UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


On Assignment: Leaf and a Dish

As photographers, we often have to do outdoor portraits. And if we are lighting, that means hauling a lot of gear, fighting a lot of sun and dealing with the wind. But lately I've been working to pare the gear pack down to something that is reasonable in terms of cost, size and weight.

The photo above is a good example of what can be done with a minimal amount of well-chosen gear. With a little advance thought, you can overpower the sun, have good mobility and not have to worry about the wind.


What and Why

The photo was of opera singer Curtis Bannister, and was done for the Howard County Arts Council. I usually work without an assistant, so today it's just me and Curtis.

Here are the goals of the gear pack:

I want to be able to overpower sun, to shoot with flash at a reasonable rhythm, to not worry about wind and to be able to work/move very easily without need of an assistant.

Here's the whole kit. There's not a lot there, granted. But I can easily overpower sun. And weight is just a few pounds, so it's really portable. (Once assembled, you can grab the stand kit, throw it on your shoulder and move with ease.)

But while it is a small kit, most of the pieces here are chosen for a specific reason. Let's walk through and take a look at each.

The Camera

No surprise here. A leaf-shuttered Fuji X100 series. Shown is my current X100T, but the photo at top was shot last fall with an X100S. Both are excellent cameras, sporting the same chip. So if money is a factor you can totally go for a used X100S.

Why this camera? Lots of reasons. A legit chip, wonderful film sims (like this in-camera B&W, frankly) small, light — and a leaf shutter.

The beauty of a leaf shutter is that it will sync at any shutter speed. In theory, at least. In practice, you have to mind your flash's t.1 times, and make sure you don't lose any of that precious sync timing to latency. But more on that later.

The other really cool thing about the X100 series is that they all have a built-in 3-stop neutral density (ND) filter. This is something we have talked about before that gives you even more choice over the look of your photo when using flash outdoors.

The leaf sync lets you choose a higher shutter speed, which in turn gives you the aperture (and depth of field) of your choice and tells you how much flash power you'll need.

I love to shoot outdoor flash with an open aperture — wide open or close to it. In practice, the X100's leaf shutter is good to 1/1000s before you have to close down to f/5.6. That's because a super-fast leaf exposure, wide open, can be uneven.

So the 3-stop ND filter (which is a real, internal optical filter) was engaged for this shot for that reason: to kill some light to let me sync at f/2.8. That bought me a nice ambient underexposure at ISO 400, 1/1000s at f/2.8. (Which, because of the 3-stop ND filter, now needs as much light as it would have at f/8 without the filter.)

The the "f/2.8" part does a couple of cool things for me. First, it softens the background and makes Curtis pop. And second, it means my flash doesn't have to work very hard to light him. More on that in a minute.

Going from the camera to the flash is my sync. In this case, not a radio remote but a LumoPro hot shoe to 1/8" cord. This is important, too. When you are synching at high shutter speeds (real sync, not power-robbing HSS-pulse) every microsecond is important. And all radios introduce some amount of lag time.

A wire is fast, cheap and reliable — all things I like in a spartan outdoor lighting kit. Now, on to the flash.

The Lighting

The main light (I say main, as I am using the sun as my rim light) is an Einsten e640. Five hundred bucks in the U.S. (sorry, everyone else) gets you a lot of flash here. It's got 640 watt-seconds, which is plenty to make the sun do your bidding in a single portrait environment.

It also has really fast t.1 times. It's even switchable between two modes that stress either color consistency or superfast t.1 times. And this is exactly where those cheap, Chinese rebrand battery-powered mono lights can leave you wanting.

That "designed to compete with an Elinchrom Quadra!" light that costs half as much might have a horrendous t.1 time. And a 1/250s (let alone, a 1/1000s) sync will do you no good outdoors if the flash's t.1 pulse time is longer than a 1/125 of a second. (Seriously.)

Here are my flash settings for this shot. Some interesting stuff happening here.

First, the t.1 time is shorter than a 1/10,000th(!) of a second. Damn straight. That's why I love the Einsteins for this kind of stuff.

Second, I'm at just 1/16th power — just 40ws out of the 640ws available to me. The light is in close, so power is not a concern. I can shoot as fast as I want. But even though I am at 40ws, which is less than the power of a typical 60ws speedlight, you can't really interchange them.

That's because even a good speedlight at half-to-full power will have a t.1 time that will not fit into my 1/1000s shutter speed window. And this is true no matter how the camera or lens syncs. It's physics: you can't squeeze 1/250s into 1/1000s. Whomp, whomp.

Powering the flash is a Vagabond Mini Lithium battery, shown with its AC cord. Lightweight, cheap, works great.

Grip and Mod

The light modifier is a PCB White Beauty Dish. Works great in close-to-medium portrait range, and is much more immune to wind than is a softbox or (God help you) an umbrella.

White is my preference, as it has nicer edges and spreads the specular highlight out. That's important both on Curtis' face and on his jacket. Especially on his jacket, which has a true tonality of black. And you show detail on black by using a specular highlight — AKA, the reflection of your light source.

The stand? Meh. It opposes gravity. Substitute anything you want here that is sturdy/tall enough. But really, that's about the only thing I would negotiate on. The other stuff is pretty specific, and for good reason.

The Look

We went with B&W, for something that felt both older and timeless. The key light (all the lighting gear mentioned above) is coming from upper camera left. The rim light is the sun, coming from back camera right.

I am underexposing the ambient by a fat stop. Maybe a stop and a half. Even so, I will have to cheat both the sky and the ground in post.

What do I mean by that? I want to bring them closer together in tone and hold nice detail. So I lifted up the ground area in post, and I pulled down the sky tones. Not so much as to be obvious. Just enough to marry it all together.

This, along with the depth of field of shooting at f/2.8, adds to the older feel of the photo. The tones are creamier and the focus on the subject pops. Those qualities (along with the use of black and white) create a look that you could easily get with an old, leaf-shuttered, Speed Graphic 4x5.

So that's my small, light outdoor portrait kit.It's a minimal amount of gear, with almost every single piece chosen for a specific reason.

Next: Nayan Khanolkar: Alley Cat


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