The Honl Flash Modifier System

More and more, I leave my studio lights at home – strobes are a hassle to carry – and I shoot with speedlights modified with the Honl Photo flash modifier system:

This system, which consists of the Honl speedstrap, grid, gels and snoot, makes small speedlights practical for studio-like shooting without the hassle. As a photojournalist and on-location general shooter, I use it all the time.

The shots below, taken in a few minutes of my friend Storey the other day, illustrate some of the effects.

My camera, a Canon 1Ds MkIII, had a 580EXII flash on it to drive the second (key) flash; the key flash was a 430EX, handheld. The 580EX did no work other than drive the key light; all the work was done by the key light, i.e. the 430EX, combined with ambient light. To achieve this, the camera was fired in manual mode at 400 ISO and the speedlights were using E-TTL.

Picture 1 : straight flash aimed at the subject.


Picture 2: using the grid. More focused light on the subject. The kind of “Euro” effect I used to achieve in Photoshop. Now I do it in camera – leading to efficiency gains. Don’t you love this kind of “light falloff outside the subject” effect?


Picture 3: now using the snoot (and -1 stop FEC). Now we are really lighting just the subject. Drama, baby! (Of course normally I use the snoot not for this but to add hair light).


And finally just for fun, picture 4: grid combined with a red effect gel. And setting the white balance right now means the background turns green even without a green flash or green ambient light. Magic!


This is all very easy. Honl is now available at Henry’s. If you come on one of my courses I would be delighted to show you these products – they are entirely solid. Get yourself some speedstraps and snoots, grids and gels (both correcting and effect), and do pro work with a few speedlights and preserve your back.

Close-Far Adds Depth


In my teaching role, I am often asked “why are my pictures not spectacular the way the real thing was”. Usually in the context of something impressive and grand, like the eponymous Canyon.
The reason is usually “because you have added no depth”. Our eyes help our brain see in two dimensions, as does the fact that we move about. In a photo, neither of those happen. So your photos can look flat.
As I have mentioned before, there is a way to avoid that. As said earlier, we call this technique “close-far”. By adding a close object, and making it large, the far distance seems more distant – i.e., we see depth.
To do this, we use a wide angle lens and get close to the close object.
One thing I have not pointed out before is why exactly this happens. Is it due to the way wide angle lenses are constructed? Something special in the glass?
No. It is simply “where you are”. The difference in relative distance. In principle, any lens would do this.
In the picture above, Lynda is three times farther away from me than the glass. That is why the glass, being three times closer, looks three times bigger – giving my rain a clue as to its whereabouts. If I stood back a few meters, the glass and her face would be almost the same distance away from me, so they would look equally large. That’s all – relative distance. The lens does not come into it – except of course if I stood back and had a wide angle lens, Lynda and the glass would both be very small. That’s why I would use a long lens when standing back.
That, and that alone, is why we use wide lenses close to a close object to emphasis distance to a far object.

Nuking the sun

Daniel Alamo

My trip to Texas brought it home again – or it would have, if it weren’t already firmly home. Flash, especially in bright weather, is essential.
I thought it might be good to illustrate this once more by way of example, using some of last week’s Texas pictures.
When, then, do you need flash? Leaving aside the obvious “when it is dark”, I will concentrate on three more interesting cases, both to do with mixing light.
Case 1: to light backlit subjects. Look at Jason in Little Rock, Ark (on our way home). In image one, he is backlit, so while the background is exposed properly, he is too dark. Short of putting him into the sun, there is no way of escaping this problem other than by metering off him or using “+” exposure compensation (which would make the background way too bright), or by using what we call “fill flash”.

No Flash
You can even use your popup flash for this: it gets you from image one to image two, where Jason is lit properly:


Look how much better that looks. And note that in this case, where the flash is adding to existing light it is OK to aim straight at the subject.

Case 2: to darken the background; in particular, the sky. It comes as an epiphany to most photographers when they realise that you can make a blue sky anything from deep brooding dark blue to milky white, just by adjusting the exposure. Turning the sjy dark by overpowering (or “nuking”) the sun is a very powerful creative technique.
The picture of Daniel above, at The Alamo, illustrates this. I metered using the fully automatic evaluative (Nikon would call this “3D Matrix”) metering, and I used an exposure compensation setting of minus 1 stop. That darkened the sky. Then I used my 580EX MkII flash to add light to Daniel’s face, which would otherwise be way too dark. The shutter speed was 1/250th second (the 1Ds’s maximum sync speed) at f/14 at 100 ISO.
Case 3: to add colour. The BBQ picture below shows how this is done. Available light alone would not have made the meat (and Texas is all about meat) look at bright, vibrant, and if you are a carnivore, inviting. Adding flash (and in this case, bouncing it off the wall to avoid shadows) adds vibrancy to the colour that you would otherwise miss dearly.


So turn on your flash and have fun!

Know your A:B C

MVW_9056-1200If you use Canon’s excellent multi-flash E-TTL II, you can get great results with simple speedlites like the 430EX.

But you have to know how the system works. There are a few gotchas – like the sensitivity of the E-TTL system to highlights: one reflecting item in your shot and the entire picture is underexposed. except that reflective item.

One other thing to know is the way you set ratios. This is under-explained in the existing literature, and yet, is very simple once you know it.

You can divide your remote flashes into “groups” A, B, and C. The options for setting up these groups are are A+B+C, A:B, and A:B C.

A+B+C simply means “fire all as one big group”.

A:B means “I have set one or more of my flashes (including the one on the camera, if that is enabled to flash) as group “A”, and one or more flashes as group “B”. I want to fire so that the ratio between group A and B is as set; e.g. if I set 4:1, then the “A” flashes fire four times more brightly than the “B” flashes”. So unlike the Nikon CLS system, which sets “stops with respect to neutral exposure”, the Canon system sets “ratios with respect to each other”. Not difficult: just another way of looking at it.

The one mode that gets most people is A:B C. (Note, just a space between the B and the C). This option simply means “A and B are as before, but any flashes in group “C” will fire at high power and this group will not be taken into account when calculating overall picture exposure”. This means you use group “C” to light up a white background.
Like in the pictures here of my son Jason, which I took in five minutes this morning before work. Including setting it all up. Pictures like this one:


This picture was shot as follows: on our left, the “A” flash firing through an umbrella. On our right, the “B” flash also firing into an umbrella (you can see that in the reflections in his eye – you do always focus on the eyes, right?). And behind Jason firing at the white wall behind him, the “C” flash, aimed at the wall. All three of these are 430EX speedlites. On the camera, a 580EX II speedlite. This on-camera flash is disabled; it simply drives the three 430s. The system is set to A:B C, with an A:B ratio of 4:1 (the camera left side of the face is four times, i.e. two stops, brighter than the camera right side).


Simple, really.

If you want to learn more about this subject, Michael teaches Flash at Henry’s School of Imaging, or for more in-depth or customised training, privately, to a wide range of clients.

A softbox to the rescue


I have been playing with my new flash tools. I shoot things with three Canon 430EX Speedlites, driven by a 580EX speedlite on the camera. I use Honl Photo speedstraps, grids, snoots, and gels, and a Lumiquest softbox of the type pictured above.

But sometimes it is easier. The portrait on the right was of my friend and colleague Peter West an hour ago, on the Lakeshore Road in Oakville.


I shot Peter with the 1Ds MkIII with 50mm f/1.4 lens, set to “P” mode for a change.

On the camera, the 580EX flash that was not actually contributing light (master flash disabled). In my left hand, fired by the 580 EX’s infrared remote control, a 430EX flash fitted with a Honl speedstrap, a Honl 1/4 CTO gel to warm the light, and the Lumiquest softbox (available from Henry’s; description here).

I used two stops negative exposure compensation (-2 stops). That makes the background sky nice and blue and it makes the unlit face of Peter’s face two stops darker than the lit part. That’s what you want.

It is easy and it is effective. By using these simple techniques, even your snapshots can be well-lit and dramatic.