The Love/Hate Moments With Hot Shoe Lighting Continue

The Love/Hate Moments With Hot Shoe Lighting Continue

Hot shoe lighting has its moments, good and bad. There is no denying the convenience and mobility of speedlites over studio strobes, especially when a photographer spends the bulk of their shooting time on-location. Ditching the strobes and running with speedlites for a shoot literally empties out what is usually a gear-packed car. I can actually see out my back window! Hot shoe lighting is significantly smaller in size, lighter in weight, faster to setup and teardown, and usually translates to a quicker shoot. These are the things I love about speedlites. The other side of the coin are the dislikes, the things that can drive me nuts. Lack of power, misfires, and slow recycle times can get downright ugly at times when you start asking these lights to start doing some real work. My mentality on this may be a bit distorted, as I was spoiled by having the opportunity to start my lighting journey with studio strobes. I used AlienBees for years before ever even feeling the desire to want to use speedlites for my shoots. It was always a “go big or go home” situation for me. I wanted the power the strobes could give me if I needed it. This meant a car stuffed with 200 lbs of lights, cables, power packs, stands, and big light modifiers. It was a game of Tetris to get everything to fit in my car, literally. Big power came with the price of numerous trips back and fourth to the car to fetch bulky, heavy gear, cables running all over the place on-location, gear bags everywhere, and all of that had to be done in the reverse order when it came time to pack it all back up. It sucks, but it’s worth it. In fact, it’s “worth it” to still continue the same song and dance with all the strobe downsides to use them for 80% of my shoots. Ironically, even though I use my strobes on most location shoots, I call all of my strobe gear my “studio gear” and I call my speedlite gear my “mobile gear.” So when I ask Alice, my amazing assistant, for a mobile light, it’s kind of like a moment where I know she goes, “oh crap, he needs to pump out a photograph super quick,” and urgency is automatically applied to the situation. It’s funny but true, as most of my speedlite setups are very much run and gun. Seriously… most of the time when using hot shoes we don’t even take the time to put the light on a stand, and Alice hand-holds as we continually move and reposition.

It was only about two years ago when I woke one day – a day which I had a simple shoot scheduled – realized my strobe lighting gear was spread out between my studio, house, and car, and I just didn’t want to round it all up just do what was going to be a very basic in-and-out photo session. I knew my location, knew my subject situation, and knew my rough composition. I looked over to my camera bag where two hot shoes laid nestled in their designated compartments, which by the way, had only got use while working on-camera lighting at events up until that point, and thought to myself, “you guys will do today.” I had prior to that point tossed the speedlites on a stand and played with them a couple times, but just enough to realize they were not going to be my weapon of choice if I were to go to battle. On this day, I wouldn’t exactly call it a “battle,” and I was ok with a few misfires and slow recycle times, it was going to be a chill shoot. This is how it still stands today. I will use hot shoes when I know I’m not going to have to push them anywhere near their limit, as well as impromptu shoots. If I am going into any kind of on-locaiton shoot without a ton of knowledge about the area, I can plan on shooting speedlites, but I’ll at least have 1-2 strobes on standby incase the hot shoes decide to disappoint. But more often than not, my speedlites get the most use from the sheer spontaneity of shoots. Sometimes a client can unexpectedly call on you, perhaps a inspiring moment slaps you in the face, resulting in an impromptu shoot. This is why I always have a speedlite in my camera bag, and I always have a light stand, umbrella, and reflector in my car. It’s my “in case of emergency” kit.┬áThe photo above was made in such a situation. A regular client wanted me to photograph this black dress. We tossed someone in it, I grabbed my “mobile gear” from the car, and we knocked it out.

The shot above, from start to finish took 15 minutes, minus a clothing change because we shot two dresses. It was lit with two speedlites triggered via PocketWizards. This is where hot shoes really really shine. Toss your stand down, mount your speedlite, and fire. In and out (if everything works in your favor). With this particular shoot, the hot shoes gave me a little crap with a few misfires, but nothing too drastic. Of course, I was also shooting on super low power, which helps keep the lights happy.

There have only been a handful of times when I’ve ran hot shoes for my setup and been happy with their performance. Where my strobes will fire every time, fast, and with consistent power, the speedlites do just about the opposite. It’s to the point where I have to stop after every shot to look at the back of the camera to make sure all the lights fired properly, and that really slows a shoot down. When lights are not firing and you have to count 5+ seconds between shots, you can start to look like a fool in front of your clients real fast. That is what probably bothers me the most, the fact that my clients have to unnecessarily increase their patience and understanding because my speedlites decided to give me the finger today. The desire to toss the thing in the lake kicks-in when you capture a great candid expression on a subjects face yet your light didn’t fire correctly, resulting in a bum photo. Nothing is worse than looking bad in front of clients and all you can say is “my light is not doing what it is supposed to, sorry folks.”

So I very much love and hate speedlites. They tease me, with the delightful thought of portability and speed, yet often spawn a bit of rage while they are failing me out on-location. For this reason, I will continue my photographic journey planning on shooting most of my work, especially the important stuff, with my strobes. But… there is a reason why I always pack these guys in my bag. There are a lot of shots I just wouldn’t have taken or captured nearly as well if it weren’t for these flexible light units conveniently sitting in my bag. Take for example the photo below of the McKone boys. I wasn’t about to hike out to the grand canyon with all of my studio strobe gear, where one speedlite here did the trick. Thanks, hot shoes, for the roller coaster of a relationship so far, may we continue to workout our differences along our journey.