The Voice Activated Light Stand

Big Mark Photography
Friday, July 22, 2022
What is a Voice Activated Light Stand? Find out the location strobe photographer's best-kept secret and go behind the scenes with Big Mark Photography.

The Voice Activated Light Stand is Don, the guy on the right.

I was reminded a few days ago from a post by Wayne on Facebook about one of the most important tools you can use when you are getting started using off-camera light: the Voice Activated Light Stand.

I use a lot of off-camera light in my photography: that means using flash or strobes to light the subject from a direction that isn't "straight on." It can take a bit of work to get it right. You have to balance the strobe with ambient light. If the strobe get too close the subject gets over-exposed, too far away and the subject won't get hit with any light at all. Sometimes just a slight change of angles can make all the difference to where shadows or highlights may appear.

Using off-camera light is a constant balancing act of tweaking power and distance and direction and if your light is on a static light stand then tweaking those settings can take lots of time to get right. So people started to use the Voice Activated Light Stands. (We will call it VALS from now on)

The Voice Activated Light Stand (VALS) made my life SO much easier, especially in those early days when I really didn't know what I was doing. This photo here, with Al as my VALS, was one of my first portfolio shoots where I was learning the ropes. I was using an under-powered manual flash here in midday sun: and I was struggling to get the balance right, which is why I converted this shot into black-and-white. :) Two of the things I learned on this shoot was that time-of-day was important: and the inverse square law is fundamental.

The big advantage of the VALS is that when you need to move them, you don't have to do it yourself. You just tell them to move. "Just take a jump to the left!"

For lazy photographers like me, it makes all the difference. And on bright sunny beautiful days like this it makes it much easier to get the light closer to the subject. A small adjustment in distance can make all the difference to the final image.

And on bright days like this I found it helpful to simply double the light. With two subjects here and two lots of light, I didn't have to worry about shadows appearing in the wrong place and looking too unnatural. Especially with the sun back lighting this shot.

Sometimes you need two VALS just to add a bit of drama to the shot. The VALS allows you to switch things up as you go: make micro adjustments in your lighting by doing nothing more than simply asking to "hold the key-light just a bit higher please."

Sometimes the photographer likes to get in on the act. (Photo by Justine)

And sometimes the VALS are the photographers themselves. The on-camera flashes were fired by a trigger on the photographer's camera to create this shot. (We took this photo so long ago I can't remember who I handed my camera too to take this shot: but credit to them :) )

Two lights come in handy when lighting groups. I didn't quite get it right on this shot, but the final image nailed it. It was around this time that I started to move away from flashes and started to use battery powered studio strobes. They gave significantly more power which allowed me to shoot at all times of the day with a bit more leeway in distance.

These were Visico Strobes with a battery pack that I bought from Phototools in 2014 and they are still going strong. They are primarily my back-ups now: but I just looked them up, and they are only $350 each now. (I remember paying at least twice that back then) So if you are looking to get into off-camera light, these are an absolute bargain.

And sometimes when you are shooting the circus, the completely unpredictable happens.

When you are shooting at night, you run into the opposite problems that you get when you are shooting during the day. During the day, you have all the ambient light you need, and you struggle to get light-right-on-the-subject.

At night though, your strobes typically provide more than enough light to get your subject lit correctly, instead you are struggling to get enough ambient light in the shot. This often means cranking up the ISO, lowering your shutter speed and moving your light away from the subject. It can also mean adding more light around the subject so that you don't get harsh shadows. You tend to make more use of a tripod.

It all starts with knowing what photo you want. Pre-visualisation is key. Then get the ambient right, then add layers of light from there.

I started to experiment with different lighting modifiers. I loved the soft light that you get from a big softbox. But softboxes are much more difficult for VALS to use, especially in Wellington, because they act like big windsocks in the mildest of gusts. I tended to only use them in well sheltered areas.

I eventually settled on using a beauty dish as my modifier of choice. They are much less likely to get caught by the wind, and the solid metal construction helped in the event that the light would take a tumble. (which happened more often than one would have liked.)

I also started to let the VALS use an actual light stand to put less strain on their arms. As I got better at playing with the combinations of distance, strobe power, aperture, ISO to ambient, I didn't need to move the VALS around as much as I used to. Set up became faster. And I knew exactly where I wanted the lights to get the shot I wanted.

The other great thing about VALS's is that almost anyone can do it. I have my regular crew of assistants. But I've also had partners and family members and all sorts of people who are keen to help out. It adds to the fun of any shoot, and it helps to give everyone something to do.

And some people have stronger arms than others.

I don't always use strobes. Here the VALS (AKA Nikita's dad) used an LED wand instead. We wanted just a pop of warm light to match the intensity of the setting sun, and the LED provided just the right amount of light to make the shot sing.

I hold courses on how to use off-camera light. If you live or can get to Wellington, then click on the link to find out more. I have specials available until the end of July.

Photography course.

A big thank-you to all the Voice Activated Light Stands who have helped me on my photographic journey over the last decade, as well as a big thank you to people who had their photos taken and the people that made it happen. Thanks to the Big Mark Crew and to Donna and the Voda team. And a big shout-out to Mel Phillips from Photoschool who started me on the journey with off-camera light, and to two of my biggest inspirations, Zack "One Light" Arias and David "the Strobist" Hobby.

Post by Big Mark

Big Mark is a website developer and photographer that lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He has owned and run his own creative agency since 2011.

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