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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35 Comments

Johnny Rico's picture

I'm assuming this was just a portfolio shoot? If this was anything commercial and you can only afford to bring a single strobe on location, you are doing something, or many things wrong.

EDIT: I can't tell if people are being paid or not by the words crew and my.

Yep, as soon as you are not within 30 minutes (or whatever distance you decide) from studio you take spare head and some things that are not on lightlist but might get handy .. you deal with production and budget later if needed .. always better to have and not need than vice versa

Nicole York's picture

Yes, this is a portfolio shoot.

Rob Mitchell's picture

I'm having an issue here.
The top image in the finished one, right?

How come the general exposure of the behind the scenes images is better than the top image?
Event the tome with the cowboy fella looking downwards, his face isn's in hard shadow. All looks pretty flat. Ok, the clouds had rolled in there bit on the other behind the scenes shot, there's an obvious back-lit shadow, still a face lit as much as the final image though.

I'd have expected a lot more depth to the finished shot from the addition of extra flash, or the basic work-around tips provided.

Either way, lesson learned I hope. Take more flashes next time :)

To me the top pic looks sorta kinda like the strobe was still working as seen the the BTS shot.
Are there any that show how you solved the equipment failure problem?

This is how I learned to have backups of backups or other ways to do things...I tend to overpack lol.

Spy Black's picture

The old Boy Scouts motto comes to mind here...

Mine just failed, two days ago. I got out my backup.

Spares. Spares. SPARES. Thats why I own multiples of damn near everything I need for a shoot. I need one strobe, I bring two. I need two, I bring four. One body, I bring two.

Pretty simple formula.

Nicole York's picture

Of course it's always better to have spares. But you have to remember that this website isn't just for people who are at point in their career to have backups of their backups. There are people out there who can't afford backups of their strobes, and still need to know how to make things work in a pinch.

Motti Bembaron's picture

My first reaction was "well of course you have a backup, what pro photographer wouldn't?" But then I remembered working with a photographer a while ago at a wedding and her camera stopped working. She did not have a backup.

She was from the groom side I was on the bride's side (Indian wedding). She was in shock. I gave her my D3, a speedlight, and a 24-120mm. I remember her look when she realized it was a Nikon -she was a Canon user. I just put it on P with Auto ISO (if I remember correctly) and she worked all night with it.

I still cannot believe she did not have a backup. I have three cameras even when doing a family session. Paranoid, maybe but it's in the trunk if I ever need it

But with all honesty, if I was going so far into the wild with so many people depending on my equipment to work, I would have brought every single strobe I can master (at least three) and not only trusting spedlights..

Stuart Carver's picture

I can’t believe someone who is apparently a photographer can’t pick up a camera from another brand and be able to use it in manual, the settings do the same thing on either camera and they don’t need to know much else.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I agree with Lane Shurtleff, a pro should have a backup of everything, camera, lenses, flashes etc. However, to be fair, when I first picked up a Canon camera I struggled to find the 'ON' button and that was in daytime. Nikon ergonomics are a lot better and easier (in my opinion) but someone who is used to one brand will find it challenging working the dials at party reception changing settings quickly.

I have a D3, D750 and D500, I often get confused when changing ISO or shooting modes.

I don't fault her for not knowing how to operate a Nikon camera but certainly for not having spare equipment, especially at a wedding.

I should add that she is in a much better position these days and doing very well. She learned.

Stuart Carver's picture

I learn stuff really quickly when it comes to tech so maybe being harsh but I reckon I could figure out any camera in 20 mins or less, at least to the point where i could take photos.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Of course, some are better in tech stuff. I am average and I often forget where is a specific menu item on the camera :-). However, when you have to rush and seamlessly continue the gig (especially a wedding), it's very hard.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

I like beating a dead horse so here goes nothing.

No photographer calling him/herself a pro that doesn't have backup equipment is not a pro, you're an unprepared amateur. From camera bodies, lenses,grip and flash equipment you should always have at least 2 of everything.

Nicole York's picture

Not everyone who reads this website for advice is a professional.

It is also about weight. I just recently experienced a shooting of an interview for a big Sunday newspaper. The professional news photographer (many, many years in business) carried an Elinchrom Ranger with him along with just one camera, two lenses, no spare battery and just one flash head and (today) no modifiers also, but a flash stand. It looked like very used gear. He said he had to carry around that stuff for many hours every day, he sometimes gets home late. It is already heavy enough, he said. Btw: He was prepared in seconds and he was fast.

Sky is blue and grass is green. Have a backup gear.

Stuart Carver's picture

For a community that provides the opportunity to showcase your skills, there is an awful lot of people with massive opinions based on how perfect they are yet no photos on show for us all to see the results.

Lee Christiansen's picture

There is a shorter version of this article entitled "Bring a Spare..."

Nicole York's picture

Wouldn't it be nice if every photographer who read Fstoppers had the money for extra gear? Unfortunately, they don't, and those people deserve articles that can help them where they're at.

Lee Christiansen's picture

This photographer, pro or not, was taking the responsibility of taking the time of a 5man crew and 4 models...

This in itself suggests taking that responsibility seriously. So if the photographer couldn't afford to own a backup, then hire a backup. With such a large crew in tow, this is the responsible thing to do.

So the issue isn't whether anyone can afford the kit, (it costs approx £25 here in the UK to hire a B1 Profoto and other brands are cheaper - so not a lot). The issue goes to taking appropriate responsibility and the circumstances of this photographer is what comes into question in this specific article. The tone suggests we're supposed to congratulate them for being ingenious, where in reality, due diligence wasn't met at the outset.

It is simple really. If you are doing a shoot which involves other people, don't take them for granted and own / bring / hire backup kit. If you're doing it on your own, be as ingenious as you like...

Wherever a photographer is "at" there is a responsibility. I'm just suggesting that this photographer should have observed it.

Nicole York's picture

I'm not sure what in the tone or wording of the article suggests I didn't take the responsibility seriously. In fact, I mention that it's one of the things I take incredibly seriously. Which is why the entire point of the article is to be as prepared as possible, including understanding enough about light to carry a shoot if you have no other options. It's why I carried two wagonloads of gear into the desert. It's why I had multiple options for lighting the scene if something failed. It's the reason I was able to walk away from the shoot with photographs that my team and I are happy with.
I'm sorry if you think the tone suggests I'd like to be congratulated. Anyone who writes for an internet publication with the idea that readers will be congratulatory is sadly mistaken. Most of the time writers are opening themselves to the possibility of ridicule in the hopes that someone else will learn something. I'm simply sharing my experiences and the way I approach problems for anyone who might benefit.

Hi Nicole, I think you did mention that you used your spare fashgun and Westcott softbox. Plus you had reflectors. I think a lot of the posters here forgot that...

Nicole York's picture

I think so, too, lol.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Five crew: $1500. Four models: $2000. Having enough gear to do the job: Priceless.

Dana Goldstein's picture

@Nicole York, your several defenses of the article don't excuse the fact that anyone doing a shoot, whether for portfolio, pleasure or pay, has a responsibility to themselves and everyone else present to be prepared enough to have the correct equipment AND BACKUPS to complete the shoot. One of the advantages of being active in a local photography community is developing relationships with other photographers so that you can borrow or rent gear from them when necessary, and return the favor when you can. Taking four models and five crew to a remote location with ONE STROBE is just unacceptable. It's not a question of professionalism, it's a question of maturity.

Nicole York's picture

Dana, I begin to wonder if you read the article. The entire point is being prepared. I'm pretty sure I say that several times, and encourage others to be as prepared as possible. That's why I had an additional light source and other modifiers I could use to manipulate the natural light. That's why I dragged two wagon loads of gear into a hot desert. That's the entire reason I was able to finish the shoot and walk away with photos the crew and I love.

Also, I chose not to stake my ability to make a great photo on whether or not I can get back-up gear from my peers. Sometimes that just isn't possible. Sometimes they're using their own gear when my shoot is scheduled, or it's incompatible. Not every photographer can build their schedule around whether they can rent or borrow backups. And they don't have to, because there are more ways to light a scene than with a strobe. Reflectors and scrims are fantastic tools in bright light situations. There is also the option of lighting and compositing separately. This isn't an all or nothing scenario, Dana, and has nothing to do with a lack of maturity. Is has to do with understanding light and the ability to adapt.
There are many amazing photographers who work solely with available light and create stunning imagery. Are you suggesting their lack of strobes makes them an immature photographer? Working purely with available light is a legitimate creative choice. It's not one I choose to make, as I believe any light is good light if you know how to use it and it works for your concept, but that doesn't make it wrong.

The point here, is that a photographer should spend the time it takes to know how to use LIGHT, so that they don't have to rely solely on any one piece of gear should something fail. I've been on locations that were too windy to make using a modifier of any size safe for my crew. I've been on locations where lugging large pieces of gear was impractical and unsafe. There are times when the location for editorial work is a surprise, and even photographers with backups of their backups are forced to work in spaces that don't allow for all the gear they brought. They're forced to think on their feet about what they can use to make the most of a given scenario, relying on their understanding of light to make things work. Talk to a few commercial and editorial photographers and you'll hear all kinds of stories about the unexpected hurdles they face.

So I'm sorry, we'll just have to agree to disagree, here. Yes, backups are always, always the best bet if it's possible. Which is why I brought additional light sources, as you see in the BTS shots. But it's not always possible for everyone, and I don't think photographers should feel compelled to wait to create the work they want until they can secure backups of everything. Hell, if they did, no one who ever started out with a single camera and lens would ever have made it anywhere. If they know enough about what they're doing to make solid creative choices, and they're prepared as much as possible so they can adapt to a changing situation, then they should be able to go out and make whatever images they choose free of guilt. Whether they have a back up strobe, or whether they chose to work only with available light. The ability to do that doesn't make them immature photographers.

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