Light the way - flash on a budget
Using artificial lighting can be both a daunting and expensive prospect for newer photographers. With a myriad of lighting options on the market and a spectrum of price ranges, it’s easy to get confused with all the options out there. Sam Edmonds spoke with photographic masters about their approach to lighting, and how to make it amazing on a budget.
Many of history’s great photographers relied on nothing but the sun to expose their film to. And indeed many of them operated their cameras at a time before any such technology for artificial lighting was readily available or accessible. But today it’s a different story. While some genres of photography still aim to rely on natural light as much as possible, across all modern professional photographic disciplines, speedlights and studio lights are ubiquitous. Especially in the realms of advertising, editorial, and commercial work, a good understanding of artificial lighting and how to use it is crucial.
For developing photographers, investing in a lighting kit and learning how to properly use it can be challenging to both the mind and the wallet. With head/pack kits from high-end brands including Elinchrom and Profoto ranging anywhere in price from $1,000 to $15,000, it can be difficult to gauge how much of an investment is necessary to achieve those brilliant results we all strive for. But as a number of professionals will tell you, the trick is to keep it simple. While some sets might boast an astronomical number of lights and require an army of assistants to go with them, a considerable number of the world’s best portraiture and editorial photographers often rely on only one light source. Couple this with continuing advances in lighting technology and a professional quality kit to get started seems more in reach than ever before.
Advances in lighting technology also mean that the number of options available to photographers continues to grow to meet the ever-increasing demands to use different lights for different applications: from full-blown electricity powered packs to constant light in the form of LED and tungsten to powerful battery-powered location kits, and speedlights from Profoto such as the compact Profoto A1 or the Nikon SB-5000, which includes the world’s first cooling system.
Adaptability is key
While large lighting floor packs are big, expensive heads have long been perceived as the calling card of a professional, and essential on any advertising or editorial shoot, in the last few years technology has seen this start to waver as more powerful lights fit into physically smaller units and wireless technology easily facilities the use and synchronisation of more lights. This was perhaps pre-empted by Elinchrom’s Quadra series of packs and lights featuring unprecedented small form factor and drastically reduced price tag.
As Sydney-based photographer Daniel Linnet explains, photographers have been more creative with their approach to making lighting kits versatile and light-weight. Utilising the Canon ST-E3-RT speedlight transmitter, Linnet has managed to rig up arrays of up to seven Canon 600EX-RT speedlights that are more portable, more lightweight, and do the job for a number of shoots both in studio and in the field. “In the past, I’ve always used bigger, more powerful strobes and a lot of the work I tend to do is usually on location, instead of in a studio,” says Linnet. “Recently, I’ve gone through somewhat of an evolution in the way that I light and the equipment I use on location. I use the Canon 600EX-RTs, so basically I can have a fairly complex lighting system set-up in minutes on location and control it all from the top of my camera. I use that in TTL as well as manual.”
Linnet admits that while his speedlight setup has served him well across an impressive number of shooting conditions, the power output of seven units in unison can’t quite match that of his Elinchrom gear. However, combining the compactness and ease-of-use of his 600EX-RTs along with the sheer power of an Elinchrom ELB 400 has allowed Linnet to adapt to challenging shooting conditions. But as he says, if you aren’t in a scenario where you need to overpower the sun and rely on something like an ELB 400 – or the newly released and highly anticipated ELB 1200 – a speedlight configuration proves highly adaptable and useful on its own terms – both in and outside of the studio. “Speedlites are great in any situations where the ambient lighting is a little lower, but I have on a number of occasions demonstrated that speedlites are also useful in a studio situation,” says Linnet, adding that most light modifiers found on larger heads are now available for speedlights. “I’ve set up quite complex lighting configurations using 5-7 speedlights within a studio environment and used them in the same way as studio strobes, basically just to prove the point that for someone starting out, if they were to make the one investment, a good set of speedlights would probably be a really good starting point.”
Gearing up for success
Whether opting for a Linnet-esque speedlight configuration or heading more toward a high-powered Elinchrom or Profoto kit, Perth-based photographer Stef King recommends that making a larger initial investment in good quality gear, rather than flimsy, lower quality versions. Having been awarded both the Western Australia Commercial Photographer of the Year and Western Australia Portrait Photographer of the Year, King now represents Elinchrom Lighting as a brand ambassador and has relies on a combination of studio and location lighting systems. “I moved into my own studio a few years back. When I did, I invested in a set of Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 1000 heads and have not looked back,” she says. “These lights as well as the Elinchrom ELB 400 and 1200 location kits make up my go-to lighting kits.” But while King advises in purchasing equipment that can take a fall from a light stand – or even in one case as she experienced, a balcony – this does not necessarily mean making an investment in a lot of gear. “Really research what gear is right for your personal style,” she says. “You don’t needs tons of gear; you just need what works for you to get your best results.”
In addition to its ability to withstand a few bumps on a windy day or even from a disgruntled art director, King says that while she loves the challenge of working with the harsh Australian natural light, good quality, high-powered lights allow her the ability to be consistent and to deliver a style that matches her clients’ needs. “The sunlight in Western Australia is extremely contrasty. Sometimes, in the middle of the day it’s just impossible to shoot. This is where there the Elinchrom ELB 1200 comes into play as it can easily overpower the sun,” says King. “There is something about natural light that can create spectacular results, but often when I am shooting a commercial job for a client and they require a particular look, I need to be able to rely on studio lighting to create a consistent look in any situation.”
Keep it simple
Echoing King’s sentiment of only investing in the minimum required gear, US-based, UK-born portrait photographer Jason Bell is no stranger to the “Keep is Simple” principle. Rather that emphasising the economic value of resisting too many lights, Bell highlights the simple fact that when shooting in less than desirable conditions on location, fewer lights means less that can go wrong. “I actually mostly use daylight, except when in the studio, and sometimes even there, so my bare essentials would be a tripod and various reflectors,” Bell says. “But that said, we do usually supplement with some Profoto gear. Their stuff seems very sturdy and dependable.”
Bell hasn’t arrived at this conclusion lightly either, having put his Profoto equipment to the test in some pretty extreme conditions. “I work a lot outside, so wind is often a problem with lights. And extreme cold is not great for battery powered flash,” he says – two conclusions that may well have been perfectly illustrated on a recent shoot with opera singer John Reuter in Greenland. “He was standing on an iceberg that was not only moving, but also rotating, so every time we had the shot set up and the lights pointing in the right direction, he would drift away, and we would have to start again,” recalls Bell. “It was about minus 40 and we were told if anyone fell in the water, they had just under a minute to get out or they would die of hypothermia, so I would say all round that was a fairly stressful shoot.”
Whether shooting on an iceberg in Greenland or in sunny California photographing Drew Barrymore or Angelina Jolie, Bell says that while his philosophy towards lighting is generally unwavering, he avoids maintaining a formula for his shoots. “I’m not a fan of very ‘lit’ shots, so I find even when I’m using complicated lighting gear I’m trying to make it look like daylight, or real light in some way,” he says before describing a portrait shoot with actor Rupert Friend on set in Bratislava. After paying an enormous amount in excess baggage for the heavy lighting equipment that might be needed, Bell found himself returning to the basics. “We went for a drink with him in a local bar and I ended up shooting him over a glass of red wine lit by a couple of dripping candles on the table in front of him,” he says. “On the way home my assistant said to me: ‘Shall I just bring a box of matches or a pocket torch next time and we can save money and hassle lugging all these lights around?’”
The nature of things
The logistics of carting studio lighting equipment is also not foreign to natural history photographer and conservationist Tim Flach, whose most recent body of work, Endangered, saw him travel to several continents over 20 months photographing a wide range of exotic and threatened species. Combining imagery that appears to have been shot in a studio context with that of a more natural setting for some animals, Flach’s work aims to address the larger issues facing these animals. His approach is to display the individual faces and nature of subjects to his audience in a non-confrontational manner. It’s something which Flach says ultimately makes for a more emotional and thus more desirable reaction to the work, and this is particularly useful when dealing with topics like climate change and poaching.
Lighting, Flach says, is therefore of the upmost importance. “If a picture is done in a style of representation that more references humans, we are much more likely to connect with it. So, if you are able to apply that to animals, we are much more likely to be emotionally connected,” he says. “I am certainly someone who looks a lot to traditions of painting where certain consistent compositional strategies are used and I will often apply that in a lighting context, too. It might be left of right lighting depending which way I would like the eye to navigate. And I might also use Photoshop to reduce contrast in certain areas and to move through the composition in a certain way.”
But this might be easier said than done when the subjects of a body of work encompass such species as hammer-head sharks, Iberian lynx, and Siamese Crocodiles – none of which were photographed in captivity. And on top of that, a diversity of scales, textures, and anatomy often completely foreign to the subjects of most photographers presented its own set of challenges. “We actually photographed a live bee – these are usually dead when people photograph insects – so, we did that in a studio,” says Flach. “We actually had the bee on top of a tripod head and as it moved, we rotated the head so that I could get the frames that I wanted. What was quite amusing was that the lighting was a kind of shaft from a fairly small light source, but I also had pieces of black foil cut to very, very small pieces – literally in such a manner so that it was only flagging something like the head which is only a few millimetres across.”
Lighting the way
Whether photographing live animals from bees to bears or for high-end editorial shoots with cars, models or celebrities, most professionals seem to concur that the ‘keep it simple, stupid’ principle applies across the board. While many photographers who are just starting out might not be able to afford the latest high-end kit or an array of speedlights, many of the masters of light insist that you can learn all you need to with the bare essentials, and, in a lot of cases, using only that one big light that everyone has access to: the sun. As Daniel Linnet advises: “When we are using artificial lighting in a studio or extra lighting on location, we are pretty much trying to replicate what can be achieved with the sun. And the concept of using artificial lighting is the same.” And Jason Bell concurs, not omitting the economic angle to the argument. “I would definitely say start out with daylight. When you learn to manage that, you begin to understand how lighting works. And it’s free.”