Softly softly.

For last night’s picture, what did I use?

Here’s the answer. It was a simple softbox. This one:

Bowens Softbox

That gives a beautiful and soft-yet-directional light – which is why softboxes are the gold standard for portraits.

Bowens Softbox

Can you see in the shot above how the light drops off beautifully and softly?

Camera lit with softbox

In a small room, the softbox alone is enough. For a beauty portrait, of course, I might add any of the following:

  • A reflector, underneath the model’s chin, to bounce light back.
  • A hair light (using a snoot).
  • A a background light, perhaps with a gel to change the wall’s colour.

But those are optional: quite often a standard beauty light softbox is all you need. So there you go.

A softbox is better than an umbrella because

  1. It is much more controllable.
  2. It does not throw (spill) light all over the room where you do not necessarily want it.
  3. Being double diffused, a softbox produces a softer light than an umbrella.
  4. It produces a more even light, and avoids hotspots more.

True: it is less convenient because it is bigger and heavier, does not fold into a tiny area, takes longer to set up, and costs more. But considering the advantages above, a softbox may still be the way to go.

Try using a single light with a softbox, and see how you get on!

A shot from the course

At the Mono “Creative Light” workshop,  we do different portfolio shots every time.

So imagine our delighted on Sunday when a student turned up in a Hummer. This was immediately put to use by model Tara:

Tara Elizabeth and Hummer

Tara Elizabeth and Hummer

That was lit how?

This is how: with a softbox, to our left. And a small speedlight to our left aimed straight at the car – with a blue Honl gel. Both were fired using pocketwizards (the speedlite using a Flashzebra cable). Metered using a light meter, of course.

Here is an alternate take:

Angry Tara Elizabeth, with Hummer

Angry Tara, with Hummer

That was taken just a few minutes before. Can you see how every minute counts when shooting in beautiful late day light?

Okay, one more. Just to show that lens flare – which should normally be avoided – can sometimes be OK:

Angry with tire iron

Angry with tire iron

You avoid flare by:

  • Using a lens hood
  • Shielding the lens with your hand
  • Avoiding lens filters
  • Pointing slightly away from the light source

Have fun!

One more quick recipe

Quick recipe for you.

Remember this shot, done in the workshop I taught three days ago in Las Vegas with David Honl?

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas, by Michael Willems

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas

Shot how, you ask? I mean – at what settings and such?

  • Camera: 1D Mark IV with 35mm f/1.4L prime lens.
  • 100 ISO.
  • Camera on manual, 1/320th second at f/16 (slightly exceeding the 1/300th sec synch speed).
  • Flash is an SB900, also on manual (“M” rather than “TTL”); set to full power (“1/1”).
  • Flash is on a boom, and is fitted with a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox (notice the nice round catchlights), and is held a couple of feet from Yasmin’s face.

And you know that at full power, with a softbox, an SB900 will give you those settings.

A 430EX will need to be about twice as close to her face.

Try your own flash at those settings: how close do you need to hold it to ensure proper exposure, using the modifier of your choice. Once you know that, it will always be the same. Simple, really.

Note: the SB900 flash will overheat at these settings, especially in Las Vegas. A dozen shots in you will suddenly get no more flashes. The Nikon flash cannot be used at full power, while the Canon flashes can. With a Nikon SB800/900 flash, I would simply go to half power and live with that. If I needed more light, I would add another flash.

Want to know more? Want to learn all this and go home with a few cool portfolio shots? There is still space on the all-day Advanced Flash workshop Sunday in Mono, Ontario. Book now to get a spot.

Oh, one more thing. Am I cheating? Is this just sunlight lighting up Yasmin?

I think not. Here is the same shot without firing the flash (always a good thing to do to test your settings!):

I rest my case.

Flash tip

When your flash is grossly overexposing your pictures…

  • The flash is not seated correctly, or the contacts are dirty
  • The flash is set to MAN (manual), instead of TTL
  • You are using + Flash Exposure Compensation (or on a Nikon, also Exposure Compensation).
  • You are simply too close.

Those are four obvious starting points.

Here is me, pictured by David Honl in Las Vegas the other evening. Using a Leica X1 with off camera flash equipped with CTO gel and Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox.

Michael Willems, shot by photographer David Honl

Michael Willems, shot by David Honl using a Leica and flash

Son in car

My son, just now, in a car in broad daylight, in a shot that took only a couple of minutes to set up:

I used three speedlites on light stands; all three were fired using e-TTL light control from a fourth one on the camera.

One speedlite is on camera right, one on the left, and one in the middle using a new Honl softbox to light up his face.

Of course with a few more minutes I would have

  • Moved the softbox so it did not reflect,
  • Positioned the other better
  • Used more gels to add more colour
  • Cleaned the car more

… but with a teenager, even three minutes is a rare gift.