11.15.2012

Super Light. Super Cheap.


Sometimes the blog lies fallow for a day or so and then it comes roaring back. Sometimes it's because I've stumbled into a sticky patch of good work and I've got my head down and working as fast as my little fingers will fly over the keyboard. Sometimes it's just sloth. For the last few days I've been getting back to my true photographic love, shooting portraits in my little studio. Just straightforward and happy portraits.

I'm a big believer in using large, soft, directional light sources to create portraits in my own style. I'm not a fan of hard lighting in most situations and I feel like hard light is always a bit cruel when used on anyone over 16. Softer light better mimics the light we see in nature. The kind of light that makes things beautiful. The kind of light that makes painters and photographers say, "Oh...the light is so beautiful..."

In the early part of my career I was obsessed with enormous softboxes. I always had a couple of 54 by 72 inch variants lurking around the studio. And they worked really well. But they take a while to set up and the speedrings always give me problems. I still have one in reserve. 

Then, after working on movie and television commercial sets, I started to light more and more with diffusion panels as my primary, large diffusion source. The light from a 72 by 72 inch panel with a couple layers of (faux) silk diffusion is beautiful but it also takes up a lot of space, takes a lot of time to set up and fine tune, and the light bouncing off the back side of the silk bounces everywhere and you end up with a next of black flags on your set in order to control contrast and kill the unwanted spill. Lots of flags means lots and lots of light stands. No problem on a big film set with lots of assistants but a basic pain in the butt for a one person studio.

All this led me to experiment more with one of the oldest and cheapest modifiers we photographers regularly use, the basic umbrella. For years my go to umbrellas have been the Photek Softlighter 2 60 inch umbrellas.  I have three and I love them. They come with a front diffuser that takes the softlight coming off the white interior fabric and making it even softer. For the most part 60 inches is pretty good, especially if you use the umbrella as close in to the subject as you can. The one downside, for me, of the Softlighters is that their metal spokes are delicate and sometimes the locking mechanisms fail. Two of my three, all less than three years old, are somewhat hobbled. One set of spokes is splinted with a pencil and wrapped with gaffer's tape. 

And, of course, no matter how big your light source is there is always the idea that it could be bigger...which means softer...which means a whole different look. At one point I bought an 80 inch Lastolite umbrella with integral front diffuser for nearly $200 but it's a mess to set up because it doesn't have a traditional shaft. It's more like a beach umbrella and it requires a messy combination of adapters to get it on a stand and get a monolight firing into it evenly. But when I take the time to use it the effect is nice.

With this in mind I often browse the bigger websites looking for something that brings all the good stuff together without any downsides. I found it in the Fotodiox 72 inch umbrella.  It's a 72 inch, white umbrella so even without using a diffuser it makes the light soft. The umbrella is backed with an opaque black back cover to kill unwanted spill. At about $79 it comes with its own white, translucent diffusion front cover and it's own packing sleeve.  The spokes are made from a sturdy fiberglas and the whole melange sets up quickly and easily.

I've been using it all week long and I've very happy with the results. I would post a few portrait images but everything I've been doing lately has been for paying clients and I won't use on of the images until they've made they're selections and approved my intention to use their likeness.

I did want to show you what the umbrella looks like so I shot the two images (above and below) and introduced myself into the frame for relative scale. I had been working with incredibly volatile images in the VSL safety lab so I still have my retina saving safety glasses on..... Some images are just too sharp for conventional use....we're trying to figure out how to weaponize them...(not really).


The image below is one of Amy that we made during the set up of a portrait project for the Kip Schools a few years ago. We used the huge Lastolite umbrella for that one. It was pretty cool. Heading downtown to see if Austin has been overrun but out of town Formula One guests yet. Hope everyone is having maximum fun. I think I am.







21 comments:

Kirk Tuck said...

Really, it's not ALL about lighting. It's about selecting the right subject and THEN it's all about the lighting.

GregRob said...

Love those glasses. Sometimes the accessories help make the subject.

Mitch Wojnarowicz said...

The second photo of you made me think about this video (Skip to 3:10) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sFK0-lcjGU

And I slightly disagree. Its all about saying, or thinking, the words "I Want ..." Then you find a subject, grab some lights ...

Jim said...

Love those welder's goggles. Is there a bundle option to get them with the umbrella? :-)

David Liang said...

I know the hair is different but I immediately though "DOC!" from Back to the Future when I saw the pics.

Alan Fairley said...

Kirk, how does the umbrella attach to whatever it attaches to? It looks like the usual shaft into channel in monolight/strobe head, is it? Thanks.

ginsbu said...

This doesn't seem much cheaper than the Buff PLMs. Do you have any experience with those? Any particular reason for favoring the fotodiox?

Looking forward to seeing the results!

Travis said...

Personally, I love the PLMs. I think if you're using a diffusion sock, an umbrella is pretty much an umbrella, as long as you deal with color temperature shifts. But I love using the PLMs with the Buff on-axis mount and no sock. That focused light is a look just not possible with regular umbrella mounting.

Kirk Tuck said...

Alan, it's a standard 8mm shaft. It doesn't fit in the central hole on my elinchrom monolight it does fit in the side mounted umbrella holder on the D-Lite 4 IT. Score one for Elinchrom for offering both.

Kirk Tuck said...

I don't have any direct experience with the PLMs. I've seen them. I am prejudiced against Buff accessories as they seem poorly constructed. I just tossed out one of their softboxes as it failed in several ways... So far the Fotodiox stuff I've ordered has been well constructed and well priced.

Kirk Tuck said...

What kind of color temp shifts are you experiencing?

Travis said...

I'm sure you've run into it - the typical Chinese umbrellas, especially the diffusion covers, can cool color temperature 500 or 1000 degrees. No big deal in the digital age if you're using all the same brand/batch, but a very big deal if you're mixing and matching.

I agree with your earlier comment that the Buff stuff isn't fantastic quality. On the other hand, a PLM is only $50-80, and mine have been holding up just fine. Plus the color temperature on the modifiers usually stays within a few hundred degrees. (Of course we know the color temp on Bees can be unstable below 1/8 power, so I just don't run them below 1/8 power. :) )

ben zafar said...

Hi Kirk. Thanks. Is this umbrella useable with a speedlight flash (i.e. Yongnuo 560, Nikon SB speedlights) or must i have a monolight in order to use it ? I am trying to experiment in lighting and recently purchased a yongnuo speedlight. thank you!

D&E Photography said...

I love the variety and quality of the Fotodiox products I've tried but wasn't aware of this one. It's either one of these or a pair of strip lights,

Kirk Tuck said...

Pretty much all umbrellas are useable with speedlight flashes. You just need a stand adapter that will hold the umbrella and also give you a shoe to mount the flash. You should be able to find one of these on the web for less than $15.

Craig said...

Kirk,

What are your thoughts of using a big (72") umbrella, diffusion sock, etc. with one of the Fotodiox LED panels, or am I better off continuing with a large diffusion panel? Room (studio) space is currently limited and I'm wondering if the umbrella with or without the diffusion sock would be any better?

Kirk Tuck said...

Hey Craig, where LED panels are concerned I think the diffusion panels are a better option since you'll get more power out of the light source. The umbrella eats up a couple stops and needs to be positioned further away from the subject. Another net power loss.

Dennis Elam said...

Kirk
I am going to shoot indoor video interviews and still shots, I have your LED book and it suggests using a 500 LED panel and diffusion screen, now you suggest the umbrella without specifying a light, which way should I go?

Dennis Elam

Kirk Tuck said...

The LED's work best with diffusion panels. You can choose different thicknesses of fabric eg: 1/2 stop, full stop, etc. to give you the amount of diffusion you need and you can use the panels closer in. The umbrellas are a great choice for flash.

Craig said...

Thanks for the reply, Kirk.

Chris said...

Did yours come with the front diffusion cover? When I look it up on Amazon, it says that it does. When I look it up on Fotodiox's website, it says it doesn't. Same price on both websites.