Back up plan

A part of being a professional photographer is the ability to solve problems. If an amateur photographer misses a shot or an entire event due to some technical issue, then all that is lost is a picture. If that happens to pros then they risk losing a job or even a client.

I was assigned to shoot the cover photo for The Record’s prep football season preview tab. The plan for the picture was to photograph a group portrait of players from several different area teams.

Record sports reporter Thomas Lawrence and I had picked the University of the Pacific as the best neutral ground for the photo during the late afternoon. Pacific no longer has a football stadium, so we shot it on the college’s soccer pitch.

I wanted the photo backlit by the sun then fill in the shadows with a flash for a more dramatic photo. I equipped myself with a pair of Alien Bees monolights. Many studio flashes have power packs that separate from the flash heads. Monolights have both combined into one unit. This provides a little more portability, though with some sacrifice in power. Both types need an A/C power source but there weren’t outlets nearby. However, we have a couple of Vagabond battery packs, which are basically similar to small car batteries.

We arrived at the field about 20 minutes early and I began to set up. It was a hot afternoon so in a situation like this you don’t want for your subjects to stand around unnecessarily so you need to have your equipment set up and ready to go when they get there.

As I mounted the Alien Bees on two light stands about 8-10 feet apart the athletes began to arrive, a couple at a time. I connected 2 Pocket Wizard radio receivers to the flashes and a transmitter to the camera to trigger the flashes when I shot. Normally I’d uses some sort of modifier on the strobes like a soft box or reflective umbrella to soften the light, but I wanted to use the hard light of the bare flash tubes to emphasize the toughness of the players.

To see how the lights were set up, I asked Lawrence to stand in as model as I took a couple test exposures. After each shot I noticed that one of the strobes was powering up more and more slowly. I kind of expected that. The Vagabond batteries were old and had been sitting on their chargers for several months without being used. I suspected that they were losing their charge but I thought they had enough power for this one job.

The test shots were a bit over exposed so I moved the light stands a bit further back and took a few more. The new exposures were right where I wanted them to be, so I was ready to go. By this time all the athletes had arrived. As they put on their jerseys I took a few more test shots just to be safe. It was then I noticed that the flash that was slow to power up had gotten even slower. But what was worse was the other strobe, the one that seemed to be working fine, had stopped charging at all. Normally the batteries are good for several hundred of flashes but only lasted a handful. They were now just a couple of very large and heavy paperweights.

What was I to do? I had two hotshoe flashes in my camera bag but I didn’t have any way to mount them to the light stands (the monolights have mounting brackets built into them). Thinking quickly, I scrounged around in the case that contained the Alien Bees and found two twist ties used to tie up the power cords. Using them, I tied the hotshoe flashes to the stands and plugged the radio receivers into them.

I got it all done by the time the athletes were ready. I grouped them in a heroic/athletic pose and they provided the tough-as-nails game faces without any prompting. The shooting part of the session took only about 10 to 15 minutes due to planning and a little quick thinking on the fly.

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