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Small Lighting for Big Results

A Guest post by Luke Townsend.

We’ve all heard it, the question that has haunted mans inner paranoia for centuries, the question that photographers ponder everyday, shoot to shoot…does size matter? I’m talking about lighting size and needs. Many factors go into play when trying to choose a light source for your shoot and knowing which one to use and when to use it will prove to be advantageous when clients start searching for skilled photographers. For many photographers the thought of using anything other than their tride and true studio lights is out of the question but knowing how to properly utilize small light, how to shape and augment them in anyway possible to fit your scene can present major lighting advantages for future work.

As you start to explore and experiment with all the options presented to you, finding the right light becomes less of a chore and thanks to the many technological leaps in industry integrating both systems into your jobs becomes a smooth and seamless transition.

Location or studio? Are you traveling? Does the airline have weight restrictions? Portraits or products? Do you need a modeling light? Do you need battery longevity? What modifiers will you need? What’s your budget? What’s the final output? What’s the mood you want to convey? Taking that first step is always tough however, making a point to get in the habit of asking these simple questions days before the shoot will not only save you time but lots of headache when you’re faced with the pressures of the job at hand.


Take a look at these two images for example. The job was to photograph two headshots of Bashira to use for her own promotional purposes. I had about ten minutes with Bashira to make the portraits so the first step is to keep it simple. Simple is always your best friend, especially when you don’t have the luxury of a couple hundred assistants. Time is limited so I don’t need long lasting batteries however recycle time is key. If you’re thinking studio light you’re correct. I hauled out the Profoto 7B for this shoot. The 7B is a small 1200 watt second battery operated field unit that recycles fast and can last you all day in the field if necessary. To capture Bashira’s face appropriately I chose the beauty dish as my main light.

The beauty of the beauty dish, no pun intended, is that the light is soft but inherently sharp and contrasty, another prime reason for selecting the larger Profoto studio lights. Put at least 10 feet between the white background and Bashira and the white slips into a beautiful dark grey. Question is how to separate her hair from blending into the dark background? This is where the slave and zoom functions of the Sb-900 units comes into play. You can see below in the diagram that I set up two Sb-900 units on either side of Bashira to light the hair. Keep in mind your main light has sharp and contrasty values so it’s important to mimic that feel with your separation lights. One great feature of the Sb units is the ability to zoom the light down to 200mm, essentially collecting the light into a tight beam and throwing it a far distance, giving me the same “hard” look from the light.

The fun starts when you ask yourself how do I fire all of the lights? One could easily set up a pocket wizard on each light but keeping costs down and the amount of gear you have to travel with will keep you happy and the client happy when they get the bill. I threw the two back lights into TTL because I knew the Nikon system is extremely accurate in calculating exposure for any given scene. Slip another Sb-900 on the camera’s hot shoe which essentially becomes your pocket wizard, using the commander unit to trigger the backlights which in turn triggered the Profoto 7B set on slave. Super easy, super fast integration of big and small flash.


Okay, so the system works in the comfort of a controlled studio but can it produce the same results outside on location where anything can happen? Next scenario was to photograph Nik as if he was a crane operator in the Brooklyn Naval Yards. Days before the shoot I scouted the location and the shadow of a giant crane hook on the side of a building caught my eye. Always be on the lookout for simple, creative ways to enhance a portrait. Shadows are your friend.

I remember a quote I heard from George Hurrell years back that said it’s not where you place the light, it’s where you place the shadows that count. This frame of mind has stuck with me and one thing that’s good to try is just to put a light up behind some objects and just let the shadows fall where they fall. Put anything in front of the light, pallets, plants, bars, and just play. It’s a quick and easy way to create dramatic backgrounds with nothing more than one light. Using the effects of the shadow play It’s easy to augment the natural effects of the sunlight shadow into a controlled working studio but adding strobe.

The challenge here was to get the light in the right position. The sun is up high, shining down at an angle at which my light stands do reach. Here’s where the portability of the Sb-900 comes into play. I had my assistant climb onto the roof with the strobe in order to mimic the sunlight. Using the zoom function again is important because you want a hard, sharp shadow. If you think about why the sun always produces sharp shadows think about where the sun is in relation to your subject. It’s really far away. Even the largest softbox 20 feet away is going to produce sharp, harsh shadows.

One more step is involved to achieve the look and feel of the late afternoon sunlight…warmth. I added a full cut of CTO, color temperature orange, correction gel to significantly warm up the scene. I started out photographing Nik close to the wall where he would be light entirely with the strobe up on the roof. Pretty nice look, open, and shot loose to help give a since of scale between Nik and the size of the hook.


As I did in the studio with Bashira I pulled Nik far away from the background for a tighter portrait. To create a different look I zoomed my lens down to 200mm to compress the background for a more clean and simple image. I have now brought Nik out of the light and silhouetted him. This is where the portability of the Profoto 7b comes in handy. Since the unit is battery powered I can forget about having to haul around hundreds of feet of extension cords and generators and worrying about finding an AC plug in. Now I can focus on my subject and the task at hand.

Again I used the beauty dish because while I wanted the feel of sunlight I needed a light that is still soft and flattering for a portrait and I implemented the same triggering technique as in the studio to fire all of the units, using the strobe on the roof to trigger the Profoto unit on the ground via the slave function.




The key here is to figure out what works for you. Ask yourself the questions necessary to appropriately light your subjects and experiment, experiment, experiment! Whether big or small each unit has its place and when you can seamlessly integrate both into your daily lighting workflow you will see yourself becoming more efficient and more prepared. Each new scenario will allow you to catalog those solutions into your mental rolodex which will allow you to become a better photographer with better solutions which will take your work to a whole new level!

See more of Luke’s work at his website or Facebook page.

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