Got an email this morning from a friend asking for some suggestions about flash modifiers. Great subject.
Here’s some thoughts about flash modifiers which you’ll never hear about in those big retail store classes. I guess sitting in a crowded classroom with Uncle Fred and who knows who else is okay if you don’t want a more comprehensive course but here’s some of what I teach for just a few dollars more than the big guys and today, for you, it’s for free 🙂 And BTW requests for help never go unanswered by me. Just send me an email to peterwestphoto @ gmail.com (sorry for the spaces but I’m trying to avoid too much spam from software that picks out email addresses from blogs – evil behaviour IMHO). BTW if you’ve taken a basic flash course somewhere else, I guarantee you that you’ll learn so much more about creating amazingly better images using flash at one of my advanced courses. Look the big retail stores have to cater to a widely diverse audience and are skewed to the absolute newcomer. If you’ve had a course or two or had any experience with film or digital cameras my courses will help you to take that next big step to becoming a competent photographic craftsperson. The artist level I leave up to you 🙂 but first you’ve got to get control of your equipment.
Okay enough from the pulpit: Here’s the inside news on flash modifiers. (And BTW unlike some courses I have no hesitation in recommending some manufacturers over others and I recommend only equipment I’ve used and not something that some sales manager will pay me a commission if I sell it to you. Ugh.)
For pop-up flashes there are some modifiers like the Gary Fong Puffer. Modifiers like these lessen the harshness that a direct pop-up flash produces. If you don’t have an external flash or if you have a camera which won’t take an external flash this is a good way to get prettier flash images. It’s not as good as an external flash but at around $40 or so it’s a lot cheaper.
If you’re going to purchase an external flash I recommend buying a flash manufactured by the same company as manufactured your camera. There are some third-party flashes that are less expensive but a flash is not something you’re going to replace. I’ve got flashes that go back to the mid-1970s that still work just fine. If you think you’re going to do a lot of flash work then I’d suggest buying the manufacturers largest flash unit. Most camera companies like Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus and the rest often have two or more flash units in their product line. Here’s my mantra when it comes to flash: You can never have too much light 🙂 A big flash can be turned down but a small flash can’t be turned up.
When it comes to external flashes the best modifiers are the walls and ceilings of the room you’re shooting in. This is one of the big reasons for buying an external flash. The flash head itself rotates and goes up and down. So you can bounce your flash off a nearby surface and the less harsh reflected light will bathe your subject in beautiful soft, warm light. You can even bounce the light off a wall behind you thus turning the wall into a giant softbox which is another light modifier I’ll describe in future post.
So let’s say you’ve got an external flash and you’ve been bouncing the light all over the place but what do you do if you are shooting in a big banquet hall (the type with the ceiling about 15 meters high) or a room that’s got blue-painted walls and ceilings (I had to shoot a reception in a restaurant like this. Anytime I bounced my flash I got blue people and in a big banquet hall you’ll point your flash up and fire off a shot and almost no light will come back down.) These are situations where light modifiers like a Gary Fong Lightsphere is invaluable as are the HonlPhoto flash accessories.
The Lighstsphere fits over your flash head and cinches down with a velcro strap. When the flash goes off, the Lightsphere causes the light to diffuse and fly out in a 360 degree circle. The Lightsphere comes with a variety of modifiers such as an amber dome which warms up the image. While a little clunky to carry around, there are wedding and special events photographers who wouldn’t think of leaving their Lightsphere at home.
The HonlPhoto accessories are really cool. First they all fold flat into your camera bag for easy carrying around at all times. There are bounce cards, grids, gels and other modifiers that all velcro onto a velcro strap that just wraps around the flash head. Really if you can’t do it with a HonlPhoto accessory, it just can’t be done.
If you want to investigate more about flash diffusers here are two great sites: B&H Photo from the US which has a huge catalogue online and The Strobist blogsite. This is a wonderful resource for everyone interested in flash.
BTW if you want to save substantial amounts of cash when you purchase your equipment consider buying from B&H. You don’t have to be ripped off by Canadian retailers anymore. Here’s a couple of links to talk forums that discuss this issue. Here and here and here. And never let anybody ship via UPS as they charge brokerage fees but ship via US Post and my experience is your equipment will arrive at your door. You will have to pay taxes but you’d have to do that anyway. Just make sure any warranties will be honour here in Canada on equipment bought from the US. On stuff under a couple hundred dollars this isn’t an issue for me but if it was a $5000 camera I’d be checking.