Thursday, January 29, 2015

Quadrupling Your Speedlight Power The Cheap Way

Today, let´s have a look at multiplying flash power from your speedlights. Maybe you have googled "subduing the sun" before? It´s a way to take the most interesting photos outside, even at noon on a sunny day, producing the most dark blue skies in the background while lighting your subject well. Also, it´s a way of prolonging battery life of each flash during a long shoot as well as cutting recycling times.

 Of course, this involves buying several speedlights, a bracket to hold them and some way of triggering them all at the same time. Many ways to do this!

I´ll go the cheap cost-efficient way: instead of employing multiple receivers for my wireless / buying expensive brand TTL-Speedlights / even buying (relatively expensive) optical slave units, I took another walk to my local photo store and searched through their odds-and-ends-box. I came up with many different PC-cables (the ones that connect studio flashes to your camera) and hotshoe-adapters.
My radio trigger system doesn´t have a PC socket, neither do my Metz flashguns (duh!), so I´ll have to adapt to this fact as well.


As I said before, the best way of ganging Speedlights is putting them together in EVEN numbers. Two speedlights will give you ONE MORE STOP of light output. Four of them will add TWO STOPS. Three speedlights (like the Lastolite Triflash and many other multibracket will hold) give you ONE AND A HALF STOPS of light. Photographically, that doesn´t make very much sense. If you´re only out to cut your recycling times, of course, this´ll help quite a bit. If you only need that extra half stop - fine.

So, do I have a flash bracket that holds four guns? Yep.

There´s a lot of power in this setup! You can already tell from the silhouette that there is a confusing bit of wiring going on. Let´s have a look at the configuration:

The remote is to the right (deliberately). It feeds a shoe adapter which is not wired inside, but features one PC socket for each level. You can wire it yourself simply by connecting the two sockets, but I need to break out here.
The coiled cable feeds a 3-split under flash "1". This feeds the hotshoe it is connected to which then triggers flash "1". This is it, basically. The two other splits go to one wired shoe each, firing flashes 2, 3 and 4.

Of course, the weirdness of it all originates from the special selection of accessories that I found in that ol´ box. Hey, it´s a flea market after all!

Let´s see some of it in detail: Here´s the radio remote with the split shoe, feeding the 3-split on the other side (out) and the trigger cable for its own flash (in)

And here´s the split-thing. I painted in a schematic of the shoe´s internal wiring. This one is "cold" on the bottom which is important, because some old flash brackets are made of metal. It triggers its own flash while at the same time linking the signal to another (of course, it´s not a real signal. X-Sync triggering is only a short-circuit of the speedlight´s contacts) .

´course, if you have three of these shoes, you can set it all up more elegantly. But again, this is a flea market solution. I like it like that ;-)


Is this the ideal rapid-fire setup for a Californian high-noon photoshoot? Well... it´s got some power for sure. But there are some points worth noting:
- With all these adapters mounted on top of each other, things start to get a bit wobbly. I´d NEVER move this setup when high on a tripod. I will ALWAYS lower the tripod and hold at least one speedlight in my hand. None of the mounts is fail safe. Also, when moving it, always tip the bracket FORWARD, where there is a hard stop in each of the shoe mounts. Also, check for good grip after each transport.

- PC sockets and cables, being the industry standard today, were invented in the 1900s or 1910s or so. Back then, NOBODY would EVER move connected equipment ANYWHERE! There was a large format camera, meticulously set up on a tripod, there was electrical power in that place and a huge flash system connected to the shutter with this tiny plug. Everything rested until the shot was done, everything was disconnected and the next shot was set up. Of course, you´d first disconnect the PC cable from the camera, so nobody could trip over it, killing the cable and damaging the camera. So, you guess... neither male nor female connector are very stable. Many times, your connectors will simply slip out, leaving you wondering where your flash power went until you go checking on the wires. Of course, stacking them as I did does not improve reliability. It´s probably not even very wind safe. Please keep this in mind. If you have built your perfect high-power speedlight rack, you may want to fix everything permanently, using glue, tape and zip ties on everything.

- Watch out! There are cables that feature male-male connectors, others have male-female! Please take some time to plan out your wiring and connect everything right in the store for a test.

- It is also a nice idea to check your wires and shoes with a multimeter. You don´t want to find a broken cable when you´re on the set. Hotshoes with attached cables always break first.

Taking all the necessary precautions, I think that this is a nice cost-efficient solution. Finally, I can use this clever bracket without having to burn all my radios and slave triggers on one single light. Oh, and all these ancient cables won´t have to feel so lonely in that box at the store anymore!

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Cutting Edge for Macro and Tabletop Photography

Everybody seems to spread light these days. So let´s cut some instead!

You can tell from the shadows that there was some sort of gobo involved here. The main light is to the right (it´s a LED torch). It passes through a slit between two black flags, each standing up being held by a super clamp on the floor. I also added a shaving mirror from the left, reflecting my only light source.

The main reason why the shadows are so well-defined is that the light source is relatively far away and the cutting flags are relatively close.  It´s like your own shadow on a sunny day: hard and clearly defined. It is almost a projection of your outline.

What else we can do? Let´s move to the window-lit kitchen and again apply the LED torch.

Here, I used the cutters to highlight a certain word in the classifieds of a local newspaper. The bright white room offers a lot of fill here. Back in the dark (my aisle), you´d have much more contrast. I´d shoot it like this if I were assigned for a newspaper job and I´d probably shoot the high-contrast version if I wanted to do art. All to taste.

Here´s the setup. Note the ULTRA-PROFESSIONAL AVENGER BLACK FLAGS and SUPER CLAMPS! HA HA! Whoa, there´s even a sheet of TRACING PAPER thrown over the torch!

No, seriously: this here will do the exact same job and costs nothing:

Also, look at how deliberately the flags are placed in the first example. All I need is the desired gradient in the shadows. Let´s turn them around and try to highlight another word. You see that I can get as small and precise as I want with my slit

Here´s the setup for this. The edges of the flags are closer to the subject, thus projecting a punchier shadow. Again, fill is provided by window light spreading across the room (finally, it pays off that one wall in my kitchen is painted neutral grey!)

Like to get harder? Let´s remove the tracing paper and readjust the flags a little:

Let´s go back to the dark. Now, with the hard light source and a pair of flags you can go wild beyond taste! (Illustrative purposes only; also, mirror added from the left).

Of course, you can  also use the flags to cut off any unwanted light spill (I´m sorry I forgot to photograph the spill, but believe me: there IS some and it HAS been cut)

If you want to copy this look, please note that the background for all dark shots is a board of styrofoam painted black. The subject is raised on a small pole so that I can keep the light from hitting the background and have everything nice and dark. In fact, in the first picture (the one with the lens) you can see a bit of spill on the background if your monitor is setup accordingly. No problem with Photoshop. Would disappear in print. Actually, I like it as it adds a hint of dynamic feeling. But you see, there´s a reason to use continuous lighting or studio strobes when shooting tabletop photography. You have to adjusts the lights millimeter-wise, cut and reflect, cut again, diffuse and cut again, spend the day waving white cards and then, you check and check and check again. Not exactly a job for speedlights.

Here´s an edit of the first picture so you can see the effect of the spill:

That´s it for today. Thank you for your kind attention.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Quenox Parabolic Umbrella vs. Big Octadome

I made myself a nice christmas present: a Quenox Parabolic Silver Umbrella - mine is 180cm and came used and super cheap via the bay. It it not exactly a parabolic umbrella like the Para 88 and thus not an ultra-versatile adaptable light shaping tool, that you can use outside, because ...well... you just can´t use the Quenox outside. Or anywhere near a window, for that matter. It is a huge umbrella.

But due to its shape and depending on the placement of the flash head you can produce a VERY effective beam of VERY nice light.

I had taken it to someone else´s studio where I found a large Octadome. Now, that´s a first test: compare the big brollie against the stripped dome. And guess what?

a Saturn V rocket as seen during take-off from below.
Although the Quenox seems to be the much, much harder reflector it is the one that casts NO shadow at this distance! Maybe I found a sweet spot? Maybe I was just the right distance from the background? Let´s turn around and have a look at the paper

Here´s my arm. The Octa is now behind me to my right and the Umbrella to the left (they are so huge that I CAN stand between them, although they touch. Their respective middle axes are 1,5m apart.
You can clearly see that the Octa throws a shadow of me, my arm, my camera and the on-camera flash which I used to trigger the studio strobes.

Surprisingly, the stripped Octa is quite harsh, given its size (please don´t judge skin tones, shadow rendering or anything. The two silver monsters cancel each other out on my arm). Without diffusers on, it should act like a giant wide angle bowl. Obviously, it´s the bare bulb blasting through the middle that makes it so hard. Hm, might try that naked Octa as ...let´s call it... ULTRADISH!

Check out the first picture again. Both heads are at the same power setting. But the umbrella is so effective that it seems just as bright as the bare bulb in the Octa. Giant silver disc? Nice! Very nice! Good thing to have that off your wish list ;-) Guess I´ll blast the models on the next test shoot with that beast...

BY THE WAY, holding out your fist in front of you is the professional way of checking the quality of the light. Your thumb represents the subject´s nose. This gives you a rough first impression of how and where to place your subjects in front of your camera regarding highlights and shadows.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

AA Battery Holder Comparison

I act a bit erratic in my gear acquisition process. Usually, I buy what comes my way and is within my budget - as soon as I can make use of it, of course! This especially goes for small and useful equipment, such as cables, adapters, spigots and battery holders. Oh, there we are! I have three different models, so let´s have a look at them. They only cost a few bucks each, but you should know what you´re going for. Also, they might seem simple, but how DO you handle them?
Running and gunning strobist-style, you always need fresh AA Batteries to feed my flashguns. Keeping and carrying them is easy, but I like to know at first glance, whether I have a pack of fresh or empty batteries in front of me. I also like to keep each set of four together for their whole worklife.

Baybox BATTERY-BOX AA, AAA, CR123A, Flash Cards

This is a smart little thing. Actually, it´s the smartest and largest thing in the whole review.
As the apt name says, this nice box holds AAs, AAAs, CR123s and has slots for CF cards, which can be stored alternatively (four CFs per unit)
As you can see, they can be stacked. Unfortunately, I only own two of these and they seem no longer available but have been replaced by the Akkubox Foto Plus, which is twice the length and capacity. 
The hanger for store display slides out the back. If you slide it in again, it pushes against box and lid, thus locking it tight. Good thing I threw mine away, mindlessly.

How do you identify the full batteries? Easy, it´s even printed on the back. Plus up means charged, minus (bottom) up means empty. You can see the orientation easily through the acid-resistant plastic.

Here is the company´s website. They don´t ship at the moment (Jan 2015), though. Actually, I got mine for free with the purchase of a few batteries in a battery store and I´m glad to have them! 


These things pop up irregularly on ebay. They´re ugly but quite okay, given the price. The lid is velcro´d and there is a plastic window on the front. Again, battery orientation is the code for the status of the batteries. But you have to know how your batts look from the side, when they´re charged. Works for me, too. I have like eight or ten of them flying around here, somewhere. Here´s one with charged batteries:

They feature a belt clip with a snap-fastener, which is very nice indeed! You can clip them to your camera strap, your accessory bag strap, whatever and they will only come off by force. Also, if you don´t need them, they fold flat and weigh nothing. They exist in an AAA version, too. You can fill memory cards in there, too, of course. But it´s not dustproof.

This battery holder is about the only one of the three which can be operated with gloves on.

 I´m sorry I cannot give you a manufacturer here. You have to check ebay from time to time for these


Now, here´s another rather generic item. Here is a link to the only shop where I found these (again, it´s man, where´d I get these couple years ago??). But I´m sure there is a local manufacturer in your country who produces the exact same thing. Let me just utter a few thoughts about these: 

They hold 4 AAs or 4 AAAs (which then would sit between the ribs you can see in the lid. This is nice, because you wouldn´t want to have rechargeables clattering around in an unnecessary manner. They´d get damaged).

These things are compact and very useful. They are a bit hard to open, but that also means that they won´t ever open by accident, leaving you with a pile of fourty-eight batteries inside your bag. The small latch lies almost flush with the box when locked.

Now, here comes the big trick. I was pretty sure that I could do the orientation trick here, but I got confused EVERY time. I guess, initially I defined plus toward the latch as charged like in the picture above. It took fabulous Zack Arias to show me the light. If you want to be 100% sure, just store EMPTY batteries like pictured above. Or the other way round, it does not matter. BECAUSE YOU STORE FULL BATTERIES LIKE YOU´D PUT THEM IN YOUR FLASH! LIKE THIS:

Duh! Facepalm! All too easy, isn´t it? This is one of the magically brilliant tricks in Zack´s fantastic book Photography Q&A which I recommend to anybody. Photographer or not.
This is so smart, I even shot another picture of it:

You see, you actually can put some thoughts into something seemingly silly like a battery holder purchase. It´s the little things that count. You have to handle these each and every day you´re out with your flash and although each item listed here is a good, working and inexpensive product, you may one day walk out and find the one that´s perfect for you. [insert unicorn and flowers here, play soft flute music]