studio flash

Chasing the elusive spot light

I WANT IT! aka "GAS" (gear acquisition syndrome)

UPDATE: September 2018: I found the Bowens S-mount optical spotlight on Amazon: (Affiliate link, I will be compensated if you purchase via this link).

UPDATE: March 2019: Here is another one from Ali Express for around $250. I have not seen or tried it yet myself, but the it looks good in the advertisement. It also has the option of an Elinchrom or Profoto mount as well as the Bowens S-mount. I like that it appears to have a helical (twist) focus on the lens. If you get one of these please comment below about it. Thanks!

I've had this lust for a spotlight for some time. I've kept a web alert in place for a Norman TriLite that I could convert to work with a Speedotron pack. I have a Speedotron Shakespeare optical spot light and a Light Blaster (both available for sale). I saw Zack Arias talk about a new device with a zooming fresnel lens and I got one of those (photo of it appears below). And there is the tried and true snoot.

Profoto SpotSmall

Profoto SpotSmall

But the holy grail for me has been for a small optical spotlight. Profoto has one called the Spot Small that sells for around $1,000. Though it comes with a Profoto mount, I found that I could easily replace the mount with a Speedotron or Balcar mount and probably some other mounts. But the price was out of my range for the amount of use I expected to get out of it.

Bowens Universal Spot

Bowens Universal Spot

Elincrhom MiniSpot

Elincrhom MiniSpot

Then I discovered that Bowens had what appeared to be an identical product they called the Bowens Universal Spotlight Attachment. It cost only $575 and I wouldn't have to change out the mount to fit my lights. I considered it for a while, but still couldn't justify the cost--I kept on saving my pennies, though. Then one day I noticed that it went from Available to Backordered and to Special Order over a few days at two of the big online camera stores and that got me worried a bit. Another day or two later things got clearer as word came out that Bowens was shutting down operations. Now it is listed as Discontinued. There went that opportunity.

NOTE: It sounds like Bowens made the Profoto SpotSmall and now that Bowens is in liquidation the Profoto spot is no longer available.

That got me looking again and I found the Elinchrom Mini Spot Projection attachment for $500. But I couldn't find one to see in person to figure out what it would take to change the mount to fit any of my studio lights. And $500 was still a bit pricy for something I knew I wanted but didn't know where or when I was actually going to use it. But it did include a few gobo patterns in the price...


One day in August I somehow typed in the right combination of words in Google and was taken to the Aliexpress site. There I found an optical spot made in China for around $230 -- and it had a Bowens S-mount that would work with my Interfit lights. That was tempting, but I still kept on procrastinating. Finally, I decided my birthday was coming up in September and I would buy the thing for myself. I typed in all my info and pressed the buy button and my credit card was declined. Got a text from my bank immediately asking if it was really me making this purchase in China. I said yes and they said OK, try it again. I did, but accidentally used the wrong credit card and was again declined. But this time the site came back with a "others who looked at this item also purchased..." list that had the same spotlight from another vendor for $160 including shipping. And while the original vendor said it could take up to 30 days for delivery, this vendor said it would be about a week.

UPDATE: Now available via Amazon at

Chinese optical spotlight attachment

Chinese optical spotlight attachment

Got out the right credit card, placed the order and waited a day or so for it to process from Alibaba to the vendor. Then I got the shipping notification and I saw it. A typo in my address. I left a number out. The vendor wasn't much help in getting the address corrected, but once it was in the hands of UPS they were able to correct the address (whew!). I watched it track from China to Japan to Alaska, to Kentucky, and finally to Seattle a day earlier than promised.

The item was well packed and arrived in perfect condition. It includes a gobo holder and a few different gobos. It also has a set of 5 plexiglass filters (red, green, amber, yellow, and blue). No instructions are included, but it is a simple device and pretty obvious how to use it. My only "complaint" with the device are that the gobo holder is not standard. It doesn't look like any standard size gobos from various manufacturers will fit in it. They would have to be trimmed down, which is easy to do. As I will be using the spotlight attachment with Interfit strobes which have LED modeling lights that don't get hot, so I can make my own gobos out of black card stock (don't even think about trying this with your 250-watt quartz-halogen modeling lamps) or thin sheets of metal. 

So, does it work? Yes! Here are some images comparing a spot on the background using the optical spotlight, a snoot, a snoot with a grid, and the fresnel device Zack introduced me to. Of those the spot light and the snoot were the most effective for this use. The fresnel just doesn't seem to be tight or narrow enough for what I wanted. Let's go to the photos...

The optical spotlight attachment with 3 sizes of circle gobos and with no gobo

The snoot by itself on the second row (same distance as the optical on the left, moved in closer on the right) and with a grid on the end of the snoot in the third row (again moved in closer on the right)

The NG-10X zoomed out and then in on the second row and moved in closer in the third row

Here are a few more images all made with the optical spot and a variety of gobos and filters.

Gobo patterns and color filters on the optical spotlight on the mannequin and on the background of the selfies (main light on the selfies is a 2x3 Interfit softbox).


UPDATE: Added the three images above which were lit with the three lights. The main light is an Interfit Honey Badger with the Chinese optical spotlight. The kicker light is another Honey Badger with a 7-inch metal dish reflector and a red gel. The spot on the background is an S1 with a snoot and a yellow gel. I also joined Interfit as one of their Creative Pros and you can get a 10% discount on purchases directly from Interfit by using the code CORNICELLO10 (all caps) on the checkout page.

Now to figure out how I am going to integrate the spot light into more of my projects. Do you have GAS? What photo gear are you lusting after? Let me know in the comments below.

And, did I mention the LED modeling lights in the Interfit S1 and Honey Badger strobes? No more burnt fingers or overheating when using enclosed attachments like snoots with the modeling lights turned on. 


American Speedlight Corporation (ASCOR)

We've come a long way, my friends

Many, many years ago I worked as a photo assistant in New York City. In 1979 I started at a catalog studio on West 23rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. Yes, that is where the New York High Line is now. Back then it was an abandoned elevated train track full of weeds and dead birds. In that studio we primarily used Mole Richardson hot lights to photograph things like ceiling fans and large room sets for Montgomery Ward and other similar retailers' catalogs.

Hot Lights!

These were 750- to 2000-watt hot lights. Within the first few days on the job you quickly learned to have a pair of leather gloves hanging from your belt along with some wooden clothespins to use when adjusting the lights. Ouch! And the lights were often mounted on large boom stands that had big maroon color counterweights on one end of the boom arm. Somehow, one of those counterweights, at about forehead level, often managed to find its way to a spot between the elevator and the light switch. Ouch! 

There was a fashion studio on one of the floors, though, that used electronic flash. Balcar was the brand. I don't recall if they were 1200 or 2400 watt second packs. But I do remember the small rectangular plugs that had a habit of arcing. One day the photographer I was working with, who was a bit ditzy, decided to change a head by himself. Unfortunately, I was standing next to him and he unplugged the light as I was yelling at him to turn the power off first. BANG! Lost my hearing for an hour or two. Luckily he didn't electrocute himself.

And that brings me to the subject of this post. My buddy Tony left this studio to go work as a photographer at another studio over on 7th Ave between 25th and 26th street. Shortly after that he brought me over there as a still life product photographer, too. This place was more modern and we used Speedotron 2400 watt-second packs and heads. (As an aside, I still have a Speedotron 2401A pack and one or two model 105 heads that still perform great. I even have a Dyna-lite D804II that is probably 40 years old and still going strong. See the photo below of these units alongside a modern Interfit strobe.) 

Speedotron 2401A and Dyna-lite D804ii pack & head systems, along side an Interfit S1 (self contained, including battery, no A/C power required, but optional).

Speedotron 2401A and Dyna-lite D804ii pack & head systems, along side an Interfit S1 (self contained, including battery, no A/C power required, but optional).

This studio also had a fashion studio, but it had these monster ASCOR Series 800 Sunlight strobes (which ASCOR called speedlights, noting in the instruction manual that strobe was a misnomer, as strobe implies repetitive flashing).

The ASCOR Sunlight

I have to assume that most of my readers might not have any idea what these Sunlight units were like. So, I will quote some things from the instruction manual for these monsters. Before that, I just want to add that almost everyone I talk to who was familiar with these speedlights mentions needing to keep a wooden broomstick nearby just in case they had to pry someone away from the unit in the case something went wrong.

So, from the user manual, dated around 1955...

"ASCOR has long stood for the best in electronic flash. The company (starting as Parker & Young and the trademark Fotolux in 1946, changing to American Speedlight Corporation in 1948) has, from the beginning, specialized in building the most advanced types of speedlights for exacting professionals."

"The tremendous number of speedlights in all shapes, sizes, and prices exhibited at recent photo shows leaves even the electronic flash engineer confused. With all the claims, counter-claims and partial information, it is no wonder that the dealer is wary...think of the poor is amazing that so many have the courage to buy. What is sorely needed are a few simple facts that can be used as a basis of comparison."

Not much has changed

Wow, not much has changed since the 40s and 50s. The manual then goes on to talk about guide numbers, and the "serious faults" in using guide numbers. 1. high guide numbers can be achieved by concentrating the available light in a narrow beam from the reflector, which results in uneven coverage or hot spots. 2. a guide number can honestly be chosen over a wide range, depending on how the film is developed, the latitude of the films, etc. 

They next talk about watt-seconds, "For too long most people have rated speedlights in watt-seconds. Just what is a watt-second? If you really know, you are one of the unusual photographers. Then again, what photographer really cares? Watt-seconds is not a rating of light output of speedlight equipment. The use of watt-seconds, microfarads, and other terms has so confused the photographer that many are thoroughly baffled about electronic flash."

How do you compare lights?

So, what are the points of comparison between various studio strobes? "Speedlight is just light." Photographic effectiveness comes down to...

  1. Strength of the light

  2. Color of the light

  3. Coverage of the reflector

  4. Speed of the flash or exposure

  5. Recharge or recycling time of the equipment

"The ASCOR Speedlight (ASCORLIGHT) is an electronic device for converting electrical energy from a relatively small power source into a high-speed, high intensity flash of light. Essentially, the energy is drawn slowly from the power line or battery, converted into hight voltage, and stored in a capacitor (an electrical storage tank). Then at the moment the flash of light is desired, the energy is dumped instantaneously out of the capacitors through the flashtube (watt-seconds) which converts the electrical energy into light."

Enough of the boring stuff. What I really wanted to point out was the size of the units and the simplicity of operation. The manual then lists 23 important features of the ASCORLIGHT SERIES 800. Things such as "from 800 to 40,000 watt-Seconds" and "Economical (average power drawn is less than drawn by a 200-watt light bulb." But the one that really stands out to me is #22: "Designed for One Man Operation and Portability." Keep the word portability in mind as it then lists the specifications.


ASCOR A801 power supply with 4 800w-s conders

There were two power supplies available. The power supply is the control unit and does nothing on its own until you add condenser (capacitor) units to it. The Sunlight Maste Power Supply A801 weighed 85 lbs. The Super Master Model A805 weighed in at a svelte 355 lbs! The A801 dimensions were 9-38"H x 12-1/8"W x 21-3/8"L. The A805 was 42"H x 22"W x 17"D. Remember, designed to be "portable." And this is just the power supply.

In addition to the power supply, you need condensers. Each condenser stores 800 watt-seconds of power and each weighs in at 60lbs. These are metal boxes filled with oil as the dielectric element. Slightly smaller than the A801 power supply, each condenser was 9-3/8"H x 8-5/8"W x 21-3/8"L. Remember, "portable." And we still haven't added a flash head and the required cables. The manual doesn't list the weight of the heads, but they were pretty substantial. If I remember correctly, the flash tube was around 9" long. The standard head reflector was 14" across and other reflectors were available from 9" to 24" across. And we still haven't added the light stands, which could range from 10 to over 100 lbs each. The model 503 flash head could handle up to 3200 watt-seconds of energy. The model 623 head used a model FT623 flash tube, and could handle up to 45,000 watt-seconds and could be attached to forty-eight (48!!) condenser units. 48 metal boxes, weighing 60 lbs each. That is almost 1-1/2 tons of lighting gear for one flash head!

Guessing that there are about 20 condensers ganged up here for 16,000 watt-seconds of power. Each condenser is oil-filled and weighs 60 lbs.

You are advised to "Stack the model A802 condenser units on the Type 3200 Dolly (M251) which is designed to hold six condenser units. Place the Platform Adapter M261 on top of the condenser units, this Platform Adapter will fit down over two condenser units placed side by side. If the model A801 Power Supply is to be used, it is placed on the Platform Adapter." At least the dolly has wheels (portable!). Then you took these very thick 3-foot and 6-foot cables and plugged them in between the power supply and condenser and then between each additional condenser and then plug the 25-foot cable to the flash head into the end of the chain. Then use dummy plugs to seal any condenser or power supply connectors not being used.

"Next, connect the Power Cord AC, D102, to the power supply outlet and plug it directly into any 117 volt 60 cycle AC source, "NOTE: MAKE A SOLID CONNECTION OF AC CORD: If a flimsy connection of the AC cord is made this condition can cause trouble. A momentary interruption of the power will cause the discharge relays to make contact. If the power is then applied before the capacitors are allowed to discharge, and arc can be started, which can damage the relays and the discharge resistors. The third wired should be attached to a ground." In total, there are 15 steps (each a paragraph) involved in turning on the unit. Step 15 is to plug your camera sync cord into the end of the sync cord which is connected to the power supply. Flash the unit by tripping your camera." Whew! Portable and fast operation. 

They then talk about strobing or repetitive flashing. That is done by "firing several speedlights successively with the ASCOR Strober, each unit powering its own set of lights. The operator can vary the speed of flashing and ONE POWER UNIT IS REQUIRE FOR EACH IMAGE DESIRED ON THE FILM." Emphasis mine. You want 10 images of the swing of a tennis racket? That means 10 power supplies and at least 10 condenser units. At least you could attach two lights to each condenser unit. A spider box was available if you wanted to use three heads. 

Many of you might have heard of sync voltage of older flash equipment and the damage it could do to digital cameras as the current goes through the shutter contacts. Well, ASCOR took care of that way back when. "ASCORLIGHT units use an electronic tube in the triggering circuit or sync circuit which directs the current through the flash tube--not into the shutter contacts. NOTE: Here we have incorporated ANOTHER SAFETY FEATURE to prevent electrical damage to the shutter contacts and to personnel."

For my friends such as Tony Corbell and Matthew Jordan Smith who live by the light meter, I should mention flash meters here. Take a look at this page from the ASCOR manual that pictures the M333 General Radio Light Meter in use. Might be why Joel Grimes says he doesn't want to know what a flash meter is. It is bigger than my cameras.

So, how much light did these monsters put out? The manual claims that using one condenser (800 watt-seconds) at 6-feet using the standard reflector would give you F/22. They don't list an ASA or ISO number, but earlier refer to daylight Ektachrome. I don't know the ASA rating for 1950s Ektachrome. However, they do provide a nomograph that says at ASA (ISO) 100 the guide number for one condenser would be about 400. So that is F/40 at 10 feet. 

The Interfit S1 has 500 watt-seconds of power and weighs in at a little over 6 lbs.

A modern flash, like the Interfit S1 that is 500 watt-seconds gives me f/18 at 10 feet with the standard 7" reflector. That is 2-1/3 stops more light with the ASCOR (which was rated at 800 w-s), and which has a brighter, more focused reflector. It is also with the ASCOR weighing in at close to 160 lbs plus a heavy-duty light stand, while the S1 weighs in at 6.3 lbs and is battery operated. We have a very different view of "portability" now. 

I am sorry, but I don't know who to credit the photos of the ASCOR equipment to. If these are your photos, may I please ask for permission to keep them in this blog post?

If you used these ASCOR lights and have any stories about them please share them in the comments here. We've come a long way since these units from the 40s. Let's keep some memory of them alive.





Diffusion Confusion

What does it mean to add diffusion to your lights?

There are four main considerations we need to make before we set up the photograph in the studio. A: Depth of field; B: Depth of light; C: Quality of light; D: Amount of light. In this article we will mainly consider C, the quality of light, and how diffusion plays into our needs. Let’s start with a definition of “diffusion:”

1. The spreading of something more widely.
2. The action of spreading the light from a light source evenly so as to reduce glare and harsh shadows.

How does this apply to photographic lighting. How do you diffuse your lights? There are a number of ways, all with varied results. My first introduction to diffusion was someone telling me to drape a white handkerchief over my speedlight. In their theory, this would make the light somehow “softer,” but this didn’t make sense to me. You make a light softer by making it larger in relation to the subject. Putting the cloth over the speedlight does nothing to change the size of the light. Yes, it diffuses the light, but all that means is that it disperses the light more widely. That would allow you to use the flash with shorter focal length lens, but it won’t make the light any softer on its own. A few years after that, speedlight manufacturers started adding a diffuser to their lights in the form of a plastic panel that pops out and folds down over the flash for the purpose of working with shorter (wide angle) lenses. The side effect of this is less light output, but the coverage is expanded from side to side.

Now, there is a situation where this type of diffuser might provide a slightly softer light (by hard and soft light, I am referring to the shadow edges. Hard light comes from small light sources and produces a dark shadow with a well defined edge while soft light comes from a larger light source, as seen from the subject, producing a lighter (or no) shadow with a gradual fade of the edge of the shadow.) If you are in a very small room with white walls and ceiling, the wider dispersion of the light might bounce off those walls and ceiling to provide a little bit of fill light to make the shadows a little bit lighter, but not really much, if any, softer.

To make the light softer you need to make it larger as seen from the subject.

What does that mean? It means that distance comes into play along with size. If you bounce your speedlight into a 32” umbrella it becomes a much larger and much softer light if you place the light the same distance from your subject. However, I see a number of photographers who are new to lighting set up their speedlight and umbrella and place it 10 or 15 feet away from the subject. At that distance, the light (as seen from the subject) is not really all that large. They end up with a very flat image (no separation of subject from the background) and harder edge shadows than they were expecting. 

Here is a little tip you can try out. Set up your lights and stand in place of your subject. Hold your hand out arm’s length in front of you towards your light. If you hand covers the light you have a small light source that will produce hard shadows. If, on the other hand, your hand is dwarfed by the light source, the light is large enough to fill in some of its own shadows. Some people say that the large light “wraps” around the subject. A nice description, but not quite true. Light doesn’t wrap or bend. But a large light source provides light from more surface area so that it provides some fill light. 

Before we go any further here, I need to stop and talk about distance. From what we’ve discussed so far, you may be tempted to think that moving the light closer or farther away is the way to control the size and quality of the light. It is. But it isn’t. Moving the light closer or farther away does change the relative size of the light on the subject. But it also changes the depth of the light. This is something I sadly don’t see talked about often enough. This is also the reason why light modifiers like umbrellas, soft boxes, octa boxes, etc. come in so many sizes. The depth of light needs its own article . But for now, please don’t think that changing the distance of the light to subject is the way to control the quality of light and shadow.

So, how does one use diffusion to make a small light become a larger/softer light? By making the light larger, of course. Start with a light we’re all familiar with (even those of us in Seattle), the sun. The sun is massively huge. But it is so far away that it appears to us as a very small light source (remember the hand? You can easily block out the sun from your vision by holding your hand out in front of your eyes). What happens on an overcast day? The overcast layer is much closer to us. It gets lit by the sun (the light origin) and now becomes the light source. And it is huge. Hold your hand up to the overcast sky and you see that light is still coming in from many angles because of the size of the sky.

Now take that to your camera gear. Your speedlight is similar to the sun. It is a small light, producing a hard-edged shadow. To soften the shadow you need to put a bank of clouds between the speedlight and your subject. That bank of clouds can come in many shapes and sizes. If just getting started with a limited budget, an umbrella is often the first choice (and a good choice, despite the bad rap they get from some photographers). There are two basic types of umbrellas for photographic use. A white (shoot through) umbrella that you point your light into and then point the umbrella towards the subject and a reflective umbrella with a black outer cover and a shiny interior that you bounce your light into and then have it reflect on your subject. By placing your small light way back on the shaft of the umbrella, the light illuminates the large umbrella surface, which now becomes the clouds or your light source.

The next light softener of choice is usually a soft box. The same principles go to work here. The small light is placed at the back of a box and that light illuminates a translucent fabric held a distance in front of the light to make a larger light source. After that you have octa-boxes that do the same thing, except that the softboxes are rectangular and the octaboxes offer a more rounded shape. We will talk about the effects of the shape of the diffuser in an upcoming article. Spoiler alert—the most noticeable difference will be in the shape of catch lights in the subject’s eyes. My favorite light modifier combines the concept of umbrella and octa-box in one unit called the Photek Softlighter II. Similar modifiers are now available from a variety of companies, but as far as I know, the Photek Softlighter is still the only one that has the option of a removable shaft so you can move the light in very close to your subject.

Going back to the confusion about what diffusion does, let’s look at some of the images contained in the animation playing near the top of this article. We’ll start with a basic studio light in an 11” wide dish reflector. In all of these images that light is 40” from the subject and the subject is 36” from the background. There is nothing special about these distances. I just happened to set things up this way for these demonstrations.


In the first image we see what the light looks like with no diffusion. Take note of the shadow cast by the nose. It is dark and has an abrupt edge to it. In the second image I simply taped a sheet of 1-stop diffusion material over the light and made the same exposure. You can see that adding the diffusion lowered the light output resulting in an underexposed image. But look at the nose shadow. It remains dark with an abrupt edge. In the third image I opened up the aperture a stop to compensate for the loss of light. Comparing the first and third images, we see that the light on the face remains virtually the same. The diffusion has not softened the light. The main difference is on the background, where the shadow on the right side of the image has lightened up a bit from the wider dispersion of the light. The point being illustrated here is that diffusion added directly to the light does not increase the size of the light and doesn’t soften the edges of shadows. It might fill in the shadow a little bit to make it less dense, but no softer. Image #4 has a different brand/manufacturer of diffusion material, which may affect the spread of light, but maintains the same shadow quality.

The rest of the images in the series show various additions to the light, such as grids and a snoot. I have included photos of some of the modifiers at the bottom of this article in case you are not familiar with some of them. In the photos made with a grid (#5, #6, & #7) on the light you can see that adding diffusion to the grid will give a different look depending on if you place the diffusion material behind the grid (between the light bulb and the grid) or in front of the grid (on the subject side of the grid). Image #5 is the grid alone. With the diffusion inserted behind the grid (image # 7) the light maintains the grid pattern, which is mostly noticeable on the background. With the diffusion in front of the grid (image #6) the light is still concentrated by the grid, but gets spread out a bit, too. 


Diffusion material comes in various densities and surface textures. Examples 8 and 9 show Rosco Tough Silk and Lee’s #253 material, respectively. Subtle difference can be seen. 


In images 10-14 the 11” dish reflector has been replaced by a 22” beauty dish. In #10 you can see that the larger diameter light source has softened the shadows a bit. This is most noticeable in the curl of hair on the forehead and on the background where more light coming from the larger source appears to wrap around the head and fill in the background. #11 and #12 have a diffusion “sock” placed over the beauty dish. Again, the sock doesn’t make the dish any larger, but it does even out the light across the front of the dish and here I did not adjust white balance so you can see that different diffusers will have an effect on the color of your light. Here, the Mola brand sock is a bit more warm/yellow than the Speedotron sock. Some may like the added warmth, others may choose to correct it back to neutral via a custom white balance in camera or by adjusting in post-processing.

Image #13 adds a 35-degree grid to the beauty dish to narrow its beam without affecting the shadow quality. #14 adds the Speedotron sock over the gridded beauty dish. This negates some of the narrowing of the beam, but has little effect on the shadows. 


Going in the totally opposite direction, image #15 is just a bare bulb studio strobe pointed straight up towards an 8’ high ceiling, and throwing light out in all directions. This is my “sunlight” look, with a crisp shadow line and some filling of the shadows from light reflected off the walls and ceiling. #16 uses a 7” dish reflector, but instead of a silver interior, this one is black. It is designed to work with a snoot, but I’m using it on its own here. Again it is a small light source and we see that in the nose shadow. #17 adds the snoot, and we see the shadow quality stay the same, while the area of coverage is shrunk down considerably by the snoot.


Image #18 is another 7” dish reflector, but this time the standard silver interior. Again, a similar quality of light on the subject and the nose shadow. But a little wider dispersion of light lessens the shadow on the wall behind the subject.

Image #19 is the same 7” silver dish reflector, but now I’ve taken a 32” translucent white pop-up diffuser disk and held it about 24” in front of the light, making the disk become the light source. As it is much larger than the 7” dish, we see a drastic change in the shadows on the face. The nose shadow is still there, but much less intense and with a soft/smooth transition from its darkest area to the edge. Full disclosure, in addition to being larger, the light is now closer to the subject as I left the lamp head in the same position and inserted the diffuser disk 20 or so inches closer to the subject. Notice that the background has gone a slight bit darker here. This harkens back to the comments above about the depth of light. The closer your light is to your subject, the darker the background will be. Again, more about that in an upcoming article on light depth.

Image #20 was lit with a somewhat specialized modifier, normally used to light up a background. It looks somewhat like the protective cover that you would put on a light for storage or travel, but is open on one side instead of completely enclosing the flash tube. Again, a small light with strong, hard-edged shadows. 


For the rest of the images (21-27) I have used a speedlight as my light origin. #21 is the bare speedlight pointing directly at the subject. For image #22 I configured the built-in diffuser screen and opened up my aperture to compensate for the loss of light. Again, note that the nose shadow is basically the same with or without the diffuser. The diffuser does not soften the light. But it does spread it out to light the scene more evenly, as the light is not all concentrated in the center of the image.

Image #23 adds a sheet of diffusion material (Lee 3026) taped directly onto the speedlight. Again, the same quality of nose shadow. Diffusion is not softening the light.  


#24 adds a Stofen diffuser. What happens to the nose shadow? Nothing. The stofen does not increase the size of the light, just the width the beam of light coming out of the flash.

Image #25 adds a “tupperware” type of flash diffuser. Here the flash is pointing straight up so most of the light goes up and bounces off the ceiling. Very little of the light goes forward, so we end up with dark eyesockets. The light has bounced off the ceiling, making the light source considerably larger, so shadows are softened. But the look of the face has suffered. For #26 I couldn’t let things go on, do I held a white diffuser disk on the camera right side of the face to try to kick in a little bit more fill. This fill card opens up the shadows and gives an overall improvement to the photograph, but the eye sockets are still a bit dark for my taste. 


Finally, we have image #27. Back to the straight on speedlight on a stand off to the left side of the camera, but now with the 32” translucent diffuser disk held between the light and the subject, turning the speedlight into a larger light, with softer, but not eliminated, nose shadows.

So, to recap, small light sources like a speedlight or a studio flash head are inherently small and therefore hard light sources. Hard light sources create deep/dark shadows with an abrupt transition from dark to light at the shadow’s edge. Adding diffusion directly to a small light source does not soften the light, it just spreads out the light more evenly and the main use is to help avoid vignetting when using shorter/wide angle lenses. To make the light softer with a less dense shadow and a more gradual transition we need to make the light source much larger. Once we have a larger light source, we might think that moving it closer or farther away is the way to control the size, but that changes other aspects of the image (to be covered in a follow-up article on "depth of light"). The way to control the size and quality of the light is to have a number of different size light modifiers available to us. 

Please scroll down to the bottom of this page for examples of the light modifiers mentioned in this article.



Here are some of the light modifiers used in preparing this article...

bare bulb flash head

bare bulb flash head



11" deep dish reflector

11" deep dish reflector

11" dish with grid and diffusion in front of the grid

11" dish with grid and diffusion in front of the grid

background reflector

background reflector

extending the built-in diffuser on a speedlight

extending the built-in diffuser on a speedlight

"Tupperware" type of diffuser on a speedlight

"Tupperware" type of diffuser on a speedlight

7" black dish reflector

7" black dish reflector

standard 7" silver dish reflector

standard 7" silver dish reflector

11" dish reflector with grid

11" dish reflector with grid

11" dish with grid and diffusion behind the grid

11" dish with grid and diffusion behind the grid

22" beauty dish with diffusion sock cover

22" beauty dish with diffusion sock cover

Stofen diffuser on a speedlight

Stofen diffuser on a speedlight

pop-up translucent foldable diffuser disc shown behind a speedlight

pop-up translucent foldable diffuser disc shown behind a speedlight

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John Cornicello

It Is More Than Just Size

More than just the size, it is what you put into it

A big rage the past couple of years has been a proliferation of low cost 7' "parabolic" umbrellas from various manufacturers. I'm not going to get into the arguments of who created the first one, or who stole who's design. My concern is more with how they are being used.

By now we should all know that the size of the light relative to the subject determines the quality of the light. Large lights give a softer, less-shadowed look. Smaller lights give a harder, more contrasty look. So, the immediate thought about a 7' umbrella would logically be that it is a very soft light. And it is. Or at least it can be. But it also to depend on what light source you use with the big umbrella.

I see a few kits offered with the 7' umbrella and a  bracket to use your speed light/lite with it. Speed lights are normally a small and hard light source. So, if you bounce it into a gigantic umbrella it should become a big and soft light. Makes sense, no? 

Maybe not!

Below is a set of images of such an umbrella with a speed light attached and bounced into the umbrella. The flash is a Canon 430EX II in manual mode. The three images across the top row were taken with this combo. In the first one, the flash was set to the 105mm zoom position. There is hardly filled any of the umbrella. Yes, the light will be larger and softer than direct flash. But probably not what you were expecting. So, for the second image the flash was zoomed out to the 24mm position. Uh-oh! That isn't all that much wider than the 105mm position when the umbrella is so close to the flash head. Additionally, we see that the flash bracket doesn't come close to pointing the flash into the center of the umbrella. What to do?

The third image was taken with the flash head's built in diffuser panel popped out and over the flash. It does a much better job of filling the umbrella, but I had to open up 3+ stops to get enough light into the umbrella. And it still doesn't quite fill the umbrella evenly, note how dark the bottom portion of the umbrella is.

I imagine that a bracket to hold 3 or 4 speed lights with the umbrella shaft centered around them would be a big help, but also a big expense. Unfortunately, I only have one speed light and a single bracket, so can't test that one out.

Just as a way of comparison, I took two more shots using a studio flash head, a Speedotron 202VF. The first of these images has the standard 7" umbrella reflector. Even with this combination, the umbrella isn't quite filled by light, but overall it is much more efficient. To get the umbrella to fill with light, for the last image I took the reflector off the strobe head. With the bare tube the umbrella is finally filled. It is not quite as bright. And you need to be a lot more careful if using the umbrella rig off to the side that direct light from the bare tube doesn't hit your subject causing very distracting shadows.


Take from this what you may. I just wanted to make sure you understand that just having a super large light modifier doesn't mean that you have a super large light source. I encourage you to do a similar test with your own lighting equipment to see what it is really doing.


PS: I also tested out a silver 7' parabolic. You can see those results in this post.

PPS: I then pulled out all the modifiers I could find around the studio and compared them all in action in a new post.


Shutter Speed and Flash

How Shutter Speed affects studio flash

What are your settings?

That's the question that disheartens so many photography instructors. The settings are particular to the situation. I know that many photo magazines list settings along with the photos. But until the digital age with that information in the EXIF data, I'm willing to guess that 50% or more of the "settings" listed with a photo were a guess. I was there. I never took detailed notes on my photos while making them. If someone asked me about the settings used on an image from a week/month/year ago I would have had to guess. I think most others would have too.

But enough of that rant. The question is still going to be asked. So, lets talk about one of those settings. Shutter Speed when using flash in a studio situation. When doing a workshop I often get to hand over the flash trigger to a student and give them some settings to get started. The important ones are ISO (how sensitive the film/sensor is) and Aperture (how much light the lens lets through).

Then there is shutter speed.

A difficult concept for some is that within a range, the shutter speed doesn't much matter in the studio when using flash. You have the ISO, the Aperture, and the power of the flash. There's your Exposure Triangle for the studio. You can usually set your shutter speed somewhere between 1/30 and 1/125 of a second and be good to go.

But what about blur? Won't my image be blurry from camera shake or subject motion if I shoot at 1/30 of a second? In most cases the answer is No. A studio setting is usually dark enough that even at 1/30 nothing will be recorded. The duration of the flash becomes your "shutter speed." While the shutter is physically open for 1/30 of a second, the flash duration may be 1/500 of a second or faster (depending on the particular flash you are using). Yes, in a bright studio or if you are working at a high ISO and at a wide open aperture you might experience some motion blur. You can do a quick test to see what's up. Set the ISO and Aperture for the flash exposure and take a shot WITHOUT firing the flash. In most cases the image will be black. That's good. That's what we expect. If there is something recorded, you can go to 1/60 or 1/125 of a second.

But my camera manual says it syncs at 1/250 of a second. Well, yes. It will do that with a dedicated speedlight/lite. The flash duration on those little things can be really fast and work at 1/250. But when you go to studio strobes you have to give a bit on the shutter speed. For example, the Canon 5D MkIII (used for these tests) specs say that its X-Sync shutter speed is 1/200 of a second. But on page 104 of the manual you will find some additional information:

Using Non-Canon Flash Units
Sync Speed
The camera can synchronize with non-Canon compact flash units at 1/200 sec. and slower shutter speeds. With large studio flash units, since the flash duration is longer, set the sync speed within 1/60 sec. to 1/30 sec. Be sure to test the flash synchronization before shooting.

That's good advice. Test for yourself. That's what I did this afternoon and here are the visual results. Next to each image is the Shutter Speed (SS) used (80=1/80 sec.) and the info reading for the spot on the shoulder identified in the first photo. You will see that at 1/80 to 1/125 sec. the image is pretty clean/similar. But at 1/160 and 1/200 sec. the bottom of the image starts getting darker. At 1/250 sec. there is a clear black band across the bottom of the image.


It might be easier to see the comparison side-by-side. Here are the images that were taken at 1/125, 1/160, 1/200, and 1/250 sec. to more easily see the shadow of the shutter curtain starting to impinge on the bottom of the photo. The image at 1/200 sec. is also starting to be darker overall.


In many situations you might not notice the darkness on the bottom of the image (or on the side if holding the camera in vertical orientation) at these faster shutter speeds. But it is there. And it may be troublesome if you have taken the time and energy to create an even background light on the scene and then find one side of the image is darker when you get the file into your computer for editing.

If you are using a wireless flash triggering system with your Canon or other compact flash gun you may also be limited to slower shutter speeds. I don't have such a system to test with. If you do, please let us know your test results in the comments section below.

What happens if you go slower than 1/30 sec? A few things might happen. If there is enough ambient light in the studio you might pick up some color variation and a bit more exposure as the ambient light will then be adding to the overall exposure. Here you can see images taken at 1/60 sec. and 1/8 sec. at the same ISO, Aperture, and flash power level. The image at 1/8 is slightly brighter and a little more yellow from the tungsten modeling lamp in the flash.


So, when in a controlled studio setting using studio strobe units you should heed the warning in the camera manual and work at around 1/60 sec. to sync the camera and strobes.

When outside doing syncro-sun flash the shutter speed becomes more important. But that's for another article.