With the recent flooding of the market with battery-powered monolights, it might seem as if the humble speedlight will only ever be found on top of the photojournalist's camera from now on. The Profoto B1 and B2, the Broncolor Siros, and offerings from various small brands have given us options for high-powered flashes in much smaller packages than before. But sometimes, it is still more convenient to use speedlights than to lug around heavier and bulkier offerings.
"Why aren't you taking the Einstein?" my travel partner asked as we went over our packing lists. A fair question. I'd get much better recycle times, more light, and the ability to work at any time of day. I would gain a lot. What would I lose? I would need to check my bag as it would be overweight. We would be going to extremely remote areas where I would not be able to charge the Vagabond battery. We'd be traveling by small boat and constantly on the move, which would mean more luggage to load and unload a couple of times a day. It would be doable, but it would be an annoyance for this trip. So, I chose to take a couple of my old SB-800s.
I work a lot with speedlights on a day-to-day basis anyway, as I work alone quite often and travel to most of my shoots on public transportation. I am keenly aware of their limitations and how to get the most from them. Packing two SB-800s, a Photek Softlighter II, and a Manfrotto Nano Stand, I had a kit that I knew could light most of the shots I would want easily. Sure, I'd be shooting at full power a lot of the time and waiting for my lights to recycle, but I had packed my trusty Eneloop Pros, which cut down that recycle time and will go all day. Unlike the Vagabond, if my Eneloops ran out, I knew I could find AA batteries at a store somewhere along the river in a pinch.
A Note About Batteries
If you're using speedlights, alkaline batteries are not really your friend. You'll get slower recycle times, as they're not able to deliver power very quickly. You'll also get relatively few pops out of a set of alkalines, and you'll be creating a lot of waste over time. Invest in a good set of Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries, and you'll instantly see the benefits. My cells of choice are Eneloop Pros. I took 16 of them on my one month trip to Myanmar, and after 100+ portraits and a whole lot of environmental portraits, I still went home with one set fully charged. They last and last, and in my testing, halved the recycle time of my SB800s. They are a no-brainer in my books.
The Power of a Speedlight
For most applications, the biggest difference between a 600Ws monolight and your speedlight is power. Speedlights just can't match the power. For example, when shot through my Softlighter, an SB800 is three stops less powerful that my Einstein. That's the difference between f/4 and f/11, or the difference between one speedlight and eight speedlights together in the same modifier. Larger battery-powered flash units produce a lot more light. So, therein lies our challenge. If we want to use speedlights, how can we get the most from them?
Choose your Battles
First up, you need to know what a speedlight is capable of. Knowing that it isn't capable of filling a 50" softbox and fighting the midday sun should give you some clues. Working in the shade is a great way to hedge the bets in your favor, as is working towards the fringes of day.
Open shade is often two or three stops dimmer than direct sunlight, and the shade between buildings can be even darker. As we saw above, that brings us back into speedlight territory. The 100+ portraits against black that I made for my recent book were made in just this way. By placing the subject in shade, I was able to control the light enough that my speedlights could be used as a key. The ambient was usually around f/2.8 or f/4 at ISO 200, 1/180 s. This meant that by shooting around f/5.6 or f/8, I was able to significantly underexpose the scene and make very dramatic portraits, even in the middle of the day with a single speedlight.
Working towards the ends of day can also mean that there is significantly less ambient light to work with. For the shot below, I backlit the subjects with the rising sun. This plunged the subjects into shadow, approximately two stops under the rest of the scene. By putting my flash directly in front of the drummer, I wouldn't be worried about creating any unnatural shadows, so I could take the modifiers off and use bare flash. This, in concert with the loss of contrast from flare and hazy morning light, allowed me to use a relatively low power of 1/16, even though I was shooting at f/11.
Augment Rather Than Take Control
Sometimes, you don't need to fight the sun directly as such, but subtly enhance the light that is already there. By doing this, your speedlight may not need to work as hard, because it it simply giving direction to existing light, rather than trying to overpower it.
This shot was done on a cloudy afternoon, and I felt that it needed more directionality than the existing light. I underexposed the ambient by one stop and brought in the flash from the top of the frame to produce some shadows and give shape to the light. Here I am working at a mere 1/8 power through my Softlighter II.
Get Your Light in Close
For our purposes as photographers, light gradually becomes less intense as it spreads out over distance. This is a powerful concept with speedlights, because the closer we can get them to what we want to light, the more power we can effectively draw from them. That is to say, a speedlight at full power 50 centimeters from your subject is effectively much more powerful than the same light 3 meters from your subject. So, it makes sense that when you need more power, you move the light closer.
Compositionally, this is not always possible as the light may end up in your frame. There are a couple of ways to combat this with digital photography. One is to use a tripod and shoot your frame with and without the light in there. Then you can overlay these two frames in post-production and simply 'paint out' the light. The other option is to shoot a frame much tighter than you actually intend to use it, and then shoot extra frames around the subject to stitch together in post production.
One other way to combat this, of course, is to hide the light. In the shot below, I used the tree stump as a compositional element, but also to hide my softbox so I could get the light in extremely close. Working at half power on a single SB800, I was able to light the young girl's face to f/7.1 and keep the background in register as well.
As you can see, one speedlight can be enough in many situations. If you get the light in close and have the ability to choose the light you're working in (time of day and location), a speedlight can do the trick. If the limitations of flash-to-subject distance, time of day, or recycle time are things you cannot afford to have, then it may be time to break out the big guns (like a Profoto B1), but until then, speedlights are an incredibly useful tool, especially when traveling.