I'm always looking for inspiration for my portrait photography. Some time back, I stumbled across some of Damien Lovegrove's work and I was attracted to his style. In particular, it was his urban location portraits that caught my eye. His shots have a punchy look and he typically incorporates the environment in his shots of models. I wanted to learn more about how he gets his signature looks and I was thrilled to discover that he produced a video course on speedlight photography. After asking a few questions about the content (Damien and his staff are very responsive and helpful, BTW), I placed an order for a download copy of his Speedlight Mastery video tutorial.
The Speedlight Mastery course has several things I was looking for in an instructional video series.
- Damien shoots most of the shots as what I would consider to be an environmental portrait. It's very common for portrait photographers to attach a fast lens to the camera, open the aperture wide, and blur anything behind the model to a soft bokeh. That works for a lot of shots and it is certainly a good way to focus attention on the model by eliminating a distracting background. Frankly though, I think this technique tends to be a little overdone these days. I find it much more interesting when a model's surroundings can be integrated in a complementary way. Blurring a background through shallow DoF is somewhat of an easy way out - not to say that there isn't considerable skill involved in nailing the focus and getting an appealing bokeh in the background. It is more of a challenge, in my opinion, to work a background and a model's surroundings into the shot in a way that supports and complements the subject.
- Obviously, the course is all about shooting with speedlights. I like to travel light and have no desire to drag studio strobes and battery packs around town.
- A compact kit is used for almost all of the shots in this video tutorial. Most are done with 1 or 2 speedlights. Damien carries around a shoulder bag and 2 light stands throughout the video series. It is a kit that travels easily and sets up quickly. For each shot, you see him setting up the shot from scratch and he still gets the shot done in about 10 minutes or less typically.
- Most of the shots are done with bare speedlights. Hard light, baby! This was the biggest selling point for me. It's a lot easier to get good looking light with a 60" umbrella or a large softbox. I love using modifiers like those but not dragging them around town. I've had the wind take my umbrella stands over enough times that I'm amazed my flashes still work. For run and gun shots on the streets, especially when shooting solo, big modifiers suck.
The tutorial is comprised of over 30 individual videos, one for each shot. There is over 2 and a half hours of material. The videos were shot in HD with several Canon 5DmkII cameras and the quality is excellent. Each video is relatively short, making it easy to watch them as you have time. In each video Damien walks you through the shot concept, sets up the lights, and positions the models. You see everything from the time he arrives at the location until he gets the shot he wants. Damien is a very energetic and enthusiastic photographer and I found it a joy to watch him work his shots and interact with the model.
The videos are shot such that the viewer will feel as if he or she is accompanying Damien on a photoshoot. This is not a formal workshop by any means. There is no structured lesson plan. It is more like a "thinking out loud" sort of thing. Damien explains what he is after and how he intends to get it. You get to hear how he problem solves as things come up. There is not a lot of technical detail in the videos. You're not going to hear any in depth discussions of lighting ratios, light modifiers, or anything about the inverse square law. This video set is simply Damien getting effective location shots with speedlights as quickly and efficiently as possible, explaining what's he's doing along the way.
One interesting aspect of this video series is that Damien shoots with Canon and Nikon cameras. There is no brand loyalty here and no one in either product camp has any cause to complain! He also mixes things up a good bit by using both Canon or Nikon proprietary wireless systems as well as Pocket Wizards. A few shots make use of an umbrella or small softbox. There is one video that demonstrates the combining of speedlights with battery pack powered studio strobes. The vast majority of the videos involve the use of 1 or 2 bare speedlights.
I learned how to light through Dave Hobby's great Strobist blog and videos. I'm a full manual lighting guy and I have to say that I was a little disappointed that the Speedlight Mastery videos are virtually all done with the flashes in TTL mode. I do wish that Damien would have dedicated at least a few of the videos to manual flash control. This video is about how he works though and I can appreciate that he's a TTL guy. TTL can be a good thing and it's probably faster to dial things in for a lot of scenarios. I was a bit jealous watching Damien dial down his flash power from the camera since I have to trot over to my flashes to make any changes. TTL is an expensive game though and for me it's just not worth the price of admission right now. He also uses high speed sync a good amount. That's almost cheating, but certainly more convenient than ganging two or more speedlights together to compete with sunlight. Regardless of the expensive TTL speedlights and wireless triggers, this video set is still perfectly relevant to us Strobists - just be prepared for different terminology and you can roll your eyes as flash exposures are entrusted to the camera's meter (sorry, Damien, couldn't resist)!
The best part of the videos for me was seeing how Damien builds the shot. He is very skilled in pre-visualizing the final result and making it come together. He is masterful at integrating the model into the background, making use of elements such as reflections, textures, and patterns to complement the model. I also enjoyed how he turns seemingly mundane locations into gorgeous settings for his models. Damien puts the old "I just don't have anywhere interesting to shoot" excuse to bed. Great shots can be made just about anywhere with a little creativity.
I came away from watching these videos amazed at how good bare flashes can look. Yes, there are deep shadows with sharp lines. Damien shows how you can still create flattering shots with as simple of a configuration as a single flash on the camera's hot shoe. With a couple of flashes, a shot can really come to life. Damien usually zooms his flashes as tight as they will go and sculpts the light perfectly. It's OK to leave the umbrellas at home; these videos are proof.
Each video ends with a few looks at the final shot. Several of the images obviously have a decent amount of post production work and I was a bit disappointed that Damien didn't devote any time to giving a quick software workflow sample of at least one shot. Hard light can present some challenges and I would have liked to have seen how he handles skin retouching, color, and contrast enhancement in post production.
The cost of the Speedlight Mastery video set is £80.00, about $125. That's not chump change but it's not terribly expensive for close to 3 hours of training. Is it worth it? It depends on your style of portraiture and your level of experience. This is probably not the best course for a beginner. You should be comfortable with your gear, have a solid understanding of exposure, and perhaps have a little experience working with off camera lighting. If you like dramatic images, environmental portraits, and working with speedlights then this is a fantastic resource for examples, tips, and inspiration.
Note: All photos in this review are shots by Damien Lovegrove from the Speedlight Mastery video, copyright Lovegrove Consulting Ltd, used with permission.