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slave flash placement for portraits

Amber Bowins , Mar 30, 2004; 10:42 p.m.

I am very new to photography, and I am happy to say that I have learned a great deal since "discovering" photo.net. I have a small office space that I am using as a miniature studio (about 10'x17'). At first I was using hot lights for my main lighting, and although they worked OK, they made the room very hot and uncomfortable. Since I mainly photograph children and babies this of course was not working. I have recently replaced those lights with 3 slave flash units (guide no 90). They are the lightbulb type and I screwed them into metal cone reflectors. I also use an on camera flash (guide no 130) bounced from the white ceiling to trigger them. Per a photographer-friends request I covered the cones with difuser material. My question is........(did ya think I'd ever get here???) Where should I place the strobes? With the hot lights I could see the effect that I was getting. I bought a flash meter to determine exposure but Im not sure where to place the lights to flatter the subject the most. High or low? One behind as a backlight? Right now I have 2 of the flashes at 7' high on either side of the camera and one behind the subject at 8'. and of course the on camera flash bounced. Subject is usually 2'-4' from floor. Any advice greatly appreciated. Sorry so long to explain!

Too bright and harsh....Taken before I bought flash meter


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Bill Cornett , Mar 30, 2004; 11:07 p.m.

Amber- As you are learning, it is very hard to determine just exactly what your flashes are doing if they don't have modeling lights. I would recommend that you soften your light with umbrellas or some other large diffusion surface, but again, without modeling lights that's hard to track.

You don't specify what type of camera you are shooting with. If it is a digital, then you have the possibility of checking your lighting with the on-camera display, but this can take some time.

Unitl you get some better lights and gain some experience, I think your best option might be to create a generic light set-up that you can live with. The light won't be too dynamic and you won't be able to change it to suit different subjects or needs, but it will get things properly exposed.

Try two lights in umbrellas set up three feet above the subject and either side of the camera. The third you can either set up behind the camera shooting light over your shoulder to control the ratio, or use reflectors to soften the shadows and use the third light as a hair light (you'll need to create some sort of snoot for it, if you do).

You'll have to shoot all your subjects in one spot, and not vary your lighting unless you want to do a lot of testing first. Note that this light will not be too interesting, but it will be consistent. It's similar to what the people use who go around shooting portraits for churches and firehouses, etc.

But I think that this is one of those situations where you will learn that there is a reason for somewhat more expensive monobloc strobes. Frankly, if I were you I would have purchased one inexpensive Alien Bee strobe and one umbrella, which would probably have cost about as much as your three slaves, but it would have been much more capable and versitile. I shoot a lot of jobs with just one light, and if you know how to work it, it can work out extremely well. -Bill C.

Amber Bowins , Mar 30, 2004; 11:15 p.m.

I appreciate the advice. Cost was definately an issue when I decided to buy the slaves. I just dropped $450 on a canon 85/1.8USM lens and a 50/1.8.(my husband had alot of trouble understanding why I spent more on the lenses than the camera!) I am shooting with a canon rebel 2000 and have been saving up for a digital rebel or 10D. I would like to also know wether any of you would recomend as a priority to buy a good lighting system or upgrade my camera body.

Mark Lloyd , Mar 31, 2004; 05:21 a.m.


Lights 1st, your current camera eqipment is more than adequate.

If you are trying to do this as a business then do yourself and your clients a favour and get some decent lights, yes you will also need umbrellas/softbox and reflectors.

Your studio space is a little tight for anything much bigger than a baby as you don't really have enough space to move the lights around. Having said that I have taken many succesfull portraits in peoples homes with far less space.

As said before find a setup that works and then add more setups as you get more experienced.

You can always take a few safe shots with your basic setup and then try a couple of new ones, if they work make a note so you can use them again if not make some notes about what you think would work better and try that next time.

If you buy some lights with proportional modelling lights you will be able to see the effect before you press the shutter and can make sure the catchlights are in the eyes etc...

Ken Burns , Mar 31, 2004; 01:09 p.m.

Amber, when it comes to buying equipment cheap, inadequate equipment is usually money wasted. As you have found, you really need a lighting system with modelling lights. Without them, your lights are mostly useless.

As far as where to place the lights, put them where they make the subject look best. Its that simple. There are certain lighting techniques that have stood the test of time and are used daily by pro portrait photographers. All kinds of books have been written about the techniques. Check http://www.amherstmedia.com, they have a lot of good books that discuss lighting. Check the free lessons at the Photoflex website: http://www.webphotoschool.com/newschool/Default.asp. And check the forums and archives at http://www.zuga.net.

Lukas Kisiel , Mar 31, 2004; 03:23 p.m.

Well, if you sell your 85mm lens... you can may be get up to Digital Rebel and use 50mm lens as a 75mm portrait lens (works quite well). Then you'd get an instant digital review option which you might like better than experimenting with expensive light systems that have modeling lights. Keep in mind that pros use a lot of polaroid film to find the right setup! Your final result will be right there on the screen and you can shoot again if you need to. Guess work yes, but very convenient.

Now, there is no alternative to a good lighting system. For babies, though, i.e. small subjects, you don't really need powerful strobes. What you do need is umbrellas/reflectors/softbox to soften the shadows.

So, first umbrellas/softbox/reflectors, then, may be, a camera body, since you're already thinking about it.

Ken Burns , Mar 31, 2004; 04:07 p.m.

Also, for info on classic lighting and poses for children and adult check here http://jzportraits.home.att.net/.

Critter ... , Apr 01, 2004; 08:55 a.m.

Crank the AC and go back to hotlights. Diffusion is your friend. Try different setups to gain a feel for it. Vary the angle of your key light, figure out what you like as fill and then work on seperating from the background with a hairlight. Once you figure out what works for your taste, you should be able to translate it to flash with confidence.

Jeff Fiore , Apr 01, 2004; 03:39 p.m.

I agree with the modeling lights - they are really helpful. I elected not to buy cheap underpowered monolights with 40 to 60 watt modeling lights. 40 to 60 watts is basically useless and the output of the flashes are pretty low. A good modeling light wattage is at least 150 Watts - higher is better - proportional modeling lights are even better.

As for your current setup, your on-camera flash is obviously more powerful than your slave strobes. Even bouncing off the ceiling will influence the scene lighting to a large degree. I assume that when you say on-camera flash, you mean a flash on the hot-shoe - NOT a builtin flash (I've never seen a builtin flash with a guide number of 130). Since your on-camera flash is probably infuencing your photos, I would recommend covering the flash with about 2 unexposed strips of any E-6 process film (Ektachrome, for example). This will block most of the visible light but pass the IR light which will trigger your slaves. This is how I do it with my setup and it works fine.

Jeff Fiore , Apr 01, 2004; 05:02 p.m.

I took a look at your portfolio and noticed that I did rate one of your baby photos (5 days old 6). Diffusing the flashes are a good idea - don't use direct flash. You can also bounce them off an umbrella for a softer light. Umbrellas can be bought for under $20.00. Your inexpensive setup (like mine) can do the job once you add some accessories. The accessories I'm adding are flexible enough to grow with and use on future expensive pro flashes.

Keep in mind that your strobes are not variable power (I assume) so distance will control the lighting ratios, you have to move them. Since you have a flash meter, this should not be too difficult.

My cheap setup consists of 2 Sunpak 544 flashes with AC adapters, 1 60" Photek Umbrella Softlighter II, 1 small Photoflex softbox (my first accessory), 2 small eclipse umbrellas, 1 22" white/silver reflector, 1 42" white/sunfire gold reflector. I chose to use the Sunpaks because I already had one, the guide number is 140 and the flexability of AC and battery power. This setup will do until I can afford a good professional setup.

If it's in your budget, you can also get the Photek Umbrella Softlighter II - 36" for $50.00


These will fit just about any flash including your slaves (it has an elastic sock-like sleeve).I bought the 60" ($75.00) model and have been very happy with the results.

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