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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