By Syl Arena
Thanks to the automatic features built into Canon Speedlites, many photographers assume that they always have to accept the light as it flies from the flashgun. I prefer to take another view - a Speedlite is a light generator and I am free to modify the flash into the light that I want.
There are three reasons to modify a Speedlite:
- To make the Speedlite appear larger.
- To limit what the Speedlite illuminates.
- To change the colour of the Speedlite.
Make the Speedlite appear larger
A fundamental concept in lighting is that the apparent size of the light source is what determines the character of the shadows. If the source is large, then the light will hit the subject from multiple angles and the shadows will be soft. If the source is small, then the light will hit the subject from a single direction and the shadows will be hard and dark. The “largeness" of the light source is always relative to the size of the object or person it is lighting.
The sun is huge, yet its distance from the earth makes it a relatively small source in our sky. On a clear day, we have dark shadows with hard edges. When a layer of clouds floats in, the quality of the daylight changes because the clouds diffuse the sunlight. Essentially the clouds replace the sun as the light source and the rays of light come at us from multiple angles. Shadows cast to one side are filled by the light coming from that side, and vice versa. So, to create soft light with a flashgun, we have to make the Speedlite appear as if it is much larger than the subject.
By Syl Arena
Limit what the Speedlite illuminates
When shooting a portrait on location, I treat the ambient light separately from the light on my subject. If I want to emphasise my subject I will dim the background, by using a faster shutter speed, so that less ambient light is captured. Dimming the ambient light also means that I will have to light my subject. In doing so, it is essential that my flash doesn't light the background. Likewise, if I am using a Speedlite behind my subject as a rim light, it is important to flag (aka block) the flashgun so that it doesn't flare into the lens.
Change the colour of a Speedlite
Colour correction and dramatic effect are the two reasons to change the colour of a Speedlite. For instance, you may wish to blend your flash with a particular type of ambient light, such as a setting sun or candles on a dinner table. Consider that Speedlites are designed to have the look of noon sun. If you use a Speedlite to create fill flash for a headshot at sunset, the flash will look unnaturally cool. The remedy is to change the colour of the Speedlite's flash with a Colour Temperature Orange (CTO) gel - either a half- or a full-cut. Likewise, you may wish to change the colour of the Speedlite for creative purposes so that it resembles the look of a neon sign, a street lamp, or any number of other types of light. Alternatively, you may wish to turn a monotonous background, such as a bare wall, into a dramatic field of colour by using a coloured gel.
A Speedlite's built-in modifiers
There are several features built into Canon's Speedlite 580EX and 430EX-series flashguns that can be used to modify the light.
A Speedlite's default setting activates auto zoom so that the position of the flash tube is changed to correspond with changes in the view of the lens (from 24mm to 105mm on the EOS 5D Mark II). I strongly prefer to zoom my Speedlite manually. For instance, I can zoom my Speedlite to 105mm so that the flash concentrates on my subject and misses the background behind. Alternatively, I can zoom the flash wide so that it will fully cover a large modifier, such as an umbrella or a softbox.
By Syl Arena
A simple way to create soft light when the Speedlite is mounted to the camera is to bounce the light off of a ceiling or wall. Conveniently the head of a 580EX-series Speedlite will rotate 180º to the right/left and the head of a 430EX-series Speedlite will rotate 180º left and 90º right. Also, the heads of each can be tilted upward 90º to vertical.
There is no rule that says the head of the Speedlite has to be oriented in the same manner as the camera's frame. Once you begin to use your Speedlite off-camera (as detailed in Part 2 of this series), you will be free to orient your Speedlite so that it matches the orientation of the person, or object, that you are trying to light. For instance, I routinely tip my Speedlite on its side so that the head aligns vertically with the person in front of my lens.
Modifiers that make a Speedlite appear larger
I will now examine the various modifier options - such as a dome diffuser, bounce reflector, diffuser/reflector disks, umbrellas and softboxes - that allow you to make a Speedlite appear larger.
A plastic dome diffuser, such as the Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce, slips over the head of the Speedlite. The thick white plastic alters the forward flight of the light and throws a good bit around the perimeter of the Speedlite. When used indoors, a dome diffuser will spread the flash around the room and soften the shadows. Outdoors a dome diffuser is less effective as there are no surfaces on which to bounce the flash.
By Syl Arena
The idea of bouncing flash off of a ceiling or wall is that the apparent size of the source increases and the shadows soften. There are many challenges to using this technique: the room must be relatively small, the interior must not be a dark colour, and the subject must not have deep-set eyes. The latter can be troublesome even in small spaces with light-coloured surfaces, as light coming steeply from above will create shadows in the eye sockets. A bounce reflector straps to the head of the Speedlite. Depending upon the design the reflector intercepts all, or some of, the light heading upward and redirects with back to a forward path. This is a very practical way to add light to the eyes.
My favourite bounce reflector is the large Rogue FlashBender (254x280mm). Uniquely, it has three flexible rods that enable me to shape the FlashBender for my needs. If I want most of the light to fly upward and just a bit to fly forward, I can create a small lip. If there is no ceiling, I can then tilt the entire FlashBender and fly all of the light forward. As you will read shortly, I'm also fond of using the FlashBender as a flag on the side of my Speedlite. Honl snoots can be used in a similar manner, but provide less control than the FlashBender. Lumiquest also makes many styles of bounce reflectors that are popular with many although, in my experience, I have found the light they produce not to be as soft as that of the FlashBender.
When taking the first steps with off-camera Speedliting, a 5-in-1 reflector set can be a very affordable and versatile modifier. The 5-in-1 is a round diffuser disk with a removable cover made of four fabrics. Typically the cover is black/white and, when turned inside out, silver/gold. Holding the diffuser disk close to the subject and firing the Speedlite through it can create soft light. Alternatively, the Speedlite can be fired into one of the reflective surfaces and bounced back to the subject.
By Syl Arena
An umbrella is an inexpensive modifier that is well suited for a novice photographer. There are two types: shoot-through and reflective. A shoot-through is made of translucent fabric and is positioned between the Speedlite and the subject. A reflective umbrella is made of a shiny or metallic fabric and is set-up with the Speedlite between the umbrella and the subject.
To connect a single Speedlite and umbrella to a light stand, you will need an umbrella adapter (which is also known as a swivel adapter). If you wish to shoot multiple Speedlites with an umbrella (which greatly reduces the flash recycle time between shots), consider using the Lastolite Tri-flash bracket instead of the standard umbrella adapter.
By Syl Arena
The greatest challenge with an umbrella is that its curved shape will throw light in a wide arc. This can make it difficult to keep the spill from an umbrella off of the background. If you are shooting indoors in a room with a low ceiling, this will be especially troublesome. Outdoors or in large spaces, the issue will be less apparent as the extra light will just fly away.
A convertible umbrella is a shoot-through umbrella with a removable cover. The idea is that with the opaque cover in place, it can be used as a reflective umbrella as well. Although I prefer to use a true reflective umbrella when I want the look of a reflective umbrella, all of my shoot-through umbrellas are convertible - this means I have the option of leaving the cover partially in place, thus I can prevent the light from hitting the background.
The advantage of a softbox in comparison to an umbrella is that the softbox increases the apparent size of the light source and provides a defined edge to the light. I prefer softboxes that have recessed front panels as the opaque lip gives me a more defined edge. Softboxes that have a flush front panel spray light in a wide path. The deeper the edges, the more control you can get with the softbox.
When stepping up from an umbrella to a softbox, I recommend the Westcott Apollo softbox (70cm) and the Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe (60cm). The Apollo allows you to mount the Speedlite(s) inside the softbox. By firing the Speedlite(s) towards the back of the softbox, the light bounces around inside before it flies through the front panel. The effect of this is beautiful, soft light.
The Ezybox mounts the Speedlite outside the box, at the rear, and flies the light straightforward through two diffusion panels. For either, you will need a way to trigger the off-camera Speedlite. My favourite method is to use an extra-long E-TTL extension cord so that I can control the functions of the Speedlite from the LCD monitor on my camera. Also, the Apollo is large enough to hold several Speedlites when mounted on Lastolite's Tri-flash. So, by using an extra-long E-TTL extension cord, I can set-up the corded Speedlite as the master and fire the other Speedlites as slaves.
For events when using a long extension cord wouldn't be feasible, I have an assistant carrying the Ezybox on an extension handle and turn the front of the Speedlite so that the slave sensor faces in my direction. If you do this type of shooting frequently a set of E-TTL radio triggers, such as the RadioPopper PXs or the Mini/Flex system by PocketWizard, will eliminate the need to maintain a line-of-sight connection.
By Syl Arena
Modifiers that limit the light of a Speedlite
There are many reasons to want to limit what a Speedlite illuminates. Virtually all of them have to do with the fact that a photograph generally looks better if you don't light everything in the frame equally. If you throw light at everything, then nothing will stand out. Conveniently, most modifiers that are designed to limit the path of a flash are lightweight and strap directly to a Speedlite.
A snoot is a tube that extends out from the flash head. The longer the snoot; the tighter the path of the light. HonlPhoto makes fabric snoots in both 13cm and 20cm lengths. While I haven't found the shorter snoot to be of much use, the longer snoots are very useful. I carry both the silver and the gold zebra versions. The large Rogue FlashBender also rolls into a convenient snoot.
Photographers who have worked in a studio may be familiar with the metal cone snoots made for larger strobes. There are several sellers of aluminium snoots that have a plastic bracket that holds the snoot to the head of the Speedlite. The advantage of the metal snoot is that it provides a very tight, perfectly round pattern of light.
By Syl Arena
Hexagonal grids are often used to limit the path of both flash and continuous lights. In a studio environment, grids are typically referred to by their angle of illumination - typically 40º, 30º, 20º, 10º and 5º. Grids marketed for Speedlites are often less precise and are referred to by the size of the hexagon rather than the spread of the light. HonlPhoto makes two durable grids for small flash units - the 1/4" and the 1/8". I find the latter to be very useful and always carry two of them on shoots. If you already have a set of round grids for studio lights, an easy way to use them with your Speedlites is to hold them in place with a pair of elastic cords.
By Syl Arena
When shooting location portraits, I often focus the flash on the subject and rely upon the ambient light to illuminate the background (use your shutter speed to control the amount of ambient light in the frame). If my subject is relatively close to the background, then I will be very mindful that the flashgun doesn't spray onto the background. Sometimes changing the position of the Speedlite, or the orientation of the head from horizontal to vertical, or zooming the head in, will solve the problem. At other times I will have to block the light as it flies out of the Speedlite. There are many options.
If you have a friend or assistant nearby, sometimes they can temporarily flag the light with their hand or an object, such as a book. The large Rogue FlashBender (mentioned earlier in this article) is my favourite flag. It straps directly to the head of the flashgun and can be shaped to provide a specific degree of control. If I don't need a large flag, then I reach for the bounce cards made by HonlPhoto. These stiff cards come in both black/white and black/gold that can be attached to a Speedlite via the Honl Speedstrap. Another use of a flag is to prevent a Speedlite that is behind the subject from flaring into the lens.
By Syl Arena
Using a pair of flags together on either the top/bottom or left/right sides of the Speedlite creates a set of what are known as 'Barndoors'. Barndoors limit the flash to a narrower slice of light than can be created by zooming the Speedlite to 105mm. In a small set barndoors can be used to prevent the flash from flaring into the lens and spilling onto the background. Barndoors can also be used creatively during a portrait shoot to create a 'slash' of light across the subject.
By Syl Arena
Modifiers that change the colour of a Speedlite
When shooting with a Speedlite, remember that there are two sources of light in your photograph - the ambient light (which you generally cannot control) and the flash (which you can control). You should consider whether you want your flash to blend, or contrast, with the ambient light. If your goal is to blend the flash in as fill light, don't assume that the light flying from the flashgun will be a perfect fit for every type of ambient light.
As mentioned much earlier in this article a Speedlite produces light that is very close to the colour of daylight - specifically noon sun. This is fine when you happen to be shooting in daylight conditions at midday. However, if you are shooting at sunset, or indoors under tungsten or fluorescent lights, then the colour of the flash from the Speedlite will not blend.
When using gels, a primary consideration is how you will affix the gels to your Speedlite. I prefer the Honl Speedstrap system in which a fuzzy Velcro strap (the Speedstrap) is attached to the flashgun and the gels have hooked strips along two edges. During the pressure of a shoot, especially when the sun is setting, I have only a split second to make a gel change. The Honl approach enables me to affix and remove gels faster than any other method. I've tried the other systems in which a small gel is slid into a sleeve and found that gel changes take far too long.
For colour correction, consider a set of Colour Temperature Orange (CTO) gels to be a 'must have'. When the ambient light is tungsten, I switch the white balance on my camera to tungsten and gel my Speedlites with a full-cut CTO. For fill flash at sunset, I keep my white balance in daylight and start with a half-cut CTO on the Speedlite. If the fill flash still looks too cool in relation to the very warm sunlight, I will quickly switch to a full-cut CTO.
Shooting Speedlites under fluorescent ambient light is a bit more challenging as the range of fluorescent bulbs today is so wide. Be prepared to try a few combinations of white balance and gelling on each location. In general, if the bulbs are “cool white" you can start with the camera in daylight white balance and leave the Speedlites ungelled. If the bulbs are “warm white", start with the camera in tungsten white balance and try a half-cut CTO on the flashgun.
If you find that the ambient light has a green tint, then switch the white balance to “warm fluorescent" and gel your Speedlites with Plus Green. Under all of these situations, you might find that you have to do a bit of green-magenta colour balancing in post. Fortunately Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, and Aperture make quick work of colour correction.
For dramatic effects, there are literally no boundaries. So that the camera isn't influenced by a wide swathe of colour switch the camera to 'flash' white balance. Then, if you want the look of a neon sign, pick a deep red gel. If you want to cool the scene down, pick a blue gel. For a bold portrait, gel your key light with a warm gel and your fill light with a cool gel. Anytime that you are working with gels for creative effect 'trial and error' will be your best guide.
In the fourth, and final, part of this series on 'Getting the most from Speedlites' I will be exploring advanced Speedlite strategies, customising your Speedlites, plus the potential use and benefits of Custom Functions.
Biography: Syl Arena
Photographer Syl Arena became fascinated with photography at the age of eight when an aunt gave him a Box Brownie camera. Syl later studied at the Brooks Institute of Photography, before earning a BFA in photography at the University of Arizona. Today Syl shoots the people, lifestyles and products of central California for advertising, editorial and corporate clients. He runs a regular blog, PixSylated.com, and in 2009 founded the Paso Robles Workshops. An expert in flash Syl’s latest book, ‘Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites’, will be published during December 2010.