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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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