Intro to Creative Flash Part 3: Using Speedlights as a Portable Studio

One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.  — Henry Ford

Kim Wille makes over 60 types of jams and jellies in her kitchen. For this, I used two speedlights, one to light her, one to backlight the jams to show the colors. See below for a diagram of the way I set up my lights.

I honestly believe that anyone with a few portable strobes can create some beautiful portraits.

In the first part of this series, Intro to Creative Flash Part 1: What is “Shutter Sync?” and What are These Other Settings?, I covered the basics of how flash works. From shutter sync to flash settings.

In the second part, Intro to Creative Flash Part 2: Balancing Your Flash With Ambient Light, I showed how easy it to balance your flash with the available light. With that, there were two things you had to keep in mind:

  1. Ambient light is controlled by your shutter speed
  2. Flash is controlled by your aperture.

Also, a few tips to improve your photography when you use flash such as using slower shutter speeds to brighten the background. Or panning to capture motion when shooting in darker areas.

With this part, I give you some tips that will help you become creative with flash units used as a portable studio. Simple tips that need little equipment, but can greatly increase your creativity. As a note, I use speedlight, strobe, and flash interchangeably.

But as I always advocate, Learning Photography is Not a Spectator Sport.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Sam Chittenden is also an avid rock climber. The main light to the left was at 1/2 power shot through an umbrella to soften the light. I also used a fill light coming from the right to not only fill shadows, but trigger the main.

Strobes as a portable studio:
Using them can give you more flexibility than the larger studio style mono lights. They are less powerful, so you must pay more attention to your aperture settings.

However, because they are small and compact, you can take them to places where you wouldn’t want to carry the heavier gear. I’ve had the pleasure of lugging some of my gear up a ski lift and having to snowboard down the mountain for a shoot. I took on stand, one umbrella, my SC-17 off camera cord, and 2 flash units. It was challenging, but fun.

Magician Doc Eason levitates his Bar Magician of the Year trophy. This was a simple set up. We used black thread to suspend the trophy. The main light was my SB800 bounced off an umbrella and corded to my D200.

With a portable studio, you can use them with umbrellas, bounce cards, diffusers, and any other type of studio style gear. Only you can limit the creative use of a portable studio.

Practicing with these little guys will give you more tools for your tool box. It is through practice you learn how to light your subjects.

The make of your flash doesn’t matter, it’s how you understand how to control its output and apply that to your photo that matters.

Many times I end up using mine on 1/4 or lower power. To light my subjects well, I keep the distance from my subjects to a minimum.

Over the years, I’ve collected portable strobes. When I upgrade, I keep the older ones. They work great for this purpose. And as I don’t use on-camera strobe much, They tend to be in pretty good shape.

The one thing I recommend is to learn how to use your flash off camera and in manual mode. This will add to your creativity.

Sidelight is my favorite light as it adds depth and dimension. I am not a fan of direct light unless it adds drama to the portrait.

The most units I have ever used was two. It don’t like to “over light” my subject. It seems to me that too many portraits are over lit, or flat. Although, I like really dramatic lighting, I can light in “High key” if necessary.

With the new technology of infrared and radio remotes, cords are almost not needed. But they are handy when you are shooting where there are multiple light sets such as a recent  Seattle SMUG charity photography session for the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

During this shoot, one flash was triggering all the others. Also, the radio slaves were getting triggered by something we couldn’t decipher so we went with cords. It was a bit of a pain, but it’s nice to have low tech options.

Nikon has built-in infrared sensors in the pop up flash on the camera that will trigger your strobe. It’s very handy, but again, you have to make sure you’re isolated from other sources.

But as I’m less worried about the gear and would rather help you find inspiration, here are a few tips to help.

Finding Inspiration:

If you keep your eyes and heart open, you can find inspiration for your photography anywhere. The key is to keep track of your ideas. Here’s a quick tip: write them down or record them when you get one, and then use a notepad to keep them organized. In a previous posting, I gave some more tips on idea generation: Ideas are Fleeting, Keep Track of Them.

An attorney by day, Mike Chandler of Carbondale, Colo., plays cowboy “Kincade” when he can. Used a speedlight/umbrella combo on the left.

For the above photo, I was actually driving from another assignment when I made the wrong turn and got lost. As I was driving around, I passed a house with all these really cool old wagons in front of it. So I wrote it down in my notebook, including the address, so I wouldn’t forget when I got back to the newspaper. And when you rock a deadline, it’s easy to forget things.

The next day I did a reverse search on the address and discovered that Mike Chandler was an avid Wild West enthusiast and even went to Wild West Shows dressed as his character “Kincade.” I pitched the story to John Colson and he wrote about it for the Aspen Time Weekly as an inside feature story.

Inspiration is everywhere, but the best inspiration is when you talk with a subject that you find interesting.


Talk with your Subject:

Talking with your subjects will open the doors to more creative images. Actively listen and you will be inspired.

One of the first things I do when I am assigned to photograph a portrait, what we in the industry call “EP,” or Environmental Portrait, is talk with the subject. This helps me determine two things:

  1. Is the information I was given correct?
  2. What types of portraits can I get that are creative AND tell the story?

The goal with editorial portraiture is to match what the story is talking about. For example, if the story is about a rock climber, then get him in some way with his sport. If the subject is a physician, how about a cool portrait of him in his examination room?

However, these tips also help you create some fun portraits of your subjects regardless of end use. You will be surprised what you find out just by talking with your subjects.

By listening to your subject, then you open the channels to your creativity. Begin your planning and spend a few moments seeking your inspiration for the photograph. Look around the room, look at their other photos, see if they have any trophies or accomplishments on the walls. Anything that will spark your creative fire.

Take the photo of Kim Wille with her jellies and jams. I’ve known Kim for years before I had the assignment. I knew her as one of the volunteer firefighters at the Basalt Fire Department in Colorado. We talked all the time about photography as she is an avid photographer herself.

So while driving to her house for the assignment, I had visions of her wearing all her bunker gear. I had visions of her with a fire truck, with some of the gear, and even surrounded by fire. Was I in for a surprise.

Upon arriving, I found out the story was because she made jams and sold them as a fundraiser for Rocky Mountain Restorative Justice. That kind of blew my original photo thoughts out of the water. But that’s one of the reasons I love my field of endeavor: change is the only constant.

While talking with her, I noticed how the jams were translucent. As the light shined through them, they were beautiful. I knew I had to light them to make sure they were captured in that way.

So even while I was talking with her, I kept looking for visual inspiration. I remember seeing an advertisement from the 50s where a mother was looking at a product (I remember the pose but not the product) and I wanted something to that effect.

Dissecting Light the Set-up of Kim (top photo):



So we went about clearing her counter, stacked jars of unlabeled jams atop each other, set a few in front of where I wanted her to sit, and set the flashes where I needed them. My main light was set to the left of the camera and I used a cord to trigger it. I shot through an umbrella to keep it soft.

The light for the jam was on a stack of books just lying there. It was set on slave mode to trigger with the main light. It was in manual mode on full with a diffuser on it I needed it on full so I could get enough power to go through the jams. I set my aperture to f/16 so as not to blow out the details of the jams.

The main light was set on manual at full power. It was also shining through a white umbrella to keep the light soft. I had to test it several times with my light meter to get a good exposure at f/16 on Kim’s face. This meant moving it closer and closer until it was well exposed at f/16.

I also wanted the light shining through the jars to be dominant, so I had to make sure the main light was not overpowering the jars. By keeping the main light to the left, this helped light the front of the jars without over-riding the back light. It added enough detail to the front of the jars.

My shutter speed was set at 1/250th, the fastest for my camera, so I could get the background to be extremely underexposed. This also made the lighting dramatic and worked really well for the purpose.

So with the lights set up the way I wanted them, I began posing Kim several different ways. My favorite turned out to be the one of her looking at the jars.

I started the session with her looking at it, but I still kept shooting others. Even though you think you may have a great photo, keep pushing the boundaries and capturing more photos.

The worst thing that will happen is you eat some space on your cards and computer. Space well used in either the learning until you do a final edit.

Again, don’t let these little devices intimidate you. Practice what your flash can do, how you can control it, and how they can improve your photography by giving you an extra tool in your bag.

My portable studio. It ain’t much, but becuae I’m more interested in the effects I achieve, it works.

Thank you for stopping by to read and view my work. Feel free to comment, critique, or just ask questions.

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Paul “pablo” Conrad

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Paul Conrad is an award-winning, nationally and internationally published freelance photographer living in Bellingham, Whatcom County, Wash., north of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. His work has been published in newspapers and magazine throughout the United States and in Europe.

His clients include Getty Images, Wire Image, The Bellingham Herald, and many local business in Whatcom County. Previous clients are Associated Press, the New York Times, L.A. Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, and many others.

His specialty is photojournalism covering news, sports, and editorial portraits, he also is skilled in family portraiture, high school senior portraits, and weddings. He is available for assignments anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.


  1. WOW! I learned a WHOLE LOT more reading this well written blog, Paul! Great points you make that make the on-site learning experience, that much more intelligible now. Awesome photos/examples too. The one of Doc Eason, especially extraordinary. I love the slight movement in his hands, expression, all of it. Although, in looking at the photos again, they each have great aspects and awesome lighting techniques. Thanks for including the photo you took of me. I’ll be sure to tweet the hell out of this great post & pt. 1.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank Kim.

      It’s always nice to pass on the information to help other improve their skills and images.

      I remember the tanker accident. My most memorable photo of it was the sunset’s reflection in a puddle of water: The town’s gonna blow and I shoot a pretty picture of the sunset. That always cracked me up.

      And it was always nice to work with you.

      Thanks again Kim.


  2. once again a great lesson laid out in a way any photographer at any level can learn from it .. you have a remarkable way of putting things in a way that its easy for a novice like me to catch on .. and you still keep the attention and teach something new to the seasoned professional .. kudos to you Paul . please never stop teaching … shooting or blogging, your experience in the field is needed to carry on the tradition and art of wonderful photography
    love you babe
    Heidi Rae

    Liked by 1 person

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