Pro Flash Photography without the Pro Price Tag
Some photographers who insist on working only with natural light aren't making a stylistic choice: They're afraid of flash. As W. Eugene Smith said long ago, any kind of light is fair game. As a photographer, you should be open to every light source possible to create meaning and define details and shapes.
But it's true that flash (also known as speed lights) has never been easy. There are real issues when low light or very high contrast subjects force compromises with exposure. These circumstances often result in noise, blown highlights, featureless shadows, unwanted movement, or missing the shot entirely.
However, there's a new flash accessory that can help you learn to manipulate how light and shadow wrap around a subject to visually portray three dimensions. It will banish those blown out foregrounds and overly dark backgrounds that simply scream amateur. You can soften the quality of the flash and paint your subject with directional illumination.
Sound too good to be true? I certainly thought so when I encountered the Ultimate Light Box flash modifier from Harbor Digital Design. I've used many flash modifiers with pretty good results. I thought, "How different could yet another piece of plastic be?"
The ULB is all about you and what you want to do with flash. The full ULB kit includes an easy-to-attach molded collar for specific flash models; translucent and black boxes; cover; dome; color and diffusion filters; and black and white gobos. While it retails for $129.95, you can find it for around $105. You can use its many different parts separately or in any combination to fit your lighting style for the subject and circumstances at hand.
Why Modify Flash?
Managing light is what the photographer does. All modifiers diffuse and soften flash, the obvious first step toward better lighting of people and events. But most modifiers can only put out light that seems omni-directional or plain flat on to the subject.
When you use the Ultimate Light Box in bounce mode, you're not lighting all parts of the subject evenly, and that's a good thing. Directional light creates shadow areas, which is how our eyes recognizes dimension.
And because of the ULB's diffusion, shadows are never harsh or heavy. They're just enough to create a soft rounding of objects and faces. The ULB also works well when circumstances do call for flatter, broader light.
But enough telling. It's time to show.
The Proof Is in the Proofs
I compared the following flash modifiers to the Ultimate Light Box:
- Gary Fong Lightshpere II
- Gary Fong Whaletail Reporter
- Lumiquest Mini SoftBox
- Lumiquest Promax 80-20
- Pro Kit Flexi Bounce
Click here to learn more about each of those modifiers.
For the test, I photographed Gary Landeck, director of the Henry S. Hall Jr. Library at the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colorado. The shoot wasn't meant to be a perfect executive portrait on location, but a workmanlike, impromptu effort. A secondary object of the shoot was to show the striking craftsman design of the reception area and give a hint of the extent of the mountaineering collection and archives beyond. Gary is holding one of its century-old leather-bound treasures.
In the tests, Gary stood about six to seven feet from the camera; the room has a 10-foot ceiling plus a three-foot recessed ceiling dome. The paint is warm white with lots of wood. I exposed for the background, a rich, inviting environment. I shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and 16-35mm f2.8 zoom lens set to ISO 1000, 28mm, 80th sec., f3.5, auto WB, 580Mark II flash on camera, E-TTL flash exposure system, cable release, and Gitzo tripod. For all shots, I set the Canon 5D Mark II to +2/3 stop flash compensation; this is my usual setting for most conditions when using any modifier.
I didn't adjust the RAW capture other than to convert it in Photoshop to 5x7.5" 300PPI (Bicubic Sharper) sRGB (Perceptual rendering intent) JPEG for publication.
Because I made all of the test images at exactly the same settings, lighter and darker image density, as well as color tone and light directionality, show the relative output value and quality produced by the different devices.
Click on each image to see a larger version:
As you can see in the above examples, the foreground, especially ceiling and sign, were overlit and punchy with all modifiers except the Ultimate Light Box, used in my typical bounce method without the lid or cap. Overexposure on the subject vis-a-vis the environment results in unnaturally dark backgrounds, or demands serious postproduction to equalize the two. Wedding photographers face similar problems when posing groups in dark, barn-like churches that eat light.
The ULB had the added bonus of lower output (because of the bounce) that meshes very well with the exposure of the room as a whole. However, bouncing into the warm white wall gave a slightly yellower tone that I might partially neutralize in post. Bounced left, the flash melds most believably with the purposed existing light of the reception counter. Technique in this case makes all the difference in the world. Forcing flash to create directionality of illumination with the ULB results in three dimensions, fine shadows where you want them, and a very professional look -- as though you had lots of equipment and spent a lot of time on the project.
At this six- to seven-foot distance, the Lumiquest Mini SoftBox showed a hotspot, with uneven dispersion of light. The surprise performer was Flexi-Bounce, giving a more textural light than similar modifiers.
Worth the Price
The Ultimate Light Box is just that: the ultimate system. Even though it costs more initially, you get all the attachments you could possibly want included: both translucent and black boxes, dome, cover, color and softening filters, flags. You'd have to buy several other modifiers to get the features and flexibility of the ULB. And it comes with a virtually foolproof adapter that is custom fit to your specific flash model. It attaches instantly, with one hand, no Velcro, and it doesn't fall off. The larger size repays you, because the rectangular shape allows attachment of bags or gobos to further limit and force directionality of light. White balance and exposure require more attention with this scenario. Because of the bounce distances, you'll generally work at lower f-stops and mid-range ISO, both of which are no problem with current digital cameras. When there's little reflectance possible the box cover and dome extend your options.
The ULB is outstanding in typical conference, speaker and candid photography, because it can look like both main and fill light in one. Recently, I photographed a group of 200 conference attendees in a hotel lobby. I had one light, on camera, bounced into the ceiling, and I got sharp, well-lit results in a matter of moments. There's no situation you can't handle quickly and effectively with the ULB.