Multiple wireless flash set up for use outdoors and over distance

Discussion in 'Lighting Equipment' started by ed_hurst, Feb 27, 2009.

  1. Hello all,
    I am planning to put together equipment to allow me to light moving steam trains in the outdoors (at night time, though there might be some light in the scene, certainly some coming from the train in places).
    My plan currently is to use Pocket Wizards in conjunction with multiple flash guns. All I have right now are two Canon Speedlights. I intend to kit up with numerous other flashguns; I guess they'd don't need to be Canon flashes, though the ability to manually adjust power output on each flash gun would be useful (do Canon flash guns allow this, and if so, which models?). I cannot easily use studio flash because I will be using the equipment in remote countryside locations with no power sources, and I also need to be able to carry the equipment over rough terrain over moderate distances (on my own). So I think multiple flash guns are the only solution. However, happy to be corrected on this!
    I will need to set up several different banks of lights (e.g. one set lighting from the front, one from the side, one from the rear, one to light the foreground, one pointing upwards to light the steam, etc.). Some of these banks will consist of more than one flash gun, whilst others might not.
    I would appreciate any comments or advice on this set up. Alternative suggestions very welcome!
    However, I do have a couple of specific questions. Firstly, in order to avoid the need to have a Pocket Wizard for every flashgun, I intend to have one initially for every bank of lights, and wire all flash guns in each bank to a single PW. Is this possible without compromising reliability? If so, how exactly do I do it (i.e. what equipment).
    Secondly, I use a Canon 1DSmkii, which I think provides flash sync at 1/200 or similar. This speed in itself is not enough to stop a moving train; in daylight, I usually use speeds in the 1/500 - 1/1000 range. Obviously, if the scene is dark, the flashes themselves will stop the movement. However, any part of the train that is lit by ambient light, or giving off light itself (such as the lamps) will show up as blurred. So I am wondering if the 'high speed flash' mode on Canon's flashguns will help by allowing me to sync with higher shutter speeds? If so, presumably this means I will need to use only Canon flashguns? Which models have high speed flash mode? How much does this reduce power output (and thus how many extra flashes will I need)? Will this high speed flash mode sync ok when using PWs?
    Thanks for all ideas in advance!
  2. There is one guy here you really want to talk to: Kent Staubus (his account).

    Shooting trains at night, with wireless strobes, is what he does. I think Kent might actually perish if he didn't get to do that! Reach out to him, and search this site's forums for threads that include his name. You'll get some good observations.
  3. I believe you will find one of Kents images on the cover of a recent train magazine. I really like one of his suggestions for inexpensive light standsfor snow lighting , pvc cut at an angle driven into the snow and the flash bungied to it. He is using studio strobes with some real horse power in conjunction with speedlights. Will need either a battery pack or generator. Take a look at his images. Truly striking- among the ones that stand out most on this site for me. Many of his are in snow in the dark. Brrrr. If you are a novice at it, note his composition, he nails it while dealing with the cold, dark, snow and a train that probably comes by just once for his setup. As far as train movement, perhaps what you need to find while scouting in addition to an interesting foreground/bkgnd is an up grade or curve that will slow it. I can walk faster than the trains in many spots in the Sierras.
  4. General Info: steam engines are the hardest to photo. They are all black and absorb a TON of light. There are some angles to get correct on lights too. I've photo'd about 200 trains at night now, with maybe five of them being steamers. Few steamers run at night since they are typically tourist type operations.
    Lights. Forget high speed sync, the power output is tiny. Best bet is to shoot in the dark where shutter speed doesn't matter. I've photo'd Amtrak trains doing 70 mph with zero blur using just 4AA flash. If you have to shoot with ambient light present, you will likely need a TON of light. (Depends on ambient level.) I have two Alien Bees B1600 (640ws each) and two White Lightning X3200 (1360ws each) and those combined can do it. This is a relatively massive amount of light. I routinely use these lights, haul them in a plastic kids' sled all over the place along with light stands. It's not a big deal. I use Vagabond battery packs, one for each light. I also have ten Nikon SB-28 flash. You can light a train with just 4AA flash (Nikons are the best, such as SB-24,25,26, 28) but in dark conditions, and with exposure something like f2.8/ISO 800. To get to ISO 400 you will probably need monolights. Each B1600 light I have is equiv to about 11 of your Canon flash. The X3200 are double that, maybe a bit more. My four monolights have rough equiv of ~65+ of your Canon lights.
    Triggers: Go with CyberSyncs. They are half the cost of PW, and they are more reliable on trains. Something about all the steel in the trains can sometimes goof up the PW. CyberSyncs give 400/800 ft. range.
    Placement: one monolight down the side of the train 50 ft. apart, 70 ft. off the trail. Use grids or barn doors to kill spill. One 4AA flash on far side of engine, pointed up. Radio signal will not go through an engine--must run a 20 ft line under the rails and put trigger on your side of tracks, 2-3 ft. off the ground. One monolight about 50 ft. ahead of train on opposite side of tracks to light nose, maybe set to 1/2 power. Grid the flash tightly (20-30d). You could try using 4AA flash. Put them 25 ft. off the rail, 30 ft. apart. Put two together, full power, zoomed to ~35, or grid them loosely (best.) Use splitter from plus sync cords to one CyberSync per pair. I'm estimating you'll need about eight - ten 4AA flash which will give you f2.8 to f4 @ ISO 800, assuming a 4-6-2 Pacific engine + tender. Angle the flash towards the rear of train. Snow will double the power of the flash.
    Steam engines are difficult. If you aren't familiar with flash (and it sounds like you aren't) you will need to practice. You can use moving freight trains for that, just flash the rolling stock if you are shy. The idea is to learn power levels, light angles, and what distance to set flash. Each flash is its own exposure--that's a key concept. Don't expect to go out and get any kind of a shot on your first try on a steamer. Especially with 4AA lights. It can be done, it just takes some experience. Here's some examples.
    Boone & Scenic, moving 20 mph. Two B1600 monolights on the side, one SB-28 behind engine pointing up, four SB-28 flash set in pairs each side of track 40 ft. ahead to light nose.
    Static shot, one B1600 @ 1/2 power:
    Yosemite & Sierra Shay:
    4 SB-28 flash, one on nose, one behind engine, two on side:
    UP 3985, four monolights @ full power, 120 ft. off the rail, static shot:
    UP 3985, two monolights full power, 200 ft. off rail, train speed 40 mph:
    I had six months to nine months of experience taking RR shots 2/3 times a week before I took these. Monolights really come into their own with big steamers. You could put together a pretty potent monolight system for maybe $2,500 if you bought used when possible. I have a boxcar full of $$ more than that in it though. It adds up pretty fast. To photo diesels the 4AA flash are very efficient.
    Kent in SD
  5. I had an idea. Go out some night and try to light up some black tanker cars. They are very similar to steam engines. You will quickly start to get a handle on how much light you need, where to place it, and so on. Find a string of parked ones and you can get a lot of practice. The radio signal from flash triggers will easily bounce behind a tanker too.
    Kent in SD
  6. Hey all,
    Sorry for delay in replying. Really appreciate the responses, and the effort that's gone into them. And Kent, lovely shots!
    I am pretty experienced in photographing steam locos, so the composition issue is something I feel reasonably comfortable with. Having said that, as you say, the link between this and lighting angles at night is something I will need to experiment with with moving subjects. It's one thing to judge backlighting, glints, balance them with front lighting, etc. on a static, night scene, but to get that right with a moving subject that isn't there when you're setting up is going to need quite a bit of practice and iterative learning (i.e. trial and error to establish core set ups).
    Best wishes, and thanks again!
  7. Ed, you need a lot of light to do this. I probably have more experience with this than other night photographers like Kent or Gary Knapp, as I shoot steam exclusively, some of the last working in commercial service in China. I started out with two White-Lightning 1000 watt/second units in 2001, and currently have seven lights totally nearly 8000 watt/seconds. You may be comfortable shooting at ISO 1600 and above like Gary does, and for that you can use small Speedlights (he often uses 14 Canon 550's). I usually shoot at ISO 100, and very rarely above 200; for that you need more lighting, and my kit has about 4x the light output that Gary's has. I will tell you, and I think Kent will agree, that once you go down this road you never want to go back, and it can get expensive. I would estimate that my kit to date has cost in excess of $14,000, but to me it was worth every penny. This includes flashes, reflectors, inverters, batteries, Pocket wizards, control cords, power cords, custom battery boxes, machine work, trolleys, etc. etc. etc. Then there is the time and effort that you will put in getting it all to location, setting up, and the long waits in the freezing darkness waiting for trains which may or may not appear on time. I just returned from Zhalanuoer, on the Chinese/Siberian border, and spent 6 hours in -31 cold one night walking up and down trying to keep warm. You will find that you have to be monomaniacal about this to get good results. (Some less kind folks would say completely bonkers). I did a shot last November in an open pit coal mine that required 10 hours and four men to make, but it is one of my best-ever. If you want results you have to be prepared to put the work into it.
    Also keep in mind that there are going to be failures. Dead Pocket wizard batteries, crimped control wires, a tree branch that blows down in the wind just at the wrong moment and blocks the radio signal, forgetting to reset the camera after test shot firings, there are dozens of things that can go wrong, and will. A German colleague had a fox come out of the forest and grab the Pocket Wizard right off one of his flashes ! I had one melted by the heat of a steel slag-tipping train at the Baotou works last November. It looks like a Salvatore Dali painting.
    You have waited for the right time to start this. White-Lightning has a new product called the Einstein, which is a completely new type of flash. An announcement should be coming within weeks, if not days. If I were starting over, I would probably go this route. I will try to include a link here to recent discussions about it's capabilities. WL has a 60-day trial policy, so if you don't like their equipment you can return it all and get your money back, no risk.
    There are some difficulties in shooting steam. The most obvious is that you have a black locomotive, and white exhaust. For this, you need a very powerful flash for the engine, pointed downward so as not to overexpose the steam. A second flash with a wide reflector should be used for that, and it should be of much less power, about 1/8 or so.
    When making test shots, shoot at 3 stops down on flash power, and compensate accordingly with the camera, i.e. shoot at ISO 800 if the real photo will be at ISO 100. Do one final full-power shot, then power off and you are ready. This saves electric power and allows you to carry smaller batteries. Ones big enough for 30 full power shots will be plenty, and small enough to backpack in and out.
    When I started out I shot 6 x 9 cm and 4 x 5" film. A problem with this was that since I was often one step ahead of the scrappers, if there was a problem with developing, accidental fogging, or if I just plain didn't expose properly, there often wasn't a second chance at that location to go back and do it over. Digital capture allows you to have real-time feedback. Even if you are shooting with fim, I feel that a digital point and shoot camera for test firings is a more valuable tool than a light meter.
    If you are backpacking this stuff in/out, make sure to pack extra clothes and NOT wear them while hiking. If you are comfortable when setting out then you have too much on, and will sweat, causing you to be much cooler later when you are standing around awaiting your train.
    Another thing you will need to ask yourself is, am I a good problem solver ? My kit is so tweaked from factory production that I can carry about three times the flash power that I could if I just used off-the-shelf products. My battery boxes are 1/6 the size of Vagabond power packs, my flashmounts are custom-made so that they nest together, my lightstands have had the tightening knobs drilled off and reversed so that they all face the same way, allowing me to carry seven instead of five. If you are not a good machinist/welder yourself, having a good shop nearby will be of enormous help to you. The economy is slow just now, so you can probably get things done more quickly than I did in the past.
    Well of course there is much, much more to it than this, but you will have to find out through hard experience, and yes failure, to become really proficient. In time, you will learn how to hide flashes behind things and still trigger them, remotely fire the camera, make radio-relays units to increase your range from 1600 feet to over a mile away, and lots of other tricks. It's a lot of work, but it's fun too, especially when it all goes right and you have a photo that doesn't look like everyone elses. When steam was near the end on the Jingpeng Pass area in Inner mongolia in 2005 , there were hundreds of photographers covering swarming over the hiilsides - during the day. At night, I had the entire railway to myself. Not only were the best locations free of other people, I was able to photo in places that never could be photoed properly, as the sun was never in the right position. This aspect of night flash photoing is very liberating.
    Feel free to contact me off-site Ed if I can be of any help to you.

Share This Page