The Portable Studio

portable studio

Photographer Tom Bol travels most of the year on assignment and inevitably finds himself in challenging lighting situations. His portable studio kits help him conquer the conditions and return home with the shots he needs. Nikon D3, 14-24mm, shot at 1/250 at ƒ/14, Elinchrom Quadra with 39” Deep Octa Softbox

I spend much of my year traveling the globe creating images, from shooting editorial assignments in remote Honduran jungles to teaching photo workshops in the shifting sands of the Gobi Desert. One of the joys of travel photography is creating portraits of people you meet, whether it’s in your hometown or on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Inevitably, I find myself photographing people in tough lighting conditions. The challenge of travel photography is that you don’t have a lot of time in any one location, so you have to shoot with the existing light. Harsh daylight, murky alleys, Martian green interiors, dreary overcast—these lighting nasties are just waiting for you on your next trip! But now you have a tool to defeat these rough lighting situations—the portable studio.

portable studio
Behind the scenes of the glacier portrait shoot.

Lighting gear, from simple reflectors to studio packs, has dramatically improved in the last few years. Equipment is lighter, more powerful and easier to use. Combine this with instant feedback from your camera’s LCD, and anyone can create compelling portraits on the road. The trick is bringing just the right amount of gear to offer multiple lighting options, but with as little weight and size as possible. And this lighting kit needs to fit in an overhead compartment for air travel.

During my travels, I’ve learned many lessons the hard way about traveling with lighting gear. These include watching my flash heads float down a river to pleading in Mongolian (think, sign language) for permission to carry my rechargeable batteries.

I have two portable lighting kits I bring with me on trips. One kit is super-lightweight and streamlined, what I call “The Bare-Bones Kit.” The other lighting kit is slightly larger, but offers more power and faster flash duration; I call it “The Equalizer” since it has all the tools I need to eliminate any nasty lighting I encounter. In creating your own portable studio, you might mix and match from these two lighting kits since your situation and needs will be different.

The Bare-Bones Kit

  • 2 Nikon SB-5000 Speedlights
  • 1 Nikon WR-R10 wireless transmitter
  • 1 Lastolite small white/soft gold reflector
  • 1 Rogue gel kit
  • 1 Rogue Flashbender (large)
  • 1 Rogue Diffusion Panel (large)
  • 1 Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite
  • 1 Manfrotto Justin Clamp
  • 1 Lastolite TriFlash bracket
  • 1 5001B Manfrotto light stand
  • 1 compact umbrella

This kit is very light and packs into a camera bag with your camera and lens. You have endless lighting combinations using snoots, gels and reflectors with this kit. I use Nikon equipment, and their flash system is fantastic. The SB-5000 speedlights are controlled wirelessly by the radio WR-R10 transmitter attached to the camera, so I can create interesting lighting setups with off-camera flash.

portable studio
Nikon D500, 20mm ƒ/1.8, shot at 1/160 at ƒ/6.3, SB-5000 triggered off-camera

Why only one light stand? I attach one flash to the light stand using the TriFlash bracket and attach the other flash to my tripod using the Justin Clamp. I always travel with a tripod, but rarely use it for my portraits. My tripod doubles as a light stand using the handy Justin Clamp to attach a flash to a tripod leg. With my flashes attached, I can add an umbrella to the TriFlash bracket and add a variety of light modifiers to the flash on the Justin Clamp. One other item I often carry with this kit is a Lastolite 24-inch Ezybox. This softbox adds more volume to the kit, but the soft quality of light is incredible for TTL flash.

The Equalizer

This lighting kit offers more power, faster recycling and the option to use larger softboxes for studio-quality lighting. The benefit of the Elinchrom ELB400 is its speed and power. I can overpower the midday sun (underexposing the ambient light) using flash with lightning-fast recycle times. Recently, I was in Bali, and this lighting system proved its worth. Many of our subjects were only comfortable with us photographing them for a short time. With the ELB400, we had almost instant flash recycling, so we could squeeze in the maximum number of frames in a short amount of time.

We also used a 53” Octabank to create very soft light for our portraits. The ELB400 packs have a built-in wireless receiver, so their output is controlled at the camera via the Skyport Plus HS transmitter. Each pack has two ports for flash heads. I use two heads on the light stands and sometimes add a third head on the ground to add fill light. When traveling with this kit, I put the light stands and Octabank in my suitcase until I reach my destination.

The Equalizer

  • 2 Elinchrom ELB400s
  • 3 Elinchrom ELB40 Pro heads
  • 1 Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS
  • 1 Elinchrom 53″ Octabank
  • 2 Manfrotto 5001B light stands
  • 1 Lastolite small white/soft gold reflector
  • Various Rosco gels

A few other accessories are worth mentioning for both of these lighting kits. A huge advantage of digital photography is the ability to instantly review your images in the field. This means you’re either looking at your LCD or a computer monitor if you’re shooting tethered. Reviewing images in the field, especially on sunny days, can be difficult. Seeing the image on your screen requires hiding in some shade if you can find some. Instead of scurrying off to a dark cave, I use a Hoodman Loupe for my LCD and a Hoodman monitor screen for tethered shooting. These handy devices reduce stray light hitting your screen and make reviewing images in the field much easier.

portablestudio-bali2823
Nikon D810, 85mm ƒ/1.4, shot at 1/800 at ƒ/1.6, Elinchrom Rotalux Softbox Octa 53″ with ELB400

Which lighting kit is right for you? Both systems have their advantages. Cost, weight and shooting habits will determine which lighting kit best suits you. Whatever system you put together, practice with it a lot so you’re ready when you hit the road. Make sure to bring extra batteries and chargers with the appropriate adapters if you’re traveling abroad.

portable studio
Behind the scenes of a portrait shoot in Bali.

How To Carry It All?

My first choice for normal travel is the Lowepro Pro Roller x100. This rolling bag will hold my entire Bare-Bones Kit, as well as my camera and a few lenses. The x100 can carry The Equalizer kit, but with less room for camera gear. I carry the light stand and umbrella in my suitcase until arriving at my destination; then I can strap these on the Pro Roller when I’m going to a shoot. The beauty of the Pro Roller is that if I’m going for a short hike or away from flat “roller” surfaces, the entire bag unzips from the hard-shell roller case and converts into a backpack. This is especially handy, and the roller case has an additional zipper flap so it can be used as a normal carry-on suitcase.

portable studio
Nikon D3, 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, shot at 1/160 at ƒ/14, Elinchrom Quadra and 39″ Rotalux Mini Octa Softbox (Elinchrom)

If my trip involves lots of off-road travel and hiking, I carry my lighting kit in a Lowepro Vertex 300 AW (or the newer Pro Runner BP450), a large photo backpack that fits in overhead compartments on commercial jets. The Vertex 300 AW has a great suspension system, so I can carry either lighting kit comfortably on trails and rocky ground. I strap the stands on the outside of the pack and put the reflector in the laptop compartment of the pack. The Vertex 300 AW also has a waterproof cover to keep things dry if it’s rainy.

portable studio
Nikon D800, 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, shot at 1/25 at ƒ/5.6

Dealing With Security

We live in a time when strict security is a fact of life. Every time I get frustrated at the airport, I just remember these regulations are in place to make things safe, not cause headaches. The biggest problem you’ll run into with your portable studio is lithium batteries.

Since regulations change, I visit the TSA website (tsa.gov) to check before a trip. There’s usually no problem if your batteries are in your flashes or other devices. In other words, don’t have random lithium batteries floating around in your luggage. I’ve never had a problem carrying TTL flashes with lithium batteries installed or carrying extra batteries in their original package. The Elinchrom ELB400 uses a lithium-ion battery, which occasionally prompts questions from security. I always carry the Elinchrom manual that describes this type of battery, which satisfies security. Bringing manuals for any large battery-powered devices while traveling is a good idea. And, remember, a smile and friendly attitude go a long way in working with security.

Get Out And Shoot!

A while back I was in New York teaching a flash workshop. After the workshop was over, I had an extra day to do some shooting. A friend and I decided to photograph a belly dancer along the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge. This location has a great backdrop of New York’s famous skyline. Since we had to walk a ways to get to the location, we just loaded up The Equalizer kit in the Pro Roller and headed out. We had everything we needed for a great portrait in one compact bag. Aisha, our dancer, performed mesmerizing movements with her colored veils floating above her head against the New York skyline. The Elinchrom flash kept firing through the entire shoot, capturing all her moves. I couldn’t have been happier; the portable studio was providing all the tools needed to capture this magical moment!

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit his website at tombolphoto.com.

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