I have wondered if there might be a way to use flashlights as portrait lighting in my studio to create a headshot with relatively cheap and very portable lights. My goal was not to do the most creative portrait but to see if it was possible and what kind of problems I might encounter. And there were a few.
If this test turned out producing good lighting, I might be tempted to build a small kit including some bright flashlights and good solutions for attaching them to my lightweight studio stands (the Manfrotto Nano would be my choice).
It was quite different compared to using Profoto B1:s and D1:s together with all the lighting modifiers I am used to have at my disposal.
Behind The Scenes, with flashlights
After a lot of test shots and experimenting with angles, distances and diffusion, I ended up with this lighting setup. Three LED flashlights (a total cost of around 1000 SEK or maybe 140 USD, not including accesories as stands and filters, just for the flashlights) got me a nice three light portrait, with blue rim light and all.
I am not an expert on flashlight but there are more models out there than I can count, but many use the same batteries and the same LED inside, so I guess you could try with almost any LED flashlight and create a similar result. Maybe cheaper, and probably a lot more expensive if you want.
Flashlight Lighting Diagram
This is an overview of my setup, three flashlights for a classic portrait lighting, adding a reflector for fill and diffusion overhead to soften the main light a bit.
The three different models of flashlights I was able to borrow from a friend differed a bit in brightness as well as how the light beam looked. I chose the one with the most even beam as my main light.
Flashlight through diffusion
Most flashlights are not designed for creating beautiful portrait light, they want to illuminate large areas or things far away. You can (almost) always recognize the light from a flashlight, it looks very special with hard falloff and sharp shadows, even if you zoom out.
My first try with the main light was to diffuse it through sketch paper, I just wrapped it around the flashlight and held it together with a small clamp. The light got a little softer but still with very much contrast.
A Chimera panel
The main light could maybe be improved by diffusing it through a larger panel, thus making the light source relatively larger, and softer. I set up a boom stand with the flashlight attached with just a cord and put a Chimera panel with diffusion fabric between the light and the model.
Diffusion eats light
This is the result from that exercise together with one of the rim lights. The large panel stole so much light from the flashlight that I had to scrap the idea of using the full area of the diffusion screen.
Instead I let the panel stay there and I moved the flashlight closer to the diffusion, going back to the same kind of hard light I had before, but this time looking a bit more professional.
Just to explain how relatively weak the flashlights were I turned on the ceiling lights. Ordinary light bulbs, not dentist bright at all.
This is what happened (right) with the lights on in the room and the main light from the flashlight pointed down on his face.
So we continued with the lights turned off in the room to avoid mixing different kinds of lights and getting problem with colour temperatures.
Another thing I struggled with was that flashlights often are either on or off, at least the ones I used. They also have different flashing modes, but that was not useful for me.
Having all the lights on was like having all my studio lights on the same setting and no possibility to lower or raise the light output, other than putting things in front of the light or moving them closer or away from the model.
The next small photo is with all the three lights turned on at the same time, and not adjusting the exposure correctly. And this was without the diffusion. But, the point is that you have to balance the output in some way.
So, back to the diffused main light. And the two flashlights behind the model acting as rim lights. Them I gelled with blue (filter gel) and CTO (a piece of plastic you get with your Nikon Speedlight). That together with placing them away from the model finally got a decent light ratio that I could work with.
After the balancing I got a good exposure with 1/125 second and aperture f/2. ISO was 200 on my Nikon D800 with a 85mm/1.4.
My flashlights didn’t have any smart ways of attaching them to my lighting stands, so I used what I had in the studio.
Using duct tape might be the fastest way of attaching them, but with the rugged surface I would have to spend hours cleaning away the glue after the shoot. So I used a Super Clamp for one and some straps for another.
They are not heavy, so it is easy to find the right position and just fix them a bit with a cord or something similar. A little research found some kind of bike accessory that might be perfect for this, made to attach a flashlight to the bike and bikes are often also tubes in the same way as lighting stands. But, that will be something for next time.
Except for the relatively low light output (compared to Speedlight and studio strobes) and the hassle with not being able to change the effect on the flashlights, using continuous lighting has many merits, especially WYSIWYG. Any change you make, you see directly without having to take another test photo.
But, with some flashlights, there are other problems as well, if you want to use the for portrait lighting. The edge of the light beam can sometimes have a different colour than the center, as seen in the narrow example above.
That could of course be used creatively if you would like, but you have to look out for it so it doesn’t fall on the wrong part of the photo.
The final portrait, again
I will probably not sell all my Profoto gear and buy four flashlights, but experimenting with this kind of lighting was interesting. We tried a couple of outdoor portraits in the grey thing they call weather, but that didn’t turn out good at all. Mixing flashlights with other lights is hard to do, at least when I tried.
But putting together a small kit with flashlight, preferably stronger than the ones I used, at least one of them, could be useful. The flashlights would have to be strong enough so I could use a larger screen for diffusion, or maybe bounce them in an umbrella, otherwise I am stuck at having to have the lights so very close to the model, or using apertures below 2.
These three flashlights together with the ad-hoc attachments I used didn’t take up more space in my camera bag than one of my Speedlights do. So if you want to bring a really lightweight lighting kit outdoors (sure, you would probably need small stands as well, if you can’t find some trees to attach them to), flashlights might be a good solution. And a quite cheap one as well.
Don’t forget to buy a lot of batteries.