Totally Geeked Out Gear Friday

Several months ago I received an email from a reader asking how and why I used my Canon strobes for on-location lighting. The how is pretty easy to illustrate as seen in the images below.

Small Strobes + Pocketwizards + Small Softboxes = Light-Me-Silly

EzyBox HotShoe w/ Canon 580EX & FlexTT5

My basic on location rig consists of the following:

Canon 580EX II Speedlites – A real work horse but a bit pricey. Throws a lot of light for a small strobe but gets hot and eats batteries. For a serious Canon shooter, there is really no other choice.

Canon CP-E4 Battery Pack – This is battery food for your Canon Speedlites. Very pricey but holds 8 AA batteries. Don’t leave home without it.

Pocketwizard FlexTT5 & MiniTT1 - Just say no to cords! I rented a set of these to try out and was sold after two minutes. Just say NO to Canon’s ST-E2 infrared transmitter. Works in full manual mode like a champ.

EzyBox HotShoe w/ Canon 580EX & FlexTT5

Lastolite Ezybox Hostshoe – This softbox unfolds in about 10 seconds. After spending hours setting up a conventional softboxes, you’ll love how fast this thing gets you to work. Now available in 24″ x 24″ and 30″ x 30″ sizes.

Manfrotto 3373 Aluminum 6′ Stand – Folds to 19″ long and weighs a little over 2 lbs. What’s not to like?

Photoflex Weight Bag – Just add water. Whoever invented this was a genius. Beats lugging around sand-bags all day long. Holds my favorite margarita mix (kidding).

Photoflex Weight Bag

Think Before You Light
The “why” is a little more difficult to explain. I tell this story all the time. I had a nice little weekend gig for a very small Houston manufacturer of oil field widgets. They needed some product shots for a new brochure but didn’t have a lot of money to spend.

I rented a pair of Westcott TD5 Spiderlites after watching a Scott Kelby video about them. The TD5 Spiderlite is a compact fluorescent lamp & softbox providing daylight-balanced continuous light which sounds perfect for product photography.

Working with these lights couldn’t be simpler and I had everything setup in 30 minutes and began to shoot. Since the lighting is continuous, you don’t need a flash trigger or cords and adjusting the lighting is accomplished by turning on or off each of the four bulbs and by positioning the light/softbox closer to or farther away from the product. Since the lights are compact fluorescents, there is no heat to speak of and you can position the light/softbox really close to get that wonderful soft, wrapping light that makes a product really “shine”.

Did I mention that no cords or flash triggers were needed? After about an hour of shooting their stuff I’m just about ready to pack up when an employee comes over with his trusty Nikon D90 and asks if it’s OK for him to take a few shots of the widgets for their web site. I begin to tell him that his camera isn’t going to work with my strobes & trigger when it dawns on me that THERE ARE NO STROBES and his wonderful little D90 will take complete advantage of the beautiful continuous lighting I’ve spend the past few hours setting up.

Talk about a blinding flash of the obvious (no pun intended). Continuous lighting works only too well in the field, which is why it was the first and last time I’ve used the Westcott Spiderlites on location. Yes, I got paid for my work but that senior moment cost me half of what I could have earned.

Lesson learned!

Gear Friday – Powering your Speedlites


I’m a strong believer in David Hobby’s “Strobist” techniques and Kirk Tuck’s “minimalist” lighting philosophy as detailed in his best-selling book Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography. Back in the late 70’s I dabbled in this with very little success using Vivitar Thyristor 285 strobes, which strangely enough, some folks still use today.

As a Canon shooter I use Canon’s 580EX II Speedlites for all my product (and now) commercial photography work. Although not as sophisticated as Nikon’s SB900 and CLS (creative lighting system), Canon’s Speedlites work very well in the field with one exception; they suck batteries dry at a furious pace.

I solved this issue by switching to Sanyo’s Eneloop rechargeable batteries as I described in my post earlier this week and by using Canon’s CP-E4 battery pack as shown below. The CP-E4 holds eight AA size batteries and when plugged into the 580EX II Speedlite, it more than doubles the flash capacity and reduces the recycle time considerably.

When using the CP-E4, the four batteries already in the Speedlite are used to control the strobe and the eight external batteries are used to power the strobe. This separation of power seems to work very well and I’ve taken several hundred shots without draining the battery pack. My only complaint about this setup is the cost. Canon charges around $135 (USD) for their CP-E4 battery pack although you can find after-market packs for around half this price.

Canon Speedlite Menu System Videos

Small Strobes

Canon has released two great new videos on the Canon Digital Learning Center from photographer Bruce Dorn. Each video demonstrates how to control your on-camera and off-camera Speedlites using the menu system found on the Canon 5D Mark II and 50D cameras.

Bruce Dorn Speedlite Videos, Part I: External Speedlite Controls

Bruce Dorn Speedlite Videos, Part II: External Speedlite Ratio Controls

I use Canon’s 580EX II strobes in most of my studio and on-location product shoots and really love how these units can be controlled almost completely from the menu system on the back of my 50D (and soon from my new 5DII).

However, every time I look at these two videos, one glaring problem keeps staring me right in the face. Watch how many menus Bruce has to navigate through time and again, just to change a setting on the remote strobes.

The problem is that Canon’s menu system has no way to remember where you were in the menu hierarchy once you click the shutter. You have to start over from the beginning and navigate through each layer of menus to get back to the setting you just changed, even if all you did was adjust the flash exposure compensation (a very common task).

In fact, watching Bruce go through this routine again and again is one of the best demonstrations I’ve ever seen of why manual flash control as taught by the Strobist community is a much more efficient and effective system for off camera lighting. Watching these two videos, I felt like I could have gotten up, walked over to the remote strobes and set them manually much faster than Bruce could work through the menus. I certainly hope someone at Canon (besides Fake Chuck Westfall) has seen these videos and realized how tedious this routine really is.

Canon Flash Primer – E-TTL II

First off let me start by stating the obvious. I’m no lighting expert like Joe McNally, David Hobby or Bob Krist, all of which use Nikon strobes by the way. I’m just a guy with a few Canon Speedlites that wants to better understand how these amazing little strobes work and what makes them “tick”.

Flash Exposure
The first thing to understand is that a flash exposure is really two separate exposures in one; first the ambient light which would hit the sensor in that shooting situation if flash were not used and second, the light contributed by the flash itself. Once you begin to understand this principle, you can use it to create all sorts of very cool “effects” which add natural light and flash together.

TTL Metering
The term “TTL” refers to the camera’s “through-the-lens” metering system. Canon’s E-TTL II system is a proprietary automatic flash exposure control system similar to Nikon’s i-TTL system where the camera uses multiple metering zones which measure both ambient light and strobe’s preflash to determine the “ideal” exposure. The system compares the two values and uses metering distances to automatically adjust the flash duration to achieve what it perceives as the ideal exposure of both the subject and background.

Canon’s E-TTL II System
If all this seems a little confusing at first, don’t worry. The basics of how this system works is shown in the illustration below.

Canon's E-TTL II System

Borrowed from Canon’s Flash Work site.

Focal Plane High-Speed Sync
Daylight fill-flash is a lighting technique often used when shooting outdoor portraits because it “fills in” underexposed areas of the subject’s face and strikes a good balance between the exposure of the subject and background. Because the camera’s shutter speed cannot be set faster than the X-sync speed of the flash, the aperture must be reduced to compensate for extra brightness which changes the depth of field.

To overcome this issue, Canon Speedlites offer FP (focal plane) high-speed sync mode which can synchronize with a shutter speed that is faster than the camera’s rated flash X-sync speed. This availability of faster shutter speeds allows the aperture to be set more freely. And when a fast lens is used, the aperture can be fully opened to achieve beautiful blur effects or bokeh.

When these fast shutter speeds are selected, the second shutter curtain begins closing before the first curtain fully opens. The light only hits part of the sensor at normal flash settings, but the FP high-speed sync flash setting fires repeatedly at roughly 50kHz intervals during the exposure to achieve flash synchronization at all shutter speeds.

FP High-Speed Sync

Borrowed from Canon’s Flash Work site.

Using Canon’s ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter

Canon ST-E2 Speedlite TransmitterCanon provides two different means to wirelessly control your remote Speedlites today. The first is to use a 580EX II Speedlite as a “master” and the second is to use Canon’s Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2.

There are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to using the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2. The biggest advantage is it’s size and weight. The ST-E2 weighs less than 6 oz with it’s 2CR5 6v battery installed. Its very small compared to the 580EX II and mounts on your DSLR’s hot shoe or on the Canon off-camera shoe cord OC-E3. The size and weight savings can be a real advantage when shooting on location.

Both the ST-E2 and the 580EX II master will allow flash output ratios to be adjusted between the channels they control with the ST-E2 allowing ratios from 8:1 to 1:1 to 1:8 to be selected in 1/2 stop increments. And while both the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 and the 580EX II will support any number of remote flashes, the ST-E2 controls only 2 channels while the 580EX II will control all three. Another big advantage to using a 580EX II as a master is the effective range. The ST-E2’s effective range is only about 40 feet indoors and 30 feet when used outdoors. The range of the 580EX II master is more than twice that. However, the biggest disadvantage to using the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 is that is does NOT support manual flash output and for many Strobists, this is a deal killer!

ste2_camera_blogAlthough I may get flamed by other “strobists”, for me the ST-E2 is a great accessory. At only $220 (USD) it’s less expensive than using one of my 580EX II’s as a master and it’s way (WAY) less expensive than buying a set of PocketWizards. I’ve never found “line-of-sight” to be a problem when used indoors and I’m rarely placing my strobes more than 10 to 20 feet away from my camera.

I’m not really a flash “purest” and like the ease of use that Canon’s E-TTL II brings to flash. I’ve found that Canon’s thru-the-lens metering technology is damn smart when it comes to exposure and if I need to tweak it a little, the ST-E2 and my 50D provide all the extra control I need through FEC (flash exposure compensation) and flash ratios. Best of all, I can do this all from my camera’s LCD and the back of the ST-E2 transmitter.

Given how well Nikon’s i-TTL wireless CLS stuff works for Joe McNally, taking a look at Canon’s offering makes perfect sense to a frugal (cheap) Irishman like me.

Product Photography Using Small Strobes

If you recall from my post a few weeks ago, I’m involved in a corporate facility / product shoot that will be going on for the next several months. Not having a lot of experience with small strobes like the Canon Speedlites I decided to start out doing some product photography in my office / studio at home. I spent the better part of a week doing online research, watching Joe McNally‘s lighting videos on Kelby Training and getting to know my Canon 580EX II Speedlites a little better.

Small Products Single Light

I also bought a 24″ Lastolite CubeLite, some clear Plexiglas (Perspex for UK readers or acrylic sheet) and some background materials. I wanted to create a high-key lighting scheme using a white background and the CubeLite makes this really simple. The CubeLite is made from the same material that Lastolite makes their TriGrip diffusers out of so it does a great job of diffusing the light from a small strobe. A reflector is included with the CubeLite to add fill. I used the PlexiGlas sheet as a base on which to set the products I’m shooting.

Single Light Product Shot

Canon’s EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 50D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 85mm, f/9.5 for 8 seconds at ISO 100 on Lexar Professional digital film. Post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2 using Nik Software’s Viveza. Click on the image above for a larger version.

The lighting for this shot was very simple. One 580EX II Speedlite was positioned to the right of the CubeLite facing the subject. A single reflector directly left of the subject was used to add fill where needed. I used the Canon ST-E2 SpeedLite Transmitter on the camera’s hot-shoe to wirelessly control the 580EX II Speedlite directly from the camera’s LCD. I set everything to E-TTL and took a few test exposures, adjusting the FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) from my 50D’s LCD screen until the histogram looked good.

As you can see in the image above, this basic single light product setup does a fairly good job lighting my Canon 60mm macro lens but the image looks a little flat and the clear PlexiGlas is creating two reflections of the lens. Not too bad for a first attempt but not quite the look I wanted.

I really like using the PlexiGlas to create the reflection (a technique that Scott Kelby suggests in his digital photography books) but the double-reflection issue really had me stumped until another photographer suggested sanding down the back side of the acrylic sheet to prevent the second reflection from forming. The dull, flat look to the image was also pretty easy to correct by adding another 580EX II Speedlite as a top light. This added a little “punch” (directional light) to my lighting scheme and really made the subject stand out from the background.

Small Product Lighting

Canon’s EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 50D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 73mm, f/11 for 0.3 seconds at ISO 100 on Lexar Professional digital film. Post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2 using Nik Software’s Viveza. Click on the image above for a larger version.

The final result is shown in the image above. The lighting is even, diffuse and pleasing to the eye. The subject looks really nice with its deep reflection. I decided to use a lens as my test subject since there are lots of really great product shots of lenses on the Internet and I could use these to benchmark my results. I also found that this basic one or two light setup works great with a variety of small products like those shown below.

Machined Steel Parts

Machined Metal Parts
Copyright © 2009 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 50D set on aperture priority (Av) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 60mm, f/16 for 1 second at ISO 100 on Lexar Professional digital film. Post capture processing was done in Lightroom 2 using Nik Software’s Viveza. Click on the image above for a larger version.

Canon Flash Primer – PhotoNotes.org

I’m in the middle of a rather large corporate facility / product shoot taking place over the next several months using Canon Speedlites (I can hear all the nikon guys laughing in the background). The last time we did this was about five years ago and I hired a local pro who used film and typical studio strobes for most of the shots. Although the images turned out great, the process was fairly disruptive to the employees due to the size of the gear being lugged around and the lack of adequate electrical in the areas we planned to shoot. It was also a very expensive undertaking and in today’s economic climate we needed to come up with a much less intrusive and less expensive approach.

BTW – I know some pro shooter is going to read this and flame the living #$%^ out of me for doing this work “in-house”, but with the economy as it is, you gotta do whatcha gotta do!

So we’re going to take a page (or two) out of Mark’s buddy Joe McNally‘s latest book The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes and shoot everything using small strobes combined with natural light and controlled with some basic, low-cost light-shaping tools. I’ll tell you right up front that I’ll be stealing every good idea I can from Joe McNally and David Hobby (Strobist) with a little bit of Kirk Tuck‘s “minimalist lighting” techniques thrown in for good measure.

As I finish each type of shoot (small products, large products, facilities, manufacturing processes and (some) corporate portraits, I’ll post some articles on each situation with things that worked and things that didn’t. I expect to make several hundred (million) mistakes so it should be entertaining at the very least.

Canon Speedlite 580EX II

For those of you interested in using Canon’s flash system here are a few good articles from PhotoNotes.org to get you started.