Choosing a Lighting System

This article is an excerpt from my e-book, Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer.

At this point, I want to talk about choosing a lighting system for an individual photo shoot. By lighting system, I don’t mean a certain brand of lighting gear but the type of lighting gear that will actually be taken into the field. The later half of this book deals with this same topic and shows examples of images shot with specific lighting equipment to give you an idea of the possibilities. Basically, the decision is this, “Can I get away with a handful of Speedlights (i.e. hot shoe flashes) and a reflector or two?,” or ”Do I need the light power offered by a strobe kit?”

Sadly, for the outdoor photographer shooting lifestyle images, or the adventure sports photographer shooting action, often Speedlights won’t give you enough light power if you are shooting in the middle of the day. If you are shooting adventure sports, most of the time the lighting setup has to be a certain distance away from the action which means you will need a powerful strobe to get enough light on the subject, especially if your strobes are twenty or thirty feet away from the subject. If your shoot is happening early or late in the day and you don’t have to overpower the full sun then you generally will have enough power to shoot with Speedlights. If you are shooting in a deep dark forest, Speedlights will work perfectly—especially if you have multiple Speedlights.

This image is a perfect example of a scenario where Speedlights work extremely well. This image of Tim Sewall downhill mountain biking near Camden, Maine was shot with one Speedlight in a dense forest on a cloudy day.

There are of course other options if the weather is overcast and cloudy. For those situations you can take three or four Speedlights or you can take a lightweight strobe kit like the Elinchrom Quadra. I have shot a lot of advertising gigs with an assistant and one Elinchrom Quadra setup. The assistant had the Quadra power pack slung over her shoulder and walked around with a medium sized softbox on the Quadra flash head. It was such a lightweight set up that we could roam far and wide and shoot wherever we wanted rather quickly. With 400 Ws at our disposal, we shot all afternoon on or near full power with wicked fast recycling times and awesome light quality. The Quadra really presents a conundrum for me on these types of shoots. I could take three or four Speedlights and essentially do the same thing with a FourSquare softbox. Both the Speedlight kit and the Quadra kit weigh about the same so it comes down to which light modifiers are required for the shoot.

The Elinchrom Quadra with the new Li-Ion battery pack weighs in at just under 5 pounds, which makes this lightweight strobe kit a seriously powerful option for the outdoor photographer.

Which lighting system you choose also depends on a number of other factors. If you need a fast recycling time then you will have to take a strobe kit. If you are trying to bath your subject is soft light then you would probably choose a strobe kit, or you could work with a large number of Speedlights. If I want a simple and automatic lighting solution then the iTTL built into the Speedlights might just persuade me to go that route. It just comes down to what is more economical and how much it all weighs.

Above is an image that was lit using a large 1,100 Ws strobe. The strobe was placed about 40-feet away from the mountain biker and this image was shot mid-afternoon so I had to overpower the bright ambient light. I used an Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS battery-powered pack and a Ranger A flash head.

The price of all this stuff is a huge factor, especially since you will need to have at least a basic stable of gear if you want to go out and produce certain types of images. I know that not everyone will want to buy a $5,000 strobe kit. Even so, if you just want to try working with Speedlights a set of four Speedlights is going to set you back $2,000—without even adding on any accessories. When it comes to strobes, remember that you can rent them for a day or two. You don’t have to buy an expensive strobe kit. If you don’t have much in the way of lighting gear, I would recommend that you start with Speedlights and then see how that goes before dropping huge amounts of money on a strobe kit. It all just depends on the type of images you want to produce. I know of some photographers who almost never use strobes anymore because they have a dozen or more Speedlights and are adept at using them in groups to achieve the same images they could with a strobe system. I will say that for the adventure photographer this would be difficult to accomplish for some action shots.

Wrapping up, there are many ways to skin this cat so to speak. How you choose to incorporate artificial lighting into your photography is up to you. I can guess that if you purchased this book then you have probably already been playing around with a Speedlight and are considering how to take your images to the next level using artificial lighting. After all, the entire point of this book is to take your images and your photography to the next level. I chose to incorporate Speedlights and strobes into my professional work to set my images apart from other photographers.

This blog post is an excerpt from my recently published e-book, Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer. For more information on this e-book and to purchase it visit my website.

If you would like to purchase Location Lighting for the Outdoor Photographer using an iPad please use this link.

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