HonlPhoto Speed Grids: Controlling Contrast

While hanging out with the Western Kentucky photojournalism students this weekend, I got a chance to play around with David Honl's new speed grids for a bit. Long story short, I like his better than my DIY versions -- for several reasons.

I have been spending a lot of time lately reverse engineering the light of a few photographers whose work I really admire. What I am seeing is that it is not the light that calls attention to itself so much as the light's ability to draw you into an image in a specific way. I love the idea of subtly -- or not so subtly -- highlighting a portion of an image to draw the eye in.

In the past, I would go on the assumption of the quality of the fill light somehow being less important than the quality of the main light. I'd pay less attention to the feel of the fill light, as it was just there to keep the main light from leaving the wrong kind of shadows.

But recently, I have been paying more attention to my fill light -- even creating it first -- and then laying main light down on top of that. For those of you who do not use a flash meter (as I don't) this can be a very helpful approach to creating exactly the lighting ratios you want.

Take this portrait of (WKU PJ student) Emily, for example. In the photo at left, I sat her in front of a metal case in the WKU photo studio and shot her with a shoot-thru umbrella straight on.

I did this purposefully, to create a specular highlight that I would then have to control. Basically, I wanted to give myself some excessive contrast to then knock down.

Looks fine, except for the line going right through her head. But this wasn't going to be my final photo -- or even my main light. I wanted the straight-on umbrella to be my fill light. But I created my fill with the same level of attention as my main would get.

Then I dropped my flash's power level down two stops. Now I have a darkish photo, lit only by my fill light. But the fill light has the same attention given to it as a main light, and I know that it is filling exactly two stops down.

Now, I bring a second SB-800 at camera left, with a warming gel, and fire it through one of Honl's grids. I used the 1/8 grid, which throws a tighter beam than the 1/4.

As I bring the gridded light up on her face and choose my power setting to get the best exposure, my grid becomes my main light and my umbrella becomes my fill. And the fill is exactly the quality and the quantity that I want.

As far as the grid itself, I really liked the smooth falloff at the edges of the beam much better than my DIY versions. The light was more uniform and the pattern was a little looser, too.

Not to poo-poo my DIY grids, because they have served me well. But the store-bought grids are also smaller (cubic inches are always at a premium in my case) and had a very rugged build. You could probably run over them with a car and they'd be fine.

But back to the light, this is something I will definitely be experimenting with over the next few weeks. I am putting together a portrait series as a long-term project. And I think that hard light, coupled with the right kind of fill, will be a good fit.

These production sample grid spots are going to get a lot of use over the next few months. (So, sorry, Dave. These are not coming back.)

Related links:

Gear used: Nikon D300 | Tamron 17-50/2.8 | Nikon SB-800 | Honl Speed Grid
First Look: Honl Speed Grids
DIY Grid How-To's: Cardboard | Straws | Coroplast
WKU Photojournalism Program


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