Ah…light. What truly makes a photograph. But it’s so …. confusing.
Until literally, the light bulb went off in my head one day while I was reading, studying, and trying to “get it”! I started watching how the light “fell”, when it “fell off”, how it intensified, or lessened, how I could change it’s effect, and what was flattering for different faces, body shapes, and more. What was dramatic, and what was just plain bad. How the light was colored, or influenced, and how that affected the end result. How it all played into exposure – that wonderful trilogy of shutter speed, aperture and ISO. How you can change light quickly, and get a completely different result.
Understanding how to manipulate light, and shadow, and shape it all into something with impact. That is what really gets me excited. That IS portraiture to me.
Ok, how did I get here? Well, first understand what here is. I have studio lights – lights that trigger from a device on my camera and fire everything simultaneously. Those are powerful, and I have a ton of modifiers – soft boxes, umbrellas, all sizes, shapes, etc. All with specific purposes, and all for the lighting system I use in studio. I use Alien Bee’s. Why? They were not a huge investment going in, which was great because I started with just one and quickly built that up to the 6 I have now. And I could use a 7th, but with the other things I have I’ll make “do”. Alien Bee is a great company – they have fantastic customer service, and I can’t see spending a ton more on a different brand just to pay more. When these die, I will replace them at the time with the best decisions then. For now, I have a lot invested in these lights and the modifiers that fit them. (because you buy a modifier and it’s associated “speed ring” for each light – which adds up fast!). And when I wanted the lights off the floor, that was a whole ‘nother thing to learn, invest in, and figure out technically. But light stands in studio became a pain to move around quickly, so I did make that investment quickly.
I use Pocket Wizards in studio to trigger my lights. I have a lot of them. Why them? Because I also have a Sekonic light meter that can trigger those lights with the built in module for pocket wizards. Otherwise I had to find a way to make the lights flash for the meter to “read” the output. Technical stuff…which quickly became my nemesis in the lighting world. Technical stuff. Making it all “go”, while trying to make me still look like I knew what I was doing.
I had to quickly figure out why and how, to make the lights flash. In studio it was actually easier to solve. On location, with portable flashes…not so easy! And NOT cheap either.
In the beginning I could use the popup flash on my camera body, which could send a triggering signal to the other flashes. Until I didn’t have a camera with a popup flash. And until I realized that the commands for how to control that system were buried in the camera menu. Too much time to change settings, that meant lost images. And if the receiving light couldn’t “see” the triggering light, then nothing went off. Ah. Darkness, my old friend.
Just WORK was the problem. I went through many, many, iterations of triggering systems to find what worked for me. Including having an assistant who job literally, was to hold the light and tell me if it didn’t actually fire. Because sometimes you are working so fast, you don’t see that the light didn’t fire. And that was not a good thing.
The system that finally worked well, or mostly dependably, for me, was the combination of Pocket Wizard TT1, & TT5s and Nikon Flashes. I had popup soft boxes – small, but they worked better than umbrellas that had a harsher light, or not enough light. That system could shoot both TTL and manual, and almost always, fired on demand. For families, I had a small challenge with getting enough light, and large groups required more than one flash in each umbrella or soft box to get enough output to be of value. Same problem in bright sunlight – so mid day sun needed even more light to compensate and balance the natural light all around. You don’t want the subject in shadow but bright light behind that blows everything out. Balancing the light was, and still is, a thing. Again, every step of the way, I had to find and identify what worked for what situation. And to be prepared for ALL situations.
Problems that plagued me: Flash misfires, or non fires…, blowing over in the wind with too big of a modifier, battery life of all of it (I have over 200 rechargeable batteries now because they really do last longer and when weddings became a thing I needed that much portable power – with 4 batteries in each flash and 8 in each battery pack attached to each flash, all times 4 flashes, that’s a lot of batteries). Which meant I had to keep them all charged – and that was a lesson learned too. You can buy a charger that charges 10 at a time – much better than 4 at a time, and that meant I didn’t have to have batteries all over my house charging! But still, I had to have 12 batteries for each light set up, and backup batteries for when they all died in a session.
Ok, the other real issues come when you want to move around with your light – so outside, I wanted portability, the ability to modify, and it had to all still WORK, easily. No one wants to fumble in front of a customer.
Light stands, modifiers, easy to set up, break down, carry while carrying the camera and lenses, all of it were considerations. I tried carts, different camera bags (don’t even get me started on bags!), different stands, and in the end, I just had to adapt. Meaning my arms might ache at the end of a shoot, but I needed the stands and modifiers, and I needed the lights – and back up of the lights, just in case.
SIDE NOTE: Much of these frustrations were considered when I started thinking about how difficult it really was to shoot ON LOCATION. So along the way, the idea of the Portrait Park became more and more of not just a good idea, but a time and money saver. (Ok, I happened to have 20 acres to work with, so yes, that helped.)
Ok, so fast forward to today. Today I shoot outdoors with ProFoto lights. No Nikon speed lights any longer. Why Profoto? They are the best in the business. Not the cheapest. If money is a big factor, there are cheaper lighting systems. But ProFoto makes a system of durable, consistent colored lights. I now have the ProFoto B1 (a studio quality battery operated), 2 ProFoto B2s, and the new ProFoto A1’s (2 of them). I have modifiers for all of them, and can trigger all of them with the ProFoto trigger for Nikon. They are easy to change power outputs, can shoot in TTL if I want to shoot fast and let the camera set the power output, and all battery operated – so no more AA rechargeable batteries, and that is a good thing!
I still have the Nikon speedlights, but when considering the cost of a new speed light from Nikon, it made sense for me to just buy the ProFoto A1 speed lights this past Fall because they are more powerful, and work with the rest of my system, so triggering was a breeze.
I also have a couple LED lights that I use for detail work on weddings, etc. And I have a fluorescent ring light for in studio that has some fun output and gives me more options for creativity.
And that is my journey. First, to understand that natural light is only pretty if you truly KNOW what you are doing with it, and how to manipulate it. Reflectors, diffusers, all fun to try, and certainly less expensive, but lighting someone is more than just using the sun…it’s understanding HOW to use the sun, and using the sun as only main light AND as an excuse to not understand, or not to invest in your business, isn’t professional in my book. True natural light photographers have an thorough understanding of how to work with lights, they just CHOOSE not to in some circumstances.
For real- going to off camera flash setups is expensive. Between the light, the stand, the modifier, the battery packs for fast refresh, the triggers and receivers, AND understanding how it all works – you have to invest about 1k in each light you want use off camera. It is NOT for the faint of heart. But in the end, having the ability to light a subject in the shade, indoors, and when the sun isn’t cooperating and actually being a problem; well, that is priceless to a professional. I am prepared for whatever mother nature throws at me, within reason. Snow, sleet, and hurricanes – I’m inside folks. In my warm cozy indoor studio. With fun backdrops, and a ton of options to play with “unnatural” light.
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