Today I want to talk about Flash Grids and why they are a must have accessory for controlling your light. Getting the most from your flash involves taking control. It’s important to place your flash where it will create the best illumination and shadows. On my hot-shoe flash I almost always keep a Sto-fen difusser attached to help soften and scatter the light for more pleasing results. Another great accessory I use often is a flag (also called a bounce card, flash bender or 80-20). People who follow me on this blog also know that I’m a huge user of colored gels to create unique looks or to match my flash with the available light. But another way to take control of your flash is to use an accessory called a grid. In this blog I’ll talk about the hot-shoe flash grid system I use.
What Are Grids?
Grids are simple devices that are used to control the directionality of the light. With a grid installed your flash will have a reduced area of coverage. This lets you put emphasis on something important in your shot or it can let you put a rim light behind your subject without flaring your lens.
There are plenty of manufacturers of grids including: Vello, Harbor Digital Design, ExpoImaging and many more. I’ve even seen do-it-yourselfers create grids with tape, straws and black spray paint. I prefer something a little more professional looking than straws held together with duct tape so I’ve been using Speed Grids from Honl Photo. Mine have been in service for years and I absolutely love them. I own both the 1/4″ Speed Grid and the 1/8″ speed grid and I use them all the time. To give you an idea what a Speed Grid does I took a series of pictures to show how they can control your light. First here’s a shot of one of my LumoPro LP-160 flashes firing towards a black surface:
You can see that there’s a hot spot in the center and the light softens and spreads out toward the edges. Most shoe-mount flashes include a wide angle adaptor which increases the angle of output from the flash (to help fill an area with light when you’re using a wide angle lens). Using a wide angle adaptor can help diffuse the output from your flash to help calm down that hot spot. Here’s a look at the same flash (with the same settings) with a wide angle adaptor installed:
You can see that the wide angle adaptor really helped to scatter the light. This effect can be handy in certain situations but you may have some light going places you don’t want it to go. For comparison here’s a quick look at the same flash with the Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce difusor attached:
This diffuser scatters light a lot like the wide angle adaptor but with a little more of an emphasis on the center. Using the Sto-fen Omni-Bounce can help soften shadows while still giving you good illumination where you’re pointing the flash. I’ve found that keeping the Omni-Bounce installed when I use softboxes and umbrellas really helps to create soft light for portraits.
Using the bare flash or diffusers are great but when you really want to take control of your light I recommend placing a grid on the front of your flash. I use Honl Photo Speed straps to attach accessories like grids and gels and they’ve been working great for me. Here’s a look at my flash with the Honl Photo 1/4″ grid installed:
You can see that the hot spot is totally back now but there’s almost no light spill around the hot spot. This is great for putting a spotlight on something specific in your image. For even more control you can change from the 1/4″ grid to the 1/8″ grid. Here’s a quick look at what the output from the flash looks like when you use the 1/8″ grid:
This is a super tight hot spot and it’s awesome for putting a small touch of light exactly where you want it. I’ll use my 1/8″ grid when I need to get a little light into a portrait subjects eyes, for example.
Pointing your flash in the direction of the camera
Using a grid to direct light towards an important element in a picture is great. But where grids really come in handy is when you’re creating a rim light.
Rim lights are flashes that are placed to the side and slightly behind a subject to add a line of light that helps define shape and separate your subject from the background. I use rim lights all the time and they really help to make portraits look great. The only problem with rim lights is that when you get the position of your flash right it’s probably firing a bunch of light directly at your camera. Sometimes this is a really cool look and I know plenty of photographers that include the flash in the final shot. But sometimes you need to create a more traditional look and that means having rim light but not seeing the flash that’s creating the light.
One solution for keeping the light out of the shot is to place a flag, gobo, or barn door (all forms of light blockers) between the light and the camera. When you position your flag correctly the output of the flash stays out of the shot and you gain contrast and clarity in your final shot. This is a great solution. Another solution is to use a grid to direct the light exactly where you want it to go. To show you what I’m talking about here’s a look at my flash when it’s pointing in the general direction of my camera:
This flash is pretty much blowing out the entire shot. For example, you can’t see very much of the flash. Another negative is the complete lack of deep blacks and any contrast. Let’s take a look at the exact same flash (with the exact same settings) but with a 1/8″ Speed Grid installed on the front of the flash head:
What a difference! Directly in front of the flash is a whole buch of light but it’s not blowing out the camera. You can see the case of the flash, there’s considerably more contrast, blacks look good and the flaring is completely eliminated. This is awesome. What does this mean for your photography? It means you can put a flash where it can create the look you want without worrying about the light from the flash messing up your shot.
Using Speed Grids On a Real Subject
To give you an idea of how this can be helpful with a real picture here’s a look at one of my Perry the Platypus stuffed animals lit with a single shoot through umbrella (without a rim light):
This looks pretty good but I think Perry is a little dark on the left side of the shot. Here’s a look at the lighting setup I used to capture the shot.
The big white thing on the right of the shot is the shoot through umbrella. The rim light flash was positioned but you can see that it didn’t go off when the shot was captured. Now let’s turn that rim light flash on and see what the final shot looks like.
By adding the rim light we can see better separation between Perry and the background. This rim light adds shape to Perry’s bill and the line of light along the left side of the picture really defines Perry while giving more dimension to the shot. Without the rim light the dark side of Perry fades into the background. The only thing I don’t care for with this shot is the additional light spill on the white table. Here’s a behind the scenes look at this shot:
Now let’s add in a grid to the rim light and see how the final shot would look.
This is my favorite of the shots so far. It has the rim lighting I love and it keeps the light from spilling onto the white table. There’s good shape from the shadows and Perry is clearly separated from the background. Here’s a look at the behind the scenes shot with the grid placed on the rim light:
In this behind the scenes look you can see that the rim light flash is totally under control. It’s not flaring the camera lens and it’s not spilling onto the white table. This is the kind of control I look for when I use grids.
And grids are not for small hot-shoe flashes. I have grids for my softboxes (all the way up to my 3′ octa) and they really help me to take control of my lights. I showed examples of how I use grids in a studio environment but I use them on location all the time. And don’t think that they are only good for rim lights. A grid on a main light can create a really cool looking spotlight effect and prevent background elements from being lit up when you don’t want them lit up.
Here’s one last example of a shot I took last year of Alex and his trumpet. I lit Alex with a 3′ octa for a main light and I used colored gels to create the illusion of auditorium lights. I wanted to add color to the shot but I didn’t want to flood Alex with a bunch of colored light. In front of Alex I used a small flash with a magenta gel and a 1/4″ grid and behind Alex I used a 1.5′ Octa-shaped softbox with blue gel and an egg crate grid for a rim light. With the grids I was able to get the colored light exactly where I wanted it and I kept it away from Alex’s face and white shirt.
I love using flash when I’m out shooting and accessories like gels, snoots, flags and grids are awesome tools for letting you shape, color and control your light. By using flash modifiers you can take total control of your light and that allows you to create your image exactly the way you envision it in your mind.
If you’re interested in purchasing grids like the ones I use you can find them here:
If you have questions about grids please leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.