Commentary # 49: April 2011
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Photography Advice: Be Careful Who You Listen To

April 2011

- by Craig Wassel

The internet has an abundance of bloggers offering advice, and there is an abundance of new photographers eager to start their own part time or full time photography business and who are searching for advice online. If you are the latter, this commentary is for you. It is about how good general photography advice can be not so good at all if you are interested in earning income doing special types of photography.

So, this month I am writing about a specific area where I earn income - portrait photography - and the general advice I have read from Ken Rockwell about lighting at the very popular photography site Ken is not much of a fan of larger, more expensive speed lights. On the surface, Ken has reasons that seem very practical. From his March 13th, 2011 update, he states that you would be into them for a lot of money, and not even have any umbrellas or stands yet. He goes on to say they are difficult to sync reliably, and the batteries will die before you can get it all in place and firing well. His advice is to buy studio monolights like his Novatrons, and fire them via slave using on-camera flash.

If someone just wants powerful off-camera lighting with little versatility, then Ken Rockwell makes sense. Upstart portrait photographers who come across his site looking for advice, though, would miss out on some extremely important information and considerations. Therefore, this month I am taking his points and countering them. As I go, keep in mind that I am talking about how general advice can be bad advice when applied to specific photographic work (in this case, portrait photography), and other work too.

His First Point: You pay more money for speedlights than you would for studio strobes, and without getting any umbrellas or stands.

Well, if I want to do quality portrait work and have professional flexibility, then I should not view this as spending money on equipment. I am investing in equipment that produces results and is versatile. My goal should not be to spend as little as possible. My goal should be to invest in good stands that will work with studio monolights or heads, speedlights, or any kind of light. The same goes for umbrellas. I own several pairs that are silver, silver/gold, white, and shoot through. Also contrary to what Ken states, used intelligently speedlights are powerful enough to use with umbrellas and even in soft boxes. The portraits on the right were shot with umbrellas and speed lights, and I will talk about these examples further down.

His Second Point: Good luck trying to get them to sync reliably or get them mounted on stands.

The only thing I can think of here is that Ken has had trouble synching speedlights because of line of sight. Most built-in syncing on speed lights work via infrared signals like what is used in TV remotes, which as we all know don’t always respond to our casual aim. The simple answer is to instead use radio triggers. There is a reason why serious shooters usually end up buying triggers like Pocket Wizards. I know - they are an additional investment. However, his Novatron studio monolights don’t have built-in radio triggers either, so he would have to make the same investment if he wanted professional triggering. Instead of using radio triggers, Ken’s approach is to simply use his on camera flash to fire his Novatrons via their “slave” feature. That means that when his Novatrons see a flash, they flash.

For portrait work, this would eventually lead to big problems and limitations. First, the on camera flash adds un-desirable, un-flattering flat key light on people, and un-attractive, centered catch lights in their eyes. You also run into limitations of where you can place your lights. What if I want to turn my studio strobe frontward and shoot through an umbrella or scrim or large softbox? The slave sensor on most strobes would be facing backwards and/or be blocked by the light modifier, so it might not see my camera’s flash and therefore would not fire. Ken’s approach is economical, but not suited to good portrait lighting. Not only that, I could never use my studio monolights or heads around other photographers; anyone's flash would make mine fire, and potentially in a rapid fashion that could damage them. What about getting speedlights mounted on stands? It is simple - buy umbrella brackets. Solid ones can cost as little as $11.00.

His Third Point: By the time you get your speed lights set up and firing well, the batteries will be dead.

It takes no longer to set up speedlights on stands and with umbrellas and triggers than it does to set up studio monolights or heads on stands and with umbrellas. It is simply a matter of being as knowledgeable and experienced with speedlights as I am with studio studio lights. I should know exactly how to set them before using them for portrait work, just as I should know exactly what to do if I was doing food photography and I expect to produce quality work worthy of pay. It takes me about 10 minutes to setup three speedlights on stands, with umbrellas, triggers, grids, or whatever suites the situation. Battery life? In my experience they go dead in speedlights after about two hours of solid shooting. As any prepared photographer should, I also always have plenty of extra batteries.

I could go on further with this point-counterpoint, but let’s wrap that up. With only a quick read you could argue that Ken Rockwell is only talking about general work or lighting, in which case his advice - aside from only using on camera flash as a slave trigger - makes some sense.

In his March 13th, 2011 update though, he talks about how he has to laugh at the camera-company sponsored guys who keep going on record trying to get people to buy those little plastic flashes. I am guessing he is referring to photographers like Joe McNally and David Hobby, who I would never laugh at. The probability is that Ken only uses his Novatron monolights in a controlled studio, and from everything I have read on his site he rarely uses them for anything than product shots. Joe and David, on the other hand, creatively photograph people on location in very dynamic and fluid conditions and even in very unusual places. To do the same kind of lighting with Ken’s monolights, you would have to buy battery packs that cost up to $1,000.00 a piece and that are heavy to haul, or possibly run power cords a very long distance. In other words, speedlights become incredibly valuable and flexible when you are out of the studio and on location.

Here is a real world example of how speedlights are valuable, flexible, and effective: The three photographs in the right column are from a portrait shoot I did this month. There were thirteen family members, and first we did a group shot outside. The weather was mostly sunny, so picking a shaded area and using fill flash was the strategy. There was no power anywhere close to where we were shooting, so without expensive and heavy battery packs, using my studio monolights was not an option. Two speed lights bounced off of two umbrellas was a good and practical approach. Why did I even bother with remote speedlights and umbrellas instead of just using an on-camera speed light? Remember what I said earlier about flat key light, but here is another reason: people are far less likely to blink when you use umbrellas.

With no leaves on the trees yet and what few clouds there were disappearing, we were running out of the diffused lighting (it was early spring - no leaves on the trees yet) that makes for good outdoor portraits, so we decided to move indoors for the rest of the session. I did have my studio monolights with me which would deliver better power indoors, but I did not pull them out and set them up; we were also running out of time. The family had to get to their dinner reservation on time, and we also still had to do the most import photo of the day: the anniversary portrait seen at bottom right. I simply used the portability of speedlights, and moved them and the stands and umbrellas inside in a matter of minutes. Two speed lights in umbrellas for key light and another speedlight with a grid for hair light was more than adequate, and the resulting portraits more than pleased my client.

Am I saying to only use speedlights for portrait work? No. Am I saying to never buy studio monolights, heads, or battery packs? Of course not. In addition to speedlights I own three monolights, and prefer them for indoor and studio sessions. I even use my monolights and speedlights in combination with each other by syncing them with radio triggers.

What I am saying is choose your advisors and teachers very carefully. If you want to do sports photography, find someone who has that experience and find out what she/he has learned. If you want to do portrait photography, find someone in that business and learn from him or her. If you are looking to do paid work, don’t make decisions based on general advice. You will end up learning really important lessons the hard way. And - be very leery of anyone online who has to “laugh” at what some other photographer uses or does.


Technology and gear is constantly changing and improving, and providing photographers with new and exciting capabilities and possibilities. For more on this and a follow-up to this commentary, you may also want to read my "Game Changers: The LumoPro lp160 and the Paul C. Buff Einstein e640" (link) from July 2012.

". . . Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur . . ."

~ Alfred Eisenstaedt ~

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" . . . It takes no longer to set up speed lights on stands and with umbrellas and triggers than it does to set up studio strobes on stands and with umbrellas. It is simply a matter of being as knowledgeable and experienced with speed lights as I am with studio strobes . . . . "

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