Building A Better Location Lighting Kit

Although there are plenty of reasons why you might want to use three or four or even more lights to illuminate a shot, I’ve found that for much of my work—from portraiture to product photography, architecture to interiors—I can do a lot with a little. Namely, I can often use a location lighting kit of just one or two lights—be they strobes or continuous sources—to create the ideal look in my photographs.

Take portraits for instance. I make a lot of people pictures on location, and traveling light makes the process much easier and more efficient. I’ve found that I can create a studio setup that eliminates all the ambient light in a scene and still light the subject and background independently with just two strobes and a few light modifiers. I can do a formal headshot with a softbox key and a spotlight background or a more casual portrait with a big, bounced key light and a fill behind the camera to illuminate the subject against a bright seamless background. For situations in which I’ve got ambient light to work with, I’ll often balance these strobes at low output to make use of window light as a key or fill, or even as a background. And increasingly, I’ll turn to continuous LED lights—often bounced off of ceilings or diffused through large white silks—to make soft light that balances beautifully with the intensity and color of the ambient illumination.

Sometimes I find myself photographing architectural interiors for clients who want to show off beautiful spaces. For these, I start with the ambient light that the location provides, then I add to it with strobes or LEDs. With strobes, I’ve got more power, but with LEDs, I’ve got more subtle control over color and output—so long as I don’t need the high-output light at which strobes excel. In any case, I’ll frequently stick my camera to a tripod and move the two lights throughout the scene, illuminating different areas of the frame for separate exposures and then composite two or more frames in post to produce the effect of a lot of lights hidden throughout the scene. Not only is this approach faster than working with several sources, it often provides greater control over the specific details in a scene because lights can be positioned in view of one frame with the knowledge that they will be cut out during the compositing process. 

Regardless of what I’m shooting and why, the one consistent through all of these setups is that I’m using just one or two lights. If you’re interested in creating a two-light location lighting kit that offers a lot of versatility and creative control, here’s a shopping list of the lights and equipment that make this type of setup work so well for so much.

Location Lighting Kit — Lights

Aside from the camera, lenses and those particular items that are useful for your particular photographic niche, the first and foremost items on your two-light location lighting kit shopping list are, well, the two lights. For strobes, the first consideration is whether you prefer speedlights or something larger and more powerful such as monolights or pack-and-head systems. In either case, I find one key to be battery power, as the ability to work independently of an electrical outlet isn’t only easier and more efficient, but it can also sometimes be a lifesaver.

Elinchrom Ranger Quadra
Elinchrom Ranger Quadra

I use an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra 400ws strobe pack and two head system because it’s compact and powerful enough to override ambience and provide middle apertures at low ISOs, as well as adjustable enough to get very low power to balance with low ambient light and shoot at wide apertures. Many photographers also swear by Profoto battery-powered monolights, such as the B10 and B1X, which can be adjusted without stepping away from the camera thanks to a hot-shoe-mounted remote transmitter. (With any flash, you’ll need to think about how you’ll trigger your strobes—be that an on-camera flash, a PocketWizard style radio transmitter or a hard-wired connection.)

Profoto B1X
Profoto B1X

For LED lights, I love my bicolor LitePanels Astras 6X, which offers enough output to work well indoors and balance with window light as well as overheads and also offer the incredible feature of dialing the white balance from daylight to tungsten or anywhere in between. There are plenty of strobe and LED options out there, with all sorts of features that make them useful and convenient, so choose the two that work best for you.

Location Lighting Kit — Light Modifiers

For years, umbrellas have been the standard traveling light modifier for strobe shooters who want to soften the output and make more flattering light for portraits or broaden light to cover a scene without producing hard-edged shadows and harsh highlights. The larger the umbrella the better—though I find larger than 60 inches or so to be a bit too cumbersome to use regularly indoors. My favorite these days is a 49-inch-deep umbrella from Elinchrom, modified with a silk face to further soften the output. For portraits, this light is my go-to.

Elinchrom Deep Umbrella
Elinchrom Deep Umbrella

Another alternative would be a shoot-through white umbrella which, instead of reflecting light onto the subject, softens the light as it passes through. I also frequently use a Westcott 6×6 Scrim Jim diffusion silk or an Illuminator diffuser to soften the light further. These diffusion options travel well and have the added advantage of spilling tons of light outside the umbrella or beyond the silk, which then bounces around the room and provides fill light. It’s an advantage, I should say, if that fill is something you’re looking for.

Location Lighting Kit — Stands, Reflectors And Cables

For your two-light location lighting kit, you’ll want to ensure you have two light stands that rise to a minimum of 8 feet—higher if you work outdoors regularly or will need to raise the lights well overhead. Consider travel stands that fold down to a compact size and lock together such as Manfrotto’s air-cushioned Ranker stands. Short of that, bringing a stand bag makes stands much easier to carry on location—and you can always throw a tripod and accessories in it too.

Speaking of accessories, you’ll also want to make sure you’ve got extension cords to power your lights or, in case of emergency, to plug in battery-powered strobes and LEDs. Two 25-foot cables should be sufficient for typical indoor work, but a 50- or 75-foot extension cord can be a lifesaver if working in a large space or outdoors away from an outlet. I also carry a pop-out reflector (silver on one side, white on the other) or large sheets of white foamcore to add fill light to the shadow side of any subject or even to act as a hair light, edge light or flag in a pinch.

Check back next week for a look at the ultimate accessories that really round out a location lighting kit like this and make it bulletproof for practically any photo assignment.

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