SLC-1L-07: Small, Fast and Powerful

Much like a welterweight fighter, a leaf-shuttered camera and a speedlight in a mini softbox throws a punch that is much harder than you'd expect. Even outdoors, in midday light.

Case in point, these portraits of Cuban boxer Osmany Barcelay.

Back in Havana

Each year we host a group of photographers for a week-long workshop in Cuba. We do a mix of daily classes, street shooting, and some structured shoots.

One of our shoots is a private session at the Rafael Trejo boxing gym in Havana. I've been visiting the gym since 2013, and boxer Osmany Barcelay has been a fixture there since long before then.

First things first. I would like to point out that Mr. Barcely is 45 years old. So guys, this is what you can expect to look like at 45. That is, if you have devoted your entire waking life to boxing and daily training as Barcelay has.

There are maybe a dozen boxers working out in the session, but there is something about Barcelay. He is soft-spoken, and a very nice guy. He wears a lifetime of scars on his torso, and is always incredibly focused. Given his age and experience, he leads the daily workout and sparring matches. Think Oenomaus, the doctore from Spartacus and you won't be far off.

After the sparring matches, some of our photographers like to break away to make portraits of the boxers. That was my goal for the visit as well. And Barcelay had graciously agreed to let me photograph him for a few minutes after his workout.

As it happened, I had been updating the Gear Guide for 2019 and wanted to test drive a promising new folding softbox. This seemed like a great opportunity.

I had auditioned a few mini-boxes and found one I really liked: an Altura 11"x8" fabric-front soft box. It folds flat, is well-built and gives great light. It punches way above its weight at $21.99, shipped.

Notebook-sized soft boxes are great for close-in portraiture. At a working distance of, say, 30", you'll get soft(ish) light like above. And the flash/box combo is so small I usually just hand-hold it. But you can usually find someone to hold it up for you if needed.

Photo by Martin Howard

In this case I was using a slightly overengineered support for a speedlight in the form of Mr. Emilio Correa Bayeux, a 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist in the 75kg division. Suffice to say this light stand is stable, even in a modest breeze.

A Purpose-Chosen Kit

Our ambient environment is sunlight, which is slipping in and out of clouds continuously. But I can still easily work above that because I am using the boxed speedlight with a leaf-shuttered Fuji X100F. This means I have no upper speed limit on my flash sync. This magic combo means that I can absolutely murder full sunlight with a close-in, small-flash setup.

And just like we did at sunset with low ambient light levels, we can shoot on aperture priority mode and let the shutter speed float as the sun moves in and out of the clouds.

The photo at top is shot at ISO 500 at f/4.5 at 1/2000th of a second. The flash is dialed down, maybe at 1/8th power, not straining at all.

I'm connected with a coiled OCF sync cord for two reasons. One, I want to avoid any radio remote-induced sync lag. And two, Cuba does not allow the import of radio remotes. So there's that. But a cord would be the best way in any case.

Making the Light Softer

At a few feet away, the light is soft-ish. But when I take control of the light myself and move it in tighter to Barcelay—maybe a foot away—a few neat things happen.

• One, the light gets much softer. At this range, it is a legit soft box. Look at the size of the specular across his entire face. The exposure is built on that false tone.

• Two, the light gets way stronger. Here, I am shooting at f/5.6 at 1/2500. I have power to spare, and could take this sunny ambient to black if I wanted.

• Three, the light falls off much faster on the background. This is because of the ratio of light-to-subject vs. light-to-background distance. I.e., I get more control over the overall tonal range of my photo.

• Four, the light gets more controllable. As I rotate the soft box towards the camera, the light settles in on his face but is feathered away from the wall. Thus can I keep the camera left side (same side as the light) background dark if I wish.

• Five, the light is also closer to his face than it is to his torso. Which means I can use brighter light levels to bring you to his face. I can also exacerbate this effect by rotating the light up.

As someone who has done his share of close-in minibox portraits, these light movements second nature. I don't even really think about it when I am rotating the light up and away from the subject.

To the subject, I almost certainly look like an idiot photographer with really bad aim. But if you want to control with that little light is doing, it is a necessary thing.

Ridiculously Mobile

To even think of this a portable studio is kind of crazy. Here is my entire kit. It's hard to argue against a full gear pack (camera, lens, light, sync, and light mod) that clocks in at under three pounds and can let me do stuff like this in broad daylight.

Could I do more with a full roller case? Yep.

Do I generally want to travel with a roller case? Nope.

Speedlights are small, light and incredibly capable if you can work within their performance envelope. I started out with them, expanded out to, well, nearly everything else, and have found myself happily coming back to them. Live and learn.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook


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