Many many words have been posted over the internets recently about Joe Klamar’s portraits of the US Olympic Team. Among his explanations for the poor quality of the shots, is that he didn’t have “professional lighting.” What he did have, was a speedlight (a/k/a flash). Never mind the wonky poses or backdrops. Those have already been discussed to death. Let’s talk about shooting with a speedlight. Yes, a single, little speedlight. It can be done and done well.
It’s not the gear, it’s the photographer.
Cliche? Sure. True? You bet. Not many of us would turn down using a set of Profotos, but something like that is not in everyone’s budget, and sometimes the logistics of your location make a lighting setup like that impractical. There are lots of good speedlights available from different manufacturers. I use a Nikon SB-800, which I picked up a few years ago for around $275. I would also suggest a Pocket Wizard or another type of transmitter/receiver combination to allow you to use the flash off camera. Where and how you position the light makes a huge impact on your shot. Invest in a reflector or two as well. It’s $40 well spent. I also like to use a diffuser cap on the light to soften it up a bit.
Indoors, low light
This image of fashion writer, Jeffrey Felner, was shot in his living room in Manhattan on a snowy, cloudy day in January. The decor of the room is dark and there were only two windows, so there was not much help from any natural light. The speedlight was positioned on a stand about 4′ away from the subject and to my left at about a 60 degree angle. A pair of reflectors were on the opposite side.
Indoors, bright light
This image was shot for designer, Callula Lillibelle, and their Resort Wear 2012 Collection. This shoot was in the middle of the day in a location with windows that went nearly floor to ceiling. Here, the light was used to separate the model from the bright background and keep her from being backlit. The light was positioned to my right about 3′ back. Be mindful of where you position your light when glass (or anything very reflective) is in your background to avoid unsightly flash spots. I suggest practicing this on your own, so you’re not wasting valuable shoot time. On this day we shot 33 looks on a tight schedule, so there was no time to be fooling around getting the lighting right. Models get tired (even the most professional ones) and clients don’t always have patience and time waiting for you to get your act together.
Outdoors, low light
Here is an example shot outdoors, at dusk for Callula Lillibelle’s Holiday 2012 Collection. For this shoot, we were outside and constantly moving around and using stands was not practical. I had a assistant holding the light and moving around with the model, usually standing about 6′-8′ away.
All three of these were shot using a single speedlight. There were no big, fancy, expensive setups. Your speedlight can be a good friend to you and a valuable ally in a pinch. Read the manual that comes with it (I know, it’s not the most compelling read) and get to know how it works. More, bigger, and fancier lights don’t automatically make for a better shot.
And remember – keep shooting, and keep learning.