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A determined photographer shoots in minus-3 degrees with a flash that wouldn't quit
Photographer Dan Bailey tests the new Photoflex TritonFlash™ portable strobe kit under minus-zero temperatures in Alaska. Could it keep shooting under extreme cold?
Guest author: Dan Bailey
Anchorage, Alaska: The hearty souls who live here don’t experience very long or warm days in the wintertime, but that doesn’t stop them from being active outside, even after the sun has gone down. This is especially true for outdoor photographer Dan Bailey, who is masterfully adept at capturing the essence of Alaska and its adventurous inhabitants. In addition to learning how the PhotoFlex TritonFlash holds up under extreme conditions, you will learn how to take outdoor pictures with a flash when it's really, really cold.
Going Fast with Light
As an adventure and action photographer, the most important thing for me is traveling light. My shooting style revolves around using minimal gear, even when I'm using remote lighting. In fact, my mantra with using strobes is that I go Fast With Light.
The Photoflex TritonFlash™ certainly fits that criteria. When the components of the kit are broken down (flash head, swivel, lithium ion battery pack, XS OctoDome, OctoConnector, cable and wireless trigger kit), the TritonFlash™ easily fits into my Lowepro Pro Runner 300 AW photo backpack, and that’s with my main camera gear! I strap a small light stand to the side of the pack and I’m good to go!
After deciding I wanted to take some shots of my friend, Abby, skate skiing, I chose a local park not far from my house—specifically, an open hillside that had good exposure to the sun. I’d shot there before, so I knew the layout of the place. When we got there, the temperature was around -3° F. At least, that’s what it was showing at my house, so it could very well have been colder.
We warmed up with some natural light setups. I stood back with the 80-200mm lens and had Abby ski back and forth in front of a couple of snow covered pine trees while I snapped off a few dozen frames.
When the sun started to dip below the trees, we regrouped and got ready to do some shots with the strobe.
Setting up the TritonFlash™ Kit
As someone who’s used to using off-camera Nikon Speedlights in my fast and light style, I find the TritonFlash™ to be remarkably portable. Here, you can see the components of the kit laid out.
Setting up the TritonFlash™ only takes a few minutes. First, you remove the OctoDome® NXT soft box from its nylon case, lay out its diffusion faces, and have the Connector within reach.
You then place each of the 8 rods of the OctoDome® into the Connector and then attach the interior baffle and front diffusion face to the OctoDome®. I typically just leave those two pieces of diffusion on all the time, which makes for faster setup time.
Once the OctoDome® assembly is complete, you place the TritonFlash™ onto your light stand, remove the protective cover from the front of the strobe and attach the OctoDome® to the head with a quick slide and turn action, and then tighten it down.
To add the power source, you plug one end of the connector cable to the battery pack and the other to the side of the TritonFlash™. Finally, you plug the receiving unit of the FlashFire™ wireless trigger (or any other wireless trigger system) into the TritonFlash™ and stick the transmitter onto your camera hot shoe. Then simply fire a test shot to make sure everything is synced up.
If you’re quick, the entire setup takes less than 10 minutes. It probably goes a lot faster if you’re hands aren’t freezing cold. I can’t wait to use this kit in the summer! At this point, I’d settle for just about anything over 10 degrees F!
Exposure and Test Shots
My goal with this shot was to shoot a well lit skier in front of the rich, post sunset background. In order to preserve the background, I put my camera on Manual Exposure mode and metered on the sky above the trees. I used a Pocket Wizard wireless transmitter and receiver and set my shutter/sync speed to 1/250th of a second. At ISO 400, my aperture was around f/4.5.
Once I had my ambient exposure set, I marked out the path that I wanted Abby to take and then positioned the TritonFlash™ so that it would hit her at about a 40-45 degrees angle. I placed it about 6-8 feet away from her, at a height of around five feet.
At short distances, the 18” OctoDome® NXT produces a nice blast of light with great definition. I could have placed it closer, but I knew that I’d have to work harder to keep it out of frame when she skied by, and at -3° F in the dark, I like to make things easy. Any further away, and the light would scatter too much and start to get a bit too direct.
I hunkered down in the snow on the other side of the rise, so that I could frame Abby against the sky, and shot her as she skied up the little hill towards me. The TritonFlash™ kept up pretty well. Recycle times were surprisingly short, considering that it was below zero, which is where most AA battery flash units would get very sluggish or give out completely. The TritonFlash™ did not get sluggish. While it wasn’t able to continuously fire at 6 fps in those conditions, it kept firing and never died. Note, in warm weather tests, I’ve gotten the TritonFlash™ to fire 6 frame bursts at 6fps. Recycle times vary with flash power and temperature.
We shot quite a few frames, and you can see how much of a difference the TritonFlash™ makes in this situation. Without it, I’d have nothing more than a silhouette.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the silhouette look here, but it’s not what I was going for. The TritonFlash™ fully illuminates the skier and still allows me to preserver the rich colors of the background sky.
Of all the sports that I’ve photographed, I’ve found skate skiing to be one of the most challenging. Unless you get the skier in the exact right portion of the stride, you often get awkward body positions, not to mention arms and hands that stick way up in front of the skier as they bring their poles up. To eliminate shadows caused by her hands, I raised the TritonFlash™ up to about 7.5 feet on the light stand, so that the light came down more from above than directly from the side. This seemed to help.
Portrait with Hand Held Strobe
When I felt I’d gotten enough good frames from that setup, we took a break to get warm and and then set out to grab a quick portrait before we lost all the light.
By then, it was getting really cold, well below the -3° F when we began the shoot, but still no complaining from the TritonFlash™. When shooting in these conditions, I keep the power pack inside a down pouch, which helps keep it somewhat warm. (Note: in below zero temps, the wireless triggers will die long before the TritonFlash™ itself will.)
I wanted to make this as easy as possible, so I took the TritonFlash™ off the stand and held it in my off hand while I shot one handed. The main problem that I ran into, was that in the dark, the camera’s auto-focus wouldn’t track.
To get around this, I used the 10 second modeling light feature in the TritonFlash™ to illuminate my subject, which allowed me to lock the focus point right before I pressed the shutter.
In those 15 minutes, I kept telling Abby, “I only need one good one!!" Despite our freezing hands and faces, I did manage to snap one. I held the TritonFlash™ (1/64 power) at full arm’s length off to the side, and pointed it upwards to help reduce and soften the direct light as much as I could, since I was shooting at 1/20th of a second at f/4, ISO 2000 on the Nikon D700. This helped to preserve the dark background, and get appealing light on the subject.
In the end, we got good shots from both setups and confirmed that the TritonFlash™ will keep pumping out light for well over an hour in sub zero temperatures. With the TritonFlash™, I have a new mantra now: Going Cold With Light!
Photographed and written by Dan Bailey
To see more of Dan's work, visit danbaileyphoto.com
- Photoflex Triton Flash Lithium Battery Powered 300 Watt Second Strobe Kit with Extra Small OctoDome SoftBox
- Photoflex TritonFlash Kit, 300 W/s Strobe Head & Lithium-ion Battery Pack, 35W Modeling Lamp
- Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8D ED AF Zoom-Nikkor Lens with Bracket & Case - with 5 Year U.S.A. Warranty
- Nikon 24mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor Lens - with 5 Year U.S.A. Warranty
Learn more at the Adorama Learning Center:
- Speedlights vs. Studio Strobes—AdoramaTV
- Shoot Better Environmental Portraits
- On Location Flash Setup: AdoramaTV
- Ring Flash Effects with the OctoDome: extra small