Magazine Article


A Minimalist Approach to Location Lighting
Why More Photographers Are Traveling Light

Kevin Rollins, president and CEO, Dell, Inc. Shot at Dell Headquarters, Round Rock, TX.
Kirk Tuck

Pat Patla, Advanced Micro Devices. Shot in Austin, TX.
Kirk Tuck

Remember the first cell phones? Enormous beige boxes that were quite heavy and very expensive? That was the first thought to pop into my mind when I visited David Hobby’s blog, He shook me up by showing well-lit work made with the barest complement of small, shoe-mount flash units, lightweight stands, and homemade light modifiers.

Like most commercial photographers, I had been hauling studio power packs and heads to all location assignments. On a light day, my assistant and I would have well over 100 pounds of lighting equipment in tow for editorial-style portraits. His approach resonated with me, and I began piecing together my own “Honey, I Shrunk the Lights!” kit.

Lightening My Load

These days, I go on location with four or five older Nikon SB Speedlights, three Manfrotto 3373 light stands, a few small umbrellas, and a pint-sized clear plastic Pelican case filled with inexpensive RPS radio slaves.

I also bring a collection of “must have” accessories, which pretty much guarantee we’ll get the shot, whatever the conditions: (1) black wrap, a heavy-duty black aluminum foil from the cinema supply shop that’s perfect for making snoots, barndoors, and other lighting-control devices; (2) a ton of pre-cut gel-correction filters we tape over flash fronts to balance my lights with existing lights; (3) clamps and attaching devices for every surface, including Lowell Scissor Clamps, which let you attach a light to the rails of “drop tile” ceilings found in corporate offices; and (4) lots of tape—electrical, Scotch, gaffers, and masking.

At many corporate and editorial shoots, you’ll see photographers using very limited depth of field to put an executive or other subject in sharp focus against a non-distracting, out-of-focus background. To do this well, you need fast, long lenses and lights that can be turned way down.

These shoots are the perfect showcase for our little “mighty lights.” We put the lights up quickly, take a reading on a flash meter, then dial each light up or down to the perfect level. The Nikon SB Speedlights can be dialed from full to 1/64 power in half- or third-stop increments, depending on the model.

The benefits of the small lights add up quickly. Besides the 75 percent reduction in weight and luggage, we no longer have to haul around heavy extension cords, look for handy A/C outlets, use heavy-duty light stands, etc.

My favorite benefit is the ability to shoot in the rain. When we put Glad freezer bags over our battery-operated flashes and their attendant radio receivers we can keep shooting in a downpour, with no concern about electrical shock.

Mighty Minis in Action

When we got the assignment to photograph Dell president and CEO Kevin Rollins, I packed all my lighting gear in one Think Tank Airport Security rolling case and got all the equipment to the shoot without an assistant.

When I looked at the space we’d be using, I knew I couldn’t overpower all existing light sources, spread out over 5,000-6,000 sq. feet. I started by gelling my lights to roughly match the color temperature of the room’s light sources. Then I placed the main light—a Nikon SB-800 set to 1/2 power in a 20x30-inch softbox—off camera to Rollins’ left. The existing light would provide good fill. Twenty feet back to his left, I placed an SB-800 in a smaller softbox, set for 1/4 power, for good back lighting.

To the left of the hall were two conference rooms with frosted-glass brick walls that needed to be lit. Each room got its own SB-28DX flash set on a small tabletop tripod. The final light was an SB-24 aimed at the back wall to keep it from going too dark. That’s the whole setup.

The logistics of a shoot become really simple when you shrink your lighting equipment. Clamp strobes to doors, tape them to walls, hang them from drop ceilings. With radio slaves, don’t worry about running cables to fixtures or hiding the cables and gear. I’m not ready to get rid of the big lights just yet. Every once in a while, we’ll need to overpower the sun or get a reading of f/16 from a big softbox in the studio.

But for day-to-day location work, it’s hard to beat the flexibility and agility of our “mighty minis.”