Getting Lit…

Learn To Light At Strobist!I’ve been getting interested in a new aspect of photography lately. As a student of the subject of photography for many years now, I’ve finally graduated to the point of being interested in controlling light beyond just a simple on-camera flash. When you file it right down, photography is about light and I’ve found that when there is more interesting light…well…it makes more interesting photos. The generally preferred way (debatably the best, arguably not the simplest, nor least expensive) to do this artificially is with lighting designed for photography, such as flashes and continuous lighting.

I was mostly concerned about the cost of getting into off-camera lighting. From cursory research, it was quite apparent it was going to be expensive. (Like the kind of expensive where I’m glad I don’t have a wife, expensive.) I also wanted it to be portable…the way I saw it, if it’s too unwieldy to carry, chances are it’ll get little use. Again from cursory research, portable was pretty much out of my financial reach. I mean $3000+ for battery powered lighting?? Ouch. A little too much for a hobby photographer. I was nearly doomed to never realize my interest.

So, not quite feeling defeated, I started looking into regular hot-shoe camera flashes (such as a Canon 580EX) to see what could be done. I wasn’t really happy with what I read about optical transmitters that the camera manufacturers offer as their in-house solution. The line of sight limitation crippled what I wanted to experiment with in off-camera lighting – light wherever I want it, even if it’s around a corner, in another area or somewhere an infrared signal couldn’t travel.

Well, I discovered a relatively new field of study pioneered by a photographer named David Hobby, more popularly known as “Strobist.” He’s put together extensive information (almost encyclopedic, actually) on using regular camera flashes to get well lit exposures, both cheaply and with minimal, portable gear. I began to get excited – he was all about DIY (do it yourself) stuff and keeping it on the cheap. (I’m all about cheap, a little bit of labor and big-time learning) Whether it’s using kitchen garbage bags and tupperware for studio gear or building a product-photo box out of an everyday cardboard box and tracing paper, the less it costs, the better it is. His results (and those of his students) are quite amazing, to say the least.

This whole concept really appealed to me as it met nearly all my criteria – it’s portable, small, flexible, relatively inexpensive and best of all, thoroughly pioneered. (The free part was a killer perk.) The only area that it didn’t compete in was if I wanted to light up a canyon…but I figured it might just be easier to wait for daytime. I still wasn’t sold, but it was quite apparent I needed to research it thoroughly.

Honestly, flash is a little intimidating for a starting point as a lighting newbie – it’s hard to learn something that’s only around for a brief second. I studied David’s website for several weeks until I felt comfortable with product decisions and core flash lighting concepts. David’s excellent ability to communicate, teach and assess his readers (as well as entertain…OMG, I’ve cracked up dozens of times reading his stuff) makes these difficult concepts much easier to reach by someone that doesn’t do photography day-in, day-out.

So, I’ve started the journey and ordered equipment from one of David’s sponsors and made the appropriate trips to Home Depot and the craft store…I’m anxiously awaiting the gear to arrive by big brown. For just under $1500 (that’s like pocket change in photography gear…I don’t actually believe this, but apparently photographers are very wealthy), I purchased enough gear to run three flashes simultaneously with a full accompaniment of studio gear…all wireless, with a range of up to 1600 feet from the camera. On top of that, I will have full color correction capability and countless DIY projects & light modifiers to work with. Here’s the rundown on what nearly a grand and a half can get ya’:

(2) Vivitar 285HV Flashes
(2) Bogen 3373 6′ Compact Light Stands (Portable stands)
(2) Interfit 8′ Air Cushioned Light Stands (Home stands)
(4) Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceivers (Wireless transmitters/receivers)
(2) Pocket Wizard to Vivitar Sync Cords
(1) Hot-shoe to Pocket Wizard Sync Cord (For my Canon 420EX)
(2) Westcott 43″ Compact Umbrella, White w/ Removable Black Cover
(2) Westcott 43″ Compact Umbrella, Soft Silver
(2) Rosco Pro Color Correction Gel Packs (Flash Color Correction)
(2) 4-Pack Rechargable Batteries and Recharger
(2) Packs of Bongo Ties / Ball Bungies
(3) Umbrella Swivels
(2) Bogen AW3279 Compact Light Kit Bags
(2) RoadWired RAPS Advanced Protection System
(1) Super Clamp
(1) Justin Clamp
(1) Stofen Omni Bounce Diffuser
(1) DIY Macro Studio Box w/ accessories
(2) DIY Softboxes (Will probably replace these with a commercial product)
(12) DIY Snoots (6 regular, 6 grid, 3 sizes each style)
(4) DIY Barndoors
(3) DIY Gel Holders
(2) Foam-core reflectors
…and a few other super-cheap DIY things…

(All ready owned my 3rd light…Canon 420EX & several modifiers including A Better Bounce Card, Gary Fong Lightsphere, and an Omni Bounce. )

Talk about a diving right in with almost limitless possibilities at your fingertips! A similar setup with “normal” commercial gear would’ve likely approached ten grand, just to put it into perspective. Provided it can be justified, the kit may see an upgrade of two Canon 580EXII’s, a Canon optical transmitter, and two more Pocket Wizards. That’s a five light wireless (optical eTTL & radio non-TTL) set up for under $3000…sweet.

I could’ve saved $600 by not going with the Pocket Wizards (at ~$180/each) and instead gone with cheap-o Gadget Infinity wireless triggers. After reading enough poor reviews of the off-brands that made it clear they would likely not meet my needs and OMG, people’s overwhelming lust for the PW’s, I decided this would be the “investment” part of the investment. Heck,I saved so much money anyhow…and David’s advice is to save money elsewhere so you can spend it on what really matters. I mostly agree with that advice.

What’s next for me? Going through David’s tutorials to understand how to use off-camera flash lighting. He’s put forth an excellent series of hands-on exercises that are designed to exploit the capabilities of minimal gear. He’s just entered Lighting 102…I think I’ll be able to catch up. Then again, maybe not…running is the guy’s day job.

Anyway…so here I dive into lighting for photography. Should be a fun journey! If you’re interested, there’s a great group of people over on the Strobist website. All it takes to get started is a camera with a hot-shoe or a sync port, something which many cameras these days have. It’s also MUCH cheaper to get into if you don’t go wireless…you can spend $200 a get a decent kit. Also, for some great DIY projects, you can check out LightingMods and DIYPhotography.

Hope you enjoy!

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