Use Strobes in a Natural Way on a Location Shoot

July 18, 2020

Use Strobes in a Natural Way on a Location Shoot

Let's talk about lighting your set on location using strobes. An often-heard misconception is that, when using strobes to light your set, your picture will seem unnatural and fake. Light could arguably be the biggest part of your composition and therefore should be taken seriously. When you learn to blend in your strobes with your ambient light, you'll become a master in using additional lighting on location.

Every photographer has a distinctive way of lighting their scenes and applying their personal taste. In this article, I will draw from my own experience and my personal style of photography. There really is no "good or bad" when you know what you are doing

I will start out by teaching you how to light strobes on location and make them blend in with ambient light. After that, I will show you some personal examples. 

Note: I shot the header photo at 1600iso and a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second at f11. This way I was able to blend in the ambient light with the flash.

Different Kinds Of Strobes

Strobes come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. While some contain a TTL function, others might be completely manual. Personally, I would recommend the Broncolor (with its PARA) due to the unique lightshapers which I really love. I always prefer to shoot in manual mode, which I will be talking about in this article.

Speedlights

When I started out as a photographer, I primarily used speedlights on set. They had the advantages of being cheap, portable, and were operated using regular batteries. The downsides of these speedlights were eventually the lack of power and the limited spread/control of light.

Strobes

Nowadays, a wider range of mobile studio lights are available. From the cheaper 'Godox' to the more expensive 'Broncolor', both brands have their pros and cons. Depending on your personal needs (speed, portability, durability, etc.), both are great options. Knowing your shooting style, subjects, location, and of course your camera, is essential to your choice of lighting.

Shutter Speed And Type Of Camera

For outside settings, I generally use my medium format Hasselblad. Due to the use of a 'leaf shutter' in the lens, medium format cameras like Hasselblad or Phase One are able to use shutter speeds sync up to 1/2000 of a second! 

Please be aware that a Fuji medium-format doesn't have a leaf shutter. 

In all other cases, you'll have to shoot with high-speed sync when shooting above 1/200th of a second. This will allow you to use strobes up to 1/8000 of a second. The big downside of this is that you will lose a lot of power.

The Strobes I Use

I really like to use the Broncolor Siros 400L, although the 400 watts provided by this strobe might not be enough capacity when shooting in high-speed mode, on a non-leaf shutter camera. 

When shooting on Hasselblad or Phase One, I would recommend considering the use of more powerful strobes like the Broncolor Siros 800L. I expanded my set with the Broncolor Move 1200L; an incredible pack with enormous power and huge battery capacity.

None of the aforementioned strobes have ever failed on me or left me stranded with an empty battery! They are also blazing fast, with flash durations up to 1/8000 of a second, and the color consistency is the best in today's strobe market.

Light shapers.

When choosing my light form I think about the light source I want to mimic. Do I want to have a big or small light source? Hard light or soft light? Round or square? What do I want to see in the reflections of the subject? 

I always recommend to keep it realistic and logical. Don't use a square softbox outside if your subject reflects much, there are no square light sources in nature, although there are square reflections.

When choosing my light form I think about the light source I want to mimic:

  • Big or small light source?
  • Round or square?
  • Hard or soft light?
  • What do I want to see in the reflections of the subject?

Some examples of mimicking a light source. 

Please keep in mind that these are just guidelines. There are many techniques to choose from when applying your own workflow.

Personally, I always draw inspiration from film industry lighting; you'll notice that they work a lot with so-called 'butterflies' to use spill light to their advantage. This type of lighting can actually be used to create nice gradients in product photography and is also useful to mimic daylight. You could light multiple people with the use of just one light!

How Many Lights?

You often need way fewer lights than you might think. When you count your light sources on a bright, sunny day, you'll soon conclude there is only one. Therefore, in a setting like this, I result in using just one light. 

I start out with analyzing the ambient light, with the help of https://app.photoephemeris.com/ I always schedule my shoot depending on the sun's position.

Next, I figure out in which way I can improve the photo with the help of strobes.

I generally enhance the sunlight by underexposing my scene slightly and accentuate this with a strobe. I make sure the strobe is directed a little more towards the camera compared to the sunlight. In some cases, a reflector like a sunbounce is needed to fill in some shadows naturally.

When I shot this photo I used a slower shutter speed to have some motion in it and to blend in the ambient light. With the use of a strobe, I was able to freeze the rest of her body and give the photo slightly more contrast. The main light is coming from the sun at the right. I used a strobe in a slightly different angle towards the camera to freeze the woman. I had a big reflector behind me to fill in the shadows.

This is the same setting, with a different athlete. In this iPhone photo you can see how the light is without flash. It was just a touch of extra light with an open reflector to mimic the hard sunlight. You can see the strobe is aimed at the athlete’s face to freeze it.

Indoor Locations

When shooting night or indoor scenes, you will get more options. Often, in an indoor setting, there are multiple light sources that can be mimicked (multiple windows, light bulbs etc.). 

I don't like very clean and white-balanced photos, so I always carry a folder with gels and diffusers with me to adjust all of the present color temperatures. I also use floppies or flags to control or eliminate unnecessary bouncing of light. When you have a strobe set up high in a room, you can simply block unwanted bouncing on the ceiling by putting a floppy above your light.

Example 1: Special Forces

The following example showcases my usage of gels to shape a more creative setting. The story: The soldier in this photo enters an unknown building, with windows to the right of him, exposing him to moonlight, while his left side is being illuminated by a lamppost next to a window. This little storyline determined how I shaped and colored my light.

Example 2: Urban Bozz

In these examples below, as well as the main header image at the top of the article, I tried to mimic natural light. For this shot I wanted to take advantage of the two windows I found in this room. But there wasn’t enough natural light. 

I used two strobes and put these outside the building with a diffuser in front of it so they flashed through the window with just enough power to blend with the ambient light. 

To fill my subject I just opened a door at my right so I was able to get some ambient light from outside. I actually did exactly the same with the header photo of this article. I shot the header photo at 1600iso 1/30th of a second f/11 with a Hasselblad H6-50c.

Wrapping it All Up

When picking your gear, please keep in mind that you choose the brand that suits your preferences and needs best. Usually, all additional purchases such as lightshapers, extra strobes and accessories will be of the same brand.

What is more important than the brand itself, are the lightshapers to control and shape your shadows. 

Please don't be afraid to use longer exposure (on a tripod of course) and higher ISO values. At the right exposure, you won't encounter any quality issues. Always look at available ambient light. What do you see? Do you like what you see? What is your story? What light do you have to add yourself?


Nick Franken is a passionate commercial photographer and retoucher based in the Netherlands. www.nickfranken.com

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