George Simian: Shooting Night Portraits on Location


On November 8th of this year, we took our Location Lighting workshop to the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, as we’ve done before, using battery-powered strobes from Photoflex. But this time, we did it at night.

Urban streets typically have interesting lighting at night, mostly signage and ads, some neon, and some continuous lights that make for fascinating backgrounds. However, there’s never enough light reaching the sidewalk for a high-quality portrait. That’s where a battery-powered strobe comes in.

We used two different lights to serve as the main lights for the subjects. The first was a Photoflex battery-powered TritonFlash strobe mounted to a 3-foot Photoflex OctoDome and the other was a Photoflex FlexFlash 400W (powered by a mobile battery pack) attached to a 5-foot Photoflex OctoDome. Each light was attached to a Photoflex LiteReach for easy positioning.

Each of these lights allowed us to light our young actors/actresses beautifully, while exposing for the colorful background. The 5-foot OctoDome threw more diffused light, will the 3-foot OctoDome provided a little more contrast. Both were great in terms of light quality, and each shooter would choose between the two, which depended on the look they were going for. Each modifier was very light-efficient and allowed us to set the strobes to low power outputs, in the order of 1/4 to 1/8 power, and still achieve f/8 at ISO 100, with the White Balance manually set for Daylight.

Once the students and I had a good exposure on our subjects, we gradually lengthened the shutter speeds, until we achieved a bright background, anywhere from 1/8th/sec to ½-second exposures. While these long exposures would be a disaster for hand-held portraits, they did not affect our subjects at all, as they were exposed to many, many stops less ambient light than the background signage. Whenever the light on the subject was less than 5 f-stops below the camera exposure, we obtained a black silhouette of the subject, lit by the strobe, with its effective 1/500th/sec to 1/1000th/sec short flash duration.

We even encouraged our students to move their cameras during the exposure in a gentle pan, away from the source of light, to create a strong motion blur in the background lighting, while protecting the lit edge of the subject.

The key to night photography is separating the exposure of the subject (with a strobe light, adjusted to achieve a particular f-stop) from that of the background (adjusted with a slower and slower shutter speed). As long as the background is much brighter than the subject, you will achieve a sharp image of the person (thanks to the strobe’s short flash duration) and can even intentionally blur the background with varying amounts of panning motion during the exposure.

Go out and have fun. You may not be able to get your hands on a Photoflex TritonFlash now, as they're currently sold out. However, the TritonFlash2 will be available soon, which boasts more power and remote functionality. Both models offer extremely short flash duration (which results in sharp images) and enormous battery capacity (we never used up our battery, even after several hundred images) make this ideal for this type of shooting.

Equipment Used
Photoflex TritonFlash (The TritonFlash is currently sold out, but the TritonFlash2, with remote power and increased watt/esconds, will be available soon!)
Photoflex FlexFlash 200W
Photoflex OctoDome: small
Photoflex OctoDome: medium
Photoflex LiteReach Plus
Photoflex 32" SunLite/White LiteDisc

To see more images from this workshop, please visit this Facebook post

George Simian is a people photographer, a commercial photographer, an advocate for photographers' rights (national treasurer, American Photographic Artists), an educator (UCLA, Samy's Camera, Ubud Bali Photo Workshops, MAC Group, Phase One), and a one-on-one photography coach. Currently living and working in Los Angeles, George still shoots for clients in Boston and NYC. Visit his Facebook page to learn more about his teaching activities.

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