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Posted in : Flash / Photography Principles on August 5th, 2013.
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Last Wednesday, I ran a location nude lighting workshop just outside of Lancaster.  We worked with both the available light and flash, as well as the use of reflectors, flags, snoots, grids, gels, etc. in order to demonstrate many principles and techniques throughout the day.

During lunch, I was asked the question “What modifiers do you recommend?”, the answer to which led to a string of more questions on the same topic.  The answers I gave on the day seemed to be well appreciated and, apparently, I made some sense.  As a consequence, I’m going to post some of those questions, along with answers, right here.

So, let’s start at the beginning.

Q. What modifiers do you recommend?

There’s two answers to this question, and it all really depends on how much experience you already have working with flash, whether it be in the studio or on location.

Answer #1.

This is for the new guys, those of you who have absolutely no experience of shooting on location, and very little equipment.  I’d say that this is probably about the most basic kit I think you should have to get you started.

  • Light Stand (£10-15)
  • Yongnuo YN560-II or YN560-III (£30-50)
  • Yongnuo RF-602 or RF-603 radio triggers (£15-25)
  • 24″ Speedlight Softbox (£30-35)

Here, for between £85-125 (it all depends how much the eBay gods favour you) you have a basic setup to get you up and running with off-camera flash.  You have the option of having a softer light with the softbox (how soft it ends up being will depend on how close to your subject it is), or hard light with the bare flash (you can still use the bracket that comes with the softbox to mount your flash on the stand, just don’t attach the box).

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Starting off with just a single light setup will force you to do a little more creative thinking to get the shots you want.  If you’re on location, there’s always the option of using the sun (assuming it’s not hidden behind cloud) as a second light source, or using the soft light of an overcast day as a nice ambient fill light.

But, it all depends on the kind of light you like.  If you like hard light, forget the 24″ softbox and just get a flash bracket.  Save yourself £25-30.

Answer #2

This is aimed at the folks that are used to working in the studio, or already have a variety of modifiers from which to choose.  Whether you’re using speedlights or studio strobes with a power pack, just use whatever you prefer to shoot in the studio, assuming it’ll physically fit onto the lights you’re taking on location and they have enough power for what you need.

If you have a bunch of modifiers but not much experience using them, pick one.  Work with that one as much as possible for as many shoots as you can to fully learn how that modifier works under different conditions on location.  Leave your others at home and just concentrate on using the one until you master it.

If you don’t have power packs for your studio strobes, have a look at picking up one of the Yongnuo flashes mentioned above (and radio triggers if you don’t already have any), and a bracket that allows you to mount your S-Fit or other modifiers that you would normally use in the studio.  I regularly use an SB-900 and an S-Fit bracket along with a 4ft Bessel Octabox on location.  There’s nothing to stop you doing the same (power limitations aside), or with a beauty dish, or any number of other modifiers.

Q. How many lights do you normally take with you, and what modifiers are packed in the bags?

My “standard” kit contains 6 lights.  Four Nikon SB-900s, and two Yongnuo YN560 speedlights.  I very rarely need to use all of these at once, however it has happened.  Sometimes, I may need to put all four SB-900s together acting as a single light in order to overpower a very bright ambient (especially if I need to put it behind a diffuser to soften the light).

As far as modifiers, I take a small selection.

  • Three 24″ Speedlight Softboxes (same as the ones mentioned above) with grids
  • One 5′x3′ piece of white Ripstop fabric
  • Speedlight Snoots
  • Speedlight Grids
  • A book of corrective and effects gels

Along with 8 or so light stands, and a big bag of RF-602 radio transmitters and receivers, that’s pretty much all of the kit that goes out with me on any given location shoot.  Occasionally, if I know in advance I will need a specific item, I’ll take that along too.  Sometimes that means packing Bowens strobes and battery packs, bigger softboxes, 8ft parabolic umbrellas or any number of things, but typically, the list above covers the vast majority of situations I find myself in.

The speedlights, snoots, grids, gels and Ripstop all fit into one relatively small Crumpler New Delhi.  The 24″ softboxes go into a 65 litre rucksack, along with all the gaffer tape, cinefoil, S-Fit bracket (if I need one – which if I do, I’ll be taking the 4ft Bessel Octabox too), towels, tarps, a couple of 5-in-1 reflectors, spare change of clothes, spare batteries, etc.

Then the cameras, lenses, filters, spare memory cards, etc. go into a third bag.  On top of this, the 4ft Octabox has its own bag, there’s usually a couple of tripods (sometimes one’s a monopod), and another bag containing bug spray, munchies, drinks, etc.

Q. It sounds like an awful lot of stuff.  Why so much?

When I’m shooting on location, I don’t always know what the weather conditions will be like before we arrive (especially the way the British weather works), but I often have a brief (or at least some level of expectation from the subject of the type of images they will receive), I have to be able to give the images a particular look, and having the equipment with me, whether I end up using it or not, gives me that security that I can get the shots I need if the ambient light isn’t working quite as expected.

Do I need to take all this with me?  Absolutely not.  If not working to an actual brief, and we just want to head out for some good shots for a portrait session or portfolio and just see what we can get with what nature provides, I could just as happily go out with one camera, one lenses, a light stand, and a single bare speedlight, which is exactly what I used for this shot.

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The equipment I take is equipment I’ve bought because at some point because I needed it for a specific task and it’s stuck with me.  I take it with me because I have it and may need it (I won’t know until I get there), but I have never had an occasion where I’ve needed to use everything I’ve taken with me.

Q. Ok, well, that makes sense.  What about brand name modifiers vs generic?

If you already have them, knock yourself out.  Personally, I don’t take big brand name expensive modifiers out on location with me.  The risks are simply too great most of the time.

There are basically two types of modifiers.  There’s those that are absolutely unique, custom to a particular manufacturer, and possibly even custom to an individual light (I’m talking to you, Profoto and Hensel!), and there are those that everybody makes in one slightly variation or another.

Those of you who are shooting Profoto, Hensel, or similar such expensive and amazing pieces of kit, why are you asking me this question?  If you can justify spending that much money on lighting gear, you shouldn’t need to be asking basic questions like this.

Those of you who aren’t shooting that kind of gear, I would suggest going with the cheaper option.  There will be virtually zero difference, visually, between the £30 2ft softbox you buy on eBay, and the £130 2ft Lastolite Ezybox (sorry Lastolite, but it’s true).  That doesn’t mean the Lastolite is a con or a rip-off, it most certainly is not.  The durability of the Lastolite Ezybox speaks for itself, and it should last for many many years longer than the cheap Chinese copies you find on eBay.

However, even the Lastolite Ezybox, if punished enough on location, can succumb to abuse.  The Lastolite Ezybox also falls off cliffs and floats down rivers just as well as the cheaper alternatives, too.

So, on location, I go with the generic alternatives, as there is almost no difference between how the two present themselves on the subject and back to the camera.

Would you rather see a £30 softbox or a £130 softbox go swimming?  Would you be able to tell the difference in the quality of light you get from a £30 softbox instead of a £130 softbox?  Are you happy if that softbox potentially only lasts 15 or 20 shoots before it needs replacing (assuming you don’t kill it via other means first)?

Ultimately, what you choose to use, and how much you choose to spend on it, is up to you.

Q. What’s with the Ripstop?

I’m so glad you asked.  The piece of Ripstop that lives in my bag is about 5′x3′.  It’s fantastic as an easy to setup diffuser, either to soften natural sunlight, or to pop a few flashes behind for a nice big soft directional light source.  This is basically the same material that you find on many softboxes.

Clamped between two tall light stands, you can freely position your lights behind it to change the spread of light hitting the ripstop to alter how it affects your subject.  You can have several flashes behind it spread evenly to create a huge even light source (or just have one flash further back at a higher power setting), or you can position them to focus the light in a particular area, as you can see here.

Here we’re mostly using the top half of the material, and the full 5ft width, to allow the light source to come from above, feathering off as it gets lower to provide a little fill.

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As you can see, we’re getting a good directional soft light on our subject that fades off as it gets closer to the ground.

Once we replace Tony with our actual subject, you can see how softly this light renders, even though we’re only using about half of the sheet.  You can also see how subtly it falls off on the lower half of the shot.

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Whichever route you go, start off with the bare basics.  You don’t need to go out and buy masses and masses of gear right from the start.  The more you stick with that simple setup, and fully master what you already have, the better you’ll become.

When the time comes that you want to get a specific look that you can’t get with the equipment you already have, then think about where to go with your next purchase.  Then just use that for a few weeks, or months, or however long it takes to fully exhaust its uses.  Then mix it with your other equipment.

Over time, the gear will come, but when it does you’ll know exactly why you have each item, the advantages that each will offer, and how they can help your photography.