by Sarah Fox
One of my specialties as a photographer is "on-location work." In this type of work, the client has something that needs to be photographed that cannot be taken into a photographer's studio. Rather, the photographer has to take the "studio" to a location. This is one of the most challenging areas of photography, often requiring very elaborate lighting equipment that sets up and breaks down easily and that is self-powered.
I have geared almost my entire collection of equipment to be light-weight and highly portable. My lighting equipment is largely custom-built and is adapted to work equally well for architectural and commercial photography, event photography, and and on-location portraiture. The workhorse of my lighting system is the Vivitar 285hv flash, which is extraordinarily small, light, powerful and versatile. Many professional photographers make extensive use of this older design of flash for on-location work, in part because it is rugged and inexpensive. Where my lighting system differs from others is that I have modified my 285 rigs with external power, reducing my recycle times to under 2 seconds for a full discharge. Why does this matter? Well, when a client is paying me by the hour, 2 seconds is a lot cheaper than 15 seconds. I have determined that the 285 can handle this short a recycle time on a continuous shooting basis.
I have also modified soft boxes with custom built rails to accommodate the 285 instead of a studio monolight. This effectively breaks my ties with AC power sources. I can shoot potentially thousands of elaborately illuminated frames in any location, with only the power I carry with me.
Finally, I have built custom interfaces to my 285 flashes that give me continuously variable power at the turn of a control knob and that accommodate studio slaves. I use a variety of slaves to trip the flashes, including radio frequency, infrared, and optical. I can station flashes over very broad areas throughout a building and synchronize them to each other to achieve whatever sort of lighting I need. (To learn about how I've modified these flashes, please visit this page.)
My lighting system consists of numerous flashes. I currently have 4 of the Vivitar flashes, which is all I've needed so far. If someone hires me for a job that will require more flashes, my system is pretty quickly scaleable with the purchase of a few more units. For on-shoe work (which I rarely do), I have a Canon 550EX. I have modified the electronics of one optical slave specifically to trip the 550EX, so that I can use this flash as a fifth slave unit. I also have other flashes that can be used as needed, including an impressive brute from the late 70's, the venerable Honeywell Strobonar 780s, which goes "poof" when it's fired.
In addition to this gaggle of powerful flashes, I have stands, umbrellas, softboxes, grids, reflective panels, absorptive panels, scrims, gobos, gels, reflective tarps, and an assortment of odd doodads to get it all to work together. In total, I have well over twice the lighting equipment a photographer might have in a typical studio, and it all packs up into a few bags and cases.
Why do I need all of this lighting? Well, to be honest, it isn't all needed on every job. My simplest lighting setup might be a couple of fold-up reflectors and a 285 flash with umbrella (handheld by my assistant). I might use this for a simple outdoor portrait. For more elaborate portraits, I might use a 3 or 4 light setup -- a main and a fill, with softboxes or umbrellas, a hair/rim light, possibly on a modified overhead microphone stand, possibly a background light or two. The most complicated lighting setups are used for architectural photography, where it is often necessary to light up several rooms simultaneously or to hide several lights to balance out the lighting. In this case it is also important to carefully control the light color with corrective gels, so that the lighting from the flash units is a good color match to the incandescent or (hopefully not) fluorescent lights. Event photography isn't nearly as technically demanding, but it does require lots of light to be done well. Ever notice how flash photography creates a brightly lit subject and a dark/black background? Well, that problem disappears when there are 4 or 5 bright flashes stationed around the room and none on the camera. The look becomes much more natural. Anyway, that's how I like to photograph rooms full of people. As far as I'm aware, I'm the only one who does it that way.
All I've really talked about so far is lighting, but honestly, that's 90% of the shoot. As for the other 10%, I'm equipped similarly to any other photographer. I have an array of cameras, lenses, meters, filters, and other items that I can pack up in cases and bring along with me. You can find my equipment inventory here. My cases are FAA compliant and can be stashed as carry-ons in airplanes. I also have a very large, waterproof, hermetically sealed, insulated, humidity controlled case that allows me to pack my camera gear into some very challenging environments that would ordinarily destroy cameras and lenses. My emphasis is mobility.
If you have any questions about my on-location capabilities or would like to inquire about booking my photographic services, please contact me here.
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