In this 13 minute video, I talk about three different reasons to modify Speedlites:

  • Increase the apparent size to create soft light
  • Limit the direction of the light to guide the viewer’s eye
  • Change the color of the flash to blend it in with another light source or to make it stand out for creative effect

I also put my favorite Speedlite modifiers into action in a series of headshots of my favorite mensch and fellow Peachpit author Gabriel Biderman— author of Night Photography: From Snapshots To Great Shots. To see a kit with the small mods and gels that I used click here. Also, here’s the link to the Impact Quickbox that I used in the video.

Thanks to all my friends at B&H Photo for making this video possible.

Thomas Wingate Eaves Movie Ranch

Fig. 1—Thomas and Jesse James in the saloon at Eaves Movie Ranch south of Santa Fe. Click through for a high-res version. 1/80″, f/8, ISO 800. Canon 5D Mark III, 24–105mm F/4L IS.

While teaching my ‘Crafting Dramatic Light’ workshop in Santa Fe last week, I had the good fortune to return to Eaves Movie Ranch with my class. Built in the 1960s for the filming of ‘The Cheyenne Social Club‘ (starring Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones), Eaves continues to operate as a town-sized set for western movies and TV shows. Earlier this summer, ‘Jane Got A Gun‘—starring Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor—shot at Eaves.

If my photo above of Thomas Wingate, the head honcho at Eaves, looks familiar, it’s because Thomas has been photographed by every visitor to Eaves over many years. One of my favorite Thomas pix is this all-American shot by McNally—who introduced me to Thomas in 2008.

Shooting Speedlites In A Studio Softbox

Although I am known for my work with Speedlites, I shot large strobes for a couple of decades before exploring the world of small flash. While I do not miss the weight of studio lights—especially the power packs—I do miss using the wide range of modifiers that I assembled over the years (most of which are still stored in my garage). For this shoot, I used the  LumoPro LP739 Double Flash Bracket to fire a pair of Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites into a Chimera softbox.

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Fig. 1 – This dramatic light for this shot was made by firing a gelled Speedlite through a louvered window blind.


Fig. 2 – Our set was a interior space with wood paneling and large windows. The sky outside was heavily overcast.

There are two keys to creating golden hour light with a Speedlite or strobe—gel your flash to create golden light and position it to create long, angled shadows. Both are easy to do with off-camera flash.

The first step—creating golden light—actually begins by underexposing the ambient light in the scene. As you can see below in the middle panel of Fig. 3, I pulled three stops of ambient light out by increasing my shutter speed two stops and closing the aperture down one stop. Pulling the ambient down to near black is critical. Essentially you are establishing the tone of the shadows that will fall between the slashes of golden light created by your flash.


Fig. 3 – This tryptic shows how I developed the lighting in three steps: (left) the ambient windowlight as metered by the camera, (middle) the ambient light after I dimmed it by three stops, and (right) the golden hour light I created with my gelled Speedlite. Click to see a high-res version.

My go-to gel for creating golden hour light is the CTO (Color Temperature Orange). CTO comes in several densities–called “cuts.” For this shoot, I gelled with a full-cut of CTO. When I’m trying to blend in fill-flash at sunset with real golden hour light, I’ll start with a half-cut of CTO and then change to a full-cut as the sun drops to the horizon. If you want to warm up your general flash shots just a bit without making it obvious, try a quarter- or eighth-cut CTO.

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Left: Windowlight. Right: Windowlight + fill flash from a 60: white umbrella. Click the photo to see a high-res version.

Rocky Mountain School of Photography is hosting me this week as the instructor of their summer Flash Photography workshop (info here). We’ve been shooting for the past two days in Missoula’s old Macy’s department store. The space is a photographer’s dream come true: two floors, high ceilings, huge windows, and walls covered with a wide array of colors and textures collected through the decades.

As beautiful as windowlight is, windowlight by itself is not always beauty light. Compare the two photos above. The shot on the left is windowlight alone. The shot on the right is windowlight plus fill flash from a 60″ white umbrella. Can you see how the addition of the fill flash conceals facial shadows and smooths the skin?

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I just finished my first year as the full-time art+photography teacher at Mission Prep here in San Luis Obispo. Many would think, after nine months of wrangling teens, that it’s time for me to take a break. To the contrary, I’m busier now than I’ve been in a long while. Put another way, when it comes to summer jobs, I have many.

First up is the complete revision of my Speedliter’s Handbook–the second edition of which will be published next fall by Peachpit Press. In addition to the inclusion of the new radio-enabled 600EX-RT Speedlite system, I am updating all of my workflows and my gear recommendations based on the insights I’ve gained since the original Handbook was published four years ago. You can bet that I’ll be beta-testing a lot of the new content as posts here on PixSylated. Grab a free email subscription if you want to keep up with with these posts.

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Fig. 1–Shot during the Peter Read Miller Sports Photography Workshop in Denver. A pair of Speedlites working in high-speed sync provide essential fill flash for these fast-action cycling shots. Canon 5D Mk III, 17-40mm F/4L at 17mm, 1/500″, f/8, ISO 100. Two 600EX-RT Speedlites triggered by ST-E3-RT Transmitter.

High-speed action in broad daylight requires high-speed fill flash.  High-speed in this case means two things: the fast shutter speeds enabled by Speedlites in high-speed sync AND speeding up the flash recycling time by using an external power pack to recharge the Speedlites.

I’ve covered high-speed sync (HSS) many times on PixSylated. [For an introduction to HSS, check out this Simple Truths article.] The short version is that HSS changes the way the Speedlite fires. HSS enables the use of shutter speeds faster than the camera’s sync speed—1/250″ on most DSLRs.

The downside to HSS is that turning the Speedlite into a near-continuous light source (even for a fraction of a second) consumes a bunch of power. My tests have shown that HSS consumes 2.5 stops of light—which is the equivalent of turning a Speedlite’s maximum output from full-power down to 1/6 power. For fill flash, this power loss is not a big issue. It’s only when you are shooting day-for-night that you need to overcome the HSS hit by using an arsenal of Speedlites (like I did here).

Continue reading », my question and answer blog officially launched over the holiday weekend. You can check out the list of inaugural topics below. If you see a resemblance between the HeySyl logo and the PixSylated logo, it is no coincidence. I created as a repository of answers to reader questions. will continue to present original content and resources that I find valuable.

If you would like to get the new HeySyl Q&A posts delivered by email, grab a free subscription here. If you already subscribe to PixSylated and you want the new Q&A delivered as well, you will need update your subscription preferences.

Click here to submit a question to HeySyl.

HeySyl’s First Questions—A Baker’s Dozen

1. New Edition of Speedliter’s Handbook & 600EX-RT System

2. Preventing Light Spill From A Beauty Dish

3. High-Speed Sync With 7D

4. PocketWizard FlexTT5 Still A Viable Option?

5. Better Ways To Learn Speedliting

6. Lighting Mixed Skin Tones

7. Event Photography & ETTL Flash

8. Beauty Dish For Speedlites

9. New Speedliter’s Handbook & Nikonians

10. 600EX-RT Speedlite Not Communicating With ST-E3-RT Transmitter

11. Speedlite Fires Intermittently on PocketWizard Cord

12. Yongnuo Flash Quality

13. Speedliting a Crawling Grandchild

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We photographers add loads of tension to our lives. We work so hard to perfect our craft, but continue to think that we are not good enough yet. We stress over not having the right gear. We find all kinds of reasons to not shoot and to not share our photos.

Most of us, who are serious about creating great images, remember a time when making photographs was fun, spontaneous, and easy. Yet, we get all tangled up and photography becomes a stressor rather than a release.

I wrote years ago that I take mental photos all the time (LIDLIPS #36 here). I’d see something interesting and say “Snap.” Now, I reach for my iPhone and take that snap. I try to do this at least once a day–stop my life for a moment and make a photo for the joy of making the photo.

These pix don’t have to relate to anything. They are not part of a series. Many of them are not even “good.” That does not matter. What does matter is that when I’m inspired by or drawn to something I see, I stop and shoot. It’s so easy to decide not to shoot for a million reasons. It’s so easy to decide to shoot as well.

I’ve been posting these snaps on Instagram for the past six weeks. I avoided the Instagram craze for a long time. Now, I find it’s a convenient way to stay connected to the playfullness that brought me into photography way back when.

Syl Arena on Instagram.

Natural light photographers often advocate placing your subject in open shade. When compared to the harsh shadows of midday sun, the benefit of open shade is that the shadows are very soft because the light comes at your subject from a wide range of angles across the dome of the sky. The downside to open shade is that the low contrast of the light (the difference between the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows) creates an image that lacks texture and depth. Fortunately, a single Speedlite can add a lot of magic to the shot.

Fig. 1 -- Ambient light only.

Fig. 1 — Ambient light only (open shade on the north side of a cliff).


Fig. 2–Ambient + Flash, the same exact exposure with the addition of a Speedlite at camera right.

 Shadows reveal depth and texture. Compare the two shots above. Figure 1 was shot in the open shade on the north side of a cliff. Figure 2 is the same exposure with the addition of a Speedlite set very close to the rock wall and zoomed very tight.  The pop of flash is the only difference between the two shots. Note how the shadows of the rock in Figure 2 allow you to see the texture of the surface. (See this article for more insight on using Zoom as a creative tool.)

Shadows also create a sense of time. Note also how the angles of the shadows in Figure 2 suggest that the sun is low in the sky. We know instinctively that long, raking shadows mean the sun is close to the horizon. Since there are no well-defined shadows in the Ambient-only shot, there is no sense of time.

Color also plays a key role in perceiving the time of day. When the sun is near the horizon, our atmosphere warms the light. In contrast, open shade is very cool (bluish) because the rays of sunlight literally bounce off the dome of the sky on their way to the subject. You can see the cool cast of open shade in Figs. 3 and 4, below. Both images were made with my camera’s white balance set to Daylight.


Fig. 3–The original Flash+Ambient capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

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Fig. 4 — The original Ambient-only capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

To mimic the effect of late afternoon sun, I shifted the Color Temperature slider (Fig. 5) in Lightroom from the camera’s white balance setting of 5200K to 9500K. Compare Figure 3 to Figure 2  and Figure 4 to Figure 1 to see the effect of this color shift.

Flat Light Ambient Capture

Fig. 5 — The Basic settings panel in Ligthroom’s Develop module.

Are you wondering why I did not use a CTO (amber-colored) gel on my Speedlite to shift the color of the flash? If I had, then there would be an unnatural difference between the cool ambient light and my flash. Without the CTO gel, I was able to lift the ambient and flash together with a simple move of the Color Temperature slider.

So, how big of a difference can one Speedlite make? Figure 6 below is my best effort in Lightroom at optimizing the Ambient-only shot to match the overall luminance of the Ambient+Flash shot. I’ve dropped Figure 2, the Ambient+Flash shot, back in below so that you can make a close comparison. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the differences as a comment.

Fig. 5 -- Ambient light corrected to maximize luminance.

Fig. 6 — Ambient-only (Fig. 1) optimized in Lightroom so that luminance is similar to Ambient+Flash shot.


Fig. 2 (again) — Ambient + Flash, with white balance shifted in Lightroom.

 These shots were made as part of a demo that I did recently at Peter Read Miller’s sports photography workshop in Denver. For more information on Peter’s workshops, click here.


Learning to mix Speedlites and small strobes on location: “Crafting Dramatic Light With Small Strobes”—Santa Fe Workshops

Is a week-long summer photography workshop right for you? It depends upon whether you want to invest a week shooting and lighting or spend a week lounging around the pool. I love the workshop-way of teaching photography—collaborative, hands-on, and fun. If you are looking to take your understanding of lighting to a higher level, then I hope that you will join me for one of my week-long workshops this summer.


Rocky Mountain Workshops

Flash Photography

Missoula, Montana • June 14–20, 2014


Rocky Mountain School of Photography runs a wide range of great photo courses in beautiful Missoula, Montana and at locations across the country. My Flash Photography workshop will replace fear about lighting with understanding and empowerment. We will start with the basics and build daily so that you can make informed decisions about how to shoot with flash in a wide-range of situations. The workshop includes location shoots both indoors and out. Workshop information.


Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

Crafting Dramatic Light With Small Strobes

Santa Fe, New Mexico • July 6–13, 2014


This will be my third summer teaching in Santa Fe. The workshop is open to shooters of all brands of gear. We learn to manage the ambient light with our camera settings and then to shape light and shadow with electronic flash. The emphasis is on crafting dramatic light—light the way you want it to be. We use hotshoe flash as well as lightweight, battery-pack strobes, plus an arsenal of modifiers, to shoot on a variety of locations around Santa Fe. Note: if you are a Nikonian, as a Nikon-sponsored school, SFPW has Nikon gear available for use by students. Workshop information.


Maine Media Workshops

Canon Speedlites Demystified

Rockport, Maine • August 24–30, 2014


If you are a Canonista who wants to learn to shoot flash, this is the workshop for you. Unlike my other workshops, which are non-denominational, Canon Speedlites Demystified focuses on crafting great light with Canon Speedlites. We will start with one Speedlite and build our way to using multiple Speedlites—including the new, radio-enabled 600EX-RT system. As a Canon-sponsored school, Maine Media has Canon gear available for student use. This will be my fourth summer returning to Maine’s beautiful central coast…maybe it’s the Friday-night lobster feed. Workshop page.


Questions? Feel free to submit them as a comment.