Studio Lighting - My First Time Wrangling Photons En Masse

Read: That time I took a brand new piece of equipment on a paid shoot and flew by the seat of my pants.

A piano professor at Birmingham-Southern College once gave a master class where he talked about the craft of being a performance musician. One story that always has stuck with me was about some time he spent performing in Germany. In the green room they apparently had some sort of food with which he was totally unfamiliar, but it looked delicious. He tried it. Tasty indeed. Then, on stage, er, um... nature began to take its course and let his gut know that the tasty unfamiliar food wasn't so welcome down there.

Thus, the lesson: "Don't do something totally unfamiliar just before the performance. Beethoven's sonata only needs three movements."

Ok, so what? I thought this was a photography blog.

I have a close personal friend whose cousin got married a couple of years ago. I'd long since decided that I wanted to do portraits, and that my days shooting weddings were coming to a close. Enter, a wedding client, cousin of my close friend of twelve years. I politely tried to decline and offer to second shoot for the my buddy Blake in Atlanta with whom I have worked for a few years. No no, they insisted, we want YOU. Ok, twist my arm. Just this once.

So, I did what anyone would do, called Blake, hired him to second shoot for me, and we rocked the wedding as normal. The only difference was, I was the guy culling thousands of photos after the fact. But hey, it paid better than second shooting too. C'est la vie. 

Anyway, I also did engagement photos, and a bridal session with the bride. I normally would have shot those solo, but you see, taking this jaunt into portraiture, I'd just purchased my first studio light. A solar-nuking 1100 watt second DC pack and head. Daylight be damned. I'm getting my shot. Or so I thought. How hard can this be. I've, like, taken workshops and watched folks do this. You put this thing here, you do this thing there, set this, chimp, adjust, and whammy, everybody looks great.

Anyway, I stuffed the pack in a backpack, put the light in the only modifier I had at the time, a 100cm deep octa, stuck it on a painter's pole, and hired my brother in law to stand in as a VAL. We showed up, made introductions, and started shooting. First time I'd ever used the light. As in, had only test fired it before. Not even with a wireless trigger. Ruh roh Shaggy. Add to this that we're in downtown Montgomery, trying to shoot towards closing things down at golden hour to get nice mix light shots... yeah... I was metaphorically crapping my proverbial pants. In no particular order I dealt with sync speed (derp, no TTL high speed here, junior), adjusting power / aperture / iso (double derp), figuring out exactly where the light looked good on two people at once with a modifier I'd never used (triple derp). At this point, I'm praying to find a setup I like before we hit mix light. Freaking out. Mind going blank. Oh I'm at ISO 800. That's why it's blown. Rogers! You're better than this! Pull yourself together man! Everything that I did wrong, every, single, one, I knew. All of it. I knew that with a pack I was limited to 1/250, I knew inverse square, I knew reciprocal exposures. However... under the circumstances and changing the game one major way, the noise drowned that stuff out.

All of this of course, is going through my inner monologue. Exterior, I remain calm, go through the usual schtick (this is where a schtick is invaluable) the usual poses, etc. A routine you can fall back on is clutch at times where everything else is crumbling around you.

And then, somewhere between The Alley and the Capitol Building, I had this zen-like consciousness where everything fell away in my mind, and I paused just long enough to think things through. Ok, turn the strobe off, meter the scene, get the background to the density you want, turn the strobe on, WOW that's bright, ok, turn it down, now, that's better, ok, now position it in a good spot. <click> <holy $*&! it worked. be cool. be cool. this is totally normal. you're a pro at this.> "Ok folks, let's go over here and use the reflection of the sunset." And then, my favorite shot of the whole shoot happened.


So... I learned the same lesson in the school of hard knocks that I'd been told in college. Sometimes you gotta stub your own toe to figure out where the furniture is. Either way, the shoot turned out great, they were super happy, and I learned an invaluable lesson. I call that a win in my book. I also learned, in addition to not using brand spanking new equipment on a paid gig, that mindfulness, learning to quiet things around you, and focusing only on the essentials, is an essential skill. For me, the schtick lets me do that. I go on autopilot while my brain is off in technical land sorting things out. Then the other side kicks in and goes, "Ok, logic, step off, we've got creative stuff to do." Wax on, wax off. Balance.

What near disasters or malfunctions have you grappled with in the field, and how did you save the shoot?