A typical on-location setup. When the Santa Ana Winds are not howling here in Southern California,Â the umbrella on a lightstand is a quick way to get some soft light.Â The rest of the time I have to carry a sandbag just in case. My White Lightning flash is powered by a portable battery on the bottom right of the picture. The flash is triggered by a radio slave so there’s one less wire to trip over.
Exactly how much photo equipment do you need?
You’ve heard it time and time again. It’s not the gear but how the person uses it that matters most.
And I won’t lie to you. Back when photography was a hobby when I was traveling and still working in the airlines, I wanted everything. I couldn’t get enough.
To make matters worse, I had a few friends who were also shutterbugs. We actually had some sort of â€œarms raceâ€ going, each egging on the other to buy something else. And don’t get me started on the brand name wars. Nikons versus Canon. Bad…
I spent a lot of my hard earned money on equipment. At one point this was what I had:
- 2 motorized Canon F-1 bodies
- 85mm f1.2 lens
- 200mm f2.8 lens
- 50 mm f1.4 lens
- 1 Canon Speedlite, maybe 2?
- 400mm f4.5 lens
- 28 mm f2.8 lens
- 20 mm f2.8 lens
- a Hasselblad 500 CM with 80 mm lens
And don’t forget I didn’t include the assorted filters and other knick knacks like tripod, monopod. My Tenba bag with all that gear weighed in at close to 30 pounds!Â Did it make me a better photographer? On the contrary,Â it made me a poorer photographer. (pun intended)
I shot mostly transparencies or slide film because the cost of making prints from print film was killing me. The one side benefit to this was that by shooting transparencies, I learned to expose well. Transparencies have much less latitudeÂ for exposure errors.
My point is this:Â when you’re starting out and learning, especially before you have a handle on the basics, having too many lenses can mess you up.
Kit lenses like these have variable apertures, sometimes adding to the confusion of beginners. Besides that, ability to hand hold and not create camera shake is further complicated moving from the wide angle end to the telephoto end of the zoom.
And that’s the problem with those kit lenses you get when you buy a digital SLR today. Those lenses are actually many different focal lengths in one lens. But there is one BIG difference.
Those kit lenses have the added headache of having a different wide open aperture depending on what focal length is used.
The vast majority of professional photographers use the same lens to do their work. It’s sort of like a painter using the same brush, the same canvas and the same easel. So the only thing different is the subject and how their render it i.e. where they choose to put the shadow and highlights in their subject.
So what exactly do you need? Assuming you have a digital SLR and Adobe Photoshop. (Photoshop Elements is plenty if you don’t want to cough up big bucks for the full version)
During a class field trip and demo, we used a loft above my favorite coffeehouse Back to the Grind. This location which has large north-facing windows is perfect for available light portraiture. Photo by Terry Griffin.
Available Light Portraiture
If this is your interest, you don’t need a whole lot.
Call this your â€œstudio.â€ It doesn’t have to be fancy. You will need to understand and know the lighting conditions of this location and how the light changes. No, it doesn’t have to be indoors either. What’s critical is you have to know how the light will fall on your subject at the time you intend to shoot.
50mm f1.8 focal length lens or longer with a wide aperture like f2.8 is nice. Something faster is even better.A flash with ability to fire it off-camera. Wireless or radio slave is nice but having a long cord is okay too.
Lightstand, tripod and gaffer tape to hold reflector in place.
Large piece of fabric without patterns for backdrop. Grey, black and white is good.
Heavy duty clips will be useful for holding things in place.
Portraiture with Controlled lighting
Sync cords are the easy way to get your flash off-camera. You can use 2 daisy-chained if you need more reach. But by far the most convenient way is to buy those cheap radio slaves you can find on ebay. Search for “radio slave.” Each kit comes with 1 transmitter and I receiver. Just buy extra receivers for each flash/strobe that you own.
On the bottom right is a set of radio slaves I bought. They are not as expensive as the venerable Pocket Wizards but they get the job done if you’re close by.Â Expect to chuck them in the trash once they stop working because they’re under a hundred bucks.
Two or more flash units. One is sufficient but 3 would give you more flexibility.
Don’t forget that available light is also a light source, so having 2 flash units and using available light actually gives you 3 lights.
No need to buy original camera manufacturer’s flash.
Your flash should have a way to set its power manually.
This is crucial since you just want your flash to put out an amount of light which you can manually adjust.
You don’t want your flash to be â€œfooledâ€ by light colored or dark colored objects and cut off its power output prematurely underexposing or over-exposing.
My trusty old Canon Powershot G3 point-and-shoot which hasÂ a hotshoe can work with these radio slaves. The rado slaves actually sync at 1/1000 sec!
My Powershot G3 successfully triggers the 2 Canon speedlites at 1/1000 sec.
Why go through all the pain and contorting holding a flash like I’m doing here?
With your flash off-camera, you can control where your flash throws the shadow after the light strikes your subject.
If you use a slightly longer lens than 50 mm, you can even crop out the shadow since it will be to the right or left.
More important is a way to get that flash off your camera’s hotshoe either by using a long sync cord or by using a wireless radio trigger.
These radio slaves are actually very affordable these days.
If you buy the original manufacturer’s flash, expect to pay a premium although you do get special features.
Features like â€œhigh shutter speedâ€ sync where the flash will synchronize with any shutter speed.
Another useful feature will be rear-curtain sync.
This feature simply tells the camera to open and close the shutter at the end of the exposure instead of at the beginning of an exposure. The effects are only noticeable in long shutter speeds.
If you use the Canon speedlites and the ST-E2, you will have the ability to control the power output of all your flash units from the infra-red trigger.
Incandescent or florescent lights are okay too.
IfÂ you go this route, just remember that you’ll have problems with color if you don’t match the White Balance of your sources.Try to buy â€œDaylight Balanced Light bulbs.â€ It will cut down on your post production trying to fix mismatches in color.
The other disadvantage is with continuous lights, you’ll be tethered to an electrical outlet and that can stifle your creativity.
They need to be on light stands so that you can angle and place them for the desired look and effect.
The same number of lightstands as you have flash units.
A large piece of fabric or cloth to use as a backdrop. Think plain with no textures or pattern.
Heavy duty clips to hold backdrops or reflectors in place.
Other extras: colored gels. Don’t have budget for that? Colored candy wrappers which are clear will do the trick too.(I don’t need to tell you to make sure you clean off the gooey candy first, do I?)
Finally, it’s good to remember to buy equipment when you can really justify its purchase. The rest of the time, if you’re curious, you can always rent a lens or a flash.
By the way if you meet me in person, I have the posture of the hunchback of Notre Dame from those years of carrying that gear around.