. Fluorescent lamps emit light primarily by a process other than thermal radiation so it doesn’t follow the Kelvin scale, which is based on thermal radiation. Instead, these types of light sources are assigned a CCT (correlated color temperature). Fortunately, we have presets, filters and gels to remove these unattractive colors from our images.

Tamrac MicroSync

Of course, we often don’t want to neutralize all colors; the lower numbers on the Kelvin scale can add warmth to a scene. It’s important to understand that just as there’s no one daylight Kelvin temperature, there’s no one tungsten temperature. For example, a candle flame is approximately 1850 K, and incandescent light bulbs fall typically into the 2700-3300 K range. Daylight and electronic flash units range from 5500 to 6000 K, with an overcast day going toward 6500 K.

Quantum QFlash 5d

The Key To Life Is Balance

It’s important to consider the fact that daylight isn’t just one color temperature; it changes throughout the day. Other factors such as weather and location—snow, sand, altitude—come into play. For example, your eye sees blue when it sees snow on a sunny day, but your brain thinks white, discounting the sky’s reflection. The photograph will reflect the reality, not what’s in our mind’s eye. Shooting with a straight flash with its cool color temperature might be perfect for that, but completely off for a sunset. This is when adding gels in front of the flash is the solution.

I cut CTO
gels into strips to tape over my flash starting with 1?8 CTO. This warms up my flash to approximately 5400 K. If I need to go warmer, a 1?4 CTO will warm things up to 4800 K, a 1?2 CTO will convert the daylight to 3800 K, and a full will convert it all the way down to 2900 K. If I need to go the other direction (which is much rarer), CTB (color temperature blue) is used.

PocketWizard Multimax

For my outdoor work, I use the flash for filling in harsh shadows on people’s faces or to add drama to an environmental portrait by making the flash a keylight and underexposing the background. In both cases, I’ll establish my ƒ-stop and then adjust the shutter speed in manual mode to decide how dark to make the background. I do this quickly, since the people I’m shooting are real; I can’t ask them to wait around while I experiment. If I’m stopped all the way down, I get to my sync speed of 1?250 sec., and if the background is still too bright, I’ll reduce my default outdoor ISO from 200 to L1 (effective 100 ISO) on my D3 and bump up my flash output one stop. For more extreme results, the Auto FP High-Speed Sync can be an option.
There’s a time and a place for overpowering the ambient light, which Annie Leibovitz has done for years—remember the great shot she did of basketball center Wilt Chamberlain and jockey Willie Shoemaker on the beach for an American Express ad? For my shot of a grandfather showing off his granddaughter on the Iranian island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, I used this basic concept. I took an ambient exposure of the sunset and silhouetted the rusting remains of a Greek ship. With that exposure established at 1?250 sec. at ƒ/5.6 at the L1 ISO, I quickly adjusted my output on my Nikon Speedlight SB-800, then raised it high and to the left. The 1?4 CTO taped over the flash’s head gave a good balance to the resulting image. I did similar approaches for my photographs of a young fisherman on Inle Lake in Myanmar and a traffic officer in Pyongyang, North Korea. Because they were both done with the sun higher in the sky, I used a 1?8 CTO over the flash.

LumiQuest FXtra

Working Without A Wire

My Speedlight SB-800 and the newest Nikon flash, the Speedlight SB-900, can be fired off-camera by the use of cords, such as the SC-29, which has a built-in AF illuminator, or the SU-800 Wireless Commander, which is compatible with the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) for cordless off-camera flash operation. Photographers such as Joe McNally are doing incredible multiflash setups with CLS. With this wireless lighting system, the out-put of up to three groups of remote Speedlights—each group comprised of a practically unlimited number of Speedlights—can be controlled from the camera position.

Soften The Blow

The Speedlight SB-800 comes with a diffusion dome, which I’ll occasionally use to soften the light. Sometimes, I’ll tilt the flashes head-up and let the light bounce off my hand for a soft light. Of course, there are many interesting light-softening devices in the marketplace (I use Gary Fong’s Lightsphere flash accessories, but there are other options, as well).

Digital cameras, because of their immediate feedback, have been an incredible aid to photographers working creatively with flash. Flash-fill has given me the ability to extend my working hours so I can shoot even under the midday sun, which according to playwright and composer Noel Coward, was supposed to be the domain for only mad dogs and Englishmen.

The Right Light For The Job
By Mark Edward Harris

My still photo assignments dictate my lighting kits. While every situation is different, I’ve found three basic categories: ultracompact strobes for when I’m on the go for reportage assignments; monolights when I need more power, but plugging in is either impractical or impossible; and power packs and separate heads for editorial and advertising jobs, where I need total light control with multilight setups and the power to get down to small ƒ-stops. In all three cases, my kits will include modifiers to control the light. After all, if you don’t control thelight, the light will control you.

AlienBees B1600

Here’s a brief breakdown of the equipment I use in different situations.I use Nikon and Profoto gear primarily, but companies such as Balcar, Bowens, Broncolor, Dynalite, Elinchrom, Norman and Speedotron all make high-quality products that are variations of what I use.

Broncolor Mobilite

1 Separate Power Packs And Heads. I have three Profoto Acute2R 1200 power packs and five heads, and rent more when needed. As with the monolights, multivoltage is a key for my international travel work. For shoots out of the U.S. requiring light, I’d never plug in a 120V pack using a converter—too much is at stake. There are two switches on the Acute2R pack that need to be set to the correct power. This unit requires a change in modeling lights when working in 220-240V locations. Additionally, I always use a surge protector overseas. In a small village in western Kenya, we were using an old generator that spiked. If not for the surge protector (which started smoking), our equipment would have been toast. Each Profoto Acute2R 1200 gives 1200 Ws of power and measures 7.5×8.7×5.1 inches and weigh 9 pounds. There are three sockets for flash heads. The symmetrical-asymmetric energy distribution over six ƒ-stops in ¼-step adjustments allows me to divide up the power to my A and B channels. The built-in radio gives me remote operation with my PocketWizards up to just over 300 feet. Besides the light-shaping and grip equipment I pack when working with monolights, I always carry at least one head extension to give me the often crucial added distance for flash-head placement. My shoot with actor Jeremy Piven on location in Malibu required a dramatic sky in the background, but the time allotted for the shoot was earlier than I

Dynalite M100wi

would have liked, the sun still being somewhat high in the sky. I needed to bring my power up and the sun down.With a full CTO (color temperature orange) over the flash head in a large softbox on a C-Stand weighted down with sandbags, I used a Hasselblad H2 syncing at 1?1000 sec. with its leaf shutter and got my ƒ-stop down to ƒ/13, which gave me the drama I was looking for.

2 Monolights. For more power and light-shaping options on locations that don’t have easy access to electrical outlets (e.g., the beach), monolights are the obvious choice. Since I do a lot of international travel assignments, the Profoto D1 Air system (available in 250, 500 and 1000 Ws), with its ability to recharge, as well as plug in and fire with any worldwide voltage, is what I use. I also carry a bag of international plug adapters and a power surge protector. The Profoto D1 1000 Air weighs 6.48 pounds, the D1 500 Air weighs 5.36 pounds and the 250 weighs in at 4.91 pounds. The units have a built-in r
eflector that eliminates the need to carry a standard reflector.

Profoto D1 500 Air

My travel kit includes umbrellas and softboxes with speed rings, a set of honeycomb grids and grid holders, stands, A-clamps, gels, gaffer’s tape and sandbags that can be filled on location with rocks, dirt or sand. They all get packed along with the monolights in a Tamrac Rolling Studio case.While I still use PocketWizards to trigger the flash, the Profoto Air system enables remote control and triggering from as far as 1,000 feet when it’s connected to the Profoto Air USB for PC and Mac.

3 Ultraportable Flash Units. Flashes are lighter and more portable, but offer less power and slower recycle times than monolights and power packs with separate heads. Still, I’ve found I can be pretty creative with a flash powered by four AA batteries (I use lithiums).The key is to

Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe

get the flash off the camera. My kit for this lighting setup is simple: a NikonSpeedlight SB-800 for my Nikon D3, a set of CTOs (1?8, ¼, ½ and full) to warm up the daylight-balanced flash as needed, aNikon Diffusion Dome, which I use on occasion, gaffer’s tape and an SC-29 cord, which has a built-in AF illuminator.I add this setup to my Tamrac bag with my cameras, lenses and computer, and I’m ready to go.

Ultraportable Lighting For Hybrid Video

With the ability to shoot HD video with hybrid cameras has come the need to have a continuous light source for low-light and fill-light situations. Since I’m often on my own for travel assignments, it’s not realistic to be lugging hot lights, HMIs and so on around the globe. For a commercial job, that’s a different story, and there are great travel kits available for those situations and, of course, great assistants to help carry them.

Lightweight and compact LED lighting, such as those made by ikan, Litepanels and Lowel, is the hybrid-video equivalent to carrying around a flash for still shooting. All have dimmers to vary the output. The same attention to color balance must be taken into consideration with these artificial light sources.

Measuring 3.3×3.3×1.5 inches, the Litepanels Micro is powered by four AA batteries (runs 1.5 hours on four alkaline AA batteries or 7 to 8 hours on E2 lithium AA batteries) for location work or by a 5-12V input jack located on the back of the unit. A flip-down filter holder allows for work with color and diffusion gels. The Litepanels Micro housing has a camera shoe featuring an adjustable tilt mechanism. To allow for multiple mounting configurations, it also may be mounted on the optional base plate for off-camera usage.

The Litepanels MicroPro runs off six AA batteries and has twice the illumination of the Litepanels Micro. The 5.5x4x1.5-inch LED light has a daylight output of 5600 K and comes with a 3200 K Daylight to Tungsten conversion gel, as well as a 1?4 CTO warm and White Diffusion.

ikan’s iLED 150 with its built-in battery mount and small size puts out 60 lux, especially impressive when taking into consideration its compact size of 6×3.25×1.375 inches and weight of 0.85 pounds with battery. The iLED kit comes with three color-correction gels, an AC adapter, a Sony-compatible battery and charger, and a camera-shoe mount v.3 in a small soft case.

Powered by AC or by battery, the Lowel Blender with a 4x3x3-inch lamp-head is another option. It has two sets of LEDs in tungsten and daylight color in one unit, which can be blended to match mixed light sources. Rotary dimmer controls for each are located on the back of the fixture. It comes with a set of front diffusers for softening the light output.

DSLRs Drive The Renaissance In Flash

Recent advancements in the ISO capability of DSLRs have changed the game for location shooters. When your camera can take a low-noise photograph at ISO 800 or higher, the need for flash to get an image begins to fade away. (See “The Digital Decisive Moment” in the January/February issue of Digital Photo Pro or on our website, Having that kind of ability to shoot in low-light lets you use flash or other artificial lighting as a creative tool instead of a requirement.

ISO technology is driving the ability of pros to go ultralight and to get more creative with ultraportable lighting. Photographers like Mark Edward Harris use flash to create atmosphere and drama instead of merely using it to blast some illumination on the main subject.

Nikon D3S

Required Reading

Want to sharpen your lighting skills? Our guide to Portrait Lighting Essentials provides instructions on the must-know basic lighting techniques, and provides tips for making a memorable image.

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