As someone who prefers to shoot using natural light, I have realized that sometimes, a photo begs for artificial lighting. For years, I struggled with how many strobes to use and where to place them. I lost patience and focused instead on natural light. By spending the time to learn how lighting actually works, I eventually gained a better understanding of how to use strobes. In this article, I hope to share with you how to use just one strobe to create jaw-dropping results.
The following article will not be very complex or dense. Personally, reading intricate details on how and when to use strobes generally causes my eyes to glaze over. This is an attempt to show you when and where to take a portrait using the sun and one single strobe.
My go to light source is the sun, there's no dragging gear, it's simple and it’s free. (For more information, look into this article where I discuss finding and using good natural light.) Even though using the sun as a light source is the most pleasurable, there are times when the sun just doesn’t cut it. In the set of photos featured in this article, the midday sun was simply too harsh to shoot outside. And when trying to filter the sunlight inside the barn, I found that there was no light source besides a few small windows.
When I first started photography, I was under the impression that if you want to use strobes you need multiple strobes. Over the years I learnt how wrong I was. YOU ONLY NEED ONE STROBE. Still to this day I bring along 5 strobes thinking I may need them and only end up using one. The same way I only have one light source when using natural light, you only need one strobe when using artificial light.
This brings us to the next point. So what exact gear do you need? I've used a dozen modifiers before landing on an octa box. It's a modifier that never goes wrong. Any octa box will do. I have an Elinchrome Rotalux 53 inch. I pair it with my Einstein flash head and a vagabond battery pack that doubles as a weight. KEEP THE GEAR SIMPLE. I have a 1k$ setup which is not too expensive but if I can go back I'd get the same thing my friend Rey uses: a 66$ Yonguo speedlight and simple octa. This guy produces results I hope to achieve sometime before I leave planet Earth.
Once you have your gear in your trunk, it’s important to prepare your mind for the shoot. This may sound like a yogi thing to say but it’s the truth. Photographers tend to get excited on a shoot and they channel the excitement towards fiddling with strobes and setting them up. Often, they completely neglect the fact that no one cares about the lights, all the client wants is good result. That is why it is crucial to set the gear aside and walk around the location to find a good spot to shoot. For each photographer what constitutes as a “good location” will vary. For this shoot, I was feeling a rustic look. The image below is a result of walking around the farm and eventually stumbling across this room that had the sun directly beaming through a window in the ceiling. I instantly fell in love with it and I had my model stand at the door way of the room. Part of the rustic vibe I was going for meant including the wood beam and the fence, so I made sure to include it. I took a few quick portraits of her getting backlit from the sun knowing her face would come out dark. Then and only then did I go get my strobe and set it up right next to me. I lifted it a drop above eye level and angled it down.
I won’t discuss the technical flash setting because for every environment, these will change. What is important is everything else that is happening on the shoot. The purpose of the flash, is to simply give some soft light to the skin. What matters most is that your backgrounds and bokeh are perfect. For more information on bokeh and complimenting colors, check out this article.
Next, the key to making your light look natural is to take the portrait exactly how you'd take it using ambient light only. Don’t even turn on your flash. Ignore the dark or uneven light on your model’s face. Make sure the background and ambient light is perfectly exposed. Once you've achieved this, you can turn on your flash and set it accordingly. Don't touch your camera settings, rather, fool with the flash. It’s okay to move the flash closer and further as well. Moving it even one foot farther from your subject can make the biggest difference.
WHAT YOU SHOOT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HOW YOU SHOOT IT. If the subject is boring, a photographer can use all the gear in the world but the results will not turn any heads. Concentrate on poses, expressions and wardrobe. This will make a huge difference.