interfit s1

Building the light

From the shadows come…

I have been working on a “headshot” project for a large company over the past month or so. I put headshot in quotes because they are using a wider view than a typical headshot. I am actually coming in late on the project. It started with one photographer traveling around the country to do the bulk of the photos (around 600 individuals). After that sprint they are finishing up with local photographers around the country to photograph new hires and do re-takes on some of the originals. That’s where I came into the project to finish up the Seattle office photos. As there were already more than 500 headshots done, I had to match the lighting from the previous photographer.


I was given a rough lighting diagram, seen here, of the five light setup and a few example photos to reference. But I still had to build up the light with the equipment I had available. And here I want to show what went into the build.

There are a few ways to build a lighting setup. Some photographers start with the fill light and build up from there. I like to start with my key light and add the fill and accent lights onto that. So, with that in mind, here we go…

s1 main light

I started with an Interfit Photographic S1 strobe in a Deep Zoom Reflector with a 40-degree grid coming in from camera left. The grid is being used to restrict the light on the subject so it doesn’t hit the background and cause a shadow on the right side of the frame.


The next light is an Interfit Honey Badger in a 7-inch metal dish reflector with a 10-degree grid. This light is placed directly over the lens and is concentrated on the subject’s face. Again, the grid is used to contain the light and not affect the background too much. I had a number of concerns about this light as I was sure that some subjects would be wearing eyeglasses. But with a little bit of angling the direction of their faces, it did not end up being an issue.


The third light in the mix is a 60-inch octa powered by another Honey Badger. This light is directly behind the camera, giving an overall fill and providing a base for the shadows. It doesn’t look like much on its own, but in the overall final image it becomes important.


The fourth light is from another Honey Badger pointed into a 60-inch Photek Softlighter without the diffuser (basically a large umbrella) from camera left to bring out the color of the background and to provide a space for the employee biography that appears with their photograph.


The final light in the setup is another Honey Badger in a 1x3 strip box with a grid. It is set up on a boom arm coming over the top of the roll of seamless paper. It is there to give a tiny bit of separation between the subject’s head and the background.


And finally, all the lights combined for the final image to be delivered. All of the power settings on the lights remained the same from the individuals to them all combined. I found it enlightening to see how they all came together in the final image after looking at how dark most of them were on their own.


Here is what the final setup looked like. The background is Savage Ultramarine seamless paper. About half of the photos were made on this color, and the remaining were photographed on Savage Slate Gray.

The yellow dot on the small extension arm is a tennis ball to make the arm more visible so a klutzy photographer doesn’t walk into it. The client specs called for all persons to be seated on an apple box. The second apple and the foot stool are there to position the feet and legs in different ways to give some variety to the photos.

Lighting Workshop Results

Lots of learning going on

Last weekend I presented a program on speed light and flash control at the Olympic Peaks Camera Club. I followed up on that with a 3-hour hands-on workshop on studio lighting on Saturday. I will be presenting a similar workshop at Glazer’s Camera in Seattle in November.
During the second hour of the class the students got to photograph each other using the Interfit S1 battery powered studio lights. I set up two lighting stations for them. One had an S1 head in a 2x3 softbox and the other had an S1 in a 46” Phototek Softlighter II. Each also had a white reflector set up opposite the key light and a background with no light on it.

Photo by James Hagen

One of the students, Jim Hagen, shared a portrait he made of another student, Irv Mortensen. This portrait was made with the S1 in the 2x3 softbox. I asked Jim about his experience in photography in general and more specifically about portraits. His response was, “(I) bought my first DSLR a little under two years ago. Didn't know aperture from my arse. Shot a lot of photos previous but with point and shoot auto. These are the first portraits I've taken. Very excited about how things were set up and the possibities of learning lighting and flash techniques. Certainly off to a running start after Thursday and Saturday!

Photo by Irving Mortensen

Irv then made a portrait of Witta Priester using the same setup. Witta then turned around and made a portrait of me on the other set with the Softlighter and lighter color backdrop.

One of my little "tricks" with the 2x3 softbox is to put strips of thin black masking tape across the front of the diffuser to make it look like window panes in the catch lights on the eyes of my subjects. 

Great job by Jim, Irv, and Witta. I know that many photographers are not comfortable on the other side of the camera. But I feel that if you are going to make portraits you should get used to being in front of the camera. If you don’t have someone around to photograph you, a project of self-portraits can be great experience. 

The Interfit S1 lights are very simple to operate with clearly marked controls and no hidden "secret handshake" button combinations to memorize when adjusting the lights. See the photo of the unit below. 



Feathering the light and adding a reflector

Photo by Witta Preister

Clean and easy to use control interface

Thank you to Val for inviting me to present. Thanks to Rebecca and John for their great hospitality feeding me and giving me a home base for the weekend. And thanks to everyone who came out for both the meeting and the workshop. I had a great time and look forward to another trip to Sequim, WA with all of its lavender glory.


Hummingbirds in Sequim

Let's try something new!

competing hummingbirds

As previously mentioned, I was out in Sequim, WA last week to teach a lighting workshop. I stayed overnight at a friend’s place and about 15 minutes before we had to drive over to the workshop I decided to try to make a photo of some hummingbirds flying around the deck. I grabbed one of my Interfit Photographic S1 battery operated strobes out of its case along with its standard 7” reflector and a light stand. I set it up about 3 feet from the bird feeder and then popped a Canon EOS M5 camera onto a tripod with the 70-200mm f/4 IS L lens and a cable release. In just a few of minutes I captured some photos and then had to quickly pack up and head to the workshop (more on the workshop coming soon). For these the flash was in manual mode with the power dialed down to its lowest setting (2.0). The S1 uses IGBT technology* to control the flash, so dialing down gives the shortest flash duration to help avoid motion blur. The camera was also in manual mode and the settings were ISO 100, Shutter speed 1/160, and aperture f/6.3

No, these aren’t the best hummingbird photos. If I were to do this again I would give myself more than 15 minutes and would use at least 2, possibly three, lights for more dimensionality. I would also set up a backdrop behind the birds (where the third light might be used). Here the backdrop was a stand of dark trees about 60 yards away that went completely black. For this morning I was mostly interested in seeing if the flash could capture the wings of the hummingbirds and I think they did well. 

In lieu of the mediocre photograph, let’s make this a learning experience.

High Speed Sync?
Some might ask why I used normal sync at 1/160 shutter speed instead of putting the flash into High Speed Sync (HSS) mode. In my experience, HSS is great for matching the flash to the ambient light to photograph at larger apertures (f/4 to f/1.2) to get limited depth of field in an outdoor flash photograph (I didn't need that here, I actually wanted a smaller aperture for more depth of field). But it doesn’t help with freezing motion. Here is a series of photos made with a Canon 430EX II speedlite in normal and HSS modes where you can see what happens to the motion using HSS to photograph a spinning fan.

Notice that at normal sync speeds, even as slow as 1/15 second, the flash duration is fast enough to freeze the motion of the spinning fan blades. As long as the room is dark enough, the ambient light won't affect the photo and the short flash duration becomes your effective "shutter speed" even if the shutter is open for a full second or more. When you get into the HSS zone there is a lot of blur, even though the shutter speeds are faster.

How Flash and Shutter Speed Sync

If you are not familiar with High Speed Sync, what it does is pulses the flash rapidly during the exposure to enable it to synchronize with the moving blades of your camera’s shutter. In normal sync mode you press the shutter button, the first curtain of the shutter opens, the flash fires, then the second (rear) curtain closes. When you go above your camera sync speed (which could be anywhere from 1/60 to 1/250 second) the first curtain opens, the second curtain starts to close, then the flash fires.

With the shutter speed set at or below the sync speed

Shutter speed is set higher than the sync speed

flash sync black band

If you are just a step or two above your sync speed you get a dark band across one edge of your photo. At higher speeds the flash doesn’t register at all, as the second curtain starts closing as soon and fast as the first curtain opens. 

High Speed Sync fires a series of lower powered flashes in perfect synchronization with the moving curtains so that the image looks like it was made with one flash.

How flash and shutter speed sync with each other. Click on the image to view it larger.

Downsides to High Speed Sync

The series of flashes, while being great for letting you photograph at wide open apertures, does have some downsides. The most noticeable is the reduction in power output. Normally the strobe fires and needs a second or two for the capacitors to recycle and be ready to fire again. In HSS the flash doesn’t have any time for recycling, so it puts out a series of very low powered flashes. The light usually has to be close to your subject. You will lose a stop of power every time you double the shutter speed above the sync speed. The second downside is that it doesn’t help much with freezing action. Third is that it goes through batteries quicker. And fourth is that over time the rapid flashing can lead to a lower life expectancy of the flash tube. A note on that, though, is that I have some studio flash units here that are close to or even more than 40 years old and the flash tubes are still working on them (but they’ve never been used for HSS, which didn’t exist 40 years ago). 

*IGBT = Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor
Different flash technologies go about controlling power output and flash duration differently. Large studio pack and head systems usually control power by switching banks of capacitors on or off (capacitor switching). Lowering the power on the pack will shorten the flash duration.
Until recently, most monoblock strobes would vary the voltage of the capacitors (voltage lowering) to control power. In these lowering the power leads to longer flash duration with some change in the color temperature of the light.
IGBT units have constant voltage, but have the ability to shut off the flash tube (tail trimming) when the desired amount of light has been emitted. Here flash duration gets faster as the power is decreased. Color temperature should be a little more consistent at different power levels and by cutting off the tail of the flash the ability to freeze motion is increased. When using IGBT flashes, going to half power or lower gives the faster flash durations. 

DISCLOSURE: I am part of the Interfit CreativePros Team


Learn about studio lighting

Learn how to light

Join me on the Olympic peninsula of Washington in the town of Sequim on Saturday, July 1, 2017 for a 3-hour lecture and hands-on workshop about studio lighting. This workshop is being presented in cooperation with the Olympic Peaks Camera Club.

The workshop runs from 10am to 2pm and the cost is $50 per person. It is being held at the Dungeness Community Church, 45 Eberle Lane, Sequim, WA 98382. For more information and to register contact Rebecca Hanson at 360-808-3975


I will be talking about the concepts of lighting and the thought process that happens around selecting equipment, making choices about camera settings, picking a background, and other things that go into a studio portrait. I have just signed on with Interfit Photographic as one of their CreativePros and will be featuring their S1 battery (and A/C) powered lights. 

I hope to see you there!