Studio Style
Using The Sun And Your Imagination

For this shot of "Late Show" musician Will Lee the big guns weren't needed. I added some foreground light with a Vivitar 283 bounced off of a white card, and synched a second 283 in the background to add a highlight on the truck.
Photos © 1998, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

If you've been reading any of my articles recently, you're no doubt aware that I like lighting gear. I especially like studio flash generators, big pro flash lamp heads, heavy-duty movie set style Matthews "C" stands, giant softboxes, focusing Fresnel lights, Bogen "Super Boom" arms, and lots more expensive gear. Right now I own well over 25,000 ws of power divided up over 11 power packs, firing through 16 heads, diffused by close to 20 different softboxes and a dozen more umbrellas. While I don't need all of this stuff everyday, I do need this much stuff a couple of times a year. I'm really able to justify keeping all of this gear only because I like lighting gear. A more prudent photographer would own a good arsenal of stuff and rent the exotic pieces as needed. Not me, I like using my own equipment that I'm familiar with.

That said, I am well aware that great images can be created with hardly any equipment at all. A camera and the vision of the photographer is really all that is required, not a truck full of lighting equipment. There are plenty of situations where less gear will actually produce a better photograph than more. Even pros with a vast arsenal of resources often resort to a simple white card and a bit of backlit sunlight to create a really great image. Since a lot of very serious amateur photographers own a good SLR system and one or two on-camera flashes, I went into my files and plucked a few images to illustrate how a very modest lighting setup can create truly professional images.

Fill flash at sunset can be very dramatic. To create a surreal look, I overexposed the foreground and added a little bit of flash shot through a small softbox.

The first thing that every photographer must be concerned with is light. Quality and quantity are critically important. With a good studio flash system, neither are ever in doubt, however out in the field you'll have to deal with the sun and whatever other ambient lighting is available. There are three accessories that you must own to create good-looking light in the field--an extension cord to get your flash off the camera, a small softbox or diffuser for your flash, and a portable reflector card or folding reflector panel.

The extension cord is a must. On-camera flash looks harsh at best, and downright flat as your distance from the subject increases. With any modern SLR camera, be it 35mm or 21/4, you should be able to get an extension cord that preserves all of the Off-The-Film (OTF) exposure capabilities of your flash unit. Call me old-fashioned, but I just use a regular old PC to household synch adapter hooked into a hardware store extension cord. This gives me nearly unlimited cord length for a few bucks. I never did trust that OTF stuff anyway, so I meter with the flash on manual and set my exposure by hand.

A small softbox or reflector system is really important. Even an inexpensive off brand flash unit can look like a $10,000 flash system when the light is modified correctly. While a typical 50 ws on-camera flash doesn't have much punch when diffused (you'll lose about three f/stops over bare tube), with reasonably fast film you can still get a good f/stop to work with. Another approach that is very portable and pretty efficient is a reflector system like the Lumiquest. These reflector systems consist of a vinyl backing card and usually a handful of different materials that the flash can bounce off of. While photojournalists have long favored an index card stuck to the back of their Vivitar 283s, the bounce system usually relies on having a white or neutral ceiling to help with the bounce chores--an impossibility in the field.

Direct sunlight can often be overly harsh, so I positioned four silver reflectors around the model. Notice how well the shadows, like those under his chin, are filled in.

The last accessory that you must have is a good reflector card. Cheapskates like me fashion our own out of white foamcore and some silver reflector material--a very wise investment is a knock-down reflector system. Considering that a 42" reflector system with a silver face on one side and a gold face on the other is less than $75, it makes good sense to own one. If you're hell-bent on frugality, then you can do what I do. I take a 30x40" piece of foamcore and cut it in half, making two 30x20" pieces. I rejoin the two pieces with a wide strip of sturdy Gaffer tape on one side only, creating a hinge. Then I cover the taped side of both sheets with a single sheet of a silver material like Cinemills excellent M-270 Scrim material. This woven silver material allows some light to be bounced back by the foamcore, the rest by the silver surface of the scrim. The result is a very nice folding reflector card for around $20.

Once you've got your tools together, it's time to shoot. An experienced photographer already knows that direct sunlight can be quite spectacular. That same photographer also has hundreds of rolls of film of friends and family squinting into the harsh sun, their faces a mess of hot spots and inky black shadows. One great approach to shooting in daylight and really giving your subjects some nice light is to position your subjects in shade. A several f/stop difference will create enough underexposure in the foreground to add your own light source and make it the defining light. A good example of this is an assignment I recently had to shoot--Will Lee, a musician on The Late Show with David Letterman, for a print ad campaign. The client wanted him posed on the street with a group of rental studio trucks in the background. Once we had all the elements in place it was a matter of determining how to deal with the lighting. It was a bright sunny day in Manhattan, but direct sunlight would have blasted out all of the detail in the client's product. We positioned the product and Lee in the shade of a nearby building, and I set the lens on my Mamiya RZ67 to expose for the sky in the background. To light the foreground I chose a small flash unit bounced off of one of my folding reflector cards in the foreground, and a small Vivitar flash synched via a Wein Super Slave to add a highlight off the side of the truck. The result was excellent foreground detail and a bright sky that suggests daytime. Since I had enough daylight to get a decent f/stop without any additional light, the fill flash didn't need to be from a beefy studio flash. A couple of 283s worked great.

Another shot brings up a different lighting chore--harsh midday sunlight. For this fashion catalog shot of a model leaning on a red car in front of a few New York brownstones, we had to deal with brilliant noontime sunlight, without a cloud in the sky. Experiments with diffusing the daylight with a large diffusion panel didn't work, since the buildings in the background would be receiving direct sun and thus be way overexposed. While flash added, even off-camera flash, helped, we needed a bigger, broader light source. Since studio flash and a few AC generators were out of the question, I took four silver reflector cards and positioned the client, the stylist, the makeup artist, and my assistant around the model and instructed them to bounce as much daylight as they could directly onto him. While a single reflector card looked very artificial, the four cards bouncing sun from different angles softened everything up and looked perfectly natural.

When shooting people in broad daylight, try and turn them away from the sun if possible. In the spring and fall the daylight has a strong directional quality, and setting your subject up for severe backlighting will allow you to position your reflector as much as you would an umbrella in the studio. For shooting in harsh summer light think about a gold reflector. I love shooting my kids in midday sun and angling them to create some shadow on one side of their face. I then bounce in some gold tinted daylight from one of my homemade reflectors and the resulting pictures look deliciously warm.

There are some effects that usually are associated with expensive location gear, like those other wordly fill-flash portraits favored by magazine photographers. You've seen them before, the subject lit by seemingly perfect studio lighting, the background a deeply saturated, obviously real location. I have created this look hundreds of times with my battery powered Balcar flashes, but you can get a similar effect with a modest shoe mount flash and a small softbox.

I have recently become quite fond of the Photoflex XS Silver-dome softbox. This tiny 12x15" softbox is designed for small flashes, and its silver interior makes it very efficient. A good example of what can be done with a small flash and a softbox is illustrated in the picture of the model posed in front of a drive-in hamburger sign. We wanted to get a combination of the tacky neon of the sign, a bright sky indicating the first tinges of a sunset, and the model seemingly lit by broad daylight. To accomplish it we brought the model out some distance from the neon sign, making him totally backlit and very dark. I overexposed the background a few f/stops to create a colorful and punchy image, then lit the model in the foreground with a simple Vivitar flash shooting into the Photoflex Silverdome. I was able to get f/5.6 with 64 speed Kodachrome, and a 2 sec exposure took care of the background. While I shot a series of exposures with shutter speeds as brief as 1/30 of a sec, the long exposure gave the image a surreal look that worked.

While I have relied on assistants and clients to help hang on to the reflectors and diffusers, a one-man show can function quite nicely with a few small light stands and a hand full of Bogen Superclamps. While reflectors and diffusers combined with the sun create a light that is easily previewed, little flash units have no modeling lights, so their effect isn't visible until you look at the pictures. Pros preview the effect of their flash's output with Polaroid film, and I have Polaroid backs for all of my cameras, even NPC Forscher Probacks for my manual focus Nikons and my autofocus Canons. Since $600-$800 may be way over your budget for a Polaroid back, you'll have to learn to visualize the effects of your flash without seeing the results in the viewfinder. It is for this reason that I prefer to use a manual flash and a flash meter. By independently metering the existing sunlight and the output of my flash, I can decide how to expose to create the look I want.

Working with small battery powered flash units will never replace a full blown pro lighting rig, but if you're clever about it and can deal with a medium or even fast film, you can pull it off. I've found that 400 speed Fujicolor in a medium format camera can deliver really nice 8x10 prints. I use this setup quite a bit to photograph my kids in a formal/informal type of portrait shot at the local park. I'll bring my little Vivitar flash unit, the extension cord and a small softbox. To make things easier I'll bolt the whole rig to a heavy-duty Bachrach flash bracket, removing the flash occasionally to create a more dramatic light quality. Since I don't bring light stands, I'll just have my wife hold the flash and move it around a bit to create some different lighting results.

When shooting outdoors you usually have access to an ample amount of natural light. Heavily overcast days usually result in very poor results, but when enough of your flash is added, you can produce really dramatic portraits. For overcast conditions when you don't have a flash or don't plan on bringing one, a gold reflector can really punch things up. Even thin wispy clouds can really cool off the color temperature of the daylight, and a warm gold reflector can bring the life back to flesh tones. Since heavy overcast results in a soft omnidirectional light, you'll have to bring the reflectors very, very close to the subject to create any noticeable results. I have a couple of small 24" square gold cards that I bring along, and I'll place them no more than 18" away from the subject and then shoot with a 100-135mm lens. This creates a very tight but beautiful portrait.

Regardless of the situation, the clever creative photographer can produce good results. While I usually throw as much technology as I can at the lighting problem, a photographer with even a basic outfit can almost always take great pictures. The key is to look at the quality of daylight, the position of the sun, and the possibilities of adding light with reflectors or small flash units. As with any technique, the only way to get good enough to accurately "previsualize" this look in your head is to expose lots of film, take notes when you shoot, and document your results thoroughly. I guarantee that anyone with a camera, lens, a sheet of foamcore, and a small cheap flash can reproduce the images that I've shown here. All it takes is patience, creativity, and a dash of vision.