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Flexible Power at Minimum Size: Why You Need Nikon Speedlights in Your Camera Bag

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Alan Hess, author of Mastering Nikon Speedlights: A Complete Guide to Small Flash Photography and the Creative Lighting System, shares examples of two portrait shoots. Where traditional lighting could have worked, Speedlights had more flexibility. In another situation, Speedlights were crucial to getting the right image when both time and subject had limitations.
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There are times when the small size and portability of the Nikon Speedlights make them the perfect light for the job. I recently needed to do a shoot in a tight location in a very short amount of time, and the Speedlights were the right solution for the difficult portrait.

Easy and Convenient Positioning and Adjustments

Kasey Harvey is a teenage soccer player who kindly agreed to model for some of my previous projects. I shot the first set of photos of Kasey in her living room with just a couple of Nikon Speedlights, for my book Sports Portraits: Tips and Techniques for Capturing Athletic Photographs (part of Peachpit's Fuel Book series).

The basic setup was two Nikon SB-800 Speedlights. I placed one in a small softbox as a main light. At first I positioned the second Speedlight to add some side light, but I ended up moving it right behind Kasey to light up her hair and create separation between subject and background. I used a black pop-up backdrop to keep the background clean and simple, I set the front Speedlight to Group A, Channel 1 and the second to Group B, Channel 1. With the Nikon SU-800 Commander unit to trigger the two off-camera flashes, since I had them in different groups, I could adjust the power for each of the flashes independently. I set the camera to Manual mode with a shutter speed of 1/250 second, an aperture of f/5.6, and an ISO of 100 to reduce the effect of the ambient light in the room on the photograph.

Figure 1 shows the first image I created, with the second light off to the side, but it needed more separation between Kasey and the background. This was an easy fix: I just moved the Speedlight behind her, aimed directly at the back of her head. With the second light placed behind her, as shown in Figure 2, the resulting images looked a lot better, as you can see by the photo in Figure 3.

Figure 1 Kasey is photographed here with a softbox in front and second light off to the side.

Figure 2 You can see the placement of the two lights here, with the second light now behind Kasey.

Figure 3 The lighting is now set, with the softbox adding the main light, and the bright light around Kasey's head coming from the second SB-800 Speedlight.

There was still a little something missing from the photo, but it had to do with attitude and light. So instead of a smiling goalie, for the final images Kasey showed me her "game day attitude" face, and Figure 4 shows the result.

Figure 4 A little attitude can go a long way.

For all these images, the settings were similar: Group A was set to Manual mode with a power of 1/18, and Group B was set to Manual mode with a power of 1/16. I used Manual mode for the flashes' power setting instead of TTL because I didn't want the power of the Group A flash to be influenced by the light from the Group B flash that was firing back at the camera. It all worked like a charm, and both Kasey and I were happy with the photos we took away from the shoot.

Rapid Setup in Time-Limited Situations

For the first photos I took of Kasey, I could have used studio lights; we had a lot of space to work in the living room, and plenty of time for the shoot. But that isn't always the case.

A couple of months after these first portraits were taken, Kasey was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma cancer of her left maxillary sinus, and she began a 42-week intensive chemotherapy and proton radiation treatment plan to save her life. The final portrait I took at the earlier shoot, showing the determination in Kasey's eyes and her fighting spirit, ultimately became a symbol of her fight to beat the cancer.

I talked to Kasey about doing another photo shoot, but this time on location, showing where she works out each day to counteract the effects of the cancer treatments. This was going to be a much more difficult shoot both logistically and emotionally.

We wanted to create a photo showing her in the family's home gym (otherwise known as the garage). The very tight quarters would mean setting up lights in difficult spots where larger studio strobes just wouldn't fit properly, and I needed lights I could reposition easily to get the best light possible. Adding to the complexity of the shoot was the emotional impact of photographing a young child with hair loss from cancer treatment, and whose lack of energy limited shooting time.

The shoot was set for a Saturday morning, when we hoped Kasey would feel well enough to get in front of the camera for a few minutes. Once Kasey was ready, I would have to work really fast, as her energy level was very low. Kasey is one of the strongest people I know, and the idea was to create a portrait showing her strength, courage, and determination. If her energy level dropped and the photo shoot became tiring, that would be visible in the images, defeating the purpose.

The gear I used for this shoot included three Nikon Speedlights (an SB-900 and two SB-800s), some Justin clamps, a variety of Rogue FlashBenders, a Westcott Rapid Box and a couple of light stands, a small boom arm, and a pop-up black backdrop. I used the Nikon SU-800 Commander on the camera to trigger the remote Speedlights.

My basic idea was to set up the Westcott Rapid Box strip on the boom with the SB-900 and place the light in front and angled down slightly as the main light. The SB-900 was set to Remote mode using Group A, Channel 1. I set the two remaining SB-800s off to the side of the gym equipment, fitting each with a Rogue FlashBender to control the spill of light. The two Speedlights were set to Remote mode using Group B, Channel 1. Figure 55 and Figure 6 show the basic setup. The resulting image as seen in Figure 7.

Figure 5 The location didn't have a lot of space, making studio lights impossible to set up.

Figure 6 Here you can see the placement of the lights in relationship to Kasey.

Figure 7 A very serious Kasey.

The camera settings I used for the shoot were Manual exposure mode with 1/250 second shutter speed, an aperture of f/11, and ISO 100. These settings reduced any effect of the ambient light in the garage on the final image.

The final piece of the puzzle was to get Kasey in front of the camera and see whether we could capture an image we both liked. We started off with a serious facial expression, as you can see in Figure 8, but something was missing. So we went in another direction, and instead of trying to show her determination during a workout, we went with her giant "after workout" smile, and that did the trick, as Figure 9 shows.

Figure 8 Kasey's strength and determination showed as she went through some of her workout routine.

Figure 9 The final shot shows that, no matter what she is going through, Kasey has not lost her smile.

The tight location and very short shooting times made the Nikon Speedlights perfect for this shoot. I didn't have the space to set up studio lights, and I wouldn't have been able to adjust them quickly without an assistant.

Final Thoughts

As I write this, Kasey is getting ready for her last chemo treatment and will then be going into the eighth grade. You can read more about Kasey and her fight at I believe that I would not have been able to make the photos in this post had I used bigger, bulkier studio lights. Not only could I easily set up and adjust the Speedlights; they are also not very intimidating, keeping the whole shoot very simple. Being able to work in close and personal with Kasey and still have total control over the lighting allowed me to concentrate on getting the best images.

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