Lighting Recipes: On Location Flash Portrait of a Boxer

This issue, I’m giving you a behind-the-scenes look at a promo shoot I did for a local gym called The Factory ( One of the shots they wanted was of a female boxer, and they arranged to have one of their clients as our model for the shoot.

Although we’d be shooting in very bright surroundings (in a well-lit gym with a mixture of tungsten and daylight lighting), I wanted to be able to control the light, so I brought two flashes and a softbox. I wasn’t sure how much access we’d have to power outlets, and I didn’t want to string out a 100′ extension cord if I did, so I decided to take two Elinchrom Ranger RX packs (small strobes, each with a battery power back that lets you shoot without having to be plugged in), plus I can bring on location my existing Elinchrom softboxes (the same ones I use in the studio).

It’s important to note that it doesn’t really matter whether you use a hot-shoe flash or studio strobes with a battery pack (as I did here), the look would be exactly the same: a bright flash of light through a softbox to soften it.


Figure One

Here’s the final image of our athlete, taken in a boxing ring that’s the centerpiece of the Gym. 

on location flash portrait of a boxer

Scott Kelby

Figure Two

This is a simple, two-light setup using a small softbox in the front (that’s a 27″ square soft-box) and a bare-bulb strobe with reflector in the back. To make the beam of light from the strobe in the back more focused (with a focused beam), I put a metal 20° grid inside the reflector. (It snaps right into the Elinchrom lights; otherwise, we’d have had to use gaffer’s tape to hold the grid in place over the front of the reflector—that’s what we did before we got the Elinchrom grids that snap into place.) Also, to make the power pack easier to move quickly, my assistant, Brad Moore, left the battery pack inside a Think Tank rolling bag, which worked well. (The battery pack is 17.5 lbs, which isn’t too heavy if you have to move it a few times, but since we had to do a number of different shoots all over the gym, Brad thought it would be easier and faster to just roll it along.)

on location flash portrait of a boxer

Figure Three

Here’s an alternative view so you can see the position of the lights from the other side. In both Figures Two and Three, notice that I’m intentionally shooting from a low angle upward to our subject to make the athlete look bigger than life, and also to show what a spectator would see sitting ringside looking up at the ring. 

on location flash portrait of a boxer

Camera Settings 

Switch your camera to Manual mode (so you can set the f-stop and shutter speed manually, which makes working with flash easier), and set the shutter speed to 1/125 (a safe and very popular flash-sync speed). I wanted to keep the background somewhat out of focus, so I set the aperture at f/4.5. For the cleanest-looking image, with the least noise, I set my ISO at 200 (the native ISO for the Nikon camera I was using). My lens is a 70–200mm f/2.8 lens. 

As an on-location flash photographer, your job now is to intentionally darken the scene—underexpose it—by at least one stop or more for indoors (outdoors, I usually go at least two stops). Say you were at f/2.8, making the background way out of focus, you’d have to raise it one or two stops (I wound up at f/4.5) to make it darker. This is why I wound up shooting at f/4.5 instead of f/2.8. 

Note: I would have preferred f/2.8, as it would have made the background even more out-of-focus, but I had to raise the f-stop to f/4.5 to darken the ambient (existing) room light, so the flash was lighting the subject and not the existing room lighting. Okay, that’s the camera stuff. 


The trick to making this work is to find a power setting for the strobe that doesn’t overwhelm the ambient lighting in the room—you want kind of a mix of both. To do that, you’ll usually wind up running the power setting on your strobe at less than one-half, and I usually wind up at around one-quarter power on the front light (the one with the softbox attached), and then one-half power or higher on the light in the back because it’s supposed to be stronger and brighter for this type of look. 

If you look at Figures Two and Three, you’ll also see that I intentionally put the back light farther back from our subject, and that’s because the farther back you put the light, the harder and edgier that light will look. The idea behind this two-light setup is that the front light is close, soft, and wrapping, and the ack light is hard and edgy. It’s that contrast that gives it this look.

By the way, I’m triggering the flashes wirelessly using an Elinchrom Skyport wireless remote, which attaches to the Ranger Battery Pack, and the transmitter sits on top of my camera in the hot shoe. 

Figure Four

Here’s the shot before being retouched. If you look back at the final (Figure One), you can see that I cloned out the light fixture on the left side using Photoshop, and I darkened the area surrounding her even more to hide some of the distracting things in the background. I also increased the highlights on the right side of her hair to make them stand out more.

on location flash portrait of a boxer

Figure Five

This is another final shot, this time taken inside the ring usingthe same two lights, just in different positions. This angle gives you a better idea of what I was talking about with the light behind her being hard and edgy (the right side), and then the softer main light coming from the softbox (on the left). Also in this shot, you can see the out-of-focus background much better. The main reason it looks so much better in this shot (since both were taken at f/4.5) is that I zoomed in closer—the tighter you zoom in, the more out-of-focus the background. 

on location flash portrait of a boxer

Figure Six

In this behind-the-scenes shot, you can see that it’s the same two lights, in basically the same positions. I have to bend a bit so I’m not shooting down on her. Tip: If you’re up high enough (like the first step or two on a ladder), shooting down on your subject can look great and very flattering; however, shooting down just a little—say, a few inches—doesn’t do the trick. In that case, you’re better lowering yourself so you’re shooting her straight at eye level, as shown here. 

on location flash portrait of a boxer