This week we had our first of the season’s My Photography sessions, Steve Dyer taking us through his studio work including lights, modifiers and some of his post-production work flow. Some fine images, and a sound outline of the equipment he uses to get his preferred evening was an illustration of some of the talent we have in the club. And Steve was happy to state that the club has played, and continues to do so, a strong part in his development as a photographer.
We have looked at light modifiers in the last two posts of 2016, dividing them into soft light modifiers and hard light modifiers. We also referenced the excellent The Strobist website and it remains well worth the effort. These three will form the underpinning of the rest of this post, which will mainly, but not exclusively, be about building an off camera flash on a budget.
Steve has spent the last few years and not a little income in collecting his equipment he uses in his set up. The modifiers can be gained quite cheaply, but the build quality is what you really pay for when you buy the more established branded modifiers. One of the keys here is how core these pieces of equipment are to our particular form of photography. Another is our available budget, of course. It can be done relatively cheaply and here we will be looking at the options from a restricted budget perspective.
So, our mission is to put together a useable off camera flash with modifiers. Keeping within the basic theme we will start with the flash unit. Canon Speedlites start at around £160 and, obviously, are designed to work with Canon cameras (though will work with other makes but might have limited use of extended features) and we can pay over £500 for the top of the range and into four figures for the specialist designs. Nikon is not so very different. But how low can we go? The main thing that we give up on a restricted budget is power, as expressed by the Guide Number.
The Guide Number (GN) is far more than this though. Usually expressed in meters (feet in the USA) the GN is a tool for calculating the light falling on the subject from that unit at a given distance or F-Stop. How does that work? Actually quite simple. I have a flash gun with a GN of 33. I am 2 meters away from my model. The GN = f Number x Distance. The industry standard is 100 ISO but check the flash-gun’s handbook.
So, back to school maths, GN 33 = f number x 2meters.
Therefore 33 / 2 = f number or 16.5. Set the aperture at f16 to f18 according to the capacity of the lens diaphragm.
In an ideal world going to 200 ISO effectively doubles the guide number. Well it would if it weren’t for the laws of physics. There is a thing known as the inverse square law. Double the distance means
four times the light to get the same degree of illumination on a subject. So ISO 400 to get twice the light on the subject from a 100 ISO base.
Now TTL metering will sort all this out if the flash unit and the camera are capable of dealing with it, but that basically doubles the cost of the manual flash. Or we could buy a flash meter (make sure it is a flash meter not just a light meter, and better it is calibrated for photography. as we may waste our money) to do accurate calculations for us. However, dedicated off camera flash meters start at around £175.00. Not within our remit here. This is one area where chimping comes in and getting to know your equipment will really pay off. We can, with practice, get pretty close to right first time but, with the cost per frame and immediacy of digital, test frames consume not a lot other than a little time.
As we are talking off camera flash we will need some way of triggering the flash off body. Basically there are three ways to do this: Fixed cable (if the flash unit will take that, but most modern ones will); light trigger; wireless trigger.
Wired isn’t much, if indeed any, cheaper at the budget end of the spectrum than wireless. Light triggers (Optical) are built into the front of flash units so enabled and are usually encased in a red plastic cover. These can be triggered by other flashed including on camera flash if you have one built in. Wireless triggers are very popular and even the cheaper ones function pretty well, though it is necessary to maintain a line of site to ensure the flash triggers. The cheaper ones will be more prone to misfire, and will have a limited number of channels they can operate over (usually 4). The more sophisticated units cost more money, are better with weaker signals, can be programmed to fire in zones or sequences, even so there are some good units out there for not a huge amount of money.
As an extra and when you have one, essential, piece of kit to complete this summary, a light stand is a good investment. A light stand will take your flash to a higher angle, usually up to about 9 feet, or just under three meters. This gives us a lot more lighting options.
So how much can we do this for? * At 16th October 2017:
Flash Unit, Amazon Basics (made by Godox) £26.
Neewer Light Modifiers for Flash £46
This is a pretty complete set and a good start. Refer to the Soft and Hard Light modifier links above and note that some of these quality of light is determined by their size. This is a good place to start, but by no means the only place.
Light Stand £13.60 (two for £22 also available)
All in around £95.
Thanks Steve, for the entry point. The rest of us, enjoy.
*There are lights, stands and back drops that members can borrow from the club. See Eddie House.
Round 2 of the club competition last meeting and I shall link to the club website here where the winning entries will be posted in due course. Club thanks to our returning judge Roger Mallinson who got though 21 prints and 58 Digital entries in a prompt and informative fashion.
This week we are going to return to the studio as it were, and start to investigate light modifiers as previously promised. So, starting with the obvious, just what is a light modifier? Yeah, ok, it’s something that modifies light, a true but otherwise unenlightening answer which we need to look at in a little more detail. If we take the word modify we can use it in two senses:
- To change in form or character; alter.
- To make less extreme, severe, or strong.
With light the second meaning is a consequence of the first, it is also an inescapable consequence and though a tad obvious to some the conclusion is the same as the one that Mark and Rob gave us a couple of weeks back, that if you are going to do a lot of this then it is best to buy yourself a light meter. The reasoning is thus, every time you make an adjustment in intensity or distance (one and the same thing often times) then you are going to effect the elements of the exposure triangle and using the old saying: two measures to one cut as a guide, okay two measures to one slick in this case, means a lot of time effort and battery can be spared. For the occasional user then it is a case of trial and error. Eventually you will get to know your kit well enough to be reasonably accurate in your estimations.
There are basically two kinds of light modifiers which we can divide into soft light and hard light. Flash is the most likely entry point for a hobbyist into controlled off camera lighting. With flash we tend to use more of the hard modifiers, that is we use them more of the time, but both categories need considering.
The thing to remember, that is the thing not to get carried away with, is we modify light to enhance the subject. It is always about the subject, he, she or it, not about the modifier. Unless you are writing about modifiers I suppose. Still, that false conundrum aside we choose the modifier to light the subject, not the subject to show off the mod as a general rule. The subject is the thing. Always.
So this week we will start with soft modifiers. Another term for light diffuser, because diffused light gives soft shadows, that is the differences between light and dark look more a gentle grey than a stark black. Make no mistake we are using the light to create shadow. Shadow is the form of the statement we are making and without light there is no shadow.
So a soft modifier spreads the available light over a larger surface, that is, larger than the source itself . Smoothing the transition from light to dark on your subject the main use of soft modifiers is for key lighting in portraiture. The key light is usually the primary light source, the brightest and most important.
The two most frequently used soft modifiers are softboxes and umbrellas. Softboxes are normally vaguely pyramidal and lined with a silver, highly reflective material. They come in a variety of sizes and those sizes relate to how soft the light is, not how wide spread the light is. Yes, you are right, those two things are directly related. Most softboxes and umbrellas are used at a distance of two meters or less from the subject. Though there will be differences in the areas lit between any two given sizes, at these sort of distances they are minimal and really, really not the point. The point is how diffuse the light is, how soft the shadows are.
Softboxes are a studio staple but they can be very bulky, heavy, require more than one stand and generally take up a lot of space even when not being used and can take quite a time to set up. They are good for using with other modifiers though and also good at controlling light spill (basically light coming through at unintended angles which may or may not intrude on your desired effect).
A subdivision of the softbox is known as an Octa, octabox, octadome or octa softbox/dome . Octas, as we will call them, come either as an octagonal shaped softbox or as a hybrid softbox and umbrella. The angle and amount of light fall off is different to a softbox, but they do tend to be a lot more expensive and as bulky as softboxes.
There are further modifiers than can be fitted to a softbox or and octa. You can add grids (to give direction), flags (put shadows in), filters (control colour and intensity) to give you a greater control.
In case you are thinking, “Hey, I can make my own softbox” then I have to say, yes you can. The difference is in the quality control and the length of time that it is likely to last, but there is no reason why you can’t use tin foil and a cardboard box to put over your light source (flash gun rather than bare bulb, depending on the quality and exclusions of your house insurance and fire damage claims) and a plain shower curtain works wonders (make sure it doesn’t have blue tinge if made of plastic and yes it will melt over a hot bulb). Go ask YouTube, there are many different videos covering this.
Essentially umbrellas for modifying light as, opposed to keeping the rain off, come in two varieties: Shoot through and reflective. They are a little more untidy in the way that they deal with light, it will spill round the open edges. They are also prone to having a hot spot which may or may not prove a small problem. They are usually a lot cheaper than softboxes or Octas.
A shoot through acts like a lampshade, softening the light simply by putting a semi transparent material between light source and subject. A reflective umbrella is opaque, black on the outside with a highly reflective, usually silver, sometimes gold or maybe white interior. These are pointed at the subject so that the open side of the brolly is facing the subject and the flash unit faces the inside, away from the subject, to bounce light from all round the internal reflective surface from every attainable angle.
Umbrellas come in a range of sizes from small to huge (10 feet or more) and they are a low price, effective, portable light modifier. This makes them very popular. As already mentioned their biggest disadvantage is their tendency to spill light around the sides. Not a huge problem, normally, but one which does need to be attended to. Unlike softboxes there really aren’t any effective DIY options, but they can be bought pretty cheaply and so even if there was a DIY alternative the cost advantage would probably be very low.
Next week we will be looking at hard light modifiers and it is the club social, see website and or Facebook for details and Rob is doing a Bokeh session to boot.
Two propositions to start with this week. Firstly, light travels in straight lines in a single direction until it hits a surface that changes its direction or other properties. Secondly, there are, in nature, three basic shapes: the sphere; the cube and the cylinder. Simple as that. Everything, I am reliably informed, is made up of those three shapes, and light travels in straight lines.
So to become a studio photographer: (A) Point your light at one or all of the above shapes and (B) press the shutter. And off we go. Shortest blog post ever ….
Er, no. These are three dimensional shapes and we, nearly exclusively in photography, work in a two dimensional world we spend a lot of time and more or less conscious effort to make the third dimension appear. Also this is, as was pointed out at the beginning of the evening, as much about shadow as it is light.
Surely that doesn’t apply to people, though?
Yes it does. When learning lighting it is normal to start by learning to light these three basic shapes. Cones you can make out of a sheet of paper. For cubes a box will do (doesn’t need to be particularly cuboid just represent a square in three dimensions, so a cereal box will do). A ball or even an egg will do for the sphere.
When you understand those and how light and shadow work on them thoroughly (many, many, many hours later) the rest is a mixture of experience, knowledge and imagination. And lighting, of course.
Starting as ever, with the rule of KISS (polite version: Keep It Short and Simple), members Rob Heslop and Mark O’Grady took us through a basic use of lights and reflector in the pursuit of some classic look portraits, not forgetting our model for the evening, Summer. Summer, her working name, was rescued from redundancy from a closing Ann Summer’s shop late one Sunday evening, some seven or eight years ago and who has since been kept in a trunk by Mark. Summer, I should point out, is a mannequin. We don’t say shop window dummy any more, that would just be rude. However, it is still legal to keep her in a trunk. In two parts. If Burke and Hare, sorry, Mark and Rob, are to be believed.
Yes, well, we shall move on.
This is one of those areas of photography, and there are a few, where the general mantra of practice, practice, practice, is especially pertinent. It is also one of a very few where control is total (in a studio) and thus results easily replicated. So are mistakes. It is something worth taking a little time over (and recording, see below) because there is even less excuse than usual for saying “I’ll fix it in post”. If you have ever tried it and wondered why it never came out right it could be that you haven’t had enough practice yet. Or you’re not thinking in such a way as to develop your practice. Enter the sketchbook, a pre-photography art idea that really helps individual progression. The basics are fairly straight forward and this can be a process of getting to know your kit as much as it is getting to know the techniques. I really cannot overstate how useful a sketchbook is in purposeful development.
Mark and Rob produced a set of low key portraits (members see the club Facebook Page) using first one then two lights and a reflector. The key element to remember is that an image is a balance of light and dark. Light is what we control as an input, but dark is where the story is told, rather the interplay of light and dark is where the story gets told. There is nothing in the light without shadow. No depth and without depth a flat, unflattering, uninteresting picture.
One important thing that came across was that you have to remain aware that there are two elements in the setup that are or can be mobile. The model and the equipment. Most of a shoot can be taken up just changing the lighting positions, or adding light modifiers or changing the angle the photograph is taken from and it is quite surprising how relatively minor changes can make for quite large differences. Similarly slight changes in posture can radically alter the mood of a photograph – I refer you to Gerry Painter’s session last year on posing.
Ambient light is also an important factor, especially with flash. The first thing to note is that the shutter speed you are employing isn’t anywhere near as important in producing the look of your final shot up to the synch speed of your camera. Flash is of very short duration, thousandths of a second, the shutter has to be fully open so that the curtains do not make shadows across the frame. This is the synchronisation speed and is mechanically limited to around 1/250th of a second. Most cameras have a synch speed of either 1/160th or 1/250th. Some top end models have electronic synch where the shutter itself is part of the sensor and electronic. The problem with this can be that it affects the image by being too quick and hence the subject hasn’t been sufficiently bathed in light. The same end as with the mechanical shutter but a completely different reason – the shutter being too quick rather than too slow. Synch speed is about controlling the amount of ambient light the image contains. This is true for film or digital.
It is different with constant light, of course, where the shutter speed can be whatever is compatible with the constant provided by the exposure triangle and your processor. There are other considerations with constant light v flash, especially in a studio environment, which we don’t really have space for here. Most considerations evolve around compactness, other uses and intensity of light. Layout in terms of initial cost can also be a consideration, especially for the occasional user.
All in all a very informative evening and our thanks go out to Mark and Rob.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Light painting practical.