Having on/off camera lighting setup for skateboard photography is not as essential as having the camera and lenses. You can take great photographs without it. Some photographers don't use it at all. However, on some occasions when you really need to get a shot and daylight is not enough or there is no light at all - you'll need the help of artificial external lighting.
Words and photography: Maksim Kalanep
There are several ways you can have the scene lit up - with continuous light or flash. Since you ideally want to travel light and be able to manage everything on your own having a big setup is not the way to go. Also when on location there is no access to electricity plugs. So just those two points cancel out the continuous lights straight away. These are usually big, heavy, very expensive and require a constant power supply.
Flash units can be bulky and expensive as well. Some of the professional options require a constant supply of electricity as well. Luckily there are compact and affordable ones available on the market too. This is what we are looking for - small, light and powered by AA batteries or small battery packs. However, that is just part of the setup. We need portable and very light stands as well. And compatible triggers too. Plus batteries and charger.
Compact Flash Units
Let's start with the flash units first, also called strobes or speedlights.
The way the cameras are designed - most of them can synchronise with on/off flash units at the maximum shutter speed of 1/250th sec. That is due to the shutter mechanism. Camera shutter has two curtains - one opens up and exposes the sensor then second follows after a set time and covers the sensor. And 1/250th sec is the maximum setting when the entire frame is fully exposed in one go - first curtain is open and the second hasn't started its movement yet. So if you flash at this moment the entire frame will get light at once. However, at any shutter setting above 1/250th sec - curtains move one after another right away leaving just a small space between them exposing the sensor in a strip by strip way. So if you flash then - part of the shot will get that light and the rest will be just a black strip. That is partly because the flash duration is not long enough and finishes before the curtains finish their movement or alternatively flash and shutter release are not in perfect synchronisation above 1/250th sec.
Why is that important? It is crucial since 1/250th sec is not enough to freeze any movement. You need at least 1/1000th sec or higher to get a crisp result. So when you try and set the shutter to 1/1000th sec and sync that to off camera flash units - you get a ruined shot. We can't use the setup this way for action shots.
To solve this we can use flash duration instead of shutter speed. So you can have 1/250th sec set in a camera and use the flash as a freezing tool - not the shutter speed.
Flash duration or the amount of time the flash is active is not constant and depends on the power output. Usually, the less power in battery powered flash units means the faster flash duration and vice versa. Most strobes or speedlights will give you a very quick flash duration when they are set to 1/4 of the power or less. That works great indoors, in dark conditions and in shade areas where daylight can't over power strobes. So that is ideal for most situations where you would really want to use on/off camera flash to brighten up your subject. Using this setup in a bright daylight would be difficult since portable flashes are not powerful enough.
Strobes designed to give you full power and fast flash duration at the same time do exist as well, but these are very expensive, quite bulky and hard to buy in Europe. Look for Lumedyne Action Packs.
The second solution how to freeze your subject is to use a fast shutter speed, full power of the flash and special radio triggers.
With this setup - often called High Speed Sync (HSS) or Hyper Sync (HS) - you can precisely synchronise your flashes to your shutter release through your radio triggers by calibrating them through provided software. And by using a slower flash duration thanks to the maximum power of the small portable flash - have it all in sync and long enough to expose the entire frame while the shutter curtains travel in front of the sensor.
This setup also provides you with the option to out power daylight and shoot in any conditions since you are no longer limited to 1/250th sec shutter speed or overall power and can play with various aperture/shutter/ISO settings combination.
The main downside is that you are always shooting at the full power and that will drain your batteries way faster than when shooting at 1/4 or 1/8 of the power.
When it comes to the quality of light produced by these portable flash units - usually the larger the source the better the light will be. So it is the opposite to what we would ideally want, but there have to be compromises somewhere if you want to have a small and portable setup. You just can't have it all in a tiny package.
Colour temperature of the flash units is usually daylight balanced at around 5500 Kelvin and depending on the brand will stay more or less in that region when you shoot. The light itself will be quite harsh with hard defined shadows. This can be corrected a bit with light modifiers, but those do take extra space in your bag as well.
There are standard radio triggers that will do the basic job of sending and/or receiving a signal. There are also radio triggers that can be programmed and adjusted to be in perfect sync with a particular flash to work above 1/250th sec shutter speed. Some radio triggers are universal and can work with any flash unit through dedicated sync cables and adaptors, some are brand specific. That is usually the case with more expensive lighting kits. And these will always be in perfect sync with its own branded flash units, so you won't have to tinker with the software adjustments.
You will require stands to mount your flashes to have full control over your light angles.
Manfrotto Nano Stands is all you need. Small, light and affordable. You might also consider super-clamps. These can be attached to various objects and act as a stand on their own.
To add more flexibility to your stands you can add mini ball heads like Cullmann CB2.7 Ball Head.
Most compact flash units require AA batteries. The best practice is to get rechargeable batteries, plenty of them. On average one flash unit takes 4 AA batteries.
Eneloop AA batteries are on the expensive side but they are 100% worth it. These are produced by Panasonic nowadays but should be of the high quality as the originals.
Technoline BL-700 or Maha Energy (Powerex) MH-C800S are the best match for your Eneloop batteries. These are expensive but work without surprises. Plus Technoline charger can bring back to life or refresh those troubling cells you get from time to time.
Lighting Kit Option 1
Nikon SB80-DX flash units (or any other flash) + Pocket Wizard Transceivers Plus II or Plus III or Plus X.
Nikon flash units can be any other flash units of the similar price/size/make. The reason why I picked SB80-DX is that these are packed with everything you might need, but for a very affordable price and reasonable size when paired with a trigger. These can be used as optical slaves too.
You will need 1 trigger on your camera and a second one connected to your flash unit for off camera setup. Add an extra trigger for every flash unit you bring in.
This setup will give you a traditional setup where you set flash units to 1/4 power and shutter to 1/250th sec and then you play with the rest of the settings (aperture/ISO) to make it work. You'll be using flash duration to freeze your subject. Depending on how bright it is during the day - it might work or not in those conditions. But indoors and in shade areas - this will work 100%.
You do need AA batteries for both flash units and triggers.
Lighting Kit Option 2
Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 universal triggers (or Mini TT1) + any flash units.
Flex TT5 triggers add Hyper Sync (High Speed Sync) on top of normal triggering/receiving functions to your setup. By using Pocket Wizard's own software you can better sync your flash units with these triggers. And then you can go above 1/250th sec all the way to 1/2000th sec depending on the particular flash unit. All flash units have different flash durations when in full power mode so can be a bit tricky. Pocket Wizard have a dedicated Wiki page for all the FAQ.
You will need 1 trigger on your camera and a second one connected to your flash unit for off camera setup. Add an extra trigger for every flash unit you bring in. For optimal HSS work use only TT5's or MiniTT1's. When triggering in normal mode you can mix up TT5's with Plus II, Plus III & Plus X.
You do need AA batteries for both flash units and triggers.
Lighting Kit Option 3
Godox Witstro AD360 or AD360II.
These flash units are larger in size compared to regular speedlights but they come with battery packs, more power and HSS option built in. Price wise these might seem like a bit more expensive, but they offer the best value for your money at the moment.
All you need is to use their own trigger on camera and tiny receivers on the flash units. These are cheap, way cheaper than Pocket Wizard products.
If there is no need to overpower the sun or you want to save power which you have plenty thanks to battery packs you can always shoot in traditional mode at 1/250th sec with these. If the need arises to go over that shutter speed - you just set the units to the full power (which you can control with a separate remote controller) and shoot in High Speed Sync mode.
Everything about these flash units is affordable, so seems to be the best solution if you have space in your bag for these.
Lighting Kit Option 4
Elinchrom ELB 400, Profoto B1 and similar solutions.
These are portable battery powered flash solutions from established studio light manufacturers. The quality of produced light is the main focus for them. So while being way more powerful than small portable flash units, with HSS support and plenty light modifiers available for them - these are very expensive, quite bulky and most likely will require an assistant to help you with protecting them from being hit by a board.
They come with their own radio triggers, battery packs and can be operated as normal flash units or in HSS mode.
Everything about these is expensive - replacement parts, batteries, bags, cables, etc.
*Cheap Chinese radio triggers do work, most of them, but they are not always that reliable. You do save a lot, but they usually fail when most needed.