Photographer Benjamin Clay embarks on an early morning location portrait session. Careful preparation and the right equipment helped make this shoot a success. Follow along as Ben makes quick decisions during a time of day when the light changes rapidly.
An Early Start
For this day of location shooting, my goal was to get a lot of different looks and lighting styles using the same model, but not have to bring along a ton of gear. I like to be as efficient as possible with what I bring, yet not feel as though I’ve forgotten some key piece of equipment. Fortunately, I was able to pack pretty lightly and didn’t end up feeling like I needed more for any given shot.
I wanted to first take advantageous of the early morning “magic hour” light, which meant my assistant Cameron and I needed to meet up early at the studio beforehand. Cameron is fairly new to assisting and not really an early morning person, but he did start to wake up along the dark 20 minute trip north to coastal Freeport, Maine. Once we arrived at the rocky beach I had in mind, I had Cameron stand in for the model who’d be meeting us there so that I could get a sense of light and composition.
Matching the Warm Light of Sunrise
Next, I had Cameron help me set up the lighting gear. I decided to use just one Medium OctoDome powered by a TritonFlash head, and then possibly a MultiDisc. With the OctoDome, I decided to use all four gold inserts so that I could balance the warm light of the rising sun.
On a previous dusk shoot on a beach a little further south, I had forgotten to bring along an OctoDome or warming gels (rookie move!) and the strobe light I used ended up being a little too cool for some of the shots. But this time, I was prepared! After the panels and diffusion faces were attached, I had Cameron attach the FlashFire wireless receiver to the TritonFlash head.
I had packed one RockSteady sandbag in the Single Kit Case we had brought down and weighted down the LiteStand with it, but I wanted to be prepared if the wind picked up during this small window of morning light, so I asked Cameron to go get two more sandbags from the car before our model, Candra, showed up.
Once Cameron got back with the RockSteady bags, he added one to the LiteStand. Soft boxes and reflectors can act like sails in the wind and it really helps to weight down the LiteStands to prevent them from toppling over. In very strong wind, though, sandbags are ineffective and lights and reflectors often need to be wrestled in place by assistants.
Testing Wireless Transmission
However, the wind this morning was pretty mild and I didn’t think the OctoDome needed more than one sandbag for the time being. I had Cameron turn on the FlashFire receiver and TritonFlash and set it to 1/8th power to start. I took a test shot without the transmitter attached and then one with the transmitter attached to make sure the radio signal was working, which it was beautifully.
Candra arrived shortly afterward and we quickly reviewed the clothing she’d brought along. We thought it might be an interesting juxtaposition to have her in a black dress, pearls and high heels along the rocks, so we went with that. Candra wore rubber boots to get out to our shooting spot and then handed them to Cameron, who assisted with the Candra’s high heels and balancing act with slippery rocks. While Candra got her footing, I directed Cameron with the placement of the OctoDome.
I wanted to have the sun serve as a hair/rim light and that meant that I’d need to direct Candra to angle herself so that the sun wouldn’t cross-light her face. The OctoDome, with its gold panels inserted, would throw warm, diffused light into the shadow areas to balance out the morning light.
I decided to shoot with a 50-200mm telephoto lens in order to eliminate optical distortion and have the background go somewhat soft. I then dialed in the following camera settings:
- Exposure Mode: Manual
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Shutter/Sync Speed: 1/180th of a second
- ISO: 200
Once everything was set, I took a couple of test shots, one without the strobe going off and one with. Here, you can see the differences between the two.
In the reviewing the results, I liked the warm quality of light the gold-paneled OctoDome provided. Perfect for this time of day! I wanted to take a series of shots with Candra’s hair down, but before I did, I decided to take some tighter shots at the same power and camera settings. Here’s one from this series. Notice the warm, even tone on her face, as well as the large catch-lights.
Though the magic hour was still happening, I knew it wouldn’t last long. I considered having Cameron attach a MultiDisc (Gold side reflecting) to a LiteDisc Holder and sandbagged LiteStand and have it bounce light from behind (camera left) for an additional rim effect, but instead I decided to stay with the current setup. The wind was picking up, and I would have been more comfortable with another pair of hands steadying the MultiDisc rather than to just rely on the sandbags.
With Candra’s hair now down, I went back to my original spot and took a series of full length shots. Candra gave me a variety of poses while I incorporated the reflections in the foreground puddles.
Top-Lighting in the Pines
I was happy with what we were able to get here and decided to change the outfit and location for a different look. We happened to be shooting at a state park and above the beach was a pleasant campground area with tall oak, birch and pine trees that overlooked the same tidal inlet. I decided to move the whole setup up there and see what we could get. While Candra went back to her car to change into a more casual outfit, Cameron and I moved the camera and lighting gear to this new spot.
Whenever I photograph someone, I like to study their face and try to determine what sort of lighting treatment I think would be most flattering or interesting or both. In this case, I felt that Candra would be better lit with soft, diffused light overhead, rather than side-lit. When you top light this way, you typically have to position the soft box so that it’s close to your subject, but just out of frame. As you might imagine, a telephoto lens with a narrow field of view really works beautifully for shots like this. While Cameron got the OctoDome in position, I got into shooting position about 40 feet away.
I kept the camera set pretty much to what I had with the shots on the rocks, with only minimal adjustments to the aperture from time to time. I had Cameron fine-tune the position and power settings of the OctoDome/TritonFlash setup until there was a nice balance of ambient and strobe light. The nice thing about the TritonFlash is that it’s powerful enough to match or surpass the light levels of bright sunshine. This essentially gives you more control over your foreground, subject and background exposure levels.
Here’s one from a series of 3/4 length shots of Candra. Notice how there is great texture and detail in Candra’s sweater. You can see why this type of modeled lighting is ideal for fashion or catalog work.
Finally, I wanted to change my vantage point slightly to bring in more elements from the background and come in tighter on Candra. I liked the top-lighting effect on the previous shots, but wanted the OctoDome to be closer for this next series to brighten up her eyes a little more. After a few test shots, I knew I was where I wanted to be with the lighting.
With the camera and lighting elements in place, I focused on my rapport with Candra. I offered up some bad jokes (“Dyslexic man walks into a bra…”), as did Cameron (“What did the 0 say to the 8? ‘Nice belt!'”), which, believe it or not, helped to loosen up Candra’s “posing”. Comic relief is a wonderful thing. Here’s one from that series.
A Hybrid of Light
For me, these shots reflected an interesting hybrid of beauty light, or what a lot of people think of as “studio light”, and natural light. The mix is about 50/50 here. The “ideal” ratios ultimately come down to personal preference, and I urge you, if you’re interested in this type of shooting, to get out and experiment with the levels so that you can see what resonates with you.
Beginner Assistants: Take Notice!
After this series, we packed up and drove to another location, the results of which you can see in an upcoming lesson. At some point in the afternoon, the wind had really picked up and I was looking for an extra RockSteady bag. I had two, but couldn’t find the third one. I asked Cameron, but he didn’t know either. I asked if maybe he could have left it on the rocks at the first location (after all, it is the assistant’s responsibility to keep track of the gear), but he couldn’t remember. So we shot the rest of the day with what we had and decided to swing by the first location on the way back to see if it was there.
Not only had he forgotten the RockSteady bag, but the Large LiteStand, too! Both were still there, but the tide had since come in and now both were sitting in a foot of cold sea water. Oh man, did we have a good laugh there. Classic beginner assistant mistake. I think I may have laughed a little harder, because we both knew who was going to have to go retrieve them.
I don’t want to make it sound like Cameron is some sleepy-eyed space-headed assistant, because he’s not! In fact, he’s one of the more attentive and hard-working assistants I’ve worked with. Still, it’s fun to ride the new guys.
Photographed and written by Benjamin Clay.