By Wayne Simpson

I remember when I first started out using lighting in portraiture – it was nerve-wracking! I recall things going wrong and I would just keep trying things blindly until something worked. Many times, I had no idea what I had changed or why it worked… but it worked and I got the hell out of there as soon as I knew I had what I needed!

Things happen. Lights fail, transmitters don’t communicate, random unwanted light appears in photos. Heck, I’ve seen it all! The difference now is that I have a plan A, B, C, and sometimes D! Knowing various ways to approach a shoot is not only a great way to be sure you don’t let a client down, but it also brings your stress level down BIG TIME!

Photograph by Wayne Simpson

On a recent shoot, I ran into some technical difficulties that forced me into “Plan C” territory – it was a great reminder of why it is important for us to know our gear well and arrive on location prepared! It’s especially important to know what your gear is capable of and be familiar with multiple ways of accomplishing the shot you are hired to create.

On this particular shoot, I had a light fail me, I was forced to mix studio strobes and speed lights and I had trouble getting my transmitters to communicate through the stone wall… But I got the job done because I knew my gear and I was prepared for various scenarios!

Here are a few techniques/tips that have saved my butt over the years by keeping me prepared for the unexpected:

Backup Radio Remotes

There is nothing worse than putting all your eggs in one basket – we often think of having multiple lights/cameras/lenses as backups, but forget that the communication to those lights can depend on one single radio remote in some cases! It’s a good plan to have a backup set of radio remotes if possible!

Optical Slaves

Optical slaves can be a life-saver! In the shot above, I was forced to use speed lights in strategic places to set off my studio strobes via optical slave due to the fact that my radio remote would not communicate through the stone wall.

Combining Lighting Gear

There are times when I’ll use several Canon speed lights in combination with my studio strobes. In these situations, I’ll use my dedicated Canon radio remote to communicate to the speed lights, which in turn set off my studio strobes via the strobe’s built-in optical slave. This gives me the ability to use my entire arsenal of lighting (2 strobe pro studio lights, 2 elinchrom Rangers, two elinchrom quadras, and 3 Canon speed lights) without spending a fortune on a radio remote system to connect to each brand of light. Of course, as stated in the first tip, I’ve got a few old pocket wizard remotes capable of connecting to my speed lights or my elinchrom strobes if need be.

Bringing Backup Gear

Call me a pessimist, but I always count on gear breaking – that way I always remember to bring backup!

Creating A Lighting Plan

When arriving on location for a portrait shoot I’ve gotten into the habit of coming up with three plans for how to light the portrait.

1. The way I want to light it – the most ambitious and interesting way.

2. A simpler way that I can easily slip into if my first plan is not working out.

3. Natural light with reflector. I’ve started planning this way because I like to push myself on each shoot rather than always play it completely safe. I always make sure to have a simpler backup plan in case things go sideways on me!

Wayne Simpson, Wayne Simpson Photography, OFFBEAT Photography, OFFBEAT,
Photograph by Wayne Simpson

Image Specs:
– Canon 1DX, Canon 24-70 2.8 II
– 35mm, 1/250 sec, f/10, ISO 200
– Elinchrom ranger camera left modified with 135cm octa, Elinchrom quadra camera right modified with deep octa, Two canon 600 EX speed lights firing through back windows modified with ½ CTO gels and shoot through umbrellas.

In conclusion, if something in the shoot is giving me grief, I always ask myself if it is something that can be more easily handled in post-production.

See below for examples. It is great to get into the habit of thinking beyond what is possible in-camera:

Photograph by Wayne Simpson
Photograph by Wayne Simpson
Photograph by Wayne Simpson

I hope this article gets you thinking, and sparks a few ideas as to how you can best prepare yourself for your own future shoots!

Wayne Simpson originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!