When your only strobe dies on location, you'd better be prepared.
Sometimes, the best shots come from those unexpected flashes of inspiration, often when something goes wrong and you’re forced to think on your feet. A critical piece of gear breaks down or a thunderstorm appears out of nowhere, and you’re thrust into a make-it-or-break-it scenario. Your creative mind, along with your adrenaline, kicks into overdrive to compensate. While those surprises can lead to unexpected treasures, ones you wouldn’t have created otherwise, no one wants to experience their entire career in a state of creative panic because there is no way to predict when you’ll overcome your circumstances and when your circumstances will overcome you. Far better to be prepared.
During my last shoot, one that included five crew members and four models, my trusty old workhorse, an Alien Bees 1600, died. I brought that strobe because we would be in the desert and I wanted enough light to handle the midday sun and multiple subjects. We were in the middle of the New Mexico wilderness, an hour from town, with the sun beating down on us and very little in the way of shade. We’d already hauled gear in wagons up the trail to our location, and going back would mean rescheduling the shoot. If you’ve ever tried to align the schedules of ten people before, you’ll know how much of a pain it can be and how long it can take. Rescheduling wasn’t an option. I could have just used that hard sunlight, but it would have limited my options for using certain parts of the location and seriously affected the dynamic range of my images. So, it’s a good thing I came prepared.
Not only did I have a speedlight and my Westcott Rapid Box (which has saved my bacon more than once) for backup to provide fill light, but I also had reflectors and scrims. Lest you should think, “Oh sure, it’s easy to be prepared when you have the money for a bunch of gear,” know that I built my scrim out of ripstop nylon and PVC pipe, and you can make a reflector with a piece of cardboard and aluminum foil. Hell, I’ve used flashlights on location before. What’s important isn’t necessarily the gear, though it’s always good to have sound tools. What’s important is understanding how light works and giving yourself options if something goes wrong. Luckily for us, thunderstorms did roll in that afternoon, and while the prospect of getting struck by lightning wasn't particularly exciting, the gnarly clouds made an outstanding backdrop.
Putting together large shoots means you have to fill additional roles like production manager, craft services, safety crew, and a host of other jobs in addition to being a photographer. To pull it all off, you’ve got to have your ducks in a row, and that means being prepared to get the shot when fate sucker-punches you. If I hadn’t brought along extra lights and other modifiers, my carefully planned shoot would have been in trouble. Worse, I would have been responsible for asking a large group of people to trust me with their time and effort, only to not have all the tools I needed to give them a great product for their work. I want my crew and talent to trust me, so as far as humanly possible, I’m going to be prepared to get the shot, and preferably not just shots that will suffice given the circumstances, but damn good shots my crew can be proud of.
Does all this planning and preparation stop me from being creative? Not at all. In fact, it can actually be incredibly freeing, because it means I don’t have to worry about my gear letting me down. I know I have enough tools to guarantee getting what I need, which means I’m free to take more chances with less consequences. Of course, this is highly individual, and there are some people who can only get creative when the consequences are dire, but again: is that how you want to spend your whole career?
My suggestion is this: make sure you understand and learn to see light. Practice and study until you feel comfortable making a solid photo in multiple light scenarios. Shoot in all kinds of ambient light both with and without modifiers so you can learn how to make a striking image even when circumstances aren’t ideal. Have as many tools as you can to manipulate it, even if that means making them yourself on the cheap until you can afford better quality gear. When other people are depending on you, plan for the worst case scenario. Hopefully, nothing bad happens, but if it does, you’ll have all your bases covered.
Some things you can do if your lights fail you on location:
- Use the available natural light.
- Find open shade.
- Look for areas where the natural light can be used as a key light and the background is dark enough or clean enough to provide some separation for your subject.
- If you can’t find a clean background, shoot as wide open as possible to blur distractions.
- Don’t be afraid to up your ISO if it means getting a proper exposure. A bit of noise is better and less noticeable than damaging your file with intense post-production.
- Find natural reflectors. Buildings, cars, boulders, sidewalks, and signs will all work to either be the key light for your image or provide fill light.
- Look for "tunnel light." You can find this in areas like alleys, where the light is coming from the front, slightly above, and has contrast on either side to give it shape.
- Use other sources of available light, like street lamps, neon lights, or the lights from buildings or shops.
- Overexpose the background. If it means getting a proper exposure on your subject, blowing the background is a legitimate creative choice and not always even a bad one.
If you plan for the worst case scenario and have modifiers that can pick up the slack in an emergency and if you teach yourself to see and manipulate light in any circumstance, you'll never be without the ability to create striking images, even if your main light source kicks the bucket in the middle of a shoot.