What to Do When Your Strobe Dies on Location

What to Do When Your Strobe Dies on Location

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.

Photo shared with permission from Les Peterson
Model: Justin Jackrabbit
Assistant: Alberto Perez
Photographer: Nicole York

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.

Photo shared with permission of Les Peterson
Photographer: Nicole York
Models: Justin Jackrabbit, Ben Cottontail, Scott Ables
Assistant: Hunter York

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.

Actors: Justin Jackrabbit, Ben Cottontail, and Scott Ables
Assistants: Alberto Perez and Hunter York
BTS provided by Les Peterson

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Previous comments
Dana Goldstein's picture

Nicole, I read the article. I’m not one of those people who just comments on a headline. And the vast amount of pushback you’re getting here is primarily from experienced professionals. We have all had things happen and been able to get by. But glorifying something that could have been avoided with proper planning, just to be able to say, hey look what I did anyway, doesn’t address the issue.

Nicole York's picture

It's glorifying to use a personal experience as an example to let other people know that if they are as prepared as possible and take the time to learn and understand light, they'll be able to handle unexpected hurdles? I'd rather think that's being supportive and encouraging.
How many photographers share their personal failures as often as their successes, even though failures often teach us more? Maybe because public ridicule isn't fun. But some of us are willing to do it, anyway, because the lessons we learn might help someone else.
Sure, I could have had an extra strobe in addition to the other gear I brought. But that's not the point. The point is that none of us will always be perfect. Mistakes, oversights, and unexpected failures will happen, but being as prepared as possible gives us the best possible chance of overcoming them and still get the job done. An article that says "have every possible contingency covered and you'll never encounter a struggle" would be unhelpful and disingenuous because gear fails. Things break. People are only human, and will make mistakes or forget things. I chose to use a personal event to illustrate the fact that being prepared means hurdles and mistakes don't have to make you crash. I really don't understand how that is getting boiled down to "if you would have just brought another strobe."

Even if I had, that would be no guarantee. What if one of my wagons crashed and broke my extra flashbulbs? Things happen. Being prepared gives you the best chance of success when they do. I don't understand why this is an argument.

Chase Wilson's picture

Midday, flat-ish bright surroundings providing a ton of free fill. I can't see any need for a strobe what so ever. Let alone redundant strobes.

A couple of bounce cards at best would do the trick.

Yasen Vasilev's picture

Thanks for the tips at the end of the article.
As for the other comments here... what a bitter 'community'.

Nicole York's picture

You're very welcome!