Guerrilla Strobist Kit

Guerrilla Strobist Kit

There is an anecdote, about a documentary photographer -who's name I can't remember, unfortunately- being inquired if he used "available light" in one picture. His answer goes something like this: "yes, it was available light, I had a speedlite available so I used that".

In many cases we want to make our own light while shooting on location. In quite a lot of these cases, we don't really want, or need, to carry around a full lighting setup. In fact, I think the whole ethos of the strobist type of work is to be as flexible and minimal as possible. This whole article will, of course, be more useful to the novice/beginner strobist photographer, but perhaps even more seasoned shooters can find some ideas and concepts interesting. It also goes without saying that we are primarily talking about photographing people, in portrait, fashion, commercial, editorial, documentary, etc, environments.

The main point is, especially with the lighter/smaller mirrorless cameras of today, not to carry more than you really need. How I define the "Guerrilla Strobist Kit"? Being able to fit the whole deal in one bag, with your camera(s) and lenses; without the need to carry an extra lighting bag at all. This will be our main specification requirement.

It makes no sense carrying more than one light. There are dozens of courses on what you can really accomplish using just one light (most famous probably being Zack Arias "One Light"), so I will not expand on this here. The primary prerequisite is to be able to fire the flash remotely.

Now, although a flash sync cable is cheap and dependable, it's more of a backup solution. Just buy a good radio trigger and be done with it. At which point, it also makes sense to have a flash with an integrated radio receiver. I use the Cactus RF60 with the Cactus V6 transceiver on camera. This allows full control of the flash (power plus zooming function) from the camera. I'm a long time Cactus user (used the V5 and older flashes for years) and I chose this combination because of power, reliability and ease of use; plus some other advantages we'll discuss later. But there are several other similar options today, either integrated one-brand solutions (e.g. Yongnuo, Godox, etc) or other transceivers able to control different brand flashes. The Cactus V6 is practically able to control any flash with TTL capability, which makes it a good choice if you already have a favorite flashgun; you'll need two of them though (trigger/receiver).  

For smaller mirrorless cameras, it might seems like a chore to also carry a big (-ish) trigger and regular size flash. Stay with me: small flashes are OK if you are certain you don't need the power. Since I carry one flash only, I opt for a regular, powerful one. As far as triggers go, the FlashQ triggers are the smallest you can get for small cameras. You'll have to walk to your flash to change settings though, which is a pain; this is why I feel a controller/flash integrated solution is best.

A word about TTL: I never use it with off-camera flash. Since I change flash position and power all the time, it makes no sense to rely on the camera's own idea of what a "standard exposure" is. YMMV but it also makes no difference; if you think you need TTL, you need a TTL-capable trigger/flash combo for your specific camera make.

Another word, this time about flash power: most of the time, you can't possibly expect to fight the sun with a flashgun. That said, you can use HSS if the flash/trigger combination support them, with all the disclaimers going with HSS use. There are also some cameras able to fire flashes (even with triggers) at higher sync speeds, for example the Fuji X100 line of cameras, because of their leaf shutter. Being able to sync at 1/1000" at full power, you can possibly overpower sunlight, if needed. Generally speaking though, with most camera/flash combinations, we are talking more subtle flash use.

The flash needs to... well, be somewhere in relation to your subject.  Let's talk about stands then.

If you are lucky enough to have dependable assistants on the shooting, you can make use of the VALIS ®

VALIS *: Voice Activated Lighting Integration System:)  

(* with huge apologies to Phillip K. Dick)

So, having an assistant moving the light around can be a great option, but not always practical or even possible. That said, even having an actual stand around, can be "extended" by having an assistant use it as a boom, for instance.

Light stand come in a huge variety, but we need not concern ourselves with nothing more than the lightest/smallest we can find, that also offers some dependability and adequate height while extended.

There are several "travel" type stands, which get to more than 2m height, but can be folded back to less than 50cm for carrying. Mind you, most of them can't handle more than 2-3 kg of weight, but we are not going to load them either.

You'll also need a flash bracket for fitting the flash on the stand... or will you? I use Manfrotto flash brackets most of the time, but, for the Guerrilla Strobist  Kit, you don't really need a "proper" bracket. You can fit the (almost always included) plastic stand that came with your flash.  The Cactus RF60, as well as some other flashes such as the Lumopro LP180, also feature a side threaded mount and can be fitted on the stand as they are. If you really need to use a bracket (for example, as we'll see, with an umbrella), there are several cheap and very small 360° swivel flash mounts, and I'd suggest one of those.

Another idea about stands: if you also have a camera tripod on set, you can use this. Some tripods get to more than adequate height, while others can play double duty as monopods (another DIY boom arm for you). The small Gorilla pods are also very helpful, in fitting flashes in various impossible positions. Every photographer should have one of those in his bag.

Right... we have our flash, a method to fire it remotely, somewhere to put it on... what's next?

One can use the bare flash, especially for a higher contrast look, but many times we need light modifiers. Where we have to get picky and devilishly crafty.

First of all, we need universal modifiers, meaning they have to work with any flash we may have. I would make a case that the absolute first modifier an aspiring strobist would buy, is a 43" convertible umbrella. I would take it one step further, and claim that you can replicate more than 90% of the lighting looks you need, with just this humble and cheap modifier.

The convertible umbrella is the one that feature a removable black backing, and can be transformed from a regular umbrella to a shoot-through. This way it can also serve as a softbox type modifier. But also understand that, by playing with how much you open the umbrella, you can create even more lighting options. Vary the position of the flashgun, in relation to the umbrella for more options. In general, this modifier is a must-have; light, small, easy to use, and full of potential. There are several brands available, I'll only suggest buying a dependable one from a good brand, after all, there is no huge difference in pricing between the good ones and the crappy copies.

Besides the umbrella, there are little other modifiers I personally use, and I'd recommend. I use a Rogue Flashbender (the older, "original" version), on which I have fitted a DIY sheet of diffusion material, to make the light a bit softer. But the main advantage of the Flashbender is.... bending the light, by using it as a type of flag or even as a snoot. There are several, much more involved versions available today, and I haven't use them, but I'd say the idea of the Flashbender is great for our kit; and it takes no space at all. I understand there are copies available, and one could probably make a DIY version; personally I have mine for years and it's still like new, so it has paid for itself already.

A small, cheap and useful modifier is a flash grid. There are, again, several options, with dedicated brackets, etc. If you use any Flashbender, there is a grid add-on you can use, which makes sense. Then, there are the small, cheapo rectangular ones, which can be bought for 5 dollars/euro, and are equally effective.  Just get the smallest one that does the job for you. If you don't mind spending some money on this, the Magmod line of modular modifiers is a nice option. Through a magnet connection, you can fit grids, snoots, and even gels on the flash, in seconds.

Speaking of gels, my kit includes a small pack of these, together with a gel holder; nothing fancy, taking no space at all. You'd be surprised with the number of times you may need them to solve some lighting problem, or, simply, have an artistic option.

You can make this kit as cheap or as avant-garde as you want; it's up to you. You can also add other small modifiers I haven't talked about. There are several "clip-on" ones, made to be fitted on the flash head, as well as a number of collapsible softboxes, beauty dishes, etc. If it takes little space and your shooting style depends on its use, go ahead. Here's how I think about modifiers: if you happen to carry something for two consecutive shootings that you end up not using, leave it home next time.

Here is my own kit recommendations. I have tried to make this whole article brand agnostic; I'm referring to my own brand choices, where applicable, in parentheses. But, again, there might be several alternatives, so do your homework:

  • - Flashgun with integrated radio receiver (Cactus RF60)
  • - Radio transceiver (Cactus V6)
  • - Rechargeable AA batteries for the above (Eneloop)
  • - Cheap, lightweight stand
  • - Convertible Umbrella (Westcott)
  • - Flashbender, with DIY mod (Rogue)
  • - Cheap rectangular grid
  • - Color gels (Rosco Strobist) and gel holder
  • - Gorillapod(Joby)

All the above can be fitted in the a camera backpack along  with the main camera gear, or in a second small oblong bag (though the first option is preferable, of course).

I would love to hear your comments and also see your own recommendations. Shoot away, in the comment section below!  


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