Recently I had the opportunity to photograph IndyCar driver Danica Patrick. No, it was not a GoDaddy shoot. Rather it was a VIP / celebrity shoot at the 2011 Wheels of Wellness in Phoenix – a showcase of vintage race cars that benefits the Wellness Community of Arizona. Of the many shoots that I’ve done with Speedlites, this one put my gear to the test in new ways. I’m pleased report that everything worked perfectly.

Now, if you’re thinking “Syl, if I could photograph Danica Patrick, I would not use Speedlites…”, I understand the doubt. After learning that Danica would be the celeb, for a few minutes, I pondered the idea of renting a bunch of Profoto gear. Then I thought, “why?” For this shoot, Speedlites are well-suited for the task and, in some ways, more efficient than big studio lights. For instance, a multi-flash Speedlite system is quick to set up, take down, store, and set up again (you’ll understand in a bit). More importantly, the ability to pull up the entire menu of my master Speedlite on my camera’s LCD monitor is a huge advantage. While on-the-fly lighting changes should not be necessary for this shoot, having the capability at my fingertips eased a bit of the stress. Finally, as the photos themselves prove, my five Speedlites reliably created the light that I needed without missing a single frame during this fast-paced shoot.

Now, even though this was not a glamour shoot for an expensive ad campaign, the pix were important. My job was to create two photos (one horizontal and one vertical) for each of 30 VIPs (and their family/friends) posed with Danica. No, that’s not the tough part. The challenge came when the event manager told me that Danica scheduled 15 minutes for the shoot. Let’s see… 30 VIPs x 2 pix = 60 pix in 15 minutes = 1 pic every 15 seconds. When it was all over, I checked my watch and discovered that I finished in 12 minutes. My gear: a 5DM2 with a 24-70 F/2.8L, five 580EX II Speedlites with just-charged Eneloop batteries, two 60” silver umbrellas, two C-stands, two metal swivel adapters with IDC Triple Threats, a large Rogue Flashbender, and my favorite 33’ E-TTL cord from OCF Gear.

The three keys to success in celebrity event photography are to: work within the constraints of the event manager, don’t waste a second of the celeb’s time, and get all the pix. Here’s how I approached the shoot.

Working With Constraints / Pre-Lighting The Set

Fig. 2 -- My oldest son Tom, my Sherpa #1, once again stands in for light tests. This is my first study shot. I always start with my flash system off and the camera in Av mode so that I can see how the camera sees the ambient light.

I ran the shoot with Speedlites and camera in Manual mode. Why manual flash? I fire my Speedlites in Manual when the subject-to-flash distance is fixed. Conversely, I use E-TTL when the subject-to-flash distance is dynamic. For this shoot, with literally seconds for each session, manual flash assured that the power remained consistent from frame-to-frame. Likewise, running the camera in Manual assured that the exposure was consistent. The critical part, of course, is to run enough test shots during the pre-light to dial it all in. The individual steps are shown below.

I connected the master Speedlite to my camera with a 33’ E-TTL cord and then parked it at the top of a tall lightstand behind the exhibit panel that served as our background. From this position, the master controlled the slaves and, as importantly, contributed an edge of rim light to help separate the subjects from the background.

Fig. 3 -- The lighting diagram.

If you’re thinking “Wireless? Wait a minute. You said that the Speedlites were in Manual mode,” remember that Canon’s built-in wireless system works in all Speedlite modes: E-TTL, Manual, and Multi/Stroboscopic. You can even switch the entire system on the fly by changing the flash mode on the master. During the next pre-flash all of the slaves will instantaneously switch modes.

I’m often asked why I use long E-TTL cords rather than radio triggers. The simple answer is that I always try to use the simplest method to get the shoot accomplished. Adding radio triggers into the mix introduces more opportunities for gear, batteries, and connector cords to fail. For this shoot, where everything was locked down, Canon’s built-in wireless system was the simplest and most reliable way to go. Moving the master off-camera on a long E-TTL cord was the least expensive solution, put the master in a position where the slaves could see it directly, and maintained the ability to control every Speedlite function from the LCD on my camera.

Flagging The Master

As mentioned above, the master was positioned behind the exhibit panel and angled down. My objective was to have it control the slaves and create rim light on Danica and the VIPs. As you can see below, without a flag, the master created a huge amount of flare.

Fig. 4 -- Master without a flag creates huge lens flare.

Fig. 5 -- The master Speedlite behind the exhibit panel (our backdrop). A large Rogue Flashbender is strapped on as a flag.

Fig. 6 -- The first test shot after flagging shows that a bit of flare remains.

Fig. 7 -- With the flag finessed into the perfect spot, the lens flare is eliminated and all that the camera sees is a nice bit of rim light on Tom's hair and shoulders.

Firing The Slaves Into Big Silver Umbrellas

For my key and fill lights, I paired off my four slaved Speedlites with two 60” silver umbrellas. I’m not a huge fan of umbrellas as they prefer to throw light everywhere. Most often, I prefer the precise control that I get with a rimmed softbox. In this situatuion, however, a broad swath of light on each side of the camera is exactly what I needed. There would be no time to adjust the lights during the shoot. I had to be prepared for six people to stand with Danica as much as I was prepared for one person. When Speedliting groups, my standard rig is two to four Speedlites into a large, silver umbrella.

With umbrellas this big, I use C-stands. Just because I’m using Speedlites does not mean that I use a lightweight stand. My Avenger C-stands (model A2030D) have removable bases–making them easy to transport.

Figs. 8 & 9 -- The umbrellas with two 580EX IIs firing into each.

Never undervalue the importance of the connection between the lightstand and your modifier. If you’re just starting out, you can get away using a plastic swivel adapter. Eventually, it will break. When it does, replace it with a metal swivel adapter, like the Manfrotto 026 swivel adapter.

Now, to fire multiple Speedlites into an umbrella, there are several options. For 2-3 Speedlites, I use the IDC Triple Threat screwed into the top of the M-026 swivel adapter. Another approach that I also use is the Lastolite TriFlash — which is a metal swivel adapter and multi-bracket all in one rig. The advantage of the M-026 paired with the Triple Threat is that I can tilt the umbrella AND spin the shaft of the umbrella diagonally by loosening the top spigot in the swivel adapter. The TriFlash only allows me to tilt the umbrella. Yes, I concede that it’s a small point. You won’t be disappointed with either rig. Now if you want to fire 4 Speedlites into an umbrella, the best option I’ve found is the FourSquare block sold by Lightware. You can buy it solo or with a superb softbox.

The Final Results

So, to return to the beginning, my job was to make 60 portraits in 15 minutes. For safety, I framed the shots wide–which allows for the image to be cropped to various aspect ratios. As you can see here, the Speedlites added great light

Fig. 10 -- Danica Patrick and Miss Arizona USA Brittany Brannon

A final bit of advise…if you ever find yourself photographing Danica and Miss Arizona USA, hand the camera off to a friend and jump right in. That moment won’t likely happen again for a very long time.

Fig. 11 -- A happy moment for your humble writer.


39 Responses to Speed Lighting Danica

  1. Frank Jansen says:

    Great write-up, SYl, and I love the Crocs!!

  2. Jonathan Thompson says:

    Hi Syl,
    Great article.
    With this set up I'd expect the power of the umbrella flashes to be low to middle of the road, would that be correct?
    Would the largest Exybox soft box be a wide and bright enough light source for this? Of course you would have to set this up differently for the TTL to work, 1 Speedlite in each soft box, 1 for the rim light which would be a slave this time and 1 Master, disabled, on camera or somewhere around camera position, I guess..



  3. Tim Ansell says:

    Now Syl, that's just plain greedy.

    Am I jealous? Do I look jealous?

    OK I'm jealous……..

  4. t.linn says:

    Great, informative read with a perfect ending, Syl!

  5. Brian Carey says:

    Thanks for the great BTS breakdown of the shoot Syl. As always, educating and enjoyable to read.

  6. jkob says:

    This always a good question to ask yourself: Where Do I put the "enabled" master that every slave can see the signal. Great Article and I love yr clean L-Diagram.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Jakob – This was the huge discovery for me when I started using really long E-TTL cords in 2009. Being able to move the master to a spot where the slaves can see it solves the #1 complaint about shooting wireless — that "it does not work because…." The #1 reason that the wireless system usually does not work is that the geometry between the master and slave(s) is too wide. The 2nd reason is that slaves cannot look into the sun and see the signal from the master. So, move the master and the slaves are happy to do their job. Then, if the master is in a position to add valuable light, I enable it as well.

  7. Karl Hassel says:

    Way to go Syl, thanks for sharing the info enjoy your teaching, and oh yes you are a lucky dog!!!

  8. paulcjones says:

    I'm not jealous … no no no. Nope.

  9. Jim Pagan says:

    You da' Man!

  10. Harry Lim Photography says:

    Great post! That master flash acting as a hair light adds so much! I would, however, like to know a little about the power settings. With two flashes firing into each umbrella, I would imagine that would be a lot of power…and then using one as key and one as fill, was the fill powered down a little further?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Harry – Thanks for asking. The slaved Speedlites are at 1/8 power. The main reason to double or triple them up in a reflective umbrella is to lower the power lever required of each so that the recycle time is faster.

  11. Don Boesen says:

    I am assuming the flag didn't block the Master from the Slave units but it looks like it does. Don't they need direct line of site?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Don – Good point. There is the potential for the flag to block the signal from the master. As we were shooting indoors, the master's signal also likely bounced off the floor. In fact, I've "hidden" slaves behind pillars with success. The bottom line is that the slaves have to see the signal coming from somewhere and bounce shots count.

  12. Bob Abela says:

    Go Daddy 😉

  13. Ivan says:

    I think you did a terrifc job, and I greatly appreciate your speedliting lessons. They've helped me a lot.

  14. Gary Whipple says:

    Great post. Tomorrow I'm shooting an awards presentation at our Sports Car Club dinner. I'' use some of your ideas but with fewer lights. Don't think I will have the room and the audience will need to see past me. I'll try to catch folks as they leave but I won't have a stage to control them.

  15. Rishi says:

    Syl, great article! Can you tell us what were the power and zoom settings on the Master 580EX II? Just under 3 meters high?

  16. Frank Burch says:

    Great job Syl, the portraits look terrific! The rim lighting looks way better than I expected with just a speedlight and Rogue Flashbender. I'll file that idea away for the future. Thanks for the great writeup.

  17. Johnny Woods says:

    Great to see this setup from start to finish. Gives me confidence that I may even be able to do something like this myself, eventually! Obviously, with all the BTS shots and considerations, this setup would take longer, but how much time would you need to set this up from scratch?
    Thanks again.

  18. Brian Woods says:

    Great to see the information in action

  19. Glen Champion says:


    I realize it is just one of many shots but in the shot of Danica and Miss Arizona there are highlights on Danica's forehead and cheekbones. Picky, but what did you think?

  20. Adam says:

    Great post! Thanks for taking the time to show us how you did that. Looks like a fun day!

  21. Alan Nielsen says:

    Great post. I love the behind the scenes shots with how you built the lighting setup! Also, you've always got to jump in for a quick cameo with the celebs.

  22. Craig Hadorn says:

    Hi Syl,
    Great demo. I'm anxiously waiting the arrival of your new book. Here's a tidbit I've discovered using this same method with a long cord and several Speedlites: The master will recycle over a second slower than the slaves, so I think it's worthwhile to use a CP-E4 battery pack on the master alone, particularly if you're firing fewer Speedlites at higher power or need to capture expressions quicker. Hey, this is probably in your book. Cheers.

  23. Simon says:

    Nice. That rear light is brave! I am quite surprised that there is no hotspot from it off that shiny floor. It must have been pointed way down…

  24. Lyle says:

    Thank you for the valuable info, Syl. This will certainly help to enhance the "volunteer portraits" session a friend and I are shooting soon at a local school.
    One question, I see you have gaffers tape on the floor for the models' mark. What do you intend to do with it in the final photos? I can't see removing the unsightly marks in post for 60 photos just like I can't see leaving them in the final products. Do you do anything with the tape?
    Speedliting rocks.

  25. monkeyinabox says:

    I'm sure Sherpa #1 asked to be in the shot of Danica and Miss Arizona USA as well, correct? 😉

  26. RenePiroltPhoto says:

    Awesome post, Syl! Thanks for sharing.

    BTW – you should have worn some heels for that last shot 😉

  27. robbef says:

    Thanks for the providing the instruction, diagrams and gear used. I understand the reason for using manual mode for your flashes but how did you calculate exposure. Did you use a light meter or you just new from experience?

    • Syl Arena says:

      I started at 1/8 power and did a series of test shots. My guides are the historgram and the image on the LCD.

  28. Zac Grimaldo says:

    Hey Syl,

    Great job and great BTS instruction! I was in Cancun, Mexico and asked to do a shoot off the cuff and I had my 3 small flashes with me. Some fancy footwork and and a flashback to my Syl Arena small flash class and voila’! A happy client!
    I whipped up a SA-580EXII/Rogue bender hair light for a little separation, I paused and had Syl moment…thanks buddy for all of your expertise and your willingness to share it!

    As always,

    Zac (PsW Orlando class)

  29. Scott Ritchie says:

    That’s it, I’m going out to buy a 33′ ETTL cord :o)

  30. […] Through the Looking Glass here's an intersting writeup on the first lighting setup suggested: Speed Lighting Danica | PixSylated | Syl Arena's Photography Blog on Light & Imagemaking it's still really boring lighting, but you can see how much the hairlight helps. But you can see […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *