View Full Version : Portable, low-profile lighting gear for street portraiture
10-17-2010, 02:08 PM
I'm grateful for ideas about portable, low-profile and unthreatening lighting gear for street portraiture.
Like Steve wrote about here (click) (http://www.paxtonprints.com/index.php?x=urban_portrait_question_answer), I photograph homeless men, mostly. Even though I work collaboratively with each sitter on his series, and we decide jointly on the location of each shot, the guys tends to shy away when they see the gear. (I shoot a 5D + 85mm/1.8. Big.) I'd like to add some visual interest to these pictures with a flash gun and lumiquest softbox. But even this smallish rig seems large. One idea that's current: a small LED panel. I'm grateful for ideas and/or shared experiences about any kind of portable set up, and for samples, if you can post them. (I'm especially grateful for sample stills shot with an LED. It's an intriguing way to go.)
Thanks in advance-
10-17-2010, 10:16 PM
I think it all depends on how you want the images to look. The unfortunate truth is that the size of the light source makes a huge difference in how the image looks, and there isn't anything that I know of that can substitute for size. That being said, if you are ok with hard light (a more gritty look could look good with urban portraits), you can always just stick a speedlite with a diffusion dome on the end of a monopod. The last time I went out and shot pics of the homeless, I had a friend carry my 580 ex II w/ a radio trigger on a monopod. It was compact looking if not extended, we made the initial contact with the monopod down, then extended it after we talked with them and they consented (or in one case passed out). The attached images were what I shot like this (f/7.1 1/125 sec, ISO 640, strobe above camera right).
A LED panel will give you a small light source, but it will be expensive and not output as much light as a strobe. I don't see the advantage over a strobe, and in the end, the harshness or softness of the light in your image from the LED will be the same as it would be from any other light source of that size. Additionally, while the video people I know love LEDs because they are efficient for video lighting, when we are shooting and lighting a subject at the same time at press conferences, I have never found their lighting effects my shots until I get up into really high ISOs and long shutter speeds.
I am in the process of planning a photowalk with a couple friends to photograph homeless people, and I'm thinking I'm going to mount an umbrella adapter to a monopod and shoot with a 32" umbrella. It won't be opened until after I start shooting, and it will be back enough that it won't have to be in the subject's face. Just my $.02, hope it helps. I'd love to see some of the images you've shot and look forward to hearing about what you decide in terms of lighting.
10-18-2010, 02:39 AM
This helps a lot, Mike. It confirms my guesses and what I've learned through trials. The pictures are terrific and show a little of what I'm also after.
I appreciate your take on LEDs. The ones that make a difference are pricey. But from the vendor demos I've seen on youtube (can't dig them out just now) they're effective in the studio, for stills and video. I thought they'd solve a problem in that they eliminate flash-shock, which tends to bother my guys. But the technology is not prime-time yet, nor is it easily within reach.
Your umbrella on a monopod idea is a good one. I'm eager to see the results and am grateful if you could post them. I've clamped a flash onto fences and street signs, but the flash brings a crowd pretty quick. Also, police--whose arrival always present a second set of problems for my subjects.
Thanks again for your thoughts. Much success with your photo walk. Looking forward
10-18-2010, 06:56 PM
I will just echo what Michael mentioned. I do a lot of regular portrait photography work using off-camera strobes. Adding off camera lighting is probably the best way to ramp up your portraits and separate your work from the masses. One of the biggest drawbacks to off-camera lighting (or even on-camera lighting) is that it moves away from passive photography and becomes much more overt. Street photography has traditionally been very low key. Most people wear down pretty quickly having a flash/strobe continuously popping in their face.
If you extend this into urban portrait photography, you risk pushing people away before you actually capture what you came for. You also increase your exposure and draw attention to yourself (as you mentioned). I have stayed away from using artificial lighting (of any kind) primarily for this reason in my street work. But I have always been intrigued with the idea. I think it can bring a very interesting element to an urban portrait. The trick is figuring out a way to do it that isn't too overly in-your-face. One idea might be to bring someone along to serve as a human light stand. Once you get the green light to start working with a homeless person, he/she could quickly pull out a strobe and set up so that you can work. I think you would be fortunate it you got 5-10 minutes with a person on the street before they lost interest and walk away or before a group starts forming. I think it would also be very wise to spend some time talking to each one of your prospects and build a rapport. Let them know what you are doing, show them some of your previous images (maybe on your camera LCD) and explain to them why they may want to participate. Right before you pull your camera out, let them know that you are going to be using a strobe so that they don't get startled by it.
I think this is something that you will have to just try and experiment with. Let it evolve into something that works.
Be sure to post whatever you come up with - I would love to see it!
10-31-2010, 11:01 AM
If you extend this into urban portrait photography, you risk pushing people away before you actually capture what you came for. You also increase your exposure and draw attention to yourself... The trick is figuring out a way to do it that isn't too overly in-your-face. One idea might be to bring someone along to serve as a human light stand. Once you get the green light to start working with a homeless person, he/she could quickly pull out a strobe and set up so that you can work.
Steve, thanks for this and apologies for the late response. A crazy couple of weeks.
Bringing along someone to hold the flash, somone who can engage the sitter while I fiddle with the camera, is an excellent idea. Even better: to recruit one of the homeless guys and keep all the process local to the scene. It's a terrific idea. Thanks.
I think you would be fortunate it you got 5-10 minutes with a person on the street before they lost interest and walk away or before a group starts forming. I think it would also be very wise to spend some time talking to each one of your prospects and build a rapport.... Be sure to post whatever you come up with - I would love to see it!
I agree. My approach has been to first visit with the guys, leaving home the camera, but bringing along food. We talk; I ask each subject what s/he does in daytime, how s/he gets by, what s/he did before losing the house. Sharing stories helps. The food helps more. We talk about my work, why I want to make his/her portrait, what gets done with it. If I can get his/her consent, we discuss how to make the picture and how to collaborate. I never photograph anyone in the street who doesn't want to be pictured, and I always pay. My hope: if the sitter likes the picture, and likes the idea of having a non-profit use it, s/he might also be open to the idea of using that picture to reconnect to family. If yes, I do what I can to facilitate that reunion, using the portrait as entre. It's iffy, but it's worked more times than not.
I'm starting up again mid November. A 5D, 2 primes, A metz flash, sync chord, mini softbox and a clamp. If something good comes of it, I'll post a link.
Thanks again. The ideas are terrific. I'm grateful-
10-31-2010, 03:55 PM
Let me know if you ever make it up to the Seattle area. I would be glad to take you to Seattle for urban portrait/street photography.
11-01-2010, 03:26 AM
Thanks so much. Would like that very much.
11-05-2010, 04:04 AM
Your umbrella on a monopod idea is a good one. I'm eager to see the results and am grateful if you could post them.
As requested, I'm posting a couple of images from an urban walk I just went on. It was very spur of the moment, I was bored so I went shooting with a friend.
When I pulled up to the library where I was meeting my friend, I was approached by a man asking for a couple dollars to pay for parking. I bartered parking money for 5 minutes modeling. I didn't have time for much set up, I grabbed a body off the seat and handed my friend my umbrella-on-a-stick. Here are the shots, hope they help:
3. In use
4. As shot with silver umbrella to camera right
6. Same location, shot without strobe
11-05-2010, 05:15 AM
As requested, I'm posting a couple of images from an urban walk I just went on. It was very spur of the moment, I was bored so I went shooting with a friend....
Michael, this is a terrific help and I'm grateful. The kit and the photos make a real contribution to the whole street portrait business. (There ain't a whole lot of discussion out there in the ether.)
I just took delivery of a mid-powered Metz flash, lumiquest softbox, poverty trigger and monfrotto clamp. I'll be trying them out next week in NYC. The effect I'm aiming for is a bit dark. Hence the softbox. If something worthwhile comes of it, I'll post it here. Again, thanks. Be well + Best for the weekend-
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