Because most of my work is now done in very remote areas without the help of a trained assistant, I have learned how to simplify my on-location lighting substantially. Now I choose lighting equipment based on its reliability, simplicity and weight.
When I first started making portraits of indigenous and tribal people in the field, I wanted to re-create the same lighting I was accustomed to using in the studio. So it was natural for me to think of a softbox as the best solution to get nice soft directional light. But instead of a light stand, I started using a tripod to accommodate the uneven terrain in the field. I would hang my Lumedyne power pack on the tripod to stabilize it in the wind. Then, it usually took me five to ten minutes just to set up the tripod and softbox. Once I started shooting, I found it very awkward to change the direction of the light while I was working with my subject.
On one trip it finally dawned on me that I didn’t need to use a softbox since I didn’t have the problem of extraneous light bouncing back at me off studio walls. I could use an umbrella which was much easier to assemble. I also realized that I could almost always ask one of the many eager kids that would gather around to hold my light stand when the wind was blowing. So why did I need a stand at all?
After I returned home, I modified a strobe bracket with some quick-release brackets and came up with a portable system that could be assembled in the field in less than a minute. This also allowed me to check my Polaroids, then change the direction and distance of the light in seconds.
Since then, I have simplified the whole process even further. For one thing, shooting digitally with my Canon Mark II 1ds allows me to check my strobe-to-ambient-light ratio on the LED of the camera. I no longer need Polaroids.
To simplify matters even more, I use the ST-E2 Speedlight sender which allows me to use the Canon dedicated flash in TTL mode wirelessly off camera. I power the strobe with Underdog rechargeable batteries instead of AA’s. The battery pack is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and the universal charger is even smaller.
I now soften the light by having my assistant hold a one-stop translucent disc about one foot in front of the strobe. I shoot one frame then check the LED. If the strobe light looks too bright or too dark I can quickly make adjustments with the flash exposure compensation dial on my camera body. It is so easy!