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Elinchrom RX and BX strobes

Posted in gear, lighting, products, strobe on March 7th, 2009 by gregr

Ages ago, I posted about my first studio strobes, and in that post I said I would write again about what I switched to. Well, just over two years later, I’m getting that post done. :-)

Right now I’m using the following:

These address all of the shortcomings I complained about in my previous post; the accessory mount is solid, they have a switchable ready-beep and won’t fire when partially charged, they have digital controls, and I’ve found the shot-to-shot consistency to be rock-solid.

At first, I hated the accessory mount…but then I realized it was the speedrings I was using that I hated. I have some Photoflex speedrings, and they don’t have a rotation-locking mechanism (short of getting out a screwdriver and tightening them up); so in some cases it’s hard to tell if the speedring is completely locked onto the strobe mount. I’ve had softboxes fall right off the strobe because of this. 

Then I discovered other rings; for example, the ones that come with Elinchrom’s own softboxes. These have a much more secure (and easy to adjust) anti-rotation mechanisms, so it’s quite clear when the mount is locked in. Seriously – it’s like night and day.

Breaking plates – behind the scenes

Posted in lighting, shoots on March 5th, 2009 by gregr

A couple of days ago, I posted the following shot from my dangerous kitchen series:


I thought it might be fun to show some shots of how the plate-breaking part of all this actually went. :-)

I shot the plates in a studio; the setup looked something like this:


The plate was suspended from two A-clamps, which were hanging from a overhead bar, going diagonally across the set. There’s a black v-flat behind the plate, and also one to the left (in the direction of impact); the former to provide a near-black background, and the latter to stop the pieces of the plate from flying too far around the studio.

For lighting, I used two Nikon SB-800s; one on a stand you can see on the left, peeking over the black flat, and then another over to camera right. Both were positioned to mimic the direction and ratio of the lighting used for the model, already shot in a kitchen. I used pocket wizards for triggering them. I shot a single frame per plate, using a Nikon D3.

This shot shows the detail of how the plate was hit:


My assistant used the flat head of a hammer to strike the plate, and had his arm covered with a black towel.

There were laser and sound triggers available, but I started out clicking the shutter manually. The whole process turned out to be highly addictive (can’t tell you how much fun it is to break plates like this!), so I never ended up stopping to set up an automatic trigger. In retrospect, I probably should have, but in the end I ended up with a shot I could use. Out of the 14 plates, I missed one completely, and the rest you can see below (click for larger):

I had a total of 14 plates; 10 fairly heavy dinner plates from a restaurant supply house (top 3 rows in pic below), and 4 cheap Correlle plates from Walmart (bottom rows). As you can see, they broke in very different ways.

The Correlle plates took me off guard – both because I happened to catch two shots where the plate has just shattered but still in the shape of a plate, and also because of how violently they shatter. The mess in the studio was pretty well contained at first, but once we got to these last 4 plates, we had little shards of plate everywhere!

All the shots were at 70mm (to match perspective with the shot of the model), at f/11. It was even one of those rare moments when I used a protective filter on my lens, hoping to protect it from flying pieces of plate. :-)

Anyway, hope this is interesting for some folks!

(note – some of you reading this via RSS may have seen this post before the referenced photo was posted…sorry about that, WordPress user error. :-)

Shooting with a White Background

Posted in lighting, strobe on January 14th, 2007 by gregr

I often hear questions about how to shoot with a white background.  The first time someone tries it, they will typically get a nice white spot somewhere, and a gradual fade to gray as you move away from the spot.  Then, they spend a bunch of time in Photoshop making it pure white as they originally intended.

I typically spend extra time trying to get things right in the camera, so I don’t have to fix them later in Photoshop.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the bottom line is I want to reduce the total time per-image I have to spend in post processing.  I sit in front of a computer screen just plenty, thank you, so if I can do something in the studio to reduce it, count me in!

So let me try to talk a bit about one way to get a nice, all-white background, without Photoshop.

Waist up

If you only need to shoot head and shoulders, or perhaps even down to the waist, you might be able to get away with a single light on the background. Maybe not, but it’s at least possible.  But I’m going to assume you have two lights for the background, and go from there.

This is easier than full length, because there’s a limited amount of backdrop visible behind the model. So really, you only need to light that part evenly.

I typically use two medium-sized softboxes, one to each side of the background paper, each pointing about 1/3 of the way in from the edge.  Meter them together, so the whole area behind the model meters within +/- 0.2 stops or so.  And overall, you’re looking for about +1 stop brighter than you’re going to use for your key light.  More than that, you’ll most likely run into a lot of spill and flare problems; less than that, you’ll have problems getting your background to look pure white.

And you don’t have to use softboxes on the background here – just pick something that allows you to get even coverage across the part of the background that shows behind the model.

Full length

This one is tougher – to shoot full-length, and get a perfect white background, everything has to come together just so – because there is a LOT of background you have to light.

I start with the same two medium softboxes pointing towards the white seamless background; if you have more lights, 4 heads is even better.  I start with the boxes about 5 feet high, pointing in about 1/3 of the way on the background.  Then start metering again all across the background – top to bottom, left to right, and keep adjusting things until you get it pretty even (as before, ideally you want this +/- 0.2 stops).

Now, you have the problem of the floor the model is standing on.  This is a tough spot to light.  What I typically do is place a large sheet of plexiglass material (white or clear works) on top of the white paper you’ve pulled out.  This plastic sheet will actually reflect the light hitting the background, and once you get things adjusted right, will seamlessly blend into the background.

The tough spot with all of that is the back edge of the plexiglass; you’ll sometimes get a shadow there, which appears as a dark line going across the picture.  You can adjust the background lights a bit to compensate for this – try pointing them down a bit more.  Or…you can use a platform.

I usually use a platform that’s about 10 inches high.  I cover the platform with white seamless paper, and then put the plexiglass on top of it.  The model stands on top of all of this.  Once you do this, you effectively hide the part of the background that is most difficult to light (the part on the floor), and the plexiglass foreground reflects the background light…with no seam.

Note in the lighting diagram above I’m not showing the fill – just a main light and two background lights, with the platform.  (Many thanks to Kevin Kertz for the lighting diagram template!)

Light modifiers

Posted in lighting on January 2nd, 2007 by gregr

This is pretty cool…the Broncolor web site shows a head-to-head comparison between different light modifiers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people ask about this, so I have to blog it so I don’t forget the URL!

I wish they included the huge parabolic umbrella reflectors they have in the comparison, which I’d love to try out, but hey – you can’t have everything.

[via Strobist]

Simulated candlelight

Posted in lighting, strobe on December 21st, 2006 by gregr

On one of the forums I hang out on, there was a post asking for advice about how to take a candle-lit portrait of several children all at once. One of the responses linked to this site, which says:

If you mix outside light sources, be they tungsten bulbs or strobes with amber gels, you will lose the legitimacy of the scene. An image like this tends to look more set up and fake when you deviate from your original idea.

The problem was, though, that there are three children – and they’re just not going to stay still long enough to get a really long exposure. So I got to thinking, I bet you could do this with strobes…and the fact that the other site said that’ll never work appealed to my sense of adventure. :-)

As you may know, Denver is pretty much shut down, and we’re all snowed in…so I had limited resources for this. No one else is here, nor could they get here, so my mannequin head (which I call “Angelina” :-) was going to have to suffice. And I could only find one place in my house I could get things completely dark during the day today, and that was a bathroom. So forgive the primitive arrangements!

I first photographed the scene using candlelight only – this is what I got:

Nice and moody, pretty much what I was going for. This was shot at ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/4 sec, from a tripod. Any movement (subject or camera) whatsoever would blur the entire image.

Next it was time to try to simulate this with a strobe. I measured the candlelight to be somewhere around 2100K; a strobe with a full CTO gel is the closest I could get to that, in the neighborhood of 2800K, so that’s what I used.

I used a single strobe, using a 10 degree grid and the CTO gel, and positioned it so it would hit the face at roughly the same angle as the candlelight. Here’s a shot of the setup (like I said, primitive I know!):

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the strobe further away from the subject, and I was on minimum power…so I was shooting at f/22. This required a 1/4 sec exposure to bring in the flame sufficiently; the difference, though, is that only the flame is being exposed for that 1/4 second. The subject is only illuminated with the strobe, for a very short duration – which means that if the subject is moving around, like those kids are inevitably going to, you’re still going to be fine.

In the end, this was the final result:

It’s close, in mood, to the candle-lit shot, although not perfect. Getting the strobe a little further away, or dialing down the power, would allow a faster shutter speed and/or showing more ambient light at the top of the candle from the flame. Generally, though, this is close – the light is falling off in generally the same pattern, color temperature looks roughly the same.

So don’t get me wrong…ambient light is great, and strobes aren’t for every shot. But in this case, where difficult subjects might be involved, using strobe could make the difference between taking home a good shot, and sifting through lots of “ok” shots looking for one that’s acceptable.

White Lightning X1600 mini-review

Posted in lighting, products, review, strobe on December 19th, 2006 by gregr

Ah, my first studio strobes – the White Lightning X1600’s. I remember them fondly…unpacking them, the first test firings, and the first actual shoot I did with them. And I also remember selling them. So before I forget what I liked and disliked, let me write it down here, in the hopes it helps someone.

First, what I liked. The build quality was excellent – they feel like you could drop them and they’d probably still work. I also liked the 1/4 power mode – effectively giving you a 660 ws strobe with a 7-stop range; very nice.

Other plusses are the 250W modeling lamps (nice – only a few manufacturers ship more powerful ones), and the relatively quick (for the price) flash durations.

Here’s a list of what I didn’t like about them, though:

  • The little fingers that hold accessories on the end (such as speedrings) aren’t confidence-inspiring. If I was hanging a 7-foot octadome on the end of one of these strobes, especially on the end of a boom where I’m adjusting angles on the fly and such, I’d be pretty nervous that the whole thing might come crashing down. Now, I get that there are other ways to mount heavy accessories without having them hanging off the mount on the strobe, but I’d rather not have to worry about it.
  • There’s no ready-beep. This sounds stupid, but it was a deal-killer. When the strobes are fully recycled and ready to fire again, there is a little light on the back panel that goes on…but unless you’re looking at the light, that doesn’t do any good. Just a little beep is all I ask! This is especially important if your style of shooting is pretty quick – for me, this comes up in fashion shoots.
  • They will fire when partially charged. This compounds the ready-beep problem. Since there is no audible ready indicator, you have to just wait until you think the strobe is probably recycled (a second or two maybe), and then shoot again. But if you fire too soon, the strobe will still flash – just not at full power. So you get a random amount of power – not a good situation if you’re shooting where every shot counts. I’d rather they not fire at all until they are charged and ready.
  • I don’t like the slider power controls. Say you’re using several strobes, and you want to take one of them down 0.5 stops. You slide the slider thing a bit, so it looks like 0.5 stops…but you’re never sure. If you have two strobes, and you want them both down 0.5 stops, and you and your assistant each adjust one of them, it’s almost certain you’re not going to move them the same amount…so out comes the meter. IMHO, digital controls are much easier to manage.
  • Power consistency on the lower end was iffy. On several occasions, I noticed that when shooting at low power settings, the shot-to-shot power difference would vary by perhaps 0.3 to 0.4 stops. I hesitate to mention this, because this was anecdotal, and I wanted to do a bit more analysis, but I never did do that…so I mention it here in case someone else has run into this.

All in all, the WL1600’s were bulletproof and completely reliable, and I still recommend them to some folks…but the negatives I listed above eventually became show-stoppers for me and the way I shoot, and I ended up selling them and buying different lights of another brand. More on that here.