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Speedlights are Out! Paul Buff Einsteins are In!

Ok, so… I’ve been one of those strobist, speed-light photographers for a few years now. And, for the most part it’s been pretty great. Used speedlights are inexpensive, uber-portable, readily available, and they work. You can get some truly spectacular results with them, if you know what you’re doing. Speedlights are not without their nuisances, however.

First off, I’m kind of a big guy — I’ve got large hands and big, cumbersome, bratwurst-like fingers. Trying to fiddle with the micro-buttons on the back of a Nikon SB-26 inside the dark recesses of my 28-inch Westcott Apollo softbox is a hassle – a HASSLE. I hate it! But, there’s more than that.

I had a shoot not quite two weeks ago and it ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. The location was a very small, single-car, residential garage. Really just a car-port with four walls. I mean — small. Ok? S-M-A-L-L! There was room to park a single car and allow the doors to open not quite half way so that you could struggle out of the car, and that was about it. And, fully parked, a mid-sized car would have maybe two to three inches clearance between the front bumper and the back wall, and about the same between the back bumper and the closed garage door.

A few days before the shoot took place I spent some time doing lighting tests inside the space. And, as I had suspected, the area was so small that light was spilling everywhere. The location was chosen because the garage had an antique steel door that was in very rough and rusty condition, and it looked cool. I wanted to properly expose the model, but have the old door that acted as the backdrop slightly underexposed. It turned out that just wasn’t possible using any of the light modifiers I had in my arsenal. My 28-inch Westcott Apollo worked best, but the space was so cramped that it still spilled light everywhere — overexposing the background. I couldn’t flag the Apollo all that much because the space was so slight that any significant flagging brought the flag into the shot.

So, I sprung for the Westcott grid for the 28-inch Apollo — hoping to achieve more directionality to the light. It turned out, however, that I have one of the old Apollo’s that isn’t equipped with the velcro fittings needed to secure the grid in place. I learned that if you send your old Apollo to Westcott they’ll sew the velcro on and send it back to you, but the shoot was coming up and there was no time for that. Luckily, my wife is reasonably handy with a sewing machine. But, let me tell you ahead of time: sewing velcro into a Westcott Apollo is a two-man job!. It has to be done with the Apollo open and one person needs to hold it upright while the other sews. It’s not fun to do — just so you know.

Anyway, we managed to get the job done. And, another quick test confirmed that with the grid in place and just a small flag that wouldn’t intrude into the shot, the lighting was what I was looking for. The shoot went ahead as scheduled. But, it would turn out to be the last straw for my little speed-lights.

Firstly, the grid, while it does an excellent job of providing additional directionality for the light, also drops the light output considerably, I discovered. For most of the shots I was shooting with a 1.7/f 50mm prime lens. I wanted to shoot at f/11, 100ISO, 1/125 – 1/200. But, f/8 @ 200 would have been acceptable. And, I never like shooting with the speed-light at 1:1 if I can help it – drains batteries, recycle time suffers and you have to worry too much about overheating the speedlight. However, in the gridded and flagged Apollo, my poor little Nikon speedlight was giving me nowhere near the settings I wanted. I ended up having to shoot at ISO400, f/4, 1/125.

The garage was cramped, very dimly lit, and EXCEEDINGLY HOT!!! Man, it was like a sauna in there! So, my level of aggravation was not being helped by the conditions. Nearing the end of the shoot, after ripping the grid off of my Westcott Apollo, then ripping the diffuser open for what seemed like the umpteenth time, and fiddling with the speed-light’s micro-buttons in the dark of the Appollo’s recess, I had had enough! I made the decision right there and then that I was investing in studio strobes!

(…stay tuned for part II)

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