I’ve shot several different gigs lately, but instead of doing a series of Saturday Light posts about each, it makes more sense to lump them together because when you get right down to it, the technique is pretty much the same. This is lighting on the run, lighting in the world of mobile gigs, where you’re moving from location to location and are often only going to be on-site a short time.
My lighting kit, as you probably already know, is exclusively speedlight-style hotshoe flashes, although I’m not loyal to any particular brand. I have three Yongnuos, an old Nikon, and an actual Olympus that will work in TTL when mounted to the camera. Interesting enough, the Oly is the one I reach for least, and only bring along if I know I have to use on-camera flash, or just need all of the speedlights at once. Otherwise, I operate in manual mode when it comes to lighting.
I photographed the Christmas party for a local company, Net Drive, last weekend. This was my second year landing this gig, and I’m glad they asked me to return, because they’re a really cool crew and a lot of fun to photograph. This year’s event was held at a catered events space based in an old mansion. It was really nice, with different rooms for the bar, the dining area, and for mingling and socializing. They had some amazing Christmas decorations, including multiple large trees. I got to claim a room for myself, using the fireplace and existing furniture as a simple set and backdrop.
All through the party, people would come in in twos, threes, and groups to have their photo taken. I did couples and friends and even entire departments. But the name of the game was to provide a swath of balanced light capable of handling groups of 2-10 with a small footprint. So I put up two speedlights on stands, each with an umbrella, set at 45 to either side of me. Coupled with the bounce from around the room, I was able to shoot with very nice light all night.
And when something interesting happened – like dancing and karaoke in the dining room, I pulled a lightstand down, grabbed the Olympus speedlight off it’s remote trigger and threw it on-camera, switched to TTL, and went to follow the action. It’s a simple setup that created good light, setup and broke down in only a few minutes, and was easy to travel with.
I think I shot all the party photos at f/4. The E-M5 already has deeper depth of field than an APS-C or full-frame camera, and we were never stacking people three or more deep, so it worked out okay, and let the lights run at about ½ power at ISO 400.
It’s the same setup – mainly – that I used a few nights later to shoot a group photo and headshots of the New Vintage Ensemble during a rehearsal for “Hamlet.” They’re using an empty storefront in the downtown mall as a practice space – it used to be one of those trendy clothing stores that I never go into, but now it’s just a mostly empty space with nice wood floors and a mix of white and blue walls.
For the group shot, I setup the lightstands – three this time – all with Yongnuo speedlights and umbrellas. Like for the Christmas party, I had one to either side of me at an angle, and the third was right in the middle. I ducked and stuck the lens right under the umbrella’s edge to take the photos. We squeezed the cast into the frame with a white wall as a backdrop, and made the image.
With that done, the cast began their rehearsal meeting while I stowed one light, then moved the other two to one of the back walls, which was painted a nice, deep blue. One light still with an umbrella as the key, a second bare on a stand to throw a splash of light across the background, and I was set for headshots. Like the promotional series we created, everything was going to be in black & white from the start, so the color of the wall – or anything else – wasn’t important, only the final b&w tone it would render.
The cast cycled through and took about a minute apiece for their headshots – it was quick and painless, and I was broken down and out of their space in under an hour. I did the group shots at f/5.6 and ISO 100, with the speedlights all at full power. The headshots were at f/2.8 and ISO 320, with the backlight at minimum power and the key light at maybe ½.
For me, the portability is a big part of the game. Sure, there are definitely gigs that require AC powered studio strobes, C-stands, backdrops, and multiple copies of all of the above. These are gigs where you need a Suburban to transport your gear to the site, and a cart or wagon to move it to the set.
But those aren’t my gigs. My gigs take place in offices, in dance studios, outdoors, or all too often in living rooms. I work out of a lot of makeshift spaces. I don’t have a wagon and I’m often on my own – no assistants on my budget, unless my wife is available and I draft her. So my gear needs to be portable, by me, in one trip.
The modifiers change, but the basics are always the same, and more and more these days I’m working with fewer lights instead of more. If only one light source is necessary, then only use one – don’t overcomplicate things. Two lights is plenty for probably 95% of my gigs.
Someday it might be fun to have a dedicated studio with a bank out outlets and be able to blast 10,000 watt-seconds of light around the room. But the fact is that I like going on location and making photos in environmental settings, and this is what works for me.