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Thread: Thoughts on buying a 'real' lighting setup.

  1. #1
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    Thoughts on buying a 'real' lighting setup.

    Hi all,
    Been a while since I was around here (well, actually i'm here every day, just never say much). Anyway, I'm looking for some advice for buying into a lighting system.

    Firstly, where I'm at isn't much. I've got the 7D and a 430EX mk1, and a cheap 4x6" softbox that was $10 on ebay from china. I've also got a massive 5000W 1970s-style monolight about 10" long with barn-doors the length of it. It's hot and sometimes blows fuses (and will probably one day catch fire), so I try not to use it.

    Where do I want to be? Well, I suppoose being on the level of Sean is a bit unrealistic without quitting my job and focussing myself full time (and even then I'll probably never be that good, let's face it). But somewhere along that path would be nice.

    The reason I'm asking now is that a colleague at my work approached me, "hey, you've got a good camera, can you take some modelling shots for me?" My first answer was that I may have a decent enough camera and more lenses than will fit in my car, but I also said that my lighting kit was rather lacking, so here I am for advice.
    Basically, her daughter is getting into fashion design and wants some shots done, at her house, so probably just full-body white-background-type shots (I'll have to check if she's got backgrounds or sheets). I'm willing to do it for free for my own enjoyment and learning, we'll strike some sort of deal for our mutual benefit. Either way, for now, I'd like to limit spending to a few hundred, maybe $500 or so.


    So, the question. Flashes or monolights? Or mix? From what I've gathered, there's always pros and cons of each. Here's some, but feel free to add to the list:

    Pros for flashes:
    - I've already got an optical master (7D).
    - Small, light, portable, easily used for field-work.
    - I've already got a few eneloops.

    Cons for flashes:
    - I'll be stuck with the 7D, otherwise I can't use any of my film cameras (although I probably won't) except on manual-mode, can't chimp, (and I don't have a flash-meter). Also any future digital purchase will be FF so won't have an optical master either. (At least, not without further expense of a master-unit). Still, the 7D is a good unit with 1/250s sync, and these are only going on the web, no need for FF IQ to make 20x30" prints (yet).
    - From what i've heard, optical triggering is hard with bigger Softboxes because they sit fully inside, they don't have the receiver sticking out the back. (Unless someone can give options on which do?)

    Pros for monolights:
    - No need for chimping or using (and buying and learning) a flashmeter, I can see the scene as intended. This is a big plus for me. (I just bought myself a Gossen Digisix off fleabay for my new 4x5" camera, maybe I should have gotten the DigiFlash version instead).

    Cons for monolights:
    - Hot for the model (depending on setup, of course).
    - Need a long extension lead or batteries (this shoot may be indoors, but I'd like to do outdoorsy-style shots later)
    - Big and heavy and not so portable (but at least harder to steal).


    So what direction to go? Should I stick with flashes and buy a few more, maybe invest in a PocketWizard or other radio-trigger, buy some soft-boxes and stands?

    Or is it worth going the (in my mind now, better, feel free to change my mind) monolight-route, getting some decent ones that take AC and can take car-batteries when needed, getting a few other reflectors and/or beauty-dishes (I'm not sure exactly what is a beauty-dish, but I likes the sound of it, can I use one with a flash?).
    Getting lights that I can dial-down when needed is pretty mandatory (I'd assume it's a standard feature, but maybe not on the cheapest ones?).

    Or mix and match, is that a valid option? Will there be problems mixing warmer lights and cooler flashes? Metering will probably still take chimping or a flashmeter. Is there even an issue in colour-temps mixing different brands/models of flash (like YongNuo etc)?

    Either way, can anyone give good recommendations of things, like flashes/monos, stands, reflectors, etc?

    I'm also considering a future Vari-ND for dialing-down the background to make the subject pop more (and seeing as it'll be expensive anyway, I may as well get an 86mm good-brand and never need another). I probably won't need that for indoor white-backgrounds, but eventually if/when I do outdoor shoots.

    Lenses I've got a few hundred choices so don't need much advice there or I'll get GAS again. I'll try the 'character' lenses like 50/1.4 Tak and 80/1.5 Cyclop, maybe I can borrow my friend's 50L, or in my cupboard there's any number of other lenses I've got in portrait-range (EF40/2.8, Ef85/1.8, 85/2.8 Planar, Ef100/2, 100/2.8 Biometar, EF70-300L). For the first shoot(s) I'll just bring a few bags full and see what works...
    An awful lot of electrons were terribly inconvenienced in the making of this post.
    Gear Photos

  2. #2
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    Croubie,
    can't help you with the questions, but I will follow this thread closely ...

    Good to see you again
    Arnt

  3. #3
    Senior Member neuroanatomist's Avatar
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    It's a hard choice, to be honest. You've listed most of the pros and cons, I'll add a few. Monolights are a lot more powerful - can use with bigger modifiers, can overpower the sun for outdoor use (you can do that with flashes, but you'll likely have to gang 2-4 together per modifier).

    While you're correct that a 7D can be a wireless master, I'd recommend going with RF triggers. The optical receiver can be seen with my Lastolite soft boxes (you rotate the flash head 90 to stick it in the box, leaving the base out and not pointing at the side of the softbox), but that requires careful positioning of the flash/softbox, and precludes some positioning (such as lighting a background from behind a subject). With RF triggers, you don't need to think about it, which is a big advantage especially when setup speed is important (such as at a friend's house while they're standing around waiting for you to get set up).

    Hopefully, Sean will weigh in with ideas and his vast experience!

    Personally, I have a blended setup of Speedlites and a monolight, with PocketWizards and the Canon -RT system, and it works well for my needs. I really like the Paul C. Buff monolights (particularly the Einstein) and their modifiers are a great value...but I'm not sure how easy they'd be for you to get (made in the US and only sold direct to US and Canadian customers, so you'd have to pay by wire transfer and use a freight forwarder).

    I will say that the Canon -RT system is really robust and easy to use. I've got an ST-E3-RT and three 600EX-RT flashes, they're pretty powerful and very reliable. I use them with a pair of Lastolite 24" Ezyboxes and a Lastolite 12x48" Hotrod Stripbox. That setup is great for portraits of 1-2 people. The Lastolite boxes are fast to set up (especially the Ezyboxes, which just pop open and you press the diffusers onto the velcro edges - I wish the strip box was like that, but it's the wrong shape for a foldable box).

    I also have PocketWizard triggers - a MiniTT1 for on-camera, a pair of FlexTT5s for Speedlites, and a PowerMC2 for the Einstein monolight. They also work very well for me. I use the AC3 zone controller on the MiniTT1, and it's excellent for quickly adjusting the power levels of the different flashes. Basically, I choose the monolight and a pair of flashes, in which case I use the PW triggers, or just Speedlites in which case I use the ST-E3 as a master.

    My lighting support is all Manfrotto - IMO, they offer very good quality and value. I've got a pair of 12' stands (1004BAC) and a pair of 7' stands (1051BAC), and I also have the 1314B background support, and that includes a pair of 8' stands (1052BAC). The stands fold flat and clip together for easy storage and transport. I frequently use the 7' stands to support the background (the 7' stands have a 2' diameter footprint, vs the 3' diameter of the other stands). The 7' stands do fine with a speedlite + modifier indoors, outdoors the bigger base of the 8' stand is needed for that (and sandbags on the base). The 12' stands hold a monolight with softbox, and is also good for extra height outdoors. I also have a boom (024B) which is great for getting a light over the subject for a hair/rim light or to light the background. That boom, when used on a 12' stand, will support a monolight and stripbox. If you go with a Speedlite only setup, you might consider at least one Manfrotto 420B combo stand - it's a 12' stand that converts to a boom with sufficient strength for a speedlite and a softbox.

    Good luck!

  4. #4
    Administrator Sean Setters's Avatar
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    I started out with a couple of Vivitar 285HV flashes, light stands, collapsible umbrellas and cheap wireless triggers. Even with such a simple setup, you can do wonders. I would suggest going with shoe-mount flashes until you find a significant need for more power. Otherwise, you could blow through your budget very quickly with monolights.

    While I wouldn't recommend the Vivitar 285HVs anymore (quality control on "new" ones are terrible - and capacitors in the older ones seem to work less efficiently over time).

    I agree with Neuro - radio triggers are the way to go.

    1) You don't have to worry about line-of-sight to your camera. You can place flashes just about anywhere and you know they'll go off.
    2) Using cheaper (dumb) radio triggers (ones that don't do ETTL) means you have to manually adjust your flashes. I think manual is the way to go when you're learning how to light off-camera. It forces you to think about what's going on; plus going manual is so much more predictable than ETTL (in my experience).
    3) With (dumb) radio triggers, you aren't locked into using OEM flashes. You can use just about any flash. I used to use (1) 580EX, (3) Quantaray flashes, and a Nikon SB-24. The Quantaray flashes and SB-24 (purchased used on eBay) cost me less than half as much as the 580EX new.

    If you're doing white background shots, you really need several flashes to do the job. I typically use no less than 3 flashes just for the background if I'm wanting it to go pure white. However, if you don't have enough flashes to do that, then you can simply light your subject and let the white background fall somewhere in the grey area. The other idea is to gel one flash (or go bare) and use it as a background light for separation.

    Take this shot for example:


    New Neighbor by budrowilson, on Flickr

    In it, I used 1 flash in an umbrella and 1 flash pointed at the fence (laying on the ground, pointed up). The umbrella provided the mainlight. The ambient provided the fill. The flash on the background provided separation light. Simple setup; decent results.

    I'd suggest looking at old Nikon SB-24s on eBay. They can be had for about $50.00 (or slightly less with patient, diligent eBay shopping). And while I believe good radio triggers (PocketWizards, Cybersyncs, etc) are worth the investment, they may be over your current budget once you consider flashes, stands, and modifiers. Check eBay for "Wireless Triggers Canon" to see the different models that come up. I've generally heard good things about the RF-603 units - except for the fact that you can't test fire the flashes without taking a picture (kind of an odd limitation).

    As for a few economical modifiers...

    Westcott's 43" Collapsible Umbrella
    - great (and cheap)

    Flashpoint Pop Soft Box for Shoe Mount Flashes - I have something similar (Alzo branded). I use it quite a bit. It's good for head & shoulders shots.

    Opteka 1/8-Inch Honeycomb Grid for External Flashes - I have one and use it for background lights. Makes a very nice circular pattern. They also make a 1/4" version.

    Gels from PhotoGels - I've been purchasing from this website for years. The guy's great. If you need custom cut gels (like I did for my monolights a while back), he'll do a special quote for you. Otherwise, his packages are good and reasonable.

    Many rave about the Westcott Apollo 28" softbox. I have one and use it occasionally. As for light quality, it's very good. However, I find the flash mounting to be cumbersome (having the flash mounted in the middle of the softbox means you have to un-attach and reattach the diffusion panel to change settings on the flash). As I generally shoot with manually controlled flashes, I prefer a setup where the flash is not inside the softbox.

    Sean

  5. #5
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    Be realistic about the working distances you expect. AA-powered flashes are very limited in modest sunlight unless you're shooting REAL close. Could be the same with LED lights...you'll have to see.

    A few years ago, I was shooting an amateur bike race. I wanted to experiment with lighting, as I was merely shooting "for myself". I had four 580EX IIs, two battery packs, my usual gels, two stands, and enough Mini/Flex PocketWizards to have fun. I was shooting a mile-long hill climb, and sat uphill of the spot I wanted to shoot. I put a 580 on top of the first stand with a battery pack, no gel, about head-high. I clamped a second 580 low on the stand, maybe 1' off the ground, aimed it up towards head-high, and gave it a 1/4CTO gel. I put this about 10' downhill from me, aimed at a "spot" on the street about 20' downhill from me assuming the bikes were riding on the yellow stripe. I made a second rig in the same fashion, put it about 20' downhill from me, and aimed it at a "spot" on the street about 30' downhill. This gave me a longer box of light to work with, but since I wasn't shooting from between the lights, I had to mentally time the shot through the viewfinder to be in the box.

    I was shooting with a 1D3 and 70-200/2.8 IS, with a PW Mini on top, and the AC3 Zone Controller. The high flashes were group A, and the low flashes were group B. I put a 7D with 16-35 on a mini-tripod near the ground, about 5' downhill from me, on a PW Flex, in group C. I could enable/disable any group from atop my camera. I knew I was shooting at a time when the sun would be rising at my 7 o'clock position (lighting the riders' front left), so I was trying to fill in the right side. I have one good sample from the day:

    First, the teaser shot, from the 7D/16-35, without any help from flash. This was remotely fired either milliseconds before or after the main shot, not sure which (full size at http://www.flickr.com/photos/alibear...7632794051121/)
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    Next, the lit shot, from the 1D3/70-200, courtesy of two or four 580s working "beyond" their limits, courtesy of the fantastic high-speed syncing tricks of the PWs. I was shooting aperture-priority but managing aperture/ISO to keep the shutter speed as close to 1/1000th as possible, as that's the optimum hypersync speed for that body (full size at http://www.flickr.com/photos/alibear...7632794051121/)
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    No, I didn't black out the background in Photoshop, whatsoever. That's shooting from a more level angle against a rock wall that wasn't getting any sun, and the flashes were lighting the rider's right side.

    I wrote all of this to say that what you see here was at the outer limits of AA flash. They got hot that day, they needed multiple battery/battery-pack changes during the day, and my results were average to abysmal. This was one of the best examples I got all day.

  6. #6
    Administrator Sean Setters's Avatar
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    I'm still waiting to complete my "real lighting setup."


    Jordan Chitwood Setup by budrowilson, on Flickr

    I think an 86" Paul C. Buff PLM might do it. The one shown above is only 64". Of course a Mola Setti with grid wouldn't hurt, either...

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Croubie View Post
    Pros for monolights:
    - No need for chimping or using (and buying and learning) a flashmeter, I can see the scene as intended. This is a big plus for me. (I just bought myself a Gossen Digisix off fleabay for my new 4x5" camera, maybe I should have gotten the DigiFlash version instead).

    Either way, can anyone give good recommendations of things, like flashes/monos, stands, reflectors, etc?
    A very late reply, but one I felt was worth mentioning: modeling lights are only as useful as the proportionality of the modeling light. I recently picked up a used Profoto 500/500ws D1 Air kit from Lensauthority.com (they have another kit for sale last I checked earlier today...) and I'm thrilled. The umbrellas aren't very big and the stands are a little tired, but the lights themselves are fantastic and so is the Air Remote. One caveat: on the D1s, the modeling light is either OFF, PROP (proportional to the intensity dialed into the flash) or FREE (you adjust the intensity across a six-stop range [yes, they call it seven stops, I call it six], but they don't change proportionate to flash intensity adjustments. Just use PROP, you say? Sure, except if you're integrating two monolights (key, fill) with two speedlights (hair, background color). I did a shoot last week (second real shoot with the new monolights) at 1/200th, f/5.6, ISO 100. At reasonable working distances for solo/duo bust shots, I was running the key light three stops below max, so about 40W or so. In a ballroom, 40W of modeling light isn't going to compete well with overhead lights, so you can't really see what you're going to get. (For the curious, I put a PW Flex on the camera, and the Air Remote on the PW. That gave me trigger capability but no easy way to remote-control the speedlights.)

  8. #8
    Super Moderator Kayaker72's Avatar
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    Similar to Arnt, I'll we watching this thread. So thanks already for the replies. I'll be adding to my lighting set up soon and have been watching a few videos for ideas. This one was recently posted here and referenced a constant source spiderlite. Any thoughts on continuous sources versus flash?

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