Shooting Strobist Based Editorial Work

Blu Clark with a happy client

When it comes to less is more, working with a customized, compact strobist kit is a valuable teaching aid for location lighting – even after 20+ years of shooting professionally.

The Shoot Itself

I had the opportunity to give back to my local community last weekend by shooting portraits of women who came to get their hair and makeup done at the Cuts For The Cure fundraiser for breast cancer research held at the local shopping mall.  In exchange for a $20 donation, each woman had their hair styled (and several even had their hair cut) along with having their makeup done by Blu Clark Salon here in Eugene.  My participation in the event was to shoot portraits of those who wanted to have their photo taken and print orders they made, 10% of the proceeds from print sales are given to Breast Cancer Research.

What’s in my kit

My strobist kit, which I’ve had for over 20 years and has remained virtually unchanged, consists of a Vivitar 285HV and 283 converted to bare bulb – these are my primary lights I use in my Chimera Softboxes (12×16, 16×22 & 24×32) with Chimera’s portable strobe speedrings. In addition, I have a third straight Vivitar 283 and a couple of original first generation Morris Minilights.  The bare bulb strobes, which were a custom modification back in the late 80’s by Gertech (now out of business) are powered by a couple of original older style Quantum Instruments Bantam Batteries.  The Morris Minilights are powered by a pair of AAA batteries.  Light stands included a couple of Manfrotto 5001B Nano Light Stand’s that strobist guru David Hobby recommends which I recently moved to in addition to my Manfrotto 367B lightstands.

You’ll notice there are no TTL strobes listed in this kit.  Since I’ve never used TTL strobes, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not missing anything.  To get my exposures consistently right, I use a Minolta IV Flashmeter.  Old school, but it’s works perfectly for me.

What I learned from this shoot

Having set my lighting up initially with the generic 3 light kit, I realized I wasn’t happy with the results I was getting, so I elected to turn off the back ground light and went with a 2 light setup – a key light and hair light.  The key light is my mainstay Vivitar 285HV barebulb with a 1/4 CTO to slightly warm up the light and shot through the 24×32 Chimera Pro Bank+ in horizontal orientation.  Next, the hair light was a morris minilight set high and to camera left.  To add fill, I used a 24” photoflex silver reflector underneath subject’s chin.  This lighting setup is known as Butterfly, or “Glamour” lighting.

Having set up and tested the lighting, I established my exposure settings at f/5.6 at 1/160 sec ISO200.  The Vivitar 285HV key light was set to 1/4 power, which I figured would be more than adequate for recycle times and would maximize battery life for the day.

OOPS – I was incorrect in that assumption.

My newer Quantum Bantam, which had it’s cell replaced earlier this year, began to give out within the first 100 shots or so even though I was set to 1/4 power, the recycle times dropped dramatically.  I had brought with me an older second battery, but it wasn’t holding much of a charge and it soon failed as well.

Out of my past experience, I had a back up solution with me just in case. I had brought along an A/C powered Paul C Buff X800 Monolight with speedring.  Given there was a 2 plug power outlet in the floor right where I was shooting, I was able to quickly convert to the monolight and go back to shooting – or so I thought.

In the interim, I put the good Quantum battery on its charger during the switch to the monolight because I knew Murphy’s Law would rear his ugly head when I least expected it.

And again, experience proved me correct.

We lost power the first of two times to the area of the event we were set up at after about 2 hours.  So now I’m without A/C power to the monolight.  Panic time?  Nope.  Remember that Bantam battery I plugged in to charge?  Yup, moved right back to it and got back to shooting.

Within 30 minutes, the power came back, and I kept shooting until the battery died again and switched back to the monolight for the rest of the shoot.  We did lose power a second time, but it was restored quickly.

The Final Analysis

After shooting for 13 hours, 2 depleted Bantam batteries and a tired and sore body from standing all day, I concluded I needed to update my strobist kit.

First thing I did the next day:  Order a Quantum Turbo battery.  Why the battery first?  It works with my current strobes out of the box with the right power module and it has alot more capacity over my bantams.  Secondly, I plan to eventually purchase a Quantum QFlash that works with the Turbo Battery.  As a result, I’ll have more flashes per charge with the battery, secondly, the QFlash provides more light output so I have more flexibility when shooting on location.  And I can continue to work with my bare bulb strobes accordingly with the bantam batteries.  I’m also considering one of the Paul Buff Vagabond Batteries with spare cell for when I need more power on location with the X800 Monolight.

My takeaway from this experience was two fold:  Firstly, for me personally – it was a fulfilling experience to give back to my community participating in a worthwhile cause.  Secondly – My strobist kit for the most part, got me through the day, albeit I had to cheat and go with the reserve monolight but the day was a success and the subjects were happy with the results of the images produced as can be seen by a couple of the examples in this posting.  The lighting isn’t anything fancy, but it looks good and chimping the images for each subject the comments were “WOW!”  

The need for a reliable source of power for my strobes showed me I have to update my strobist kit in order to be able to deliver the final images – that’s why we get hired as professionals.

And finally, knowing how to handle the unexpected challenges that can occur on a photo shoot – and not panicking – is what differentiates a true professional from the rest of the field.