Revised - Great results with simple home made flash units

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keepreal Contributing Member • Posts: 664
Revised - Great results with simple home made flash units

For anyone who looked at this before 12:44 GMT Sunday   18th November 2017, now there are considerable changes.

Depending upon your needs, skills and experience I am surprised and delighted to discover that you do not need to buy or make elaborate flash reflectors or boxes to get good results with flash. If you know what makes for a good lighting setup, a very simple and inexpensive arrangement is all you need.

If you know your lighting well enough, the beauty with digital is that it is possible to work blind with no modelling lights. You can always check early on in each session by downloading to your PC or a tablet. For that reason, I intend to shoot RAW plus JPEG in future when I use flash, to facilitate this. However, pure trial and error is not the answer. For one thing, your models would become cheesed off if you took too long about it.

Having specialised in portraiture for may years I learned my stuff at the then famous photographic school at the Ealing Polytechnic, London, UK in the 1960s. We used to use tungsten lighting with photoflood bulbs that overran the filaments so burnt very bright, but they only lasted for about four hours. Eventually I turned to flash, ending up with three professional quality Courtenay studio units with soft reflectors and tungsten modelling lamps. In those days I used colour negative film and liked Fuji Astia for its soft gradation.

I had to sell most of my equipment during a long haul back to normal life following redundancy in the early 1990s so, rather than replace it all, I turned to landscape photography. So no flash at all between 1990 and 2012, when I bought a secondhand Nikon speedlight SB-26 in mint condition to use at my son's wedding.

Last week (12/11/2017) I bought a second SB-26, also in mint condition and from the same store. Here, after very, very little experimentation is what I managed with my setup using those two flashguns.

Not the most successful result put the lighting on the face is excellent. At least, that is my opinion. It was a challenge to focus manually with nothing precise to focus on when you are doing a self-portrait, so do not complain if this is not too sharp viewing the original. If the endeavour had been to get a good picture rather than to test the lighting, I would have put more effort into this. This image is a moderate crop from a D610, so is full frame.

Using the setup described below, both flashes were set at 1/4 power and that gives enough light for f/5.6 at 100 ISO. In fact, I originally underexposed by 1.5 stops but established this with FastRawViewer afterwards. Not that it actually mattered that much because the sensor still recorded what I needed.

That's me, by the way, in a Stetson I bought in Flagstaff in 2011 on my best vacation ever, to the South West USA, touring over 3500 miles by road over 23 days and getting some memorable pictures, mostly in Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon southern rim.

At 73 my skin is very good for my age with next to no wrinkles and most people think I am quite a lot younger. Nevertheless what harshness there is, like the bags under my eyes and slight blotchiness are me rather than the lighting.

Don't try to see the original, I have not uploaded it as the focus is not brilliant, given that I had to approximate on the back of the chair I was going to sit in plus a guess at the adjustment for how much nearer than that my face would be. It is sharpest at my left ear.

I have two very Heath Robinson efforts, if you know that UK Expression for a very crude and amateurish design, which are used to bounce the flash. I did not want to buy units for the little use to which they would be put, if I did not have to. Besides, in any case, I wanted very compact efforts to use in a small room.

Having looked up many sites on the web about the use of umbrellas and soft boxes before and since, I now do not believe anything else would do better, however expensive. True, a large soft box would be necessary for very soft and even lighting such as you often see in Harpers or Vogue, but what I wanted was more dramatic lighting than that, but without harshness and ugly shadows. My idol for portraiture is Yousuf Karsh, so my style is along similar lines to the extent that I am able to follow his example.

The first unit uses a white card about 12 x 15 inches stuck at the end of a wooden dowel about 18 inches long. I devised it so that the card can be removed by having a small, narrow tube fixed to the centre that slips over the end of the dowel.

The second unit, made only this week consists of a plastic box about 8 x 10 x 10 inches WHD which I painted white inside. You can see the setup I used for my shot above in the rather poor quality handheld shot below, which I took in available artificial light with my second camera. I have circled the flash units I made and the camera on a tripod. I sat in the chair in the foreground, set as it is there.

Both the flashguns are held by their shoes in stands fixed by a tripod thread and pointed away from the subject. They reflect the light back, either off the card or on the inside of the plastic box. I found that a diffuser for the latter was not necessary, did not even make a discernible difference. The results are better than I had expected, so I see no point in buying umbrella units or soft boxes, which I had thought would probably be necessary to get good lighting. I am delighted I was wrong. The only addition that sometimes will improve the result is a low power light on the background to make some variation in tone.

In the process of producing the image of myself for this test, I discovered a few useful things that will help me a lot in future. Depending upon your workflow, what I discovered may be of interest to you.

Firstly, I had a lot of trouble getting good skin tones, especially since I did not want to have post processing distort the results and get in the way of deciding if I got the flash lighting right. One of my problems is that shooting RAW, I need to set the white balance for flash light sources but had no means of doing this. Trying to make manual adjustments in Photoshop to the RGB colour balance got me nowehere. My RAW developer just does not help me over this. I cannot use Photoshop because I have CS2 and Adobe Camera Raw 2.4 in that does not cater for the Nikon D610. My usual RAW developer does but lacks sufficient alternatives to alter the white balance.

The above is the first result using a technique that satisfies the need perfectly. First, I convert my RAW to DNG 2,4 in the Adobe Raw Converter. That allows me to put the images into CS2 and have Adobe Camera Raw available. In that there is a white balance setting for flash and the result I got is without further manipulation, except to darken the image and cool it down with a blue filter.

Yes, there is further manipulation of the image but not to the lighting or the skin tones. I relieved heavy shadow over my left eye because of the hat and lowered the glare from my shirt. I also darkened the background and got rid of a nasty shadow in the lower left hand corner, that presumably from me projected onto the rear wall.

Of course for a volume merchant who relies upon a degree of trial and error and wants to use a high proportion of the results, what I am doing would not be at all suitable. However, I prefer to take as few frames as possible and, even then, only bother with the very bet of them. So the need for extensive post processing individually for every image does not bother me. If the picture is good enough, I think it is worth the effort.

But the main thing is that I have a simple flash setup that works extremely well and my manipulation need never be because of that.

 keepreal's gear list:keepreal's gear list
Olympus PEN E-PL3 Nikon D610 Nikon AF Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 II R +4 more
Nikon D610
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