Sunday, February 7, 2010

Creating soft and even lighting

In a perfect world, you would set your flash on it's stand, click the button, and soft even light would cover your subject in all it's glory.  No accessories needed.

We don't live in that world...
Image captured with no modification for a harsh, edgy look

Flash accessories will make your photography look more professional.  There are times when you don't necessarily need to use them, but most images could be drastically improved through the use of flash modification.

Here's the truth most people do not understand about creating a softer light:
Simply diffusing the light source does nothing more than spread and scatter the light wider.  The source of light is still very small compared to the size of most subjects, and therefore the light will look harsh.

To truly create a softer light, you must enlarge the source.  Not only that, but you must have your enlarged light source closer to your subject.  Let's think about the sun for a minute.  It's the largest light source known to man (I'm sure there are bigger suns out there, but don't catch me on this technicality).  Yet the sun still casts the earth in a very harsh light.  This is because it is so far away from the Earth.  If we were much closer to the sun, it would then cast a soft, even light over everything.

Larger sources closer to the subject will wrap the light and spread it evenly around.  If you take a large softbox, say 5x6 feet, and place it 50 feet away from your subject, it will make almost no difference in the light quality, much like the sun.  Move that same softbox to within 10 feet of your subject, and the light will improve dramatically.  If your strobes have modeling lamps, you can actually witness the change in light.
Captured using 1 Alienbee with 30"x40" softbox up front,  harsh edge lighting 
created with 2nd alienbee B1600 behind the wall with no modification.

So what's the lesson here?  Enlarge the source, keep it close to the subject, and you now have soft even light.   That's why products on the market that do not enlarge the source cannot create a softer light, unless it relies on bounce.

Bounce devices cause the light to reflect off a nearby wall or ceiling.  If the wall or ceiling is too far away, the light will suffer from a loss of power and will not be able to light the subject well enough.  Bounce modifiers that do not enlarge the light source as well, are USELESS outdoors.  Bounce will work very well if the wall or ceiling is close to the camera, and is painted white.  Black paint will just absorb the light so don't bother trying to bounce off a black wall or ceiling.  Bounce modifiers work by enlarging the source.  When the light reaches the ceiling it has spread out more, and the ceiling becomes your enlarged source.

It never ceases to amaze me when "professional" photographers are aiming their flash at the sky.  Where do they think the light is going?  Maybe they hope it will bounce off a cloud.....

There are literally thousands of products available on the market.  Many of them work as a bounce device, or an enlarged source.  Some products both enlarge the source and bounce the light which allow you to shoot indoors or outdoors with softer light.  An example of this type of product is the LumiQuest Quik Bounce.  You can view it on their website, and learn how it works by watching their tutorial videos.

This knowledge should help you choose the right gear.  I'm not going to lie and say that I am not biased towards a few companies/products, because everyone is biased towards what they regularly use...

Here are the companies that create flash products I use and firmly believe in:

-LumiQuest: These products are for use with your hot-shoe flashes and are not made for large studio-style strobes.  My favorites are the Quik Bounce for event/wedding style work, softbox 3 and Big Bounce for portable studio applications, snoot for selective lighting, and FXtra for matching existing light or various effects.

-AlienBees:  They offer very affordable large softboxes, umbrella systems, beauty dishes, and a very popular device called the Moon Unit.  Check out the new PLM system that offers a MASSIVE 84" umbrella!

-Impact:  I use their 60" shoot-thru umbrellas, but they also offer a ton of different products at great prices.

Armed with this knowledge, you can now look at a product and determine how it works.  If it say's it creates soft light, but does not seem to enlarge or bounce the source, don't believe it!

Certain devices are made for specific reasons, and it is not always feasible to use a 60" umbrella or a full-size softbox.  This is why there are products available that are more compact, and maybe don't enlarge the light quite as much.  With these products, the idea is that it is more important to be able to easily and quickly use/travel with the device.  When using a smaller product, get it as close as you can to the subject to create beautiful and soft light.  Getting your flash off the camera will make this a simple feat to accomplish.

Created with 2 LumiQuest SoftBox III's on Nikon SB-800 flashes, one about 3 feet to the right of the athlete, and the other on the ground about 3 feet to the left and aimed up.  A 3rd SB-800 with blue gel on LumiQuest FXtra kit is lighting the wall behind.

To learn more about off-camera flash, and light modifications, check out the Strobist website.

That's the BUZZ for today!!  Please check back soon for more.


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