HOW I TOOK IT – Gorgeous Soft Light With A Speedlite

I always wanted to put together a tutorial of some kind, maybe cover some techniques I happen to use, maybe share some of my thoughts and experiences. Being myself in my early age as a photographer though, I always thought I had nothing worth sharing.
Then came the day (i.e., a couple of days ago) where I stumbled upon an SLR Lounge post about an amazing DIYPhotography giveaway with even more amazing prizes and I said to myself it was time to share some of my little knowledge with you guys. Who knows, maybe this thing will make all of us happy fun-time ;)

By the way, if you have some photography related stuff you think are worth ‘em sharing you can submit your HOW I TOOK IT tutorial till November 30th.

So, here’s my little contribution to the photography world. LET’S DO THIS!! :D

I love placing my subjects in front of white backgrounds and focus on them to make photographs worth looking at.
I knew I wanted a classic, ‘a la’ Zack Arias look but with a hint of a nostalgic feeling that people like Ryan Muirhead are able to get in their pictures. And I wanted to keep it as simple as possible.
Prior to that session I’d had a few experiences where I would light my subject with way too many lights. That is, 3 lights… Yes, if you’re in your 2nd year of a self taught photography apprenticeship as I am they will probably be too many for you to manage. By doing this you focus on getting them lights right more than you focus on interacting with your subject.
Bad. Thing. To. Do.
Luckily enough I learn from my mistakes.

Joel Grimes states that the bigger the light source in relationship to your subject, the softer the light. This is, in fact, 100% exact.
So, how in the name of Jabba the Hut could I, a man who’s already dead and by no means possesses of any of the giganormous and extremely fancy modifiers Mr. Grimes proudly owns, achieve a soft, almost window-like diffused quality of light?

Then, in a hot afternoon of mid august an idea struck me like a summer rainstorm in my at times too sunny but many times too hazy brain: bounce a freakin’ Speedlight off the wall. And well, let’s be honest here, even a borderline simpleton (no offense meant) could think of something that hilariously difficult. Still, it is amazing how great that thing turned out. You’ll see.
Besides, I never stumbles upon a single tutorial –And I’ve read and seen hundreds of them on the ‘Interwebs’– that would cover this overly simple technique in the way I was about to use it.

 After a couple of tries I decided to go for it for this shooting session.

 Here’s what I used:

  • Two cheaply made light stands
  • One 2m x 1.5m screem/diffuse panel
  • Two Manfrotto Swivel Umbrella Adapter w/ two Flash Mount Adapters on top of them
  • My trusty, crusty and rusty Canon 5D (the original one)
  • A Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens
  • A ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter
  • A Canon 580 EXII Speedlite
  • Two EXTREMELY CHEAP Plastic Clamps

 Did I forget something? …

And here’s how I used it all:

  • I placed the light stand with the speedlite on top of it at about 30cm from the wall and at about 1.8m in height, slightly angled skyward in order to get bounced light both from the wall and the ceiling.
  • I placed the stand with the diffuse panel attached onto it at about 2.5m from the wall. My subject would stand right in front of it. You can’t tell that from the picture above but I angled the Swivel Umbrella Adapter on that stand at 90° to let the screem panel hang off of it by using the panel’s little looped tail thingie it has on one end. I then used the Plastic Clamps to hold the panel firm to the stand’s feet.
  • Me and my camera would stand at about 60-70cm from the wall. The camera tripod is there for illustrative purposes only, I never use it when shooting people. The truth is, I never use it… I could have bought some photography books instead. Bad me.
  • The ST-E2 Transmitter would act as flash master-commander for the speedlite by sending smoke signals saying, ‘Now! Fire!’
  • You can notice the wine bottles up on the left hand side of the kitchen counter. These weren’t of any benefit for the shooting itself but still are good Swiss wines. Swiss wine is good wine. I love it more than Swiss chocolate.

Anyway, here’s the result:

I don’t know what you think of that but I’m proudly happy with what came out.

These were the camera settings: ISO 160 –I found out recently that apparently the native 5D’s ISO is 160, hence it shoud give less noise–, 1/160 shutter speed, aperture of f/1.4. I went for f/1.4 to have that soft, dreamy look. The 5D struggles big time with the focus at these apertures but if you nail it, it will reward you with bokehliciousness galore.
The speedlite was zoomed out at 14mm to help that creamy light and spread good across the room, and set at about 1/16 power (1/3 of a stop less or more) because of the large aperture I chose to choose. Clever, ain’t it.
I exposed to the right in order to keep the file as noise-free as possible and to achieve that hi-key look.

Of course I put some post processing into it and I did that using Lightroom. Beside some skin retouching I applied lens correction to get rid of the at times nasty vignette that occur when you shoot the Canon 50mm f/1.4 wide open, some tone and contrast enhancing. Some fine grain was then added to get that film-like look. Oh, slight sharpening was applied as well. It took me about 5 minutes overall.
By the way I purchased the SLR Lounge Preset System for Lightroom 4 and I must say those guys did a pretty darn good job with that package. It allows you to tweak your images faster and better than by just using the LR sliders. It has improved my workflow a lot. Highly recommended!

See,  you don’t need extremely fancy equipment to make great photographs. Of course tools can make photographers’ life easier. And the more expensive the tool the easier the job. Or at least it should… Anyway it’s primarily up to you, your skills and your imagination. We as photographers are problem solvers as well as artists.
Gear-wise speaking for instance, try to replace the diffuse panel/wall thing going on here with a small room or even an hallway with close opposite walls. Try and use a cheap sync cord instead of that fancy ST-E2 Transmitter. Or again, try and have the speedlite mounted on camera and bounce it off the wall the same way I did. See, the possibilities are limitless. Just use your brain.

As a matter of fact, all of that is great but keep in mind that taking photographs of people is all about the interaction between you and your subject. Learn how to get the most out of the person in front of your lens. If you have a basic setup like the one above, once you nailed the exposure then you are good to go. That way you can focus on your beloved subject.

And of course, don’t forget that in the end this is all about having fun.

I’d like to thank both Chiara Monn, who was patient enough to model for me and the make-up artist, Nathalie Babis, for the great job done. You girls are amazing! ;)

Here are some other pictures from the photoshoot:

So, this is it guys.

Go out or stay in, that’s your choice, but have fun with it!



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  1. Posted September 12, 2012 at 11:06 am by octi | Permalink

    Excellent results!!! Will try this ASAP!

  2. Posted September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm by TomW | Permalink

    Great tutorial! I love the simplicity of the equipment used, but the rich results are amazing.

  3. Posted September 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm by Jonathan | Permalink

    Nice post. You explained everything simply and you made it easy to understand. Your results speak for themselves – you don’t really need an expensive setup to get good images.

  4. Posted December 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm by udi tirosh | Permalink

    Just a quick note to let you know that you made the short list for the How I Took It contest:

    happy Christmas

  5. Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:09 am by Maynard | Permalink

    Really liked what you had to say in your post, HOW I TOOK IT – Gorgeous Soft Light With A Speedlite, thanks for the good read!
    — Maynard

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