Mouse or man, if you’re shooting a lit portrait on location you better have a backup plan.
The weather may turn bad, your location might suddenly become unavailable, the person you’re photographing may not want to do the shot you have in mind, or maybe your equipment will decide that it’s not going to work.
Middlebury College had hired me to shoot their women’s cross-country team during a practice run. The primary plan was to have Brendan Mahoney, my assistant for the day, drive my car while I photographed from the rear hatchback while the women ran down Creek Road, a tree and cornfield-lined gravel road next to Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vermont. But I also wanted to do a group portrait with dramatic cross-lighting featuring five or six of the runners, just for some variety.
The practice run was to begin at 7:15am, so Brendan and I arrived at 6:15 and found a location near the beginning of the road to set up a shot. The idea was to shoot from down low and have the women against the morning sky. We set up two White Lighting monolights on the far left and right of the scene, both powered by a battery with AC inverter and synced with Pocket Wizard radio triggers. After getting the power settings dialed in and taking a few test shots, we turned off the power and waited for the runners.
Once the women showed up, we powered up the gear and chose five volunteers for the shot. The first test shot revealed that the right monolight wasn’t firing. We power cycled it, re-connected the sync, installed fresh batteries in the radio triggers — nothing worked. The monolight simply refused to fire.
The last thing you want to do is troubleshoot recalcitrant gear while the talent is waiting — it looks unprofessional and wastes time. So after about 30 seconds of trying to get the light to cooperate, it was time for Plan B. I grabbed a Nikon SB-900 Speedlight from my camera bag, set it to Remote SU-4 slave mode, dialed in 1/4 power, and handed it to Brendan who became my Voice Activated Light Stand. In slave mode, the speedlight fires milliseconds after it senses another flash pop, so it synced with the radio-triggered monolight perfectly. The rest of the shoot went flawlessly.
The lesson here is simple: if you’re planning a shot that requires two lights, bring three. Heck, bring four (I had a second speedlight in my bag just in case neither monolight worked). Also bring alternate means of syncing up those lights, like a PC cord. Radio slaves are fantastic, but sometimes they don’t work due to local interference or dead batteries.
A big thanks to coaches Nicole Wilkerson and Noah Hurlburt, media intern Brendan Mahoney, and of course the women of the Middlebury College Cross Country team for their time and effort on this assignment.