Strobes, Umbrellas, Beauty Dishes, Etc.

Confession; I have way more lighting do-dads than anyone should. I probably have more lights as well. I took a well deserved break from real work at the end of last week and travelled up north to the Providence RI area. No real agenda from a picture making point of view, just make a couple of pictures here and there as the opportunity arose. You can probably guess by the title that I took some strobe equipment with me.

You might also guess that I took my Elinchrom ELB with me. Well I didn't, instead I took the Profoto B2 kit. What??? Yep and here's why for this particular trip and why I own more lighting crap than anyone should.

  • I knew there were no large modifiers around where I was staying (a photographer friend that doesn't use large modifiers) So umbrella it is, they're easy to transport, setup, and break down. I took a 6 footer.
  • The B2 one light kit is a bit smaller physically which I was already taking a bunch of stuff.
  • I hate the umbrella adaptor on the ELB. I've broken two of the plastic "standard" umbrella shaft holders on the Elinchrom adaptor so far.
  • I also took a portable beauty dish. I have that for the Profoto and the ELB so umbrella + beauty dish = Profoto.
  • Oh, I didn't need a lot of power or a lot of unplugged time so the Profoto B2 won the day.

You can probably guess I'm a bit stupid about what most people would consider minor nits when it comes to lighting gear. You're right. We all have those little things that bug us beyond reason. Mine happen to be shitty, fiddly, lighting gear and grip. Radios have to work, as in always always always. Stands and mounts have to be easy and solid. Mounting of modifiers etc has to be accomplished with as few parts and adaptors as possible, etc.

The Setups

Very Large Silver Umbrella

Moving on to the setups, I figured I'd answer two questions I got via Instagram regarding how two shots I posted were lit. Let's take the shot at the top first…

  • A 6 foot cheapo (but quite well made) umbrella with a silver interior I bought for about $100 on Amazon. I honestly forget what brand.
  • Positioning was directly to camera right and directly above Marianna pointing down. So imagine a bit less than half of the umbrella hanging over M. A boom would have allowed me to get it more directly over M. but I took a very simple/small stand that folds down to less than 2 feet. I pulled the stand ever so slightly forward after my test shot so that it lit a bit more in front of her. I'd say maybe a foot forward of directly on center above.
  • Height which is very important was in the neighborhood of 3 feet above M.'s hair.
  • Power was a little less than half on the Profoto B2
  • Shot with the XT-1 1/180th ISO 400 f/8

I love overhead stuff like this, don't know why but I do. The movement of the whole mess slightly forward gave me a smidgen of light from the front to bring up the forward facing parts of M. slightly above black. So why silver umbrella's. Good question. I find them far more controllable than your typical white (or shoot-thru which have pretty much no control of keeping light off anything). The deeper they are the more control as well. For a $100 cheapo this one was quite deep. Not as deep as my Profoto Umbrella deep XL but not way different.

Take a look at the background in the photo above. that's a white wall about 6 to 8 feet away. White walls are extremely difficult to get that dark if there's any spill even with the light only 3 feet above M. You can clearly see the gradient from the top to the bottom of the background. That's decent control even for a non-grided box that's very good. Take a look below for a setup that was pointing the umbrella with a diffuser sock on it at M. from camera right to see what I mean. I had to point the umbrella with that white diffuser almost parallel to keep as much light off the background as possible. That's more or less like a white umbrella in terms of spread.

The other, other thing about silver umbrellas is that one way or another they can be focused a whole lot more than white. In other words silver umbrella's tend to have a pronounced hot spot in the middle of the light they cast that can be tuned by sliding the strobe up and down the shaft. This can be a bad thing if you don't know where you are putting that hot spot. It can be a good thing if you want a bit of gradation on the scene for things at equal distances. Oh yea, you can put a sock/diffuser on the front and it's a whole lot like a white umbrella or an octabank without the internal baffle. Give me versatility any day of the week when I have to lug stuff around.

24 Inch Beauty Dish

Wide

I only took three or four frames with the beauty dish on this particular occasion messing around with M. It was getting late, we were hungry and I didn't feel like figuring out where I could make the pictures I wanted. That futon with the spread flopped over it was just too soft to get any good shapes going so above is my exposure test with M. just lying on her back (not what I wanted). We called it quits after that but I kind of liked this shot except for that black arm on the lower right.

  • Beauty dish bout 4 feet to camera right and 3 feet above M. Pretty far away for a beauty dish but you can see it produces the typical dish shadow edges and a bit of specularity as well.
  • A lot less power to get the same exposure specs as the shots above.
  • At that distance theres still about a stop falloff between the closest and farthest parts of M. Just about what I was going for.

Here's the thing. If you're not used to bringing your own light to the table it may seem a bit odd to you that a 24" modifier makes a bight, high key picture where a six foot modifier is making a dark low-key picture. Well you can make as many shadows as you want on the subject or as few. You can also choose to light up the stuff around/behind your subject or not. I just happened to use a harder more specular source for the higher key shot and a larger softer source for the lower key shots. That's what I was talking about when discussing controllability of large umbrellas and why I tend to like silver a bit better for most things, unless I do want to put light everywhere.

Where you point the light and position it relative to the subject is really really important. Just to drive a point home, below is a quick shot I made with that big umbrella and the white diffuser on the front just positioned differently and a bit farther away than the black and white shots above.

Wide

It's kind of infinite what you can do with one light and a few modifier's if you pick the right ones. Realize that the couple of frames here are with no additional reflectors, no assistants, and absolutely zero ambient fill. With some ambient indoors or out you really have two lights as long as you are flexible with the ISO in some cases. Here's my own set of recommendations for traveling really light and having a crazy amount of versatility.

  • A small but powerful light. For me speedlights don't cut it but better than nothing. There are a bunch of solutions out there now that will give you 250, 500, or even more W/s and are battery powered and pretty darn portable.
  • A regular old reflector. The Profoto's have one built in that's plenty fine.
  • A set of grids for use with the above.
  • A small (24 inches or so), light, easy to setup octabox. I prefer a beauty dish type setup myself because I can use it with or without a front diffuser with very different effect. You can do the same with a plain old octa but most don't have an opaque shield.
  • A very large silver umbrella with a diffusion sock you can put on it.
  • The smallest stand you can get away with that will support your gear in a stable way. Typically you'll max out at 6 feet but if there's anyone around you can have them hold it higher or even directly in front and over like a boom.

That sounds like a lot but that entire kit for me fits in a bag that about 10" x 10" x 14" with the exception of the umbrella. The stand is about 14" and straps to the side of that bag.

End Notes

All pictures made with the Fuji XT-1 and 18-55mm XF. Kind of a habit when I'm shooting with flash. Processing via Lightroom CC and some B/W preset of mine with a bit of fake grain. Same with the color, a bit of fake grain and a preset that skews the color a bit one way or another similar to the Fuji ProNeg Hi setting in camera.