Light is my favorite part of photography. I also love color, composition and gesture, but light is my biggie. To me, light is photography.
The challenge though is that lighting usually takes a great deal of effort. The studio gear I’ve used for years is heavy, cumbersome, and complicated. It also requires a/c power, a vehicle large enough to transport it, and a small ransom to bankroll the investment. But, the studio gear has always given me results that made it worth the effort and the expense, so I’ve stuck with it.
These days, many clients are expecting more variation in less time—and often for a smaller budget. In many cases, there simply isn’t the time or need for the studio lights. Still, for the most part, I’ve continued to use them anyway despite the possibilities of hot shoe-style flashes.
I’ve mostly resisted smaller flashes because they always felt like a huge compromise from my studio gear. When I’d used them on projects in the past, they never seemed to have enough power or the control I needed. And, the exposures were so inconsistent that the time I spent in post making each frame match was enough to make me crazy. More than anything though, I struggled to get the same quality of light using hot shoe flashes that I could easily get using my studio strobes.
“The only one I feel like I’ve been cheating is myself for not ditching the studio gear more often.”
When I switched to Nikon late last year, I decided to give hot shoe flashes another try. After starting out with one of their SB-910 Speedlights, I bought four more—two SB-910s and two SB-700s—as well as something they call a Wireless Speedlight Commander which allows you to control each Speedlight from the camera. Several people I deeply respect had been using this system for years and swore by it. So, I figured I’d give it a go.I was hoping that I might be able to use it in some of my work without feeling like I was cheating my clients. A few months and many projects later, the only one I feel like I’ve been cheating is myself for not ditching the studio gear more often. These days my Speedlights are getting a very regular workout and I feel pretty foolish for not looking into them years ago.
This past week I shot two portrait projects using nothing but Speedlights. Because I was working smaller, I was able to move very quickly from location to location and not delay the progress of the shoot. At one of them, we had five celebrity subjects, stylists, an entourage, and existing lighting that changed at every location. But, I was able to keep up and be ready to go as soon as the talent settled into position. I was still using the same light modifiers and getting the same quality, but I was doing it with a fraction of the gear.I was also able to do things I couldn’t do with the studio lights. For example, rather than shoot stopped-down as would be necessary with my heavy strobes, I was able to shoot almost wide open to obtain minimal depth of field in some outdoor locations using high-speed sync. If something happened spontaneously, I was able to quickly move a light or two into position, take a test frame, make an adjustment on the Commander, and begin shooting. And it all played out quickly because everything was TTL and controllable from the camera.
The client—who was worried we wouldn’t get much in only two hours— was super-happy with the variety and quality of the take. And the consistency of the exposures minimized the RAW processing adjustments that I needed to make in post.
After years of working with the big stuff, I’m a convert to the speed of Speedlights. If you’re thinking about looking into working this way, do it. You won’t be sorry.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.