Improvisational Light

One of the biggest misconceptions about this site is that is is about a specific type of gear and/or lighting technique.

While I will admit to giving a lion's share of time to the use of speedlights, I am pretty much a big tent guy when it comes to lighting. The concentration on speedlights is mostly a reflection of the fact that speedlights are already likely to already be in the hands of most of the site's readers.

I am not averse to using whatever may be around when it comes time to lighting a photo. That could mean anything from a White Lightning in a 60" Softliter (a favorite combo) or, as in this case, a speedlight and a garbage bag.

Thus it was on our annual trip to Florida to see the family. I am making a point of traveling very light when it comes to photo gear, as not doing so can quickly start me down the slippery slope of packing everything.

So this time I brought one body, a wide-to-portrait zoom and two speedlights. I knew I was going to have to shoot a thirteen-person group shot, which is standard fare for our summer get-togethers.

My plan was to position the camera on a table (no tripod to lug around) and shoot with on-camera SB-800 as fill and a second speedlight on it's little AS-19 stand bouncing off of the ceiling as key.

The setup works great, and minimizes the gear very nicely. In addition to the above I bring a second, charged battery for the camera and a small AA charger for he flash batts.

"Hey, While You're Down Here..."

With a couple days left in the trip, my dad asked me if I could do a nice photo of my mom for his computer wallpaper. I told him I would love to, but a guy named John Harrington told me I always have to charge people when I shoot or I am The Devil.

So we settled on a day rate of $1,000, with usage rights granted for one year's electronic display on his monitor. After that time period he would have to renew or I get the house if he kept using it.

Kidding of course. And anyone who can put up with me as a son for 44 years certainly deserves a freebie every now and then. Just please, don't tell John, okay?

My problem was that Mr. Travel Lightly didn't pack any modifiers appropriate for shooting anyone of "a certain age," if you know what I mean.

Scrounging for a Mod

I wanted to do something down at the lake (same as in this shoot) which meant that I would not have any walls or ceilings off of which to bounce my bare flash.

Then I remembered my friend Aaron's idea to use a trash bag as a modifier and figured I could alter that setup a little an do just fine.

Aaron wadded his up and shot through the blob-like result. I, of course, refused to be satisfied with anything a mere Google Engineer (Aaron's reeeaal smart) could dream. So I decided to use mine as a poor man's Last-o-lite panel.

[To Aaron: This improved design gives a much larger surface for the new, diffused light source. I would explain it to you, but there's math involved. I don't want to stress you out...]

Here is the grand result, possibly taking the prize as the World's Cheapest Modifier. I say that, because the clothes hanger is free and the bag is not one of those expensive Hefty Bags, but rather a cheap, Wal-Mart store brand. I think it cost, like, three one hundredths of a penny or something.

I even splurged with about six inches of tape down the open end of the hanging bag to keep it from slipping. ('Cause that's how I roll.)

To support the bag I snipped the hanger in the center of the bottom and just spread the wire out to hold up the top edge.

Here it is in action. It is being held by my very favorite VAL in the world, AKA Missus Strobist. I would have loved to get it up higher. But what the hey, we are improvising with the light stands.

I say this because the light source actually turns into both high key and low fill based on its location. Imagine looking at it from my mom's position -- the key light is up top, and the reflection of the key from your position in the water becomes a fill. It's almost like a one-light clamshell setup.

I triggered this flash (set in SU-4 mode) with an on-camera SB-800, dialed way down. This gave me a tiny amount of wrap, but that was not really something I was concerned with at the time. The point is that I could have cranked the O-A fill up if I wanted to.

If you notice, the trash bag is doing double-duty as a reflector, too. In fact, judging by the light falling on Susan it is more efficient as a reflector than as a diffuser.

Funny thing -- I was shooting mom and trying to distract her from the process and asked her to tell me about how she met dad.

"That's just one of those things photographers say," she correctly responded. It's pretty hard to fool someone who dealt with me as a teenager.

The best camera gear to use is the gear you have with you, which was also the case during a really neat moment we experienced while in Florida.

A few weeks ago, an astronaut visited my kids' school in Ellicott City, MD, and spent the day with them. They all signed a poster that was to go up on the next space shuttle mission.

As luck would have it the mission was postponed five times, so it ended up launching about two hours after we got to my parents' house.

So, both my kids watch for the first time a space ship blast off -- and it is carrying their actual signatures on board. And Mr. Doofus leaves the house to watch it with them with his D3 still packed in his bags.

So I end up shooting it on my iPhone -- with the case covering part of the camera lens at that. I love how the existing clouds look like humongous shuttle exhaust plumes, rolling off of the ground.

It may only be an iPhone shot, but I am very glad I got it. It was a special moment to watch.


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Blogger John said...

Excellent shot in the water! Makes me wanna do a shot of my wife in a similar fashion.

August 03, 2009 4:52 PM  
Anonymous Arnoud said...

What great shot, the iPhone is the new Holga! (or did that sound soooo nineties?) Seriously, I took my D80 and 18-200 and 2 SB's and triggers... on holiday, and I ended up shooting most pictures with my ixus. The best camera is the one you carry.

August 03, 2009 5:11 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Whoa. The mind. It boggles. Hey, we're hiring again. Wanna send me a CV?

August 03, 2009 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Rob Frazier said...

It's funny how many things there are just laying around that you could use as a light modifier. I wonder what it would have looked like if you had ballooned the trash bag up and shot your SB-800 into the bag?

August 03, 2009 5:39 PM  
Blogger Jens said...

A garbage bag wrapped around a coat hanger??? That's friggin' genious! I'm going to make on ASAP. I'm going to make myself a whole series, from diffusers to gobos to reflectors!

David, your innovation really stimulates my creativity. It's like arts and crafts in elementary school!


Any good ideas on gobo material? Preferably something as "foldable" as those white garbage bags. Wait! BLACK garbage bags! Although, those could be more expensive, like a whole dollar more or something...

August 03, 2009 5:51 PM  
Blogger Reinoud said...

Is this the strobist blog or the one of McGyver? :-)

August 03, 2009 6:05 PM  
Blogger David said...


Strobist is an equal opportunity blog. I get complaints for being too upmarket when I use my WL's, too ...


August 03, 2009 6:26 PM  
Blogger Paulo Rodrigues said...

Very nicely done.

BTW My Uncle Carlos always charges to shoot people and some say he is the devil.

August 03, 2009 6:54 PM  
Blogger Photobby said...

I am in complete agreement that the best camera is the one with you. I've got some moments I would have missed without my camera-phone. Quality sucks, but it's the comp, though and light that makes it, right? (oh and the impact and meaning) I dare say that your i-phone snap wouldn't make it into the Sunday paper, but it probably means as much to you as the great shot of your mom. Less is more, at least that's the undercurrent I get out of Strobist.

Keep at it!

August 03, 2009 7:00 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Can you recommend a good flash for my D60?

Just kidding. I always get a kick out of those comments.

Anyway, I love the trash bag. One of my favorite light modifiers was an aluminum trash can lid that I turned into a beauty dish for my Alien Bees. (White Lightning is definitely too upscale for my budget.) I cut a whole in the center, painted it with a matte white spray paint, mounted it to an old speedring with J-B Weld, and covered the front with a white garbage bag and a giant rubberband that is sold for the purpose of holding trash bags on trash cans.

Definitely love the "trash as a tool" concept. Which reminds me, I really need to try those IKEA trash cans as light tents...

- Jon

August 03, 2009 7:05 PM  
Blogger shawnpix said...

Hey David,

I'd like to see the group photo. Did you do anything over the top for that one? I was recently out in IL for my family reunion and there were about 50 of us there. Here's the result of my group photo:

August 03, 2009 7:20 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

funny, for a desktop background, id have placed the subject on the right hand side... seeing as that's the other side from all the icons. but then im a windows guy...

how does it work in Macsville? who cares. bin bags are the new octas.

August 03, 2009 8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, swimming in a Florida lake at dusk, nothing like tossing mom and wifey into the food chain. But hey, whatever it takes to get the shot.
All kidding aside, great shot David, and thanks for the setup details.

-Joe, Tampa Bay

August 03, 2009 8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic article, and love the lake shot, would never have guessed at how simple it was if not for the explanation.

I was in a pinch awhile back for a diffuser as well and had some recycling int he back of my truck, including an empty 4 litre milk jug. I just cut a loose hole in the top to allow me to slide the flash head in voila, worked perfectly.

August 03, 2009 9:55 PM  
Blogger Kevin Housen said...

Pure genius. You should visit Florida more often. I love those posts.

And you can tell your mom she looks way too young to have an old guy as a kid. Very nice picture.

August 03, 2009 11:10 PM  
Blogger Kurt Shoens said...

In situations like this, I wonder, "Do I tell the civilian about the 300 volts inside the hand-held flash or not?" I usually elect "Not" to reduce the likelihood they'll over-think and drop it.

August 03, 2009 11:57 PM  
Blogger Stormin said...

A bit of gel in her hair and she'd be ready to spend some lake time with Joe

August 04, 2009 1:07 AM  
Blogger arthuralmassy said...

David, regarding your Tweet on the foreign website that stole this blog post of yours and their many translation errors in their repost, my favorite definitely is "I told him I would prepubescent lady to". Ha ha ha!!!

August 04, 2009 1:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, that is so cool that they adopted you when you were 10! Special people deserve special rewards - and you shot your mom through a garbage bag??!!

August 04, 2009 1:54 AM  
Blogger David said...

FYI, Arthur is talking about this:

August 04, 2009 2:09 AM  
Blogger John Harrington said...

David -

The "devil" is in the details. Likely your family is like mine - asking for the occasional "freebie", but as with my brother with a pickup, being the photographer in the family has it's perks (for them!).

Case in point - strolling down the promenade into Disneyland today, my brother-in-law says to me "hey, your sister said all she really wants for her 40th birthday is a great family photo, so...." which lead me to ask "well, I'll ask you professionally and not personally - your family of 5, or the entire extended family?" His response? The diplomatic "well, both."

It looks like you did a nice job on the portrait! (I think mine turned out okay too!)

-- John

August 04, 2009 4:14 AM  
Anonymous fotogurafa said...

I take a Picture from my girlfriend in the mare Mediterranean without a light-mod. only straight speed light attached to the camera.

And Sun !! as fill light, easy setup, less gear and a nice Pic.

I think, but he its my Girlfriend so i am not totally sure about.

August 04, 2009 4:44 AM  
Blogger fusion said...

Thanks for post. It’s really imformative stuff.
I really like to read.Hope to learn a lot and have a nice experience here! my best regards guys!

seo jaipur--seo jaipur

August 04, 2009 5:08 AM  
Anonymous Brian from Ireland said...

Can I just say that your mums response to your "standard" photographer question was classic and made me smile !

In addition to one of the other commenter's, I too would like to shoot my wife in the same fashion, just only one change to the composition, I would ask the wife to lower her head by about 12 inches or so.

August 04, 2009 5:58 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

Hi, David
Although I've been an avid reader of your blog and I'm currently participating in the Boot Camp II, I've never left any comment. Well, this time I felt compelled leave one. And that's because this post is so great! Not that other aren't, but I'm fond of water portraits and you are so ingenious. I've never thought of using a trash bag as a light modifier - much less as a reflector. I usually reach for my Lumiquest III, like in photograph you can check bellow: Again, excellent idea!

August 04, 2009 6:02 AM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Well Dave...How do we know that you wrote that first?

We want to see your Birth certificate why were at it.


August 04, 2009 6:55 AM  
Anonymous Boston Photographer-MWynne said...

Great shot of mom, maybe Walmart should start marketing to the photo crowd for modifiers.

August 04, 2009 7:33 AM  
Blogger mhakola said...

That's really sweet. (The space shuttle portion, that is.)

The garbage bag is very sweet as well, but with more of a utilitarian aesthetic. But just think- if you had gone old skool and used a shower curtain you could have been washing it in the lake at the same time, scoring double the "good son" points with mom.

August 04, 2009 9:32 AM  
Blogger Jaren Wilkey said...

David, here is a new post and Behind the Scenes Video we created:

August 04, 2009 9:55 AM  
Anonymous eric said...

Can't believe this post was pilfered that fast, and so badly.

August 04, 2009 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Rich Green said...

You saw what I want to see - a NASA liftoff. Maybe before I die...

August 04, 2009 11:00 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

So... you put a photo of your mom on the internet? How's that working for you? I know how my mom would react! LOL

August 04, 2009 11:11 AM  
Blogger Frances said...


August 04, 2009 1:25 PM  
Anonymous Jake2k said...

I used my sock as a diffuser last night...

August 04, 2009 1:37 PM  
Blogger Kenneth said...

David just have to say that your work just amazes me every time. Just keeping it simple and getting the right shot out of it. Can't thank you enough for this 'cause it has helped me so much in photography.

I'm sure your momma is proud of you too!

Keep up the good posts

August 04, 2009 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you tell your Strobistette aka
Susan and your mum it could be dangerous if the high voltage of your strobe hits accidentally the water? (esp. if your Val or mum got a peacemaker) Anyway, just saying.

Great photo! *thumbs up*

August 04, 2009 3:16 PM  
Blogger said...

when will you start getting a google sponsorship? great post.thanx.

August 04, 2009 4:56 PM  
Blogger Ogalthorpe said...

White Lightning through a 60" Softliter? Hmmmm... sounds awfully familiar. I hope you ain't biting my style.

BTW, my favorite quote about lighting:

I shoot available light. I use any damn light that's available.

August 04, 2009 6:36 PM  
Anonymous Alan Lapp said...

David, thanks for helping me shed the "freak" label. I used white garbage bags in my home studio for ages, but never felt OK about sharing it with anyone. It always seemed so... desperate.

I tape a single thickness of white kitchen bag to old picture framing mats. I even built double-wall diffuser using a FedEx box (for depth) in an effort to make the light more uniform within the diffuser.

As always, thanks for your fine work!

August 04, 2009 7:14 PM  
Blogger Will said...

From the comments of the final shot of Mama Strobist:
"loujanelle says:
Looks like you watched that DH DVD and followed up on the advice given there. Great shot!"

Good job on following your own advice!

August 04, 2009 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Boyd said...

I've just discovered your site and your writing is as entertaining as your subject matter is valuable! Enjoyed every bit of this one...thanks!

August 04, 2009 9:30 PM  
Blogger Brian C said...

"World's Cheapest Modifier" eh? Well perhaps we keep the same company!

I used a half a dozen or more paper towels for this...

August 04, 2009 9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, thank you so much for this post, which is both refreshing and validating. Being of very modest means, I have been employing trash bags, aluminum foil, car sunshades (reflective side), collapsible laundry baskets (to fashion lightboxes), coat hangers, styrofoam packing material -- basically anything I find lying around waiting to be discarded -- for my very dated gear (Nikon D50 and an SB-24, both bought very used) and getting what has been for me very pleasing results. At times I get a little depressed seeing the cool stuff Joe McNally uses (serious envy) or the latest post on Flickr about a 25-year-old who just got himself a D700 and an 85/1.4 for his birthday, knowing full well I will never be in the presence of such gear, let alone be able to actually hold and use them. Your post reinforces the notion I've heard often but still need to be repeatedly reminded: it's not about the equipment you wish you had -- it's about making full use of the equipment that you already have on hand.

Thank you again for the inspiration and reaffirmation.

San Dimas, CA

August 04, 2009 10:00 PM  
Anonymous photo retouching said...

What an informative article. Your creative innovation is brilliant!

August 05, 2009 2:02 AM  
Blogger xray said...

Great idea using a garbage bag. Most of my shots end up in the Recycle Bin so it's very appropriate. ;)

Am I the only one that's amused by the comments from guys wanting to "shoot their wives"?

August 05, 2009 2:16 AM  
Blogger ceslou said...

You are always inspiring David. Have meet you here in Dubai and always amazed with your skills in lighting.

August 05, 2009 3:25 AM  
Blogger xtoph said...

I am very dissapointed.

I was so sure you had tossed the flash into the bag, inflated it, tied it off and set it adrift for this shot. No stobette required!

Then again, that would have illuminated below the water as well... Hey, now that would be a cool effect, putting the primary light entirely underwater. Tupperware submarine style. ...

August 05, 2009 3:44 AM  
Anonymous nicolas said...

David, how would one get rid of the model's reflection in the water? pola? different lighting angle?

However, brilliant picture, great post as usual!

August 05, 2009 7:26 AM  
Blogger John said...

Love the quick thinking ...McNally would be jealous! =)

Quick question; why did you trigger the key SB-800 in SU-4 mode as opposed to setting it as a slave and dialing in the power manually with the on-camera SB?

I'm sure there's a logical answer, but I can't get it.


August 05, 2009 11:04 AM  
Blogger Michelle Garcia said...


I've never left a comment before but have been an avid reader for a long time now. Thanks for making it easier to understand lighting!

When I read this post I was shocked - we were both watching the shuttle launch at the same time! We were on vacation as well at a beach in Melbourne. I got just about the same shot of one of my kids watching. We went home and changed and went back to the beach for a family portrait which turned out nice, not exactly Strobist worthy, but nice. When you have cranky in-laws and kids who'd rather be in the ocean I didn't exactly have the time necessary for me to figure out how to and then get creative with my lighting.

Shots of the shuttle launch and my wonderful family -

So thanks for the great creative ideas, I'd never think of them and maybe one of these days I'll stop settling for 'good enough' when I know I should be doing better!


August 05, 2009 12:28 PM  
Anonymous philsouthern said...

this is a great idea and will be using it in the near future thanks for the tip.

August 05, 2009 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon because i cant log in @ work.

Love the tip, David. I tried inflating the bag and it worked wonders (had to tape a corner hole shut). I twisted the neck and rubberbanded it closed, then the same rubber band secured it to my flash. it let me set it on a lil stand or gorillapod anywhere I wanted it.
Next will try taping some black bag to the back to avoid too much spill.

Re your post being scraped to some random page, in case you dint see my twit reply:
"try embedding copyright notices and links, set to a CSS class that collapses them on your site. They'll show on the scraped site."

August 05, 2009 2:18 PM  
Blogger Callum Winton said...

Ironic ... I used a plastic bag in the current assignment too :o)


August 05, 2009 2:20 PM  
Blogger tbsphotography said...

This is excellent it reminds me of a shot Joe McNally did when I was on a workshop of his in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Is their a way to contact David Hobby directly? I am having much difficulty photographing some ball bearing and I thought with his knowledge he might have some helpful hints.



August 05, 2009 3:46 PM  
Blogger David said...


If you have looked for a way to contact me directly, you have no doubt seen my notes that due to time constraints I can no longer engage in one-to-one lighting advice about things like ball bearing photography.



August 05, 2009 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Histed said...

"Woman of a certain age" Wash your mouth out! Your mum's lovely!

Todays post was brought to you by Mrs Strobist, Mummy Strobist, and Mr. Strobist. he he

Thank you for another great post.


August 05, 2009 8:30 PM  
Anonymous YM TV said...

At first I thought this was digitally edited via Photoshop. Nice shot, Excellent!

August 06, 2009 2:15 AM  
Anonymous Hansthemonkey said...

Really cool! Now ya just need one more VAL to hold a nice rim light on her and it would be perfect-o! I need to get some small flashes that I wouldn't be so paranoid about dropping into the water.

August 06, 2009 1:26 PM  
Anonymous pher said...

I know you went to UF (I think)... did you visit Gainesville?

August 06, 2009 11:21 PM  
Blogger Max said...

A lot of enthusiastic commentary here, which is nice to see. I hate to be the guy to hurl poop, but I feel the standard of Costco food samples has been a little low in the past year or so. It's gone from fairly gourmet to more on the level of the premade peanut butter and jelly triangles which are only slightly edible. We'll keep trying them, though.

August 07, 2009 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How funny, ending this brilliant post with an iPhone shot. I just got an iPhone and my only regret with the camera is that I can't sync my speedlite to it!

August 07, 2009 1:21 PM  
Anonymous Ronan Palliser said...

Great photo of the Shuttle David and a lovely back story... 18 minutes later it passed over Ireland (getting a LOT of attention here - it's rare we can see a launch) and I took the chance to take this photo:

August 08, 2009 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Rocky Maloney said...

wow. wonderful idea! i saw this the night before i went and took some headshots of my little cousins, this set up worked out real well! i was very impressed!

that is one of my favorite photos that i got with the set-up
thanks for the idea!!!

August 08, 2009 4:33 PM  
Blogger innerglowphoto said...

Posted photo exluded, but his brings up the obvious question when using this set up. Is she a 1 or 2 bagger..

August 09, 2009 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Stefan Guse said...

Great post, as usual. I've been using this technique myself quite many times, only that my trash bag is a white rain coat. Works pretty well for me, especially if you want to travel light, and if necessary also doubles as a, well... rain coat. Here is one example:

August 11, 2009 6:59 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

As usual fantastic images with fantastic stories!

One hopefully constructive comment (can't believe I'm doing this!):
Not sure how many icons your Dad has on his desktop but usually they are arranged on the left hand side.
I've tried a few pics and often found the icons creeping into the main subject area.
Just thinking a horizontal flip (mirror?) would move the subject well away from the icons.

Or you could just move (or remove) the icons

Thanks for all your inspiration!

August 13, 2009 7:41 AM  
Blogger Puck said...

just tell John that you and your dad settled for deducting the 1,000 and future useage rights from your over all tab for the expenses of raising you...

2 questions - posted also on your flickr -

1. could it appear to be a better reflector because mrs. strobist's arm is right on it where mama strobist is a pace or two away?

2. is it the kink midway down that's making it act like a clamshell? is the kink an accident or is there something inside the bag with a bend in it?

August 13, 2009 10:43 AM  
Blogger pete25r said...

I think it's quite fun to improvise light modifiers.
I recently went on a shoot with a friend and we ended up using a good ole fashioned disposable white plastic bowls for a light modifier. It worked out quite well. Some guy even walked up and asked what we where doing, got some portraits of him.
oh yeh, the secondary light modifier was a silver baking pan.

August 14, 2009 7:09 PM  
Anonymous Delme said...


Thanks for the great article. Some extremely useful information to help with lighting.

Thanks for sharing



August 18, 2009 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Chad said...

Ohh ohh signature was on that shuttle too! I got to watch the launch with all of my colleagues at the Space Telescope Science Institute here in Baltimore (I'm assuming this was SM4 Hubble Mission?) What a moving event! Baltimore is so lucky to have this most important center of cutting edge science right in our backyard. Glad you were able to capture the moment!

August 21, 2009 11:20 PM  
Blogger Jesse Michelsen said...

I know this post is getting old but wanted to comment back here with my latest triumph..ok thats a little out there. What I mean is, I have never done any diffusion of any kind and really am new to DSLR and lighting in general. After reading this and a few more posts, I recently used a piece of paper to diffuse light from my Nikon d40s built in flash while taking pictures of some food. Without diffusing, the food looked very shiny, almost slimy and had very harsh light. After diffusing with the paper, they were a tad darker but they really looked appetizing in comparison. You can check out the finished result at

September 02, 2009 2:28 PM  

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