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Off Camera Flash

So far, the vast majority of my photography has been in available light, with a small amount of on camera flash – and I think this is probably very normal for the keen amateur.

Taking a step to off camera flash has always felt like a big jump and for someone like me that never went to college to study photography; it has always seemed to be a really difficult and complex option.

Over the past year I have borrowed soft boxes for indoor shoots of small rooms – but they have never had enough power for large spaces – and unlike putting a gell onto a flash, they have made colour correcting really hard to sort out for me.

I think the last indoor shoot I did for my wife was the turning point, where the images had far too much shadow areas in them and the blue walls knocked the colours in the whole images – and so earlier this week Nathalie just told me to get my act together and sort out the kit I need to do a better job and stop prevaricating.

As this was the push I needed to take a step into the relative unknown and having already spent time putting together ideas of the kit I needed and the places to buy it – I took a trip to the lighting shops in Sham Shui Po – where most of the strobes, stands etc are from China and very realistically priced.

So as a basic kit – what did I buy?

The most important part of the kit was to change my reliance on soft boxes to strobes with shoot through umbrellas (and of course reflective ones too).

Rather than just buy stands and brackets for my current flashes, where the refresh rate depends on a bunch of AA batteries, I moved to plug in 800W ones from a Chinese company called Jinbei and their units the Digital Pioneers III.

The unit comes with a modeling lamp too that can be set at different levels plus an amazing refresh rate even at full power. Whilst trying the units out last night I cranked them up to full power and it was like someone setting of a small nuclear device in our living room – but I guess if you are going to take pictures like Terry Richardson then this is what you are going to want.

This unit fits directly onto a stand and doesn’t need a separate clamp for the umbrella as it is on the clamp already to ensure you are always pointing into or through the center of the unit.

Along with the two units, stands, umbrellas, extra grips and a smaller three stage stand for a flash unit, a meter of five different colour gells and spare bulbs – I also bought a carry case (thankfully with wheels) for the whole lots that can also be used to dispose of a medium sized body if this is ever needed in the future.

And finally, if you have got this far you are probably asking yourself about triggering the strobes – and this is the part that most people get a bit squeamish about as receivers can be the most expensive part of the deal. These strobes can be used together with Jinbei triggering units but as last year I had already invested in three Pocket Wizard units, the answer was already made up for me. Having asked a number of people about what to buy here and also seeing a number of professionals in the last couple of years with nothing but Pocket Wizards it seemed to be the general feeling that whatever units you started with, you would always end up with the PW as they are simply the easiest and most reliable units available.

The only point I would make here is that the socket on the strobe and the socket on the PW are 2.5mm jacks and the cables that come with both the strobes and the PW have a 2.5mm jack on one end and a camera flash socket on the other and so you will need to get some 2.5mm double ended cables before you can link the units.

So setting up the units, linking them to the camera, metering for flash etc is a really quick process and much simpler than you would think. I had the cables for the flashes changed to HK plugs from the China three prong and also got extra long cables to make it easier to move the stands around and used a digital SLR for test shots before strapping on the Nikon F5 and some Portra 400 and over the next 30 minutes tested out the units just to see some of the basic set ups and how the film worked.

The pictures are not stunning set ups as it was after work and I really didn’t fancy setting up anything major as my models (family) were all tucked up in bed already…

I took a bunch of the same thing to check the shutter sync in manual which goes from 1/30th up to 1/250th on the F5 and metered with a hand held flash meter that was on the over exposed side of what I was looking for (I turned the highlights down on the image).

I didn’t use a grey card to meter but will do to see if I get more realistic readings.

The image above was f11 with the background blurred through distortion control on the 135/2 DC lens.

I am sure I can meter these off the camera in some way without taking shots – but the F5 manual is very thick indeed and I have been lazy with reading it so far. it has taken me a while to get comfortable with the idea of an F5 as I love the older and manual cameras so much – but running this is aperture priority is a dream.


So that leaves me with the obvious question to anyone living in HK who reads this or is traveling through HK – if you want to sit for some portraiture for me, then please drop me a line as I would be delighted to make this happen.

Posted by simon on February 16, 2012

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