Portable soft light solution

Here are some subjects I’ve never been assigned to photograph: a chiseled, oiled, body builder; a chiseled, sweaty, mean-looking linebacker or killer ninja; a chiseled, oiled, bikini-clad supermodel. You know, those subjects that you see sometimes in the location portrait lighting books and blogs.

No, McNally and Hobby get all those jobs. Jobs that require lots of small specular light sources over which you can exercise total control, and are shot in abandoned warehouses, desert sand dunes, and gigantic college gymnasiums, with enough space and time to not only to place your lights, but for a video crew to immortalize the shoot as well!

No, the jobs that I, and most travel photographers, get are lighting the locations themselves as well as the people in them, and those locations are almost always dark: nightclubs, shop interiors, bars, pubs. They are always crowded with the general public, run by managers who are more concerned with you not annoying their patrons with your popping flashes than helping you make art, and require you to get in and out in minutes.

(Where did my karma go wrong, I sometimes wonder? I mean, I can live without the linebackers, weight lifters, and ninjas, but don’t I deserve just one bikini-clad supermodel shoot? ) No, I can’t worry about how best to sculpt the tricep of a flamenco dancer with a snooted kicker light,

Photo © Bob Krist

I just have to make a broadly and softly lit publishable picture in less than 10 minutes, and get moving before I get thrown out (and I have been thrown out of better, and far worse, places than this…sometimes even for using a flash!). Fortunately, though, I’ve worked up a pretty good portable one-light set up to help me do it…

Over the years, I’ve tried just about every portable diffuser on the market, from LumiQuest’s numerous offerings to Gary Fong’s long line o’ Lightspheres, and while I’ve found a lot to like in some of them (especially the LumiQuest Softbox III, but for contained softlight, not lighting large areas), there’s still nothing that beats a white umbrella.

But portability is problem with most umbrellas….you need to put them on a stand. Stepping across the aisle to our video-shooting colleague’s suppliers however, I found a small enough umbrella that will allow you to shoot thru and handhold in your left hand, while you hold the camera with your right. It’s the Lowell Tota-brella, 27″ white.

Then it was just a matter of finding (or more accurately, “cobbling together”) a bracket that you can handhold. The resulting rig looks something this:

Photo © Bob Krist
Photo © Bob Krist

Now the beauty of wireless off camera TTL control, like that available in the Nikon CLS system, is that with this rig, you don’t necessarily have to be the person handling it. If you have an assistant, a guide, a significant other, or a willing bystander, you can utilize them as an “AHL” (automatic human lightstand) or as Joe calls them, a”VAL”(voice actuated lightstand). You can make lighting tweaks and adjustments from camera position without having to cross a crowded restaurant or dancefloor, or calling out exposures over the din to your AHL.

In the case of the flamenco dancer in the Amada Restaurant in Old City Philadelphia , I was working with an assistant named Jesse, and the place was jammed. You couldn’t set up a lightstand if your life depended on it. But Jesse maneuvered off to the side and planted between two tables and shot through the umbrella. Behind him was an off-white wall, which really helped to spread the beam. Here’s what the setup looked like (in the pumpkin-headed men universe):lighting-diagram-12372295453

Now I adapted an old piece of gear called a Domke Twin Flash Bracket to make my handholdable umbrella bracket, but it looks like it’s a discontinued item in Tiffen’s catalog, although you may be able to find a couple hanging around. Check the Pages section for a rundown of parts that you can get to make your own.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Bob,
    You sound like you’re ready to do a sports illustrated swimsuit issue. If you ever get the call and need an artistic director you know who to call. But with my luck it would probably be a swimsuit issue of Playgirl.

    1. Fred: I’m not sure either one of our hearts could stand up to an SI swimsuit shoot….but it might be fun to find out! Bob

  2. Thanks for mentioning me, Bob, but you spelled my name in the feminine way, and I just have to point out (because it caused me much grief as a child) that men (of which I am one) spell it without the “i”…

    don’t forget to mention that any assistant holding a light for a whole shoot had better have pretty good triceps, even a lightweight unit can start to feel like a ton of bricks!

    love the blog, check it daily, see at Fred’s for breakfast!

    1. Sorry about that Jesse! I’m going in to correct it now. Good to hear from you!

      cheers, Bob

    1. No, I think the WB was cloudy or flash, and that was it.

  3. Bob,

    What about the Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Softbox Kit – 15×15 or 24×24? Have you ever tried it?

    1. No, but I’ve tried other small boxes. They all take more setup time than this and are bulkier too. And you can’t hold them in one hand all that long…unless you work out a lot.

  4. Dear Bob, The comment about seeing you at “Freds Breakfast” might raise som questons. As we bth know, it’s my daughter Ellen’s and Chris’s “Private Breakfast
    Restaurant next to teir other restaurant “The Landing” in New Hope… Lets meet soon..Jack

  5. My eyesight isn’t so good..pardon the spelling.. Jack

  6. Hey Bob
    Its quite ironic that I did get to shot some muscle men this past weekend. I have posted some images on my blog -http://arunpaulphoto.blogspot.com/

    As for the Lastolite – I have the 24×24 and it does give an even flood of light. The set up is quite easy but the bracket is not the best of construction.

    Hope to catch up sometime.

    1. Arun: You did a great job with those body builders…excellent lighting!

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