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The Boutique Photographer: Learn to Love Strobe

By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

Use of light creates meaning, defines photographic art and sets the pro apart from the beginner. It is the stock in trade of the boutique photographer. Environmental portraiture and events are rife with difficult lighting conditions that require modification and balance, all under time pressure. Wedding photography is perhaps the most exacting specialty because the photographer must know how to handle the light in any situation.
Many photographers proudly say that they work only with natural light. But what is natural? They usually mean existing or ambient light, including daylight, shade, incandescent and fluorescent, which can all be broken down into even more specific categories. We use qualitative terms like diffused, direct, spot, down, specular and reflected to further define illumination. If “natural” includes reflectors, light bulbs and tubes, what possible reason is there to exclude strobe?

The photographer who says she doesn’t work with strobe, generally means she doesn’t have the skill or is unwilling to expend the effort required to meld strobe seamlessly with other existing light. Lack of skill is not a style. The boutique photographer knows there is no excuse for poorly lit, contrasty, blurry or noisy images unless she has chosen to use these devices to visually enhance meaning.

Photo by Karl Arndt

There really is no bad light, just totally different looks. Insufficient light or high-contrast conditions, however, force you to make compromises with exposure that can result in noise, blown highlights, featureless shadows, unwanted movement blur or just not getting the shot at all.

Images make an impact when they have an exciting interplay of light, often multiple qualities or sources of light, blended to evoke mood and emotion. In order to banish blown out foregrounds and overly dark backgrounds that are the hallmark of inept flash usage, you must understand and learn how to harness the physics of strobe light. The secret is to augment, not overpower. Low power or indirect strobe usage can be attractive and almost imperceptible. Use just enough to lower contrast and raise exposure level to the needs of digital capture.

•    Rarely use strobe in its basic, straight-on functionality
•    Bounce, diffuse, redirect, reduce or otherwise modify the strobe output
•    Use gobos or reflectors; position lights through a translucent panel
•    Experiment with multiple strobes and off-camera strobe when you have enough setup time
•    Try styling with on-camera strobe light modifiers

I get the best results with on-camera light modifiers when I use them creatively. There are many models available, and all of them diffuse and soften strobe light—obviously the way to go for pictures of people.

It’s the directionality that’s tricky, because these units are meant to put out light that seems omni-directional. Taking strobe off-camera requires a stand, assistant, slave units or a third hand, and many events photographers have a shortage of time, equipment, patience or extra limbs.

Because I demand both diffusion and directionality from on-camera strobe, my favorite modifier is Gary Fong’s Lightsphere II with the new never-fall-off attachment. My technique pushes past the original stylistic intention of the diffusion design. The clear bowl-shaped unit gives more snap and shadow than the cloudy one. I swivel it in any direction except pointing at the subject, forcing light to bounce off walls, ceiling and objects nearby, often behind me. This requires more attention to white balance and exposure, but the results are worth it.

Usually I leave the top cover off to funnel light and to preserve as much effective power output as possible. This is important, because light intensity diminishes so quickly with any bounce or diffusion technique. Part of the secret is to use not the highest but the lowest f/stop you can get away with for focus coverage. You can also lower your shutter speed to pull in ambient-lit background details. Fortunately the new digital cameras that can produce high-quality images even in the high-ISO range make it easy to run the ISO equivalent up higher than ever before and still be able to handhold the camera.


The simple cupcake display isolated in an unattractive corner of the reception hall presented the perfect  opportunity for me to shoot a sequence of photos that show how different strobe usage affects your results, and how to end up with an exciting image using directional on-camera strobe.

I stood on a short step ladder and braced the camera on the top bar to assure sharpness at slow shutter speed with my ISO set to 800 on a Canon 5D with a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens about 4 to 5 feet away from the top cupcake tier.

Images ©Sara Frances

Even a slow 1/15-second shutter at f/4.5 can’t save the typical hot
spot result of straight-on strobe.

This is the same exposure setting, but with strobe turned to left,
which still leaves the background a bit dark. Note the subtle
directional quality of the light.

Exposing for 1/3 second at f/4.5 puts too much visual emphasis on
the background by pulling in too much yellow ambient light.

1/6 second produced the background separation I prefer.

I tried covering the strobe head with an amber gel to balance color
over the entire image, but I feel the result is less festive.

This is how the cake actually appeared during setup from
the guests’ perspective.