An Ounce of Bounce = Fills & Thrills
Accidents happen; I just wish I could plan on 'em. What I do plan on when shooting exteriors is no roof overhead to bounce light off. That's why I carry reflectors, and so should you. I keep a Photoflex mini in a pouch attached to my gear bag that opens out to about 12 inches. I can hold it easily in one hand and the camera in the other, or—when shooting close-ups—give it to the model to hold at chest level for fill light (Fig. 15). It's double-sided, white and gold. Gold is great for enhancing skin tones and adding warmth to a heartless desert sun.
Fig. 15 Model with mini reflector.
The mini is made by Photoflex, which also sells a MultiDisc Kit (Fig. 16) that includes a circular 42" frame, 5 reflectors (gold, soft gold, silver, white, and translucent), a holder, and a stand. You get a big bounce and lots of flexibility, and you can put the reflectors wherever you want 'em. The holder has removable clamps and swivels into position.
Fig. 16 MultiDisc Kit.
I also use the Photoflex Lite Panel Kit (Fig. 17) for full-length portraits because it provides a rectangular swash of light. It comes with its own stand and doesn't weigh you down. I hate lugging a lot of gear around and am always trying to pack smarter and lighter. A good reflector is as essential as a tripod and a toothbrush.
Fig. 17 Lite Panel Kit.
You can make do with white cards, sheets, shirts, foam board, aluminum foil. Haven't tried my underwear, but you never know.
I don't own stock in Photoflex. I'm plugging their products here because I've been using them successfully for years—they're reliable, well-made, durable, and the best bargain around. There are plenty of other good companies out there if you search, but if you're on a tight budget, go Photoflex. Trust me; it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Since I was born smack in the middle of Manhattan, you probably wouldn't expect this New Yawker to get excited about a pigeon... unless my revolver was in hand. Those "doity stinkin boids" are a dime a dozen and a pain in the butt. Well, maybe I'm gettin' soft in my old age. Here's the story. The other day I was lying around the office watching Bogart do his cool in The Maltese Falcon. It's one of my favorite motion pictures. I should have been working on this book, but I wrote it off as "reference" and gave my secretary (Effie Perine) the day off.
Later that night I was on a case in Balboa Park, nosing around the museums, when I spied the specimen on the facing page. It was framed beneath a Spanish archway, perched on a pedestal, posing like it had been waitin' for me all its life—an omen. I glanced over my shoulder, half expecting to see Sam Spade standing with a cigarette and a smile on his lips. The bird gave me a look like it was about to blow town, so I had to act fast. The ambient light was murky, but I had an SB-900 mounted on the hot shoe. I dialed it down to –1 1/3 EV (to try to preserve the texture and drama), spot-metered the eye, and fired at 1/60 sec at f/10 (ISO 200; 90mm).
A moment later it was gone, but I had the evidence on a memory card. For a hard-boiled dick, it's the shot that dreams are made of. No digital retouching necessary. I added a "Dutch Angle" crop for good measure and poured myself a drink.
This red-eyed beauty had Silver Screen written all over it but didn't leave a calling card (thankfully). So I tagged it "The Maltese Pigeon" and gave it a perch in this book.
Not bad for a boid.
Grids, Snoots, Gobos, & Chizzlers
They might sound like thug words, but they're 100% pure shutterbug slang for light-shaping tools. Except chizzler... I coined that to describe when I hold my hand in front of a strobe to deflect the light. I call that "chizzling," get it? It also happens to be the cheapest accessory I own. In fact, I own two of 'em.
So I gabbed about reflectors in the previous section, but in addition to bouncing light there are times when you want to shape it. You got to roll up your sleeves like a sculptor and start kneading away...molding the light... smoothing and shifting it into patterns and shapes. Throwing light on a subject to see it is one thing, but it's more fun to use light creatively in collaboration with the subject.
Honl Photo makes a bunch of great, dirt-cheap, light-shaping tools. I've been using the 1/4-inch Speed Grid a lot lately (Fig. 18). It attaches to your strobe via a Velcro Speed Strap that wraps around the head and forms the basis of the Honl System—a quick and easy way to swap accessories. The Speed Grid features a honeycomb pattern that produces a gritty oval of light around the subject (Fig. 19). It's quieter than a rusty barn door, too.
Fig. 18 Honl 1/4" Speed Grid.
Fig. 19 A 1/4" Honl Speed Grid attached to my strobe head gave this shot some dramatic light.
Another tool to investigate is the Honl 8" Speed Snoot (Fig. 20), which can be folded funnel-like to direct a spot of light where you want it. Use it to add a cinematic touch to a shot. Use it repeatedly, and you'll have to don a zoot snoot. Fig. 21 is a plain flash shot. Figs. 22 and 23 show the effect of the snoot, which can be modified with a twist or a squeeze.
Fig. 20 Speed Snoot.
Fig. 21 No snoot.
Fig. 22 Snoot shot #1.
Fig. 23 Snoot shot #2.
A gobo (a.k.a. a flag) is short for go-between, and it's anything you can find to stick between the strobe and the subject to modify the way the light hits. It could be a slab of stained glass, corkboard, chicken wire, black card stock, whatever. If the light doesn't cut it, cut the light with a gobo.
A Knockout in the Ring
The big thing right now in fashion photography—ring flash—is actually as old as the hills. Developed in the 1950s for dental photography—smile!—it's aptly named because it's a circular strobe. You can always tell a photog has used it by a distinctive highlight in the model's iris. A pal of mine calls it "the alien look," and some folks hate it. Not, however, the ad agencies and clients screaming, "Gimme that ring flash look!" That "look" boils down to a flat, hard, in-your-face light that softens shadows, erases wrinkles, and creates a slight glow around the edge of the subject so it pops out from the background. Ring lighting is hip, hard-boiled, and something a guy like me can really sink his teeth into, pardon the pun.
If you shoot fashion or portraits, you'll want to consider adding a ring flash to your bag of tricks. The only drawback is cost; it ain't cheap. But wipe that frown off your face because there's an affordable alternative that turns your portable strobe into a ring flash. It's called Ray Flash: The Ring Flash Adapter (Fig. 24). Fit one over the strobe head, and you'll get the magic look. Because the Ray Flash isn't a light source, it weighs a lot less than an actual ring.
Fig. 24 The Ray Flash.
There's also no need for an external power source, so it's a no-brainer for location use. Even sweeter, it doesn't alter the color temperature of your flash, so you don't have to stop and compensate. Fig. 25 shows a close-up taken with the Ray Flash. Notice the edge around the subject's face. Good separation from the background, too. In Fig. 26, I used the Ray Flash as fill light, and it did a nice job softening shadows on the model's neck.
Fig. 25 The Ray Flash in action.
Fig. 26 I used the Ray Flash as a fill light in late afternoon. It softened the shadows on the model's neck and produced smooth skin tones.
If you've been intimidated by flash in the past or didn't see the need for it in your own work, here's what I hope you'll take away from this section. Portable strobes are fun. Hell, I'm no wizard juggling a dozen Speedlights—I've only begun exploring the damn things—but I'm learning new stuff every day. Even with limited experience, I've managed to take a few good shots for this book. That, in itself, should inspire you to test the waters. If a hard-boiled palooka like me can do it, just imagine what you can do.
What, Me Pop-Up?
My D-SLR has an internal pop-up flash just like the ones found on cheapo point-and-shoots. Kinda cute, like a jack-in-the-box or a hood ornament. As I've already mentioned, the pop-up serves a purpose; i.e., it triggers the SB-900 off camera. Other than that, it doesn't get used much around here. I was actually feeling sorry for the damn thing, so I used it to take the night shot in Fig. 27. Did a good job freezing the swirling smoke from my cigarette. You might find the pop-up handy in a pinch when your portable flash ain't around. So be kind. Just don't make it a habit.
Fig. 27 Shot with a Nikon D90 using the camera's built-in pop-up flash.
The Big Guns: Studio Strobes
If you're thinking of lighting a blimp or a fleet of shiny new Buicks, you can pack that Speedlight away. You'll want to haul out some big guns—monoblocks, bazookas, Sherman tanks. It's all about power and how much light you want to blow on the subject. You're not gonna get 1,200 watts off a hot shoe.
I don't spend much time in the studio nowadays, but when I'm there, I use dinky 200-watt strobes. I've whittled my equipment down to the basics since I started using small flash. My entire set-up consists of just four strobes with umbrellas, a couple of softboxes, stands, and boom arm or two. I sold all my hot lights a few years ago. They're the ones that don't flash, just jack up the electric bill. As long as I can light a subject front, side, and back, I'm as happy as a clam in Okeechobee.
Last Halloween I decided to steal some shots of the neighborhood demons. I set a Fujifilm S3 Pro on a tripod in the living room and plugged in a strobe with an umbrella. I placed the light off to the side of the front door and hid another one outside in the bushes for side light. The door was kept wide open, and when the ghouls hit the welcome mat I fired. I was only able to take one shot per group because the brats were in the throes of sugar-shock and I was too scared to ask 'em to pose. My favorites in the series are Figs. 28 and 29. In the former, the strobe froze the hand in a surreal gesture. The light goes behind the masks to illuminate the eyes. The side lighting gives definition and sets the black costume apart from the dark background.
Fig. 28 Trick or Treat (2008). Photo by Derek Pell.
Fig. 29 Photo by Derek Pell.
When October 31st rolls around this year, I'll be armed with a Speedlight and we'll see how the shots compare. My guess is they'll be pretty good.
The Halloween series (about 15 shots in all) were made at 1/125 sec at f/4.2 (ISO 100; 75mm). I varied the power on the strobes, between –3 and –5 stops. There's a lot of light flying around here, and I didn't want to blind the little buggers or make 'em look like Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Big strobes are used to light everything from small tabletop products to full-length fashion spreads. They have a distinct advantage over continuous lights when, for example, doing food photography. Hot lights can quickly turn a plate of gourmet cuisine into a pile of mush even a dog wouldn't touch.
Instead of spending your arm and a leg on hot lights, think about getting an inexpensive strobe kit, like one I use made by Smith-Victor: the FlashLite FL110K Kit (Fig. 30). It includes two FL110i monolights, two sync cords, two 60-watt quartz modeling lamps, two Raven RS6 6-foot black aluminum light stands, two 32-inch black-backed white umbrellas, and a spy-style attaché case to transport it all. I love these babies because they're ultra light and compact. They're also a snap to use and perfect for portraits. The monolights have 60-degree beam spread with variable power selection, full or 1/2, and they recycle in about two seconds. You can probably pick up the kit on the street for around $300.
Fig. 30 Smith-Victor FlashLite Kit.
If you outfit yourself with a couple of speedlights and a small studio kit like this, you've got indoors and exteriors covered, and you can carry everything in your bare hands. As Charlie Chan might say: Walk softly, but carry big light in small case.