Blog has been on a bit of a hiatus through other commitments but hopefully is back to being regular now. Our last session was the club Christmas party and a good time and a few quid raised for club coffers means that it was a success. A record was probably set for unflattering-photographs-of-club-members-whilst-sober but it was all in a good cause. Our thanks to Myk for running a very enjoyable evening.
The programme in the new year is full of promise too, underpinning the aim of the club to be one where we learn together rather than one where blokes (it always is blokes) stand around, sucking the air through clenched teeth, fiddling with the string in their cardigan pockets whilst moaning about things not being as they used to be in the good old days.
Like any skill we learn as much, arguably more, by not getting it quite right and keeping a balanced and critical eye. Use the judges’ opinions and try them out. Critique the result for yourself and compare it to your original. Use the clubs internal online presence (sorry members only) to try out others opinions. Use a buddy group, use external sites that offer critiques (thick skin sometimes required). There are lots of options.
Try something new. Christmas is rapidly becoming the one time in the year many photographers decide to try out bokeh. Everything to do with the Christmas Tree lights. Bokeh is an example of making the most out of something you can’t change. In this case, the laws of physics, branch optics.
If you look at the world through your camera phone, most of it is in focus most of the time, even though the lens aperture is usually pretty wide. Think of the situations cameras are used in phones for the most part and keeping things still enough not to blur means a wide aperture is a good idea to keep shutter speeds up. This is because of the depth of field relative to the size of the sensor you are using for capture. Basically F2 on your camera phone is roughly F11 on a full frame (35mm) sensor in terms of depth of field and camera phones use wide angle lenses (compare further). Note that is not an expression of the amount of light transmitted, only the area we find acceptably sharp. It also means, practically, that, mostly, bokeh effects on camera phones are software rather than optically driven. This is by the by for most users.
You can, at least in theory, construct bokeh on any lens (tougher on a fish eye, but possible). The term bokeh is Japanese and an art term for the aesthetic qualities of out of focus light. It can also, given the right context mean senility or mental fuzziness, apparently, but that too is by the by. The keys to successfully taking a bokeh photograph are pretty straight forward. Paying attention to the basics of composition is as important as always. The effect may be out of focus but the subject must be in focus. Maybe obvious, maybe not, but essential nonetheless. Get as close to your subject as possible, framing is important and only having one subject is as important as ever it is.
The largest aperture on your chosen lens is also a given if you want to maximise the effect. Prime lenses are probably better than zooms as they tend to have larger maximum apertures. F2 is more convenient for this than F3.5 which is better than f5.6 in that the depth of field is less for any given sensor size the wider the aperture set at a fixed focal length. But as with everything kit wise the one you’ve got is the best for the job.
The other key is the separation between background and subject (and, of course, having some light in the background!). The larger this gap is the larger the bokeh effect will be. Of course the Christmas tree isn’t likely to have a lot of room behind, nonetheless the effect is still obtainable, though colour balance can be tricky. If you are at macro distances then the effect on the background can still be striking, though of course through a more restricted field of view. That includes the use of lenses and extension tubes, just bear in mind depth of field is extremely shallow.
The shape of the bokeh is determined by the number of leaves that go up to making the iris. Cheaper lenses tend towards having five or six blades to the iris, more expensive lenses 9 or more (and in between). The more blades the more circular the bokeh appears. The other factor is the placement of the blades, straight or rounded making for hard edged or circular smooth points. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
And that is pretty much all there is to it. It can be done indoors and out. It can be done in different light levels. It’s a simple technique that makes the most of a physical necessity. It can be one point or many depending on light source(s). Straight forward and quite striking. Try it.
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.
The Wriggly Road Show slithered, scuttled and strutted into town and a fascinating and interactive show it was. Snakes, lizards, crabs, albino rats and hedgehogs formed the cast and many thousands of frames were burned in a very enjoyable practical evening.
Perhaps the key to photographing animals, both wild and domesticated, lies in reconnaissance, having knowledge either direct or through an expert at hand. The latter was definitely the case in our session, given the exotic nature of the animals Wriggly Road Show brought with them. The welfare of the animals (and the photographers) is paramount and what may appear to be innocuous behaviour to the untrained eye could be stressful for the animal. There is a balance to be struck and if we believe the maxim that if your photograph isn’t good enough it’s because you are not close enough (Robert Capa) then there is an indicator to be had about choice of lens. However, that is a function of the environment that the animal is in and the size of the animal itself, as much as anything else.
Photographing domestic pets successfully is a different proposition to photographing large animals on a farm, is different from taking pictures of animals on safari (that’s the photographer being on safari rather than an alligator with a DSLR). Any way that you want to cut it animals are most likely going to be more work than your average subject. Cats and dogs may be the most frequently photographed animals (and certainly they take up a fair amount of space on Flickr, about 2.8m and 2.1m respectively) but they are also creatures with their own minds and curiosity.
I was shooting either in Handheld Twilight mode (Multi-frame at ISO 6400, wide fixed aperture, variable shutter speed) or aperture priority and auto ISO, plus some with fill in flash from the camera. Direct flash is rarely a good option, risking as it does red eye, and being generally unflattering, but needs must. I do not pretend I know what I was doing but the decisions were actually driven by the conditions.
Two positions were well lit, the others were more reliant on the ambient light. The animals were fairly static, none of them particularly quick even when mobile (having been fed), so moderately slow shutter speeds and moderate apertures with high ISO’s (1000 – 6400) did the job mainly with longer focal lengths. No chances to pan whilst shooting, no need to. From the look of most of the results I got I think I was concentrating more on the camera than the subject for some of them. That is sure sign of being short on practice. On the other hand it does not pay to be stingy on the number of frames that we commit to in pursuit of the shot we want.
Metering, especially the insects, where I was using fill in flash, was quite tricky and I found I was dialling in quite a bit of compensation. Fur is always interesting to get a reasonable meter reading from, tending to be either darker or lighter than the average for the environment the animal is being photographed. Spot or centre weighted metering, when metering from the camera, is probably preferred in these sorts of situations, but if shooting against backdrops it pays to be aware of how they will appear in the shot. Getting right at the point of taking the shot saves time in post production.
Focusing again depends on our subject, more specifically the speed it is moving across the frame, but also whether you are up close or standing back. Single shot, by and large is good enough close up because focus won’t shift that much and the shutter won’t fire till focus locks. A dog bouncing through the long grass is probably a candidate for Continuous AF and we live with the out of focus shots to get to the one or two for which the focus is bang on.
None of which will counter poor composition. The eyes have it, just as with people portraits. Viewers will seek the eyes first. We take our clues from the perceived expressions and the eyes are the windows of the soul, after all. Knowing the animal, having a rapport with it, are not necessarily the same things. Your pet snake will act differently to your pet dog, though both will have ways of attracting and directing their attention. It is also important not to stress the animal. The usual tools of composition can be applied, just getting there involves subjects who may be less predictable than a landscaper or a portrait photographer, or the yet-to-make-up-their-mind-ographer might be used to.
Here we can just scratch the surface, the tools we develop as we gain experience are mostly relevant, but as ever an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory (kilogram and kilo translations also apply) and the Wriggly Road Show certainly provided us with that.
Monochrome and lessons in depth of field as we split the room between practical and tutorial this last session and I must say it worked rather well. Both the choices of colour and the application of depth of field are creative decisions, they convey subtleties of look and feel, they speak as much to meaning as they do they do to composition.
Timely indeed as there has recently been evidence published that rather challenges the conventional wisdom of how we look at a photograph. Logically paintings, etchings drawings etc too, but this is a camera club so we will stick to talking about photographs. At the outset I have to say that this research doesn’t present a new way of perceiving how we look at images, how photographers perceive their images, but it does present evidence to support some photographers way of looking at their art. “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us” wrote Ralph Hattersley so maybe it isn’t such a stretch to suggest that meaning is our primary guide when we look at a photograph. Similarly Don McCullin feels that “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures,” and Wynn Bullock “When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.” Well you get the idea.
Of course we all spend a lot of time discussing whether it is “Visual salience based on semantically uninterpreted image features [that] plays the critical causal role in attentional guidance, with knowledge and meaning playing a secondary or modulatory role [or it is] … meaning [that] plays the dominant role in guiding human attention through scenes”. Not … but ….
Let’s think for a moment about the way we are lead to judge photographs when we start taking photography more seriously, especially when we start talking about conventions used in competitions.
Very basically we photograph to capture a relationship between and impact of objects, subject and space arranged within a frame to tell a story. When we looked at critiquing images last season we talked about the considering initial impact an image has on us before moving on to: considering the story it is telling us; the technical issues such as light, focus, foreign objects, crop, exposure, saturation; then considering the technical details like composition, colour and subject matter before using all these as evidence to come to a reasoned conclusion.
It isn’t the only way but its consistent application, when applied across a range of photographs makes it clear how to go about improving our own. It is a good habit to get into, if nothing else to make your efforts clear to yourself and to spot areas you can work on. It’s also worth keeping a record.
Not too much of a leap to say that we, as photographers, already think that we look for impact (meaning), first, then for the prominent features (salience), because emotion is what we are trying to stir in our audiences. For sure that is going to be variable, but if we put consideration into what and how we photograph then we can make then we have the makings of a story.
Then we have the many and varied tools of composition. We have discussed before why tools not rules, but basically it is do with the selection of techniques to emphasise the point of our story, rather than a must comply with. You can get one story per frame for the sake of impact. Split the audience’s attention between two focal points of equal weight and you risk halving the impact of the image. Restrict the impact and you restrict the meaning and we, according to this study, are suckers for meaning.
So composition is one way we can get meaning into our images. With human subjects we can also do much by our interaction between photographer and model and leave the camera out of the interaction as much as possible. This is our chance to explore character. Too many photographers let the camera come in between them and their subject. Time spent building that relationship, even with a model you know is time well spent. Use the camera as unobtrusively as possible, get them to focus on the brand label on the camera body rather than the unblinking eye of the lens, which can be intimidating. Candid photographs have their own power and their own techniques.
Someone, and I cannot remember who, once said that we should consider the background then put the subject in it. That makes sense when we want to cut out distractions. It also makes sense when we have a striking background and can reference our subjects within it. There is a difference between the background as backdrop and the background as distraction. Dramatic scenes, interesting lighting, like the light of early evening or early morning, add to the meaning by adding qualities of light or drama for us to place our subjects in an interesting part of the frame all. These things can be ways of adding meaning to our images as long as we practice, practice, practice and practice with a critical eye.
An alumni night last club meeting, taken by former club member Tony Cooney covering his tour of Iraq as a Royal Engineer. It is the only time since I have been a member of the club we have actually been short of chairs for an event that became standing room only. Tony brought not only photographs but an interesting array of prints and pieces of kit that augmented a fascinating talk about his experience of, possibly, Britain’s most controversial war of the last 70 years. The Royal Engineers, “Everywhere where duty or glory lead” , have a long and very distinguished history in a role that is as old as the concept of a military. They go where the Army go. Without their skills the Army will not go very far at all. They provide and maintain the infrastructure that keeps the rest moving.
Tony’s pictures were taken at a time when digital was a “new” thing (technically nearly thirty years old but new to most of us) that was beginning to take a hold and film was the only option for “serious” photographers. We have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. He took both digital and film cameras. At around 2 mega pixels for digital images at the time, you can see the point. Also Tony was using digital before it tipped the selling scales in 2007 which was the first time it outsold film cameras.
Tony stands in a now century old tradition, not always embraced by the authorities, of the squaddie photographer. The very first toted the Kodak Vest Pocket camera of 1912 and the Autographic of 1915, which found Their ways to war in the hands of thousands of regulars, volunteers and enlisted men and not a few women, of all ranks. The Box Brownie (1900-1934) was also vastly popular but nowhere near as robust. This everyman photography was a feature on all sides to a greater or lesser extent (A book has recently been published on the KVP in the trenches written by military historian Jon Cooksey) and its continuing significance as social record should not be underestimated.
Using average wages as a guide, the £1-10 Shillings of a 1912 model Kodak Vest Pocket bought during the Great War would take a £545 chunk out of an average pay-cheque today[i]. Mind you the average wage in 1912 was around £67 a year (about £6,905 in today’s value using inflation as a guide, but between 1912 and 2016 average wages far outstripped inflation). A Kodak Vest Pocket would take about 2% of the average annual wage to purchase, so not a huge chunk of change but substantial enough to ensure most of them, at least initially were probably in Officers hands as it represented more than a week’s wages for many – before we take out the cost of film and processing.
The British Army banned cameras that were not in the hands of Official War Photographers in 1915, for fear of the intelligence it could provide when captured by the enemy. All combatants developed a similar ban. Often it was overlooked and cameras at the Front if not exactly everywhere, were not remarkable but the subjects were and are.
This democratisation of photography, and we should not underestimate the role that the invention and mass production of gelatine based film had on this process – it was the absolutely key driver – produced an invaluable, if widely dispersed, social record of men and women at war, not the sanitised version of the official published record, nor the sensationalised one of the press, but the real lives and routines of the people who were there and the people around them. This is not to diminish the cost of this in lives lost and shattered, but is actually (and thankfully) but a small part of the whole and Tony’s presentation represented that much bigger picture. But when it’s you it is 100%. Tony spoke of the personal cost, how it has taken a long time to get not just the large amount of stories together into something he can show but also the necessary perspective to make the presentation work. Which it did.
Tony also had, not just the kids-everywhere pictures (roughly 40% of Iraq’s population is under 14, and war ranks fifth as the causes of death in the country) with their insatiable curiosity, but also the pictures from a family get together for which they were loaned a camera. For me that added more depth and breadth from what must have been, necessarily, a relatively isolated experience – even if, sometimes, as Tony related, an undeniably and demonstrably dangerous one.
So our thanks to Tony for an excellent evenings presentation, much to think about, and a very great deal to see.
[i] Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2017 . Using 1912 and 2016 data.
We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
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.