The days of lugging bags filled with heavy lighting equipment and paying hundreds of dollars in excess and overweight baggage fees for location shoots are over. Or at least they should be. Virtually all still photography and most small video productions can take advantage of the newest generation of compact but powerful monolights and LED systems, saving not only greenbacks but countless aching backs as well.
I still love separate power packs and strobe head units for a day in the studio, but if I’m out the door on a shoot that requires lighting, it will be with mono heads or a speedlight.
Speedlights continue to be the first line of offense when shooting stills at a location that will benefit from artificial light, especially when traveling solo.
The new Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI, compatible with Canon’s Type-A EOS cameras (E-TTL II/E-TTL autoflash) is billed as the world’s first flash with an AI (Auto Intelligent) Bounce function. The unit can automatically detect the distance to the subject as well as the ceiling in order to calculate the ideal angle for the flash to achieve the desired results. The flash head swivels in multiple directions to formulate the ideal bounce flash angle. The Speedlite 470EX-AI can also maintain a specific exposure and bounce angle when alternating between horizontals and verticals. In addition, it boasts a powerful maximum guide number of 47 (154 ft.) at ISO 100. For more power and compatibility with all EOS SLR cameras, the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT is the next logical step up.
The Sony HVL-F60RM clip-on flash unit features a high guide number of 60, high-speed continuous shooting capability and wireless radio commander/receiver functionality, making it the ideal speedlight for advanced amateur and professional users shooting with Sony. Since the wireless radio communication can work up to 98 feet, around obstacles and in bright conditions, it’s ideal for outdoor location shoots. A total of 15 flash units can be assigned to up to five groups. Paired wireless flashes can be easily adjusted via an LCD panel. A more economical—but still sophisticated—entrance into the world of Sony flashes is its HVL-F32M.
Nikon has taken a major leap forward with its speedlights with its SB-5000, a radio-controlled wireless lighting system that does not require line-of-sight to work. Under the Tuscan-like sky and over the magnificent rolling hills of Paso Robles, California, I did a full-length shot of winemaker Bob Tillman standing in his Alta Colina Vineyard with my AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens. Setting my Nikon D850 to 1/250 sec. at ƒ/8 and ISO 100, I had a colleague hold my speedlight with a ¼-CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel over the head to balance the Kelvin temperature, with a diffuser attached to soften the much-needed fill light.
Before moving on to other flash options, it’s important to reemphasize the importance of proper color balance. Even the most expensive strobe on the planet will produce the wrong look if the photographer behind the lens does not have a clear understanding of Kelvin temperatures. At its most basic, flashes are balanced to the cool side of daylight, which is basically 5600 degrees Kelvin. The big tungsten lights, the ones seen on movie sets, for instance, are normally 3200 degrees Kelvin. If you can memorize these two numbers, you’ll have a good starting point to work with. The color of daylight changes throughout the day, but our artificial light sources don’t, hence the need to color correct the lights to match the prevailing conditions. Color imbalance and over-lighting a subject are two of the most common issues that separate professional from amateurish-looking photos.
A number of companies, including Rosco, LEE, Profoto, Elinchrom, Dynalite, Pro Gel, LumiQuest, Westcott and STO-FEN, make gels and products specifically designed to balance Kelvin temperatures, as well as others to create special effects. As I’ve written in the past, we don’t always want to neutralize the color in certain scenes. A candlelit dinner, for example, should have a lot of warmth, while a mid-winter high Arctic scene should come across as ice-cold. Photographs that have mismatched color temperatures look artificial.
Photographers needing more strobe power than those provided by speedlights made by camera manufacturers but wanting to stay within the realm of a speedlight often turn to the Quantum Qflash TRIO (QF8). It’s bigger and more powerful than the average hot-shoe flash and has a built-in parabolic reflector with a diffuser. The battery-powered unit is available with built-in TTL wireless receivers for Canon and Nikon systems and can control all the same features, including AF assist, high-speed sync and the ability to adjust the settings and output of remote flashes from the command center of the primary unit. Quantum’s FreeXwire radio technology can control any number of remote Qflashes for multi-flash setups. It can even mix in Nikon or Canon flashes with Qflash remote control by using its Qlink accessory. For use with other camera systems, the more economical TRIO Basic model excludes the internal FreeXwire radios. Those radio functions, however, can be added later via a factory upgrade.
For even more power and light-shaping options on location, especially those locations that don’t have easy access to electrical outlets (e.g. shoots in the mountains or at the beach), monolights—self-contained strobe units powered by a large rechargeable battery—are the obvious choice.
When it comes to the balance of power with portability, the 500 W/s Profoto B1X strobe continues to be among the best solutions on the market for location photography. With both TTL and HSS (High-Speed Sync) capabilities and up to 10 times the power of the average speedlight, this cordless, battery-powered monolight allows the user to overpower the sun for a split second of time, ideal for dramatic environmental portraits and fashion shoots with rich deep tones throughout the frame. Its exchangeable lithium-ion battery, which mounts directly onto the strobe unit, will yield up to 325 full-power flashes and into the thousands at lower power when fully charged. This is a massive jump in battery longevity from its precursors.
The Profoto B1X can work in TTL (through the lens) mode utilizing the optional Air Remote TTL-C (for Canon), TTL-N (for Nikon), TTL-S (for Sony) or TTL-O (for Olympus) transmitter. The transmitter slides into the camera’s hot-shoe, has eight frequency channels with three groups per channel and a range of up to 330 feet for TTL triggering and 1,000 feet for normal triggering. Each channel has a power ratio capability of +/– 2 stops. The flash unit has an LED modeling light and first- or rear-curtain control. The Air TTL can quickly be adjusted for the appropriate exposure in 1/10th ƒ-stop increments over a nine ƒ-stop power range.
To go wireless with other strobe systems, most pros turn to the PocketWizard radio transmitters with normal sync and remote control up to 1,000 feet and TTL and HSS up to 330 feet.
I’m using a Profoto monolight with a grid—one of its dedicated monolight system OCF Light Shaping Tools—on a monopod for my orangutan portrait series. This allows me to move around with my subjects rather than being locked down to one position with a studio-style set-up with separate packs, heads and stands.
A more budget-minded but still powerful monolight option is the Dynalite Baja B4 400w/s monolight with six stops of range that are adjustable in tenth-stop increments. Its rechargeable lithium-ion battery can generate 550 full-power flashes, with the flash duration ranging from 1/500 to 1/12,800 sec. when the need to freeze superfast action is required. Its C-Mode offers burst shooting up to 15 flashes per second.
High-quality professional lights for cinema can easily make their way into the thousands of dollars. If you’re doing smaller productions yet still want a “big production” look, a number of products might keep you within or under budget. Less power means bumping up ISOs in indoor shoots and/or opening up your lens to wider apertures—which is often a good way to achieve a “film look” with a shallow depth of field. Sometimes investing in a faster lens and working with smaller lights might be the solution for a given project.
Lightweight and compact LED lights, such as those made by ikan, Litepanels and Lowel, are the hybrid-video equivalent to carrying around a speedlight for shooting stills. All have dimmers to vary the output while some can vary the Kelvin color temperatures.
For those who want to have the ability to dial in the appropriate Kelvin color temperature—and any serious photographer/videographer should—LED units such as the Onyx 15W and 30W bi-color LED lights from ikan are adjustable from 3200K to 5600K; in other words, from Tungsten to Daylight. Both use Sony L-Series batteries as their power sources. The GVM Dimmable Bi-color LED Video Panel Light expands the Kelvin temperature range from 2300K to 6700K.
Some units, such as the NEEWER 160 LED CN-160 Dimmable Ultra High Power Panel and the SAMTIAN 160 LED Video Light, come with a dimmer switch for light intensity but require the color gel filter that comes with the head to change its Daylight balance to Tungsten. They are both very wallet-friendly options.
No matter what artificial light source I use, modifying it is the key to strong results. I think I’m the one who came up with the expression, “If you don’t control the light, the light will control you.” Not great prose, but it helps get the idea across. Companies such as Lastolite, LumiQuest, Westcott and STO-FEN have a wide array of light-shaping products specifically made for digital SLR and mirrorless camera flash systems, while a number of these, as well as all the major strobe manufacturers, make them for their larger strobe heads. Many of the latter are interchangeable, while some are dedicated to specific units or brands.
Nikon’s new flagship speedlight, the SB-5000, takes Nikon’s Creative Lighting System with Advanced Wireless Lighting to the next level with both traditional optical wireless control and a powerful new radio control. Photographers are now able to place up to 6 groups of remote flashes out of view and behind obstacles up to 98 feet away. Line of sight is no longer required. The SB-5000 AF Speedlight also introduces the world’s first hot-shoe mount flash cooling system for more than 100 consecutive shots at full output. Its new sleeker design weighs in at just under 15 ounces. It has a Guide Number of 113 feet at ISO 100 and 35mm. Estimated street price: $596. Contact: Nikon, nikonusa.com.
The Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI is billed as the world’s first flash with an AI (Auto Intelligent) Bounce function. The unit automatically detects the distance to the subject as well as the ceiling in order to calculate the ideal angle for the flash to achieve the desired results. The flash head swivels in multiple directions to formulate the ideal bounce flash angle. The Speedlite can also maintain defined exposure and bounce angles when alternating between horizontal and vertical compositions. Its maximum guide number is 47 (154 ft.) at ISO 100. Weighing in at just under 14 ounces, the unit is compatible with all Type-A EOS cameras (E-TTL II/E-TTL autoflash) and can work manually and second-curtain sync with Type-B EOS cameras. Estimated street price: $399. Contact: Canon, usa.canon.com.
Sony’s HVL-F60RM features Quick Shift Bounce, the company’s original flash head rotating mechanism. An independent light output level button allows direct control of output or compensation for efficient workflow. Paired wireless flashes can also be easily adjusted via an LCD panel. Its wireless radio communication works reliably at distances of up to 98.43 feet and even around obstacles or in bright conditions. Slow sync, rear-curtain sync and multi-flash are supported. Up to 15 flash units can be assigned to up to five groups for wireless flash control at distances of up to 98.43 feet. Optional Wireless Radio Commander (FA-WRC1M) and Wireless Radio Receiver (FA-WRR1) units allow the HVL-F60RM to be used with Sony flash units that do not have built-in radio wireless capability, as well as the radio-capable HVL-F45RM. Estimated street price: $598. Contact: Sony, sony.com.
Power and portability are the key ingredients that go into lights designed for life on the road. The Rotolight Neo 2 Explorer Kit comes in a compact, water-resistant soft case, allowing photographers to take three NEO 2s on location shoots to create a three-light set-up. The unit is unique in its ability to combine the benefits of continuous light with the flexibility of High Speed Sync (HSS) flash. Featuring a built-in Elinchrom Skyport flash receiver, the NEO 2 offers reliable wireless triggering (1/8000 sec.) and control of all three lights at once up to 656 feet away. Powered by 6 AA batteries, DC or D-Tap, the NEO 2 promises outstanding color reproduction, with a gorgeous soft light output and Rotolight’s signature catch light effect. Estimated street price: $1,599. Contact: Rotolight, rotolight.com.
The Neewer CN-160 LED Light Kit comes with two 2600 mAh batteries, a USB battery charger and a carrying case and is compatible with Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony cameras. Spotlight and Diffusion filters are included, as well as one to change its daylight color temperature to 3200K. The 6x AA lithium-ion battery-powered light’s intensity is controlled by an on/off and brightness adjustment switch. The included battery adapter can substitute the AA batteries for Sony NP-FH, NP-FM or NP-F Series, or Panasonic CGR-D16S rechargeable batteries. This nuts-and-bolts unit is a solid entry into the world of professional lighting gear. Estimated street price: $49. Contact: Neewer, neewer.com.
Paul C. Buff’s Einstein E640 offers high-end features in a relatively affordable package. The 640 W/s monolight has all-digital controls and an LCD display, as well as precisely adjustable power across a nine-stop range (from 2.5 W/s up to the full 640 W/s) variable in tenth-stop increments. The Einstein is particularly known for its short flash durations as fast as 1/13,500 sec., ideal for strobing fast-moving action. It also offers color consistency via the selectable Constant Color mode, useful when exacting color accuracy is required. It includes a 15-foot sync cord for connecting to a camera’s PC sync terminal, and for cameras without a PC sync terminal, an optional hot shoe adapter is available. The unit’s CyberSync feature allows for complete remote-control capability. Estimated street price: $499. Contact: Paul C. Buff, paulcbuff.com.
If you want to dabble in flash photography without a big investment, the Strobies Pro-Flash 360 W/s Kit from Interfit Photographic features full-to-1/128 power flash variability in 1/3-stop increments over an 8-stop range. Five different flash modes give you control of the optical slave, pre-flash options and stroboscopic output with sync speeds up to 1/250 sec. The Pro-Flash 360 can be triggered via a sync cable or by its switchable optical slave, and although it’s meant to be used off-camera, it can be triggered via the camera’s hot shoe as well. The Pro-Flash 360 runs on the included Pro-Flash Li-ion Battery Pack, which can power up to 450 full-power flashes on a three-hour charge with a recycling time of 4.5 seconds at full power and faster times at partial power. The Pro-Flash 360 has a tilting and swiveling flash head, and comes with the power pack and battery cable, shoulder strap, charger, 4.5-inch removable silver reflector, two diffusers, a mini flash stand and carry pouch. Estimated street price: $349. Contact: Interfit Photographic, interfitphotographic.com.
The state-of-the-art Profoto B1X sets a high bar for monolights in the professional photography world. The 500 W/s unit can fire up to 20 flashes per second, with flash durations as short as 1/19,000 sec. and fast recycling times of 0.05 to 1.9 sec. The B1X can be wirelessly controlled from up to a thousand-foot range with any optional Air Remote. Its dimmable LED modeling light can double as a constant light source and blend with natural light in low-light situations. The monolight comes with an exchangeable/rechargeable Li-ion battery that provides up to 325 full-power flashes and tens of thousands at its lowest power setting. Estimated street price: $2,095. Contact: Profoto, profoto.com.
Qflash TRIO (QF8) from Quantum Instruments provides studio-quality flash lighting with its parabolic reflector and powerful output. The QF8 is dedicated to Canon and Nikon TTL systems. Its FreeXwire radio technology lets TRIO control any number of remote Qflashes for multi-flash setups. A Command Center is used to set modes, power levels and lighting ratios of remote Qflashes. Estimated street price: $875. Contact: Quantum Instruments, qtm.com.