Creating a complicated light setup (one piece at a time)

Having flash is no guarantee of getting great shots. Taking control of the light you introduce into a shot helps and with some practice you’ll start creating better images. This entry will be the first of three blog entries where I’ll build up a full lighting setup one piece at a time. We’ll start with a super simple and quick solution and we’ll build it up until it’s totally awesome.

To start my lighting setup I’ll use a white seamless paper background and a single flash shooting into a convertible umbrella. Umbrellas are common, popular and incredibly inexpensive. I have about a dozen in various styles and sizes that I use for creating different looks. My favorites are convertible white umbrellas (with a black backing that easily removes to change from bounce to shoot through). My 30″ convertible umbrellas cost me less than $15 each and they get plenty of use. My biggest is a 7′ parabolic that creates incredible looking light. If you’re going out on location (or on a very tight budget) and you only want to bring one light modifier with you a convertible umbrella is a great choice. For this shoot I’ll be using one of my 30″ convertible umbrellas.

I love umbrellas because they are light, inexpensive, fold down small and they can create a big light look from a small flash. I’ve seen umbrellas with silver interiors and white interiors. Silver is punchier (and more efficient) and white interiors give a softer look. I prefer using white interiors.

Convertible umbrellas let you choose between bouncing and shooting through. Here’s a look at my 30″ convertible umbrella with the black backing removed and being used shoot-through style. I’ll talk more about using an umbrella shoot-through style in my next blog entry.

You may be wondering which way is better, shoot through or bounce. I use mine both ways and it changes from shoot to shoot. I’ve found that using an umbrella shoot through style give you light very similar to using an expensive softbox. The bigger your umbrella the softer your shadows become on your subject (and that’s great for photographing people). But when you’re using an umbrella shoot through style indoors (especially in a small area) you are bouncing a ton of light around that could start to affect your shot. Usually when I’m inside I’m using my umbrellas bounce style and when I’m outside I use them shoot through style.

The reason you use an umbrella (or a softbox) is to create a larger and more diffused look for your light.  The rule of thumb has always been:

The smaller the size of your flash, the harsher the light looks. The bigger the size of your flash, the softer (and more pleasing) your light becomes.

This rule of thumb is why point and shoot cameras (or camera phones) that use the built-in flash look the way they do. Shoe mount flashes are better, but the light from shoe mount flashes is coming from a source that’s about 1.5″ tall by 2.5″ wide. Bigger would look better. When you shoot into an umbrella the light source becomes much larger (in this case it’s a 30″ round light source). At that size the light begins to wrap around your subject and the edges of shadows get very soft. With a good sized umbrella you’ll get plenty of light on your subject and light will even get to the background (but with less brightness) This is a killer look for traditional portraits since it emphasizes your subject and gives them shape.

One Umbrella  |  Bounce Style

Let’s start to build up a complicated light setup by using a single umbrella (being used as a bounce light source). Here’s Dug shot with a shoe mount flash on a stand shooting into the umbrella (above and slightly forward of Dug on a stand to camera right).

Not bad for a quick one light portrait. I’d totally be happy with how this looks and so would most clients. If it’s a small job then you can call it quits right here. There’s nothing wrong with how this shot looks. To get an idea how easy this is to do here’s what the studio looked like for this shot.

Pretty simple and really inexpensive. A complete Westcott basic umbrella kit (with a stand, umbrella bracket, cold shoe mount for your flash and a 43″ convertible umbrella) costs less than $70. That’s a pretty reasonable price if you ask me.

Opening Up The Shadows  |  Adding a Reflector

If you want to make this shot a bit better you can soften the shadows on Dug. The flash to camera right is creating some shadow on the side of Dug. You could add another flash but I think a better solution is to use a collapsable reflector to bounce a little light back into the shadow. Don’t forget, we’re not trying to eliminate the shadows, just soften them.

Here’s another shot of Dug but I added a 22″ collapsible reflector low and to camera left to soften the shadow a bit (this is sometimes called “opening up the shadows”).

Here you can see that the shadows are not gone but really reduced. That little bit of bounced light really helps this shot without eliminating the shadows that define Dug’s shape. It also didn’t require an additional flash. If you don’t have a collapsible reflector you can use a $3 piece of white foam board to do the same thing. This is really starting to look great. Here’s a look at the studio when I added the reflector into the shot.

You can see that I used a reflector holder to get my 22″ collapsible reflector into position. Because this is pretty low I used my background stand (a very short light stand) to hold the reflector holder. You can also see some of the sandbags I use to keep things from tipping over.

For my next blog entry we’ll continue to build up this studio shot by changing the umbrella from bounce to shoot-through style and we’ll add in a second flash with a grid for rim lighting. For the final entry in this series I’ll use some colored gels to really finish this shot off.

To continue reading about this shoot be sure to check out the next steps here.

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