Strobes, Umbrellas, Beauty Dishes, Etc.

Traveling light

Confession; I have way more lighting do-dads than anyone should. I probably have more lights as well. I took a well deserved break from real work for a few days and travelled up north to Providence, RI. No real agenda from a picture making point of view, just make a couple of pictures here and there as the opportunity arose. You can probably guess by the title that I took some lighting equipment with me. (Sorry for the subtitle, I just couldn’t resist)

Umbrella directly overhead with a slight bias toward the front without a boom.

Given I have so much lighting gear laying around from thermonuclear powered pack/heads to a bunch of monolights, to Elinchrom ELB400’s, to speedlights you might be interested in my goto kit when traveling alone on a train or a plane. Without a lot of suspense, I took the Profoto B2. That little light is fast becoming the light I travel with. I’ll detail my current travel/do anything kit a little further down.

Considerations

  • I knew there were no large modifiers around where I was staying (a photographer friend that doesn’t use strobes much) So umbrella it is, they’re easy to transport, setup, and break down. I took a 6 footer.
  • The B2 one light kit is a really small physically which I was already taking a bunch of stuff.
  • I hate the umbrella adaptor on the Elinchrom ELB. I’ve broken two of the plastic “standard” umbrella shaft holders on the Elinchrom adaptor so far.
  • I also took a portable beauty dish. I have that for the Profoto and the ELB so umbrella + beauty dish = Profoto.
  • Oh, I didn’t need a lot of power or a lot of unplugged time so the Profoto B2 won the day.

You can probably guess I’m a bit stupid about what most people would consider minor nits when it comes to lighting gear. You’re right. We all have those little things that bug us beyond reason. Mine happen to be shitty, fiddly, lighting gear and grip. Radios have to work, as in always always always. Stands and mounts have to be easy and solid. Mounting of modifiers etc has to be accomplished with as few parts and adaptors as possible, etc.

The Details

The Profoto B2 comes with an pretty decent carry bag that’s extremely compact with two sets of straps for attaching external gear to both sides. Here’s what goes inside and out:

That’s all fits either inside the little B2 bag or strapped to the outside. That entire thing slides over the handle my small wheeled suit case. What’s more is I can handle just about anything with the above and create almost any look I need especially if I have some ambient to work with. Even with zero ambient it’s perfect for single subjects. That sounds like a lot but that entire kit for me fits in a bag that about 10" x 10" x 14" with the exception of the umbrella.

Very Large Silver Umbrella

Moving on to the setups, I figured I’d answer two questions I got via Instagram regarding how two shots I posted were lit. Let’s take the shot at the top first

  • A 6 foot umbrella with a silver interior. I’ve used a bunch of these over the years but I really like the Profoto umbrella deep variety. Control like a box or octa but super easy setup/breakdown/transport and relatively inexpensive.
  • Positioning was directly to camera right and directly above Marianna pointing down. So imagine a bit less than half of the umbrella hanging over M. A boom would have allowed me to get it more directly over M. but I took a very simple/small stand that folds down to less than 2 feet. I pulled the stand ever so slightly forward after my test shot so that it lit a bit more in front of her. I’d say maybe a foot forward of directly on center above. The nice thing about traveling with an umbrella that large is you can get light directly overhead without a boom. If you have anyone around to help you can do that too with the beauty dish or bare head.
  • Height which is very important was in the neighborhood of 3 feet above M.’s hair.
  • Power was a little less than half. Half as in “5” on the 2–10 scale on the Profoto B2.
  • Shot with the XT-1 1/180th ISO 400 f/8

I love overhead stuff like this, don’t know why but I do. The movement of the whole mess slightly forward gave me a smidgen of light from the front to bring up the forward facing parts of M. slightly above black. So why silver umbrella’s? Good question. I find them far more controllable than your typical white (or shoot-thru which have pretty much no control of keeping light off anything). The deeper they are the more control as well. Slapping a diffuser on the front of a silver umbrella makes it a whole lot like either big octa or a white umbrella with diffuser so I’ll take the versatility when only bringing one large modifier.

Take a look at the background in the photo above. that’s a white wall about 6 to 8 feet away. White walls are extremely difficult to get that dark if there’s any spill even with the light only 3 feet above M. You can clearly see the gradient from the top to the bottom of the background. That’s decent control even for a non-grided box. Take a look below for a setup that was pointing the umbrella with a diffuser sock on it at M. from camera right to see what I mean. I had to point the umbrella with that white diffuser almost parallel to keep as much light off the background as possible. That’s more or less like a white umbrella in terms of spread.

Umbrella with diffuser feathered off to the left.

The other, other thing about silver umbrellas is that one way or another they can be focused a whole lot more than white. In other words silver umbrella’s tend to have a pronounced hot spot in the middle of the light they cast that can be tuned by sliding the strobe up and down the shaft. This can be a bad thing if you don’t know where you are putting that hot spot. It can be a good thing if you want a bit of gradation on the scene for things at equal distances.

24 Inch Beauty Dish

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Beauty Dish

I only took three or four frames with the beauty dish on this particular occasion messing around with M. It was getting late, we were hungry and I didn’t feel like figuring out where I could make the pictures I wanted. That futon with the spread flopped over it was just too soft to get any good shapes going so above is my exposure test with M. just lying on her back (not what I wanted). We called it quits after that but I kind of liked this shot except for that black arm on the lower right.

  • Beauty dish bout 4 feet to camera right and 3 feet above M. Pretty far away for a beauty dish but you can see it produces the typical dish shadow edges and a bit of specularity as well.
  • A lot less power to get the same exposure specs as the shots above.
  • At that distance theres still about a stop falloff between the closest and farthest parts of M. Just about what I was going for.

Here’s the thing. If you’re not used to bringing your own light to the table it may seem a bit odd to you that a 24" modifier makes a bight, high key picture where a six foot modifier is making a dark low-key picture. Well you can make as many shadows as you want on the subject or as few. You can also choose to light up the stuff around/behind your subject or not. I just happened to use a harder more specular source for the higher key shot and a larger softer source for the lower key shots. That’s what I was talking about when discussing controllability of large umbrellas and why I tend to like silver a bit better for most things, unless I do want to put light everywhere.

Beauty dishes are fantastically versitle. Their great for tighter shots used close giving a crispness but not super hard. They can work for wider shots used close as well if you want a bit of falloff to focus attention on a particular spot. If you slap a diffuser on the front they’re a lot like a small 2ft octa as well. I am super happy Profoto makes a folding version that’s pretty difficult to decern from the very bulky to carry hard dish. Sure it’s not perfectly round in the catch lights but it’s so close it would be hard to tell with anything that’s not a macro shot.

Where you point the light and position it relative to the subject is really really important. Just to drive a point home, below is a quick shot I made with that big umbrella and the white diffuser on the front just positioned differently and a bit farther away than the black and white shots above.

Wide
Large umbrella with diffuser for a different look.

It’s kind of infinite what you can do with one light and a few modifier’s if you pick the right ones. Realize that the couple of frames here are with no additional reflectors, no assistants, and absolutely zero ambient fill. With some ambient indoors or out you really have two lights as long as you are flexible with the ISO in some cases.

End Notes

All pictures made with the Fuji XT-1 and 18–55mm XF. Kind of a habit when I’m shooting with flash. Processing via Lightroom CC and some B/W preset of mine with a bit of fake grain. Same with the color, a bit of fake grain and a preset that skews the color a bit one way or another similar to the Fuji ProNeg Hi setting in camera.