Yesterday, a friend of mine who does a lot of video work asked me a big question.
“I’d like to start learning some photography. Portraits to begin with. What type of strobes would you recommend? I know I would need wireless triggers as well. Anything you can recommend is appreciated.”
Normally when somebody starts learning photography, they start off using available light. In this case, my friend is very familiar with using available light, because he’s done it for a long time with video. He’s also familiar with studio lighting principles, for the same reason. What he doesn’t know about is the very intimidating and mysterious world of “strobe” lighting.
Fortunately, having walked this path myself a number of years ago, I have a few suggestions. Here’s what I would recommend to my friend, and to anyone else interested in learning flash photography.
To me, learning to work with lights is like riding a bike: you start off with a small one, and then get a bigger one when you need it.
The best “small light” for learning to work with strobes is, in my opinion, the Vivitar 285HV. It is inexpensive (around $80), completely manual (it has four settings: full power, 1/2, 1/4, 1/16), and plenty powerful. It doesn’t have the fastest recycle time (meaning it takes a while to recharge after flashing), so it’s not great for fashion or sports, but for portraits or corporate work, it’s ideal.
Here’s a little video I did a couple of years ago that shows how to use the 285HV.
Now, the Vivitar 285HV is a “speedlight” type unit, which means that it’s designed to mount directly onto a camera. In order to use it for off-camera use, you’ll need three things.
1) A light stand to put it on;
2) A bracket with a “cold shoe” to mount it onto the light stand, and to accommodate an umbrella;
3) A cable to connect it to your camera OR a cable to connect it to a wireless trigger. These cables tend to be a little pricier than they seemingly should be (probably because of the proprietary connectors), so once you buy them, don’t lose them!
The wireless trigger – also called “radio slave” or “remote flash trigger” – is an optional item, but a highly recommended one, especially for anyone with an eye towards multiple-light setups.
In the old days, a photographer would connect his camera with a wire to a large strobe unit. When that one went off, sensors in the other strobes would detect it and fire as well. This worked okay, but it wasn’t completely reliable, since any number of things could interfere with the strobe sensors. Wireless triggers have solved that problem (as well as opening up strobe lighting to speedlights, which don’t have flash sensors), because you mount one of them on your camera’s hotshoe, and then it will remotely fire any other triggers in the area that are set to the same channel. This can cause problems in situations like photography seminars where lots of remotes are firing in the same place, but under normal circumstances it works like magic.
Speaking of magic, the industry leader in wireless triggers has historically been the PocketWizard company. Thanks to competition from other manufacturers, these excellent products have come down substantially in price. I vaguely remember paying several hundred dollars apiece for my PocketWizards, years ago, and I just added a couple of PocketWizard Plus X Transceivers this week for $99 each. You will need two of them to get started (one for the camera, one for the flash).
With this basic setup, you’ll be able to start bouncing light off walls and ceilings, which is a great way to get your feet wet with flash photography, since the resulting images look totally different from photos lit by a flash firing directly at the subject (the every-popular “deer in the headlights” look). Here are a few examples of corporate candids taken with this exact setup. Notice how, just by bouncing one light off the wall or ceiling, I’m able to create lighting that is flattering and pleasing, but that still looks completely natural (as opposed to artificial and “lit”). Also, because bouncing the light from a small strobe unit diminishes the intensity of light quite a bit, the light I’m adding to the scene balances nicely with whatever light sources (lamps, windows, etc.) are already in the environment.
An inexpensive addition to this kit is a photographic umbrella, which is useful for times when bouncing the light doesn’t work.
Speedlights eat batteries like candy, and once the batteries start to wear down, the recycle time suffers, so it’s also a good idea to invest in a decent rechargeable AA battery setup, so that you can keep your flashes juiced without pouring money down the drain and batteries into the landfill.
From this simple foundation, you can add more lights, more stands, more modifiers, more triggers and all kinds of accessories, without having to get rid of anything you already own. Strobe lighting is a great tool, and if you already have some experience with video – especially DSLR video – the transition really isn’t difficult at all.