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Infobank

Flash: Studio-style flash lighting with Speedlites

Some EOS digital cameras are fitted with PC sockets and can be connected to studio flash equipment. However, studio-style photographs can be taken with all EOS cameras using Canon Speedlites.

The current Speedlites, the EX series, are powerful for their size. The top-of-the-range model, the 580EX II, is powerful enough to use with larger light modifiers, such as umbrellas or bigger softboxes, to create truly professional results.

The off-camera Speedlites can be triggered using the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2. This wireless system is not only convenient, but also very portable. You can set up a studio in any small space.

The garage studio

 

When shooting headshots for a portfolio, the setting and background is not usually important. These photographs were taken in an empty garage.

Speedlites alone will not give the soft lighting required, so a Speedlite 550EX was fired through a white umbrella to soften the shadows and spread the light more evenly.

A large piece of polystyrene board held by an assistant and acted as a reflector to fill-in the shadows, while a second Speedlite positioned on the floor behind the subject provided some backlighting to the hair.

A Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 was used to control both Speedlites wirelessly while still providing full E-TTL exposure metering. This allowed the photographer to concentrate on composing and taking the image rather than worrying about the lighting and exposure. It also kept the limited space free of cables allowing complete freedom of movement to shoot from a variety of different viewpoints.

On location

 

The great advantage of Speedlites as a studio light source is their small, portable size and the fact that they use batteries rather than relying on an external power source. This opens up a whole new range of locations that would normally be unavailable. These shots of a model were taken in just such a place – a small enclosed garden outhouse.

A Speedlite 550EX and Lastolite Ezybox were used for the main light, with a second 550EX placed on the floor behind the model to light the background.

Using a stand to hold up the softbox and another to hold a reflector, this looks every bit like an ordinary studio set-up, but it is on location!

The small size of the equipment and its portability means it is easy to move around and look for different shooting angles.

Party pictures

 

With portable equipment and no cables to trip over, it is quite simple to set up a small studio in the corner of a room at a party or wedding reception. Here, friends at a high school reunion are being photographed.

A 550EX Speedlite fitted to a Lastolite Ezybox provides simple studio quality soft lighting.

The friends hold the softbox and reflector in position, keeping them occupied and leaving the photographer to concentrate on taking the pictures.

Snoots and grids

A Speedlite flashgun has a whole range of settings and functions to make it the most versatile portable flashgun around. But sometimes you may want to modify the light output to create a more interesting effect.

If you have used a photographic studio, you will know that not all the lights use large reflectors or diffusers. Quite often there are some strangely named accessories that are used to modify the light for specific situations.

‘Grids’ and ‘snoots’ are two of the most common devices. With a little imagination, you can make similar accessories for your Speedlite.

The snoot effect

A snoot acts like a funnel for the light. Instead of the light spreading over a wide area, it is narrowed down to a beam of light a bit like a spotlight. It is used to highlight areas within the scene or to add a hairlight to the back of a head when shooting portraits. A snoot is usually circular and produces a very hard-edged light, where the difference between lit areas and shadow is very apparent.

Lighting with a grid

Grids are a lot like snoots, but the light they produce has a softer edge. In the studio they come in a range of strengths to produce different size spots, but for most Speedlite applications you’ll only need one. They are used like snoots, but the softer edges avoid heavy shadows and allow you to feather the light across the subject to provide a smooth transition from lit to unlit areas.

Using snoots and grids

Although you could use a home-made grid or snoot on your flash mounted to the camera, you really need to be able to position and direct the flashgun quite accurately. If it is on the camera, the range of movement is not enough to create the lighting effects you can produce with the flash off-camera. To take the flash off-camera, you can use either an Off-camera Shoe Cord that provides around 60cm of distance between the camera and flash, or the Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2. The ST-E2 is best as it gives complete freedom in placing the Speedlite for the best effect.

 

These are studio versions of a snoot (above) and a honeycomb grid (right).

Making a grid

To make a grid for your Speedlite, you need around 100 black straws and a Stofen diffuser. You can buy the straws from party shops. A Stofen diffuser is available from good photo retailers.

1 - Fit the diffuser to your Speedlite. Cut the front off it so that it acts as a holder.

2 - Tape the straws together tightly to make a bundle the same size and shape as the end of the Stofen holder. You can glue each straw to the next one to ensure that none falls out, but this takes much longer and makes little difference.

3 - Cut the straws to size. The longer the straws, the tighter the spot will be. A length of around two inches provides useful-sized spot with a soft edge for feathering, but you might want to start a bit longer and cut down to size as you require.

4 - Push the tight bundle of straws into the holder you made with the Stofen diffuser. Mount this onto the Speedlite.

This home-made grid of black straws in a plastic holder might look a little strange, but it can produce outstanding results.

This child holding a glass butterfly was first photographed using a bare Speedlite from the side (left and centre), which has given a broad band of light. Using a grid on the Speedlite has focused the light on the butterfly (right).

Making a snoot

The simplest way to make a snoot is with Funky Foam or black cardboard (available from craft shops). Both produce a simple, lightweight snoot that can be carried everywhere.

1 - Wrap a sheet of Funky Foam or black cardboard around the head of the flashgun.

2 - Secure the foam or card in place using a large elastic band or Velcro stuck onto the side of the flashgun. You can modify the size of the exit hole by wrapping the exit end of the snoot tighter, though this is easier to do with the foam than the card.

 

Here is our home-made snoot. It is made from black Funky Foam. The foam sheets are easy to shape, though you could use thin black card to similar effect.

Shooting this glass with a bare Speedlite gives a less than interesting picture (left). However, when you fit a snoot and shoot with the flash aimed down (right), the pattern within the glass comes to life.

Modelling pre-flash

With snoots and grids, you are dealing with a narrow beam of light, so making sure it is hitting the right point is very important. The depth-of-field preview button hides a little known function when used in conjunction with a compatible flashgun. With a flashgun attached to the camera or controlled wirelessly by an ST-E2, pressing the depth-of-field preview button will cause the flash to emit a short burst of rapid flashes. This will show you exactly where the light will fall in the image. Compatible flashguns are the Speedlites 420EX, 430EX, 550EX, 580EX, 580EX II, MR-14EX and MT-24EX.

Flash metering

EOS cameras have through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering. Any modifications you make to the Speedlite flash output will be allowed for by the metering system and you should continue to obtain well-exposed flash images. However, as with all photo techniques, the results you get might not always be the results you want. Don’t be disappointed if the first set of pictures is less than perfect. Experiment with the Speedlite grid and snoot accessories, examine the results, and decide if a little flash exposure compensation would improve the photographs.