Conquer the strobist technique

There is an approach to portrait lighting that has really gathered pace over the last few years. It’s known as the strobist technique, where flash and natural light are used together in the same shot for really dramatic results. Essentially, you’re setting up a pop-up photographic studio on location. Usually, strobist shots are underexposed by a stop or two to create atmosphere, then the subject is correctly exposed by the flash, helping them stand out. All of this is possible because flash is daylight balanced, meaning it can be mixed with sunlight without causing white balance issues.     

Light your shot

The vast majority of strobist photographers use two off-camera flashguns (often termed strobes), as they’re portable and easy to set up. Battery-powered studio heads can also be used, though they’re much less compact. As well as your strobes, you’ll need a set of wireless triggers with two receivers, a pair of lightstands, and at least one light modifier. Most strobists use the cross lighting pattern, where a main key light strikes the subject’s face at a 45° angle, and a second rim light is positioned exactly opposite, striking the back of the head. Position the flashguns slightly above head height and around 6ft from the subject.  

Balance your exposure

The strobist technique can be hard to get right and will require some practice. The best approach is as follows. Work late on in the day when light levels are lower – 45 minutes either side of sunset is ideal. Set up your camera as in Step 1 to the right. Look at the scene through the viewfinder and check the lightmeter. You need to underexpose by around 1 stop, so adjust your settings accordingly. However, don’t push the shutter speed over 1/200sec or the aperture above f/11. You may need to raise ISO slightly in failing light. Next turn on your flashguns and set them to 1/2 power. Try a shot, then adjust power output, or flashgun distance, until the subject is correctly lit. With some experimentation, you should be able to get your flash light and ambient light perfectly balanced. To tweak your light setup, these are the three golden rules to stick to...

  1. For background exposure only, adjust your shutter speed.
  2. For subject brightness only, adjust the flash power or flash distance.
  3. For both together, adjust the aperture or ISO.

Once you’ve committed these rules to memory, balancing your two light sources for a perfectly exposed image will become second nature.

Set up your kit for strobist images

1. Use the best camera settings
Working in manual mode, set ISO to 100, aperture to f/8 and shutter speed to 1/160sec. Depending on how much ambient light there is, you may need to tweak these settings once you start shooting. Remember, the ISO and aperture affect the brightness of both flash and ambient light, and shutter speed controls the brightness of ambient light only.

2. Connect flash to triggers
Slide your flashgun onto the hotshoe bracket on the triggers, and lock if necessary. Add the transmitter to your camera’s hotshoe, and try a test shot to make sure the flashes fire. If not, check your manual for pairing information.

3. Set flash power
Put your camera into manual and set your flashguns to 1/2 power. Position them around 6ft away from the subject and try a test shot. To adjust flash brightness, either change the power output, or alter flashgun distance.

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.