To create dramatic light with Speedlites, you need to think about two things: where you put your flash(es) and how you control the ambient light. If you move your Speedlite to the side, then you’ll be creating shadows for the camera. Think of shadows as being the way you reveal shape and depth in a two-dimensional photo. If you use a fast shutter speed, then you’ll dim the ambient light — which increases the effect / drama of the light created by your Speedlites. Compare the shot above to the shot below and you’ll see what I mean.
This past weekend, I held my Speedliter’s Intensive in the studio of the Seattle Photography Associates. SPA is the hub of a community of photographers, models, and other creatives. The gang at SPA arranged for two great models each day — which saved the attendees from being called out to model. So, as a gesture of thanks to the models, after each half-day demo session ended, I spent about 20 minutes working one-on-one with the model rather than one-plus-thirty-five-on-one with the model.
I want you to meet two of my friends: Nyema Clark, who models through SPA, and Westcott’s 28″ (70cm) Apollo Softbox. The Apollo is unique in that it creates beautiful light with anywhere from one to four Speedlites mounted inside the softbox. For this quick tour round the SPA studio, I mounted three Speedlites inside the Apollo on a Lastolite TriFlash (details below). Then Nyema and I made a quick tour around the studio and hit several of the sets / random objects here and there. All of these shots were made in 20 minutes.
Again, one of the keys to creating magic light with flash is to control the ambient with your shutter speed. As you can see in the set shot above, one of the backgrounds was an old table tipped on end. By pushing the Apollo back towards the table, I was able to light both Nyema and the background with my Speedlites. It took a few frames to place Nyema in just the right spot — but that’s the joy of digital, you get instant feedback.
Normally, I use the Apollo with the white diffuser panel in place. On a whim, I pulled the diffuser and moved the Apollo right above my head. By right above, I mean that the lens was pushing up on the bottom of the softbox. You can see it in the catchlight detail below. So, Bang! Pull the diffuser and you have a quasi beauty dish in 15 seconds. Such lovely light.
Remember, it’s always what’s in the frame that matters. When a photograph works, your viewer does not wonder what is just outside the frame. Take advantage of this whenever you can. For instance, the viewer does not need to know that there’s a big softbox, a sheet of steel, and a couple of grates all crammed together. This shot was made literally two steps from the shots shown just above.
The Westcott Apollo — A Great Softbox For Speedliting
I’m a guy who owns lots of softboxes. Lots and lots of softboxes. Why? If you increase the apparent size of your light source (which is what a softbox does) then you will get soft shadows. Also, if you push a large light source (aka: your softbox) in as close as you can to the edge of the frame, you’ll create a dramatic falloff of light. If your softbox has a recessed front (which I consider to be critical), then you’ll find that there’s an edge to your light that you can use creatively.
In contrast, the problem with umbrellas is that it’s difficult to control the edge of the light. The curved surface of an umbrella — particularly a shoot-through umbrella — throws light is a wide arc. So, when you are taking your first step beyond the umbrella, Westcott’s 28″ Apollo is a great softbox to buy. It’s affordable (relative to the cost of other softboxes), quick to set up (it opens like an umbrella), and creates great light.
When it comes to mounting several Speedlites inside of the Apollo, I use one of three mounts: the Lastolite TriFlash, the IDC Triple Threat, or Lightware’s Foursquare. How do I decide? It really just depends upon my mood. When starting with multiple flash, go with the TriFlash. It creates just a bit more falloff below — but you can get a similar look with the other mounts by positioning the Apollo higher on the subject (meaning that you blow light over the top of the subject so that it’s not seen in the photo).
If you have just a single Speedlite, don’t let that hold you back from using the Apollo. In fact, for a single Speedlite, you can mount the Apollo on a standard swivel adapter (aka: umbrella adapter) and lock the flash into a coldshoe. In case you’re wondering: an Apollo with one Speedlite is a full stop below an Apollo with two Speedlites and a stop-and-a-half below an Apollo with three Speedlites. You can often make up the difference by increasing your ISO by these amounts.
Now, here’s the big tip: if you mount a 580EX II on an extra-long E-TTL cord inside the Apollo, you can set it as the master and control the other Speedlites as slaves from the LCD monitor on the back of your camera. If you’re a Canonista and have a compatible camera, by “control” I mean every last thing — switch between E-TTL and Manual, control the power level, change the FEC, etc. [For the details on how to do all of this, read this article.]
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