Using Strobes on Location

First off let me just start off by saying that what I’m about to discuss is totally up to interpretation. Put another competent photographer in my shoes on game day, and you’d likely get imagery that looks very different from what I’m about to show you. Knowing when to use strobes or when natural light is good enough for the look you want in portrait photography is one instance where I believe the art of photography breaks away from the technical. In this article I’d like to break down a recent model portfolio shoot I just shot and go over why I chose to keep the lighting natural, or in some cases, augment the ambient light with a bit of flash. 

Now I can’t stress how important it is to see the scene in your mind before you take the shot. I’m not going to lie to you here, much of this comes from experience and learning what works and what doesn’t for your particular style. Knowing how to capture the information with your distinct post processing style in mind will also make or break your final imagery I’ve found.

For the first shot of the day, I knew I wanted to get a nice tight portrait of the model to show off her facial features and hopefully a bit of the model’s personality. I knew I also didn’t want to make the shot to dramatic and edgy so that perspective clients of hers could get a good idea of what she looked like without overly dramatic shadows getting in the way of that. For those reasons I knew the lighting had to be soft for this shot. The problem was that we were down town, outside and the sun was undiffused, which makes for very harsh light, the exact opposite of what I wanted. 

Environmental actress headshot downtown Petaluma

What I chose to do was take the model to the shadow side of a building and work from there. This would give me soft more or less flat light that I could then augment with flash to bring dimension back to the face in a very controlled way. The following image was the resulting shot. For this image I used and Einstein strobe with a 48” octobox placed to camera left and a little above her. 

Before the shoot the model briefed me that she needed a full body shot at some point as this is what a lot of the modeling agencies want to get a good idea of the models body type. So rather than find a new location and generate a new lighting idea I instead chose to keep the same location and light her the same. By doing this I was able to get two very different looking portraits with one location and set up.

Full body fashion style portrait

Next we decided to move along. Walking though the city I noticed a brick wall with dappled sun light filtering though a tree. Along with the dappled light I saw a clear spot of sunlight where there was a clean patch of un diffused sunlight. Because of the nature of this shoot I thought I could get away with putting a fashion kind of spin on the next portrait by making it a hard light portrait. This can be tricky as you will have to pose your model very preciselyinto the light but the results if done right can be very edgy and eye grabbing. Basically I posed her face and body into the light and then had her close her eyes. This is very bight for the model so what I do is have them close their eyes and open them on the count of three telling them not to anticipate the sun. I find this technique works pretty well and so long as you do your part and trip the shutter on three no one will know the person is actually staring into the sun for that portrait. 

Natural light portrait using a pocket of light from a tree

Once I had that shot in the bag I told the model to wait by my gear as I went into the building to explore. I found a cool bank of windows on an interior brick wall that I thought might be another cool natural light shadow play. Posing the model differently and basically using the same techniques above we got this. Bridget is obviously a young beautiful woman so she can get away with these hard light portraits. I would be very careful attempting this kind of technique on say a 50 year old woman self conscious about her wrinkle as this type of lighting will amplify said wrinkles and make her hate you.  

Natural light portrait using shadows to frame subject.

 Next we moved our session down the street again. I notice the sun was starting to get low and approach golden hour. I also noticed some columns on a building across the street. Things like columns are always a good thing to look for with portraits as you can get the repeating pattern going which is usually pretty pleasing and sucks you into the photograph. Now for this next shot I chose to break out the strobe again. Could I have made another natural light portrait here? Absolutely, but I thought it would look way cooler if I balanced a strobe with the ambient light. 

OCF fashion style portrait at sunset

Basically I loved the way the light was skimming across the columns but if I had shot this natural our models face would be way to dark or I’d have lost detail in the columns. By bringing the strobe in on camera left I think I was able to add a richness to the image that I don’t feel we could have gotten using natural light only. Alternatively you could also use a reflector and get a similar look, but I honestly find strobes easier to work with for my style of shooting.

Often times when I’m shooting a frame and after I get the shot I have in my head, I will then try to think of how I can out do the shot I’ve already made. Sometimes I’ll change to an entirely new spot all together giving me the second shooter effect and sometimes I’ll just frame differently from a different perspective. The ladder is what I did for this next shot.

Chic fashion portrait at sunset in Downtown Petaluma

I noticed a cool old jewelers sign in the background. To get it in the frame though I knew I’d have to put on a wider lens (which I rarely like to do in such a busy setting) or simply lay on the ground and shoot up at the model cutting out all the hustle and bustle. So I got down low posed the model slightly differently with the same lighting set up and got the shot you see above.

A few minutes after the capture you see above the light ducked behind a building as it was getting late in the evening. We walked to a near by alley and found a treasure trove of murals by local artists. Because the light was now behind the buildings and also because we were now in an alley the ambient light was super soft and rapidly decaying. I found my favorite mural and posed the model in front of it. I again reached for my strobe for this shot to add some dimension and texture to the model that I felt might get lost in the soft light. The following was the result. 

Soft light portrait in front of a mural created by Maxfield Bala.

In closing I guess the thought I want to leave with you is that, just because you have a strobe, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will always get a better portrait by pulling it out and using it. Be thoughtful about the light around you. I personally always try to think of a cool portrait to make with natural light first. If I can do something cool with natural light only I’ll often grab that shot first and then consider weather I can out do it or not with a strobe. The results working natural can be extra ordinary and dramatic so never underestimate it. Sometimes though in certain situations, a strobe just adds pop and the extra effort is worth the extra time spent to get the look I have in my head. Choosing to shoot naturally or strobed is a balancing act for sure on this kind of shoot and the cool thing is that there is no right answer! On every shoot the only thing limiting you is your imagination, so go out and create something amazing!

If you would like to keep up to date with model Bridget’s future work you can check check out her homepage here and follow her though your social media of choice.

I also want to thank my good friend Dominic for assisting me for the shoot. Dominic is an amazing photographer in his own right and I encourage everyone reading to check out his portrait work on his homepage.