For this portrait, I used an ELB 500 in TTL mode with a 53-inch Rotalux Octabox. The flash was set for high-speed sync for 1/800 shutter speed. Nikon Z 7, 35mm F1.8 lens. Exposure 1/800 sec., ƒ/1.8, ISO 100.
The photography industry has been rapidly transforming in recent years, and the major focus has been on camera systems. Every year, there are eye-catching headlines and groundbreaking technologies. But it isn’t just hype. Autofocus systems, frame rates, ISO performance and wireless transfer abilities are rapidly improving. So, if you haven’t updated your camera in a few years, there is a good chance you are missing out on some major performance improvements.
While the camera revolution has been in the forefront, lighting technology has also been evolving, and these changes are more than just little performance bumps. New flash technology has changed the way I shoot. In fact, when I started using new continuous lights and portable TTL battery systems, my entire workflow changed when I shoot on-location.
Simply put, I was creating images I would have missed without these technology advancements.
Since I teach a lot of photo workshops and lighting classes, I’ll be the first to tell students that their creative vision is more important than the camera gear they use.
But executing your vision into reality requires the right tools. And when new technology makes my job easier, I can focus more on my creative vision and less on flash exposures and sync speeds. Below, I’ve listed some new flash technologies and techniques that we use regularly in our assignment work. You might find they’re the perfect solution for your portrait sessions on the road or in the studio.
Portable Strobe Systems
If there is one trend with flash systems that everyone will appreciate, it is “smaller, lighter and more powerful.”
I remember not long ago hauling 20-pound battery pack flash systems up a trail in the mountains. We were on an assignment to photograph rock climbers and needed powerful 1000-watt lights to shoot through large octaboxes. With two packs and extra batteries, we had 50 pounds of gear, not to mention all our camera equipment. Slogging up a steep trail with heavy packs wasn’t exactly my idea of fun.
Thankfully, those days are over. My go-to pack for lightweight power now is the Elinchrom ELB 1200. This pack is 9.5 pounds, half the weight of my old pack. But even more impressive, I can get 400 full-power flashes with one battery, three times the amount as my old system.
This pack uses LED modeling lights, offering hours of video lighting. And when I return from locations, I attach my ELB 1200 to a dock, which allows me to use AC power in the studio. The power, flexibility and light weight of this system are hard to beat.
But what if you only need 500 watts of power on location? The good news is you have a lot of fantastic lighting options, and they are very small and lightweight. Since I am an Elinchrom user, I use the ELB 500. Similar in design and style as the ELB 1200, the ELB 500 flash pack weighs 5.5 pounds and has two flash ports offering asymmetrical power distribution. If you prefer monolights, consider the Profoto B1x or Godox AD600Pro. These lights are lightweight, compact and offer hundreds of full power flashes per battery.
All these systems work seamlessly with dedicated wireless radio transmitters and offer hassle-free performance. No line of sight is needed with radio transmitters. So, go ahead and hide that flash behind the door or in the next room for creative lighting solutions. And bright sun on location won’t interfere with a radio signal, unlike older optical triggers.
Size and power are not the only things that have changed with studio flash. Now, many strobe systems offer TTL flash.
Now, I know what you are thinking: TTL flash is for beginners, produces inconsistent flash exposures and is best used with speedlights. Why would you want TTL flash using a strobe unit?
Part of the answer is found in the improved portability of modern strobe units. Many 500-watt battery flash systems weigh around 5 pounds, which makes bringing them on-location very reasonable. My ELB500 is about as big as three speedlights, but three speedlights can’t match the power or fast recycle time of the ELB500.
And using two flash heads with one pack, I can create beautiful cross-lit portraits.
I still wasn’t a believer in TTL flash with large strobes until I went to Bhutan, which is one of the most remote, isolated countries in the world.
Buddhism is prevalent, and the people are known for their peaceful, harmonious nature. I was obsessed with creating portraits of the mysterious, magical Buddhist monks living high in the Himalayas. I brought my ELB500 along with a 53-inch octabox as my modifier. Finding willing subjects wasn’t a problem. I encountered numerous monks on the trail, and they all were very curious and happy to pose for a portrait.
But what I couldn’t control was the weather. The Himalayas are the tallest mountains in the world, and mountain weather changes frequently. I found myself shooting through rain and wind storms, and my light position was constantly changing.
Using standard light metering with fixed distances between flash and subject would have resulted in incorrect flash exposures. Every rain squall that came through caused us to move around while we were shooting. But using TTL flash, we just kept getting perfect flash exposures every time, no matter how much we moved the light. I became a believer in TTL strobe flash right then and there. Without it, I would have missed a lot of photographs.
Wedding photographers will really reap the benefits of TTL strobe photography. No more pauses in the action setting up a shot. After photographing formal poses with a large softbox, you can use the same strobe pack in TTL mode with a small softbox to photograph the fluid party atmosphere of the reception.
The benefits don’t stop with TTL flash exposure.
Studio packs also offer high-speed sync (HSS), which is a game changer for portrait photographers. My favorite portrait lens is my trusty Nikon 105mm F1.4. The bokeh this lens creates is beautiful, and my subjects just pop off the background shooting wide open.
But the problem shooting flash at F 1.4 on a bright sunny day is having to use fast shutter speeds to get the correct exposure. I regularly shoot at 1/2000 and faster, which is much faster than my 1/250 flash sync speed. With HSS, I can shoot at any shutter speed without clipping my flash exposure. Combining strobe and F 1.4 with outdoor portraits is one of my favorite portrait techniques, and the images are striking.
Before HSS in studio strobes, I used ND filters on my lenses to slow my shutter speed down, but then I needed a large, heavy strobe pack to get enough flash power. Then, I started using multiple speedlights, but they didn’t have enough power for large octaboxes. Now, I just use HSS mode on my lightweight ELB 500, and my problem is solved.
LED Continuous Lighting
I first learned studio lighting using quartz lights. Continuous lights were great because “what you see is what you get.”
But quartz lights had a few limitations: While they worked fine in a dark studio on AC power, taking them outside wasn’t practical. Most portable continuous lights just didn’t have the power to be useful for a portrait photographer. And quartz lights got hot…really hot! I have burn scars on my hands to prove it.
But then a new crop of LED lights starting hitting the market, and these lighting systems have only gotten more powerful. Many video shooters have been using LED panel systems for years, but I have only recently started using LED lights. Why? Because now continuous LED lights are powerful enough to use in brighter conditions and offer rechargeable battery power that runs for hours.
Also, LED lights operate at cool temperatures. You don’t have to worry about sync speeds or wireless triggers with continuous lights, which appeals to many photographers. Small LED lights still can’t match the light output of a strobe, but they offer enough power to be very useful for many situations.
We now use both traditional strobes and LED lights on many of our shoots.
Since I do a lot of adventure sports photography, I was looking for a battery-powered LED system that was portable, weatherproof and nearly indestructible. I found everything I needed in the Light and Motion CLx8 continuous light. This LED light looks like a traditional monolight and seamlessly attaches to my Elinchrom light modifiers. But the real advantage is the 8000 lumens of light this unit puts out.
This light is great for portraits, filling in shadows or adding an accent light. And since it is a continuous light, you can use it for stills or video. A wireless remote adjusts the power output, so you can dim the light right from your camera position.
There are some other really nice LED continuous lights on the market that will interest still photographers: 1×1-foot panel systems, like the LitePanels Astra and Westcott Flex, offer variable temperature bulbs. Just turn a switch and change the white balance of your light source. The Westcott Flex is a flexible panel, which can be wrapped around objects for inventive lighting solutions.
Both these systems offer both AC and DC power options.
If you’re a road warrior assignment photographer or a weekend portrait shooter, more lighting options are available than ever before. New technology has opened the door to exciting creative choices and stunning strobe performance. Consider your options, and see if your work can benefit from these modern flash solutions.