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Archive 2012 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie
Gary Ellis
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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie


I am a long-time camera user (Canon 1D series, 7D), but a total newbie at lighting, so I need some help. I've been reading book after book on flash lighting and have a couple of speedlights and umbrellas, but what I really want to find is a decent kit that I can take to people's houses, to the beach, or to local parks where I can take photos of my friends.

Other than something sturdy so it stands up in the wind, I have no idea what I need.

1. If I stick with speedlights, what equipment do I need? (Battery packs, modifiers, etc.)

2. If I go with traditional lighting, what equipment do I need, and should it be continuous or strobe? I want to be able to carry the kit myself and set it up quickly. I will not have an assistant, so I will need whatever stands and clamps are required.

Oh, yeah. it shouldn't break the bank!

Thanks very much for your help!


Mar 04, 2012 at 03:37 AM
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

You've opened a whole can of worms with this question. Different people will have different opinions, and some will believe theirs is the only valid choice. After hours without any responses, though, it may be that folk are afraid to be the first to chime in.

Let me fire the first salvo:

Since you already have Speedlites and umbrellas, adding some sandbags and possibly stakes and guy wires will be your least expensive route. When it's too windy for umbrellas you just have to go with bare Speedlites, but placing them off-camera on stands will do a lot to avoid that "shot-with-a-flash-gun" look.

Adding soft boxes and other modifiers comes next, and getting more-powerful studio-style strobes is next -- and optional, in my opinion -- after that.

Plain lights will attract less attention in public places than lights in big modifiers will, and that can be a concern when shooting in parks and other public locations.

I would forget continuous lights, since you mentioned beaches and parks as possible locations. Getting enough power to challenge the sun also means needing a LOT of electricity. (Have you ever seen an outdoor movie set, with all those cables leading to diesel generators?)

As far as shooting in people's homes -- I do location portraits with Speedlites, and it works well for me. Others would recommend going with monolight strobes like Alien Bees or Bowens Geminis that can be powered from either A/C or battery packs.

Nowadays, you can get good portable grip gear for either kind of lights at reasonable prices. Here are a couple of shots of some of my current gear:
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Mar 04, 2012 at 10:30 AM
Gary Ellis
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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

Brian, thanks very much. Looks to me that you have an Apollo softbox and some kind of beauty dish (with a grid?)--am I right? And what kind of stands to you have? Is one of them a C-stand? If you don't mind giving me the brand/model, I'd like to look them up.

I was reading Syl Arena's "Speedliter's Handbook" last night and was starting to believe in speedlghts again and not so much studio lights--at least for me right now--and your post is nudging me further in that direction.

Thanks very much.


Mar 04, 2012 at 10:52 AM
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p.1 #4 · p.1 #4 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

Gary Ellis wrote:
Brian, thanks very much. Looks to me that you have an Apollo softbox and some kind of beauty dish (with a grid?) --am I right? And what kind of stands to you have?

Yes, I have a 28-inch Apollo, and I may get the 50-inch version before high-school senior portrait season rolls around again.



The gridded (optional) dish in the photos is a 12-inch RPS Studio BeautiDish (note the spelling). It's too small to be a true beauty dish, but I use it as a hair light or accent light. I just got their new 20-inch dish a few days ago, but I haven't taken it out of the box yet. It sized like a true beauty dish, and I'll mostly be using it in that capacity.



The silvery light stand you see is a Promaster LS-3 air cushioned stand, and the boom stand (I have two) is a Manfrotto 420B Combi Boom Stand.



Mar 04, 2012 at 11:11 AM

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Gary Ellis
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p.1 #5 · p.1 #5 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

Thanks very much! By the way, are you going to get the new Canon 600EX-RT flash? At $629, it's bankruptcy-inducing, but a 580EXII + a Radio Popper is just as expensive. I'd like to have 3 radio-controlled TTL flash units, but nearly $2000?!?!?!


Mar 04, 2012 at 11:15 AM
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p.1 #6 · p.1 #6 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

Gary Ellis wrote:
Thanks very much! By the way, are you going to get the new Canon 600EX-RT flash? At $629, it's bankruptcy-inducing, but a 580EXII + a Radio Popper is just as expensive.

I just bought a 580EX II and a 430EX II a few weeks ago, and that's pretty much used up my budget for the year. Had I known about the 600EX-RT, I might have waited...or not. So far, using Canon's optical wireless is working for me, including using the 7D's built-in flash as the master when I'm in a small space, or using one of the 580s out on a 24-foot ETTL cord as master when the 7D's pop-up can't be seen by the slaves.

I had an order for Phottix Odin radios in the works, but I cancelled that until I know more about Canon's new gear. One thing for sure: I won't be getting any Quantum Trios now!

Mar 04, 2012 at 11:24 AM
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p.1 #7 · p.1 #7 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

Nowadays there's not much difference logistically or cost-wise between location shooting with studio monolights and battery/inverters vs. speedlight for a static two-stand key/fill lighting scenario. By that I mean you will be hauling and setting up the same stands, modifiers, sandbags to hold the stands, etc. The only real difference in logistics is the monolight and battery/inverter will weigh a bit more. But if hauling 40 pounds of sand, what's a few extra points of lighiting gear?

In terms of capability the mono-lights trump speedlights in power, recycle times, modeling light, and a wider selection of modifiers.

The only advantage of the speedlights is they are lighter which makes it practical to keep one on the camera using a bracket like this:


Raising the flash on a bracket about 16" above the lens is technique wedding shooters started using in the 60s and 70s with single flash because it hides most of the shadows and creates a very natural looking downward "butterfly" modeling without any harsh shadows. The shadows fall down below the shoulders out if sight.

In a two flash scenario that gives you good lighting in the front when you move your slave around back for rim lighting as seen here...
and when your slave is placed in front 45 from the nose the flash on bracket works as "neutral" fill that falls off front>back producing a light non-distracting nose shadow and smooth shadow-side gradient...

In terms of logistics shooting with bracketed fill and one stand is much simpler and it makes it possible to move the lighting with you vs. shooting in one spot with two fixed stands. You'll notice in the wide shots the off camera stand I use has five legs with casters. It's actually a medical IV stand not a lighting stand. Using a rolling stand light that is a trick I learned shooting weddings with two flashes. More than anything it's the rolling stand that makes shooting candids like that single-handed with two flashes possible logistically.

But in terms of capability that speedlight approach vs. the two stand/monolight approach is limited by power and modification options.

Modification of speedlights has been a bit of a dilemma. The optical sensor is on the base of the slave flash and it can't be covered up or the default signaling will not work requiring third-party radio triggers. The new 600EX-R speedlights finally solve that problem but they cost $630 each. If you went with two 600EX-Rs and wanted to use both on stands you'd need the ST-E3R controller in the hot shoe, another $420. So you'd spend $1,260 to $1,680 for a two flash solution. Then there's the problem of mounting the modifiers and the fact by making the footprint larger they cut the intensity at the subject's face by more than half. The bigger the modifier the bigger the loss.

Modifiers do do things. Directly then make the reflection of the source in the highlights larger. You get larger catchlights in the eyes which are more appealing than the pinhole reflections of a speed light, and there will be fewer specular "hot spots" in skin highlights to make the light look "hard". The other thing that makes light seem "hard" or "soft" is the gradient of highlight / shadow. The lighter you make the shadows with the fill and the more even you make the highlights with the large modifier the smoother the transitions over the cheekbones toward the ear in an oblique view will look.

Very large modifiers used close to the face and larger than the head will "wrap" the light around a face better than a small one because it comes from more vectors relative to the face. But if you objectively compare a modifier used indoors with the same set-up at night out in your driveway where there is no bounced spill you'll will see how significantly that affects the tone of the shadows, the apparent "wrap" effect of the source size and the overall look of the lighting. Big modifiers produce softer light indoors in part because they have a large footprint that bounces a lot of light around the room creating an overcast day fill effect. I call that "spill fill".

The reason I mention all this is because it explains why smaller modifers with speedlights can produce surprisingly soft looking lighting...


The dilemma I faced in the shot above was the potentially distracting white shirt. To eliminate that distraction I needed a white background. But I was at work with only one flash, diffuser and bracket as shown above. My solution? Put him less than a foot from the office wall, then stand on a chair with the top of my diffuser pressed to the ceiling. The direct flash bounced forward from the diffuser created the "mask" pattern of highlights, while the huge amount of "spill fill" bouncing around my 9' x 12' office created an "overcast day" effect which lowered the overall contrast allowing the camera to record detail in the dark hair and shadows on the face.

Most speedlight modifiers work on the same principle of splitting the light of a single flash in a direct vector and one bounced off the ceiling...


In a room with an 8-9' ceiling about equal light from both directions hit the face creating and overlapping 1+1:1 or 2:1 lighting ratio with light, flattering shadows on the faces. But that only works when there is a ceiling. When there isn't a ceiling you'd want two flashes both aiming the light directly at the subject with just the flash or forward directed modifier like a SB or my diffusers with the top flap closed as in this spur-of-moment candid "snap shot" with dual flash...


As the wide shot above of my wife on the couch demonstrates that even when the lights are aimed directly in a small room there will be a large enough footprint on the lights to create considerable "spill fill" to help lighten the shadows.

What I'm getting at here is that creating various lighting effects with flash is more about knowing how to use the tools that modify the light rather than the source driving the modifier. The power of the source equates to how far away you can shoot. That's more a factor outdoors when battling the sun than indoors.

The same is true of modification. Indoors in most cases there's a ceiling overhead to bounce the light intentionally, or unintentionally as "spill fill". The choice of a softbox vs. umbrella is predicated in part on the fact that a SB will spill less light, eliminating the spill fill variable and offering more precise control over shadow tone with the separate fill light. Outdoors or indoors in a very large or dark colored space where there is no spill fill you need to take than into consideration when selecting your key light modifier size and fill size and placement. Generally speaking the less assist you get from the "spill fill" the more you need to rely on large key light modifiers and even fill to make the lighting look softer via diffused highlights (i.e. no hot spots on skin) and light even shadows with smooth front> back fall off transitions.

In the final analysis lighting choices come back to logistics: how much gear are you willing to haul around and set up in the quest for optimal quality of light?

The solution I opted for was to have two different sets of tools: a set of four AB800 studio lights with larger modifiers I keep in my home studio and bring my subjects to when I want to optimize the light quality, and my pair of speedlights I use when shooting on location.

Why don't I take my ABs on location? Because I'm not shooting for hire and only need to please myself, not a client. But if I were shooting for hire I would use monolights and inverter, and charge enough for my services to be able to afford an assistant to haul and set-up the gear.

Look at your budget and all the equipment options that will fit it to give you a two light solution (to start). Then look at the way you want to shoot and decide if you want to be planted in one spot between two light stands, or wander around with fill over camera pulling your key light along with your free hand. If the former then monolights/inverters are a good choice. If the latter then a pair of speedlights would be better once you learn the modification tricks shown above.


Mar 04, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Gary Ellis
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p.1 #8 · p.1 #8 · Mobile Lighting Help for Newbie

Chuck, thank you very much for the incredibly comprehensive message!! As always, you offer an encyclopedia of knowledge that warrants multiple reads and quite a bit of digestion. Thank you!


Mar 08, 2012 at 08:46 AM

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