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Studio Strobe Kit (rental w/out guidance)

Lorin Alusic , Nov 09, 2001; 04:42 p.m.

My questions stem from my experience with a studio strobe kit rental (story below).

1.) What things would I need to rent to shoot a single person (whole body to headshot)? i.e. handheld light meter(I now know I need this), 1200W/s kit w/ 2 strobes vs. 2400W/s w/ 2 strobes, etc. 2.) What are some basic steps/controls of a studio flash kit? i.e. I know there is a modeling light and a strobe, and you can control the intensity of the strobe and the modeling light. 3.) Are there any hard and fast rules for delivering conservative results? (I know this is a question that might have either no answer or thousands, I’m crossing my fingers (again) for one.) 4.) What should I buy? Should I have a gray card? Or can I skip this? If I can fork out the cash for the light meter, should I invest? I plan to do more studio shots, while I find existing light photos more satisfying (and thus I am a neophyte w/r/t flash), but I hope to pay off some of my equipment with a paying job or two down the road.

My Story... (sad but true)

This weekend I took one step forward too many… I was shooting a friend for an annual postcard, and I decided to rent a studio strobe kit to enhance our results. The kicker is that I have never used a studio strobe… Yes, I took a step forward into the dark. I quickly realized, as the strobe illuminated my location, I had stepped off quite the precipice.

When I rented the kit, a Calumet 1200 w/ two strobes and umbrella reflectors, I was given little guidance. I walked into the store at 5:30PM on Friday; 30 min prior to their close and the “regular” rental guy had gone home early. I had a choice: take what I was given or go home empty handed. I chose the first option. I also rented a camera-mounted flash as a failsafe.

I brought the “whole” kit (less the reflectors, the fill in rental guy could not find them) home to figure it out for myself. When my girlfriend got home I set the “whole” kit up to burn some film to see if I could use the kit up for the “actual” shoot on Sunday. I discovered that I was short one of the strobe power cords, which go to the strobe from the power pack. The stands, I learned later were background stands, did not fit the strobe’s stand mounts. I figured out how to mount the one light I could power up with an umbrella and started firing. I shot three rolls of film using various lenses while moving various switches and dials (I did not have an instruction manual, nor did I expect one). Luckily, I favor the side light look I expected from the one strobe. I brought those rolls into a mini-lab and crossed my fingers.

The prints I got back were acceptable, yet while I was using my 80- 200 f/2.8 lens every frame was under exposed. I wish I knew which combination of on camera and power pack alterations I made to cause the under exposure, but that is my own fault.

I brought my new knowledge to the shoot and crossed my fingers again. After a few rolls and some more discovery we felt like we had enough to work with. We also shot a roll with the camera-mounted flash, again as a failsafe.

Of the prints we got, all were pretty good, barring the normal “not it” shots. I did have a few shots that were blown out and I had a few that were a little strange, but not overexposed. All the shoots that we chose as finalists for the post cards were from the camera- mounted flash. I don’t think that was a function of the lighting as much as it was from my comfort in composing the shots I wanted with a much more known light source.

Thanks for any input. (Questions at top) LA


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Art Haykin , Nov 10, 2001; 03:46 a.m.

Normally, when one rents a piece or a bunch of technical equipment, it is assumed he or she knows how to use it. Supposing it were a backhoe, or a radial saw, or a cement mixer. Buy or rent, you should know what you're in for, andI think your were (are) in clearly over your head. You have tocrawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Your question(s) seem to reveal a near total lack of knowledge ofphotography, yet you set yourself a fairly tough goal or project. I can only ask "Why?!"

Matthew Kees , Nov 10, 2001; 04:26 a.m.

I use Calumet strobes myself. Next time get monoblocks (self contained units), not a power pack and heads. It is much easier to set them up with fewer cords. You will need two lights, a sync cord, an umbrella reflector (with umbrella) and a normal reflector for basic lighting. Also get a Minolta IV F light meter.

Basic two light set up is a Key light (near the camera) and a background or hair light (choice is yours). Put an umbrella on the Key light so that it covers the spread of light, a reflector on the other and aim it at the background or high above and on the hair from the back. Don't let the back light spill into the lens. A small snoot made from foil will help.

The camera should be cable synced to the key light and the second light set to slave mode. It will fire when the first light fires.

Use the Minolta meter at the sync setting and remove the sync cord from the camera and place it into the meter. Stand where the subject is and fire. Make sure ISO and shutter speed are set correctly (use a speed at or below the camera sync). The dome should be facing the key light or halfway betweeen the key and lens when using negative film. Check the background (or hair light) by aiming the dome directly at it. A hair light can be a stop over and the background light can be anything at or above the key.

You should adjust the key light to be about f/8 for a full length shot. Go back and set your camera to the correct f/stop and shutter speed and fire away. Be sure not to use a too fast shutter speed for the camera's sync.

Andreas Heimbrandt , Nov 10, 2001; 10:18 a.m.

Check out Phil's Studio Primer

Well you should get a book for starters then read Phil's primer and then try it with one light, that can be difficult enough. I prefeer using a bouncer (softbox) for the mainlight since it is so soft. That doesn't require much power from the hair light or caracter light in order to add some depth to the setup.

Since you seem to be totaly new to this why not attend a workshop?

Mark M , Nov 10, 2001; 10:19 a.m.

Congratulations Lorin. This is a terrific way to learn. Don't worry about being in over your head; you will pick this up quickly with practice.

Matthew has given you good advice. I would add to be careful about how quickly you shoot. Exposure should be pretty easy to nail with an incident flash meter. If you are getting exposures all over the place, you might not be giving the pack enough time to recharge. Most packs have some sort of indicator light or chime (or both) to let you know when it's ready. Remeber this is important when you meter too.

If you have a flash meter, you will find no need for a gray card. If you can afford one and will use it often, you should buy your own. This way you can get used to it and calibrate it towars your shooting style. I agree with Matthew on the Minolta--it's what I use.

Getting good "conservative results" is really about posing and light placement. Keep it simple and go to the bookstore. Check out "Light Science & Magic" by Fil Hunter and Paul Fuqua. It's a great introduction. Next time you rent something, try to arrange it so the guy at Calumet is there and can explain the basic pack operation. It isn't difficult, but it can be hard to tell what all those switches do if you've never seen them before. I have written a simple (very basic) description of one particular lighting setup you might find informative whe you have some time here

Scott Laughlin , Nov 10, 2001; 10:26 a.m.

A lot of questions that can be answered with a good book on portrait lighting technics, but I'll give my 2 cents. In most circumstances the 2 head 1200ws will be plenty with an added reflector of some sort. One as the key light, one as fill on full body or hair on headshot. Use the reflector as hightlight or background for full body. The incedent meter is far easier, but if you're using the meter in the camera you can hold a grey card in front of the model's face and get the same results. If you're going to do this more often, invest in the incedent meter. The key light will be pretty close to the subject so you'll be suprised how little light you need from this in a controlled setting. Soften the light via umbrella, softbox, or simply shoot through a diffuser. If you're using a soft box or diffuser, you can use the on camera flash as fill and to trigger the slave. The lighting actuall get's a bit more complicated for head shots. Have a look at B&H's website. They have a quick tutorial for headshots using Q-flashes.

Mark M , Nov 10, 2001; 11:44 a.m.

but if you're using the meter in the camera you can hold a grey card in front of the model's face and get the same results.

While true for many circumstances, this is not true when using strobes. There are very few in-camera meters that will meter studio flash.

Josh Root , Nov 10, 2001; 01:32 p.m.

"Light Science & Magic" By Hunter Fuqua is a great book to address lots of basic (and some not so basic) studio lighting problems. I suggest getting a copy, after reading it you will be well on your way.

g. wiley , Nov 11, 2001; 02:24 a.m.

Back when I was in college, there was a big chalkboard in the photo studio that had the words "Strike Your Sets- Or Die!" (in parathensis is lower case letters was "okay, okay, please strike your sets or die!). Nothing else was written on that chalkboard, and throughout my time in college no one ever erased this warning. Basically it was a reminder to alway discharge your strobes before powering off. Many of todays strobe pack have automatic power dumping, so it's not a big a deal today- and for all I know the packs we had automatic dumping-heck it wasn't that long ago. But what it was really was, was a constant reminder that these weren't toys- you get a little careless, and you can be fried. Consider youself lucky that you didn't harm yourself, or cause damage to the gear while playing with 1200 w/s of power. The time to ask questions was before you took a pack out for stroll, and certainly well before 30 minutes till closing.

That's said its good to hear you want to learn about lighting. Matthew has given you some very good advice. Monolights are much simpler (and safer) to use that packs and 1200 w/s is more than enough for your doing. Two 600 w/s units is good starting point, even two 300 w/s units will do fine. Before you rent another light kit, rent a flash meter, experiment with your handheld strobe- in manual mode, maybe even renting a couple extra handhelds along with slave units. Experiment with power ratios setting a fill flash unit 1 or 2 stops below the metered F/stop opposite main unit, or an edge light a stop above. Look ways to separate you subject for the background, or bring brackground detail to light with fill flash or even reflectors such as zip discs or foam core. Avoid unwanted shadows by raising your strobe high, and and only introducing extra fill lights when the same thing can't be achieved with reflectors. Experiment with bouncing light off of walls and reflectors.

When your ready to move up to high powered strobes, call ahead to the rental agent, explain your using strobe for the first time, that you need a briefing on the controls, and any safety issues. Don't expect a lighting lesson, because you won't get one, and try to be as knowledgable ahead of time on the unit you are renting as possible by talking with sales people. My favorite lighting books are Roto Photography Pro Lighting series because of the detail diagrams they provide. Just be aware that these are Pro lighting setups, and the average photography has no need for such elaborate equipment, so avoid the equipment envy- three lights and some reflectors is all most photographers need.

Lorin Alusic , Nov 11, 2001; 05:44 p.m.

Thank all of you for your replies! I know I am stomping around like Baby Huey. Since my rental experience I have purchased a book on studio lighting, always good advice ahead of time…

I also thank you for your warnings about the power packs. I have used heavy electrical equipment for various activities in the past and I was concerned about the possibility of accidental discharge. Until I received your warnings, I did not know that these accidental discharges happen often. I guess I was lucky.

I hope nobody took my story to read as if I was expecting any guidance from the folks at Calumet. That was not the intention. They are great folks who are most helpful.

I especially would like to thank those of you who took the time to read my questions, my story and reply! I know from experience, through having expertise in a different activity, that folks who are new to your realm are sometimes a bother and often leap before they look. Your reminders that I was leaping without looking, was a good way for me to take a step back and look at the overall goal. However, I am not unhappy with pushing myself way beyond my comfort zone. Barring obvious safety issues, I would do it again.

Thanks LA

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