Super Light. Super Cheap.

Sometimes the blog lies fallow for a day or so and then it comes roaring back. Sometimes it's because I've stumbled into a sticky patch of good work and I've got my head down and working as fast as my little fingers will fly over the keyboard. Sometimes it's just sloth. For the last few days I've been getting back to my true photographic love, shooting portraits in my little studio. Just straightforward and happy portraits.

I'm a big believer in using large, soft, directional light sources to create portraits in my own style. I'm not a fan of hard lighting in most situations and I feel like hard light is always a bit cruel when used on anyone over 16. Softer light better mimics the light we see in nature. The kind of light that makes things beautiful. The kind of light that makes painters and photographers say, "Oh...the light is so beautiful..."

In the early part of my career I was obsessed with enormous softboxes. I always had a couple of 54 by 72 inch variants lurking around the studio. And they worked really well. But they take a while to set up and the speedrings always give me problems. I still have one in reserve. 

Then, after working on movie and television commercial sets, I started to light more and more with diffusion panels as my primary, large diffusion source. The light from a 72 by 72 inch panel with a couple layers of (faux) silk diffusion is beautiful but it also takes up a lot of space, takes a lot of time to set up and fine tune, and the light bouncing off the back side of the silk bounces everywhere and you end up with a next of black flags on your set in order to control contrast and kill the unwanted spill. Lots of flags means lots and lots of light stands. No problem on a big film set with lots of assistants but a basic pain in the butt for a one person studio.

All this led me to experiment more with one of the oldest and cheapest modifiers we photographers regularly use, the basic umbrella. For years my go to umbrellas have been the Photek Softlighter 2 60 inch umbrellas.  I have three and I love them. They come with a front diffuser that takes the softlight coming off the white interior fabric and making it even softer. For the most part 60 inches is pretty good, especially if you use the umbrella as close in to the subject as you can. The one downside, for me, of the Softlighters is that their metal spokes are delicate and sometimes the locking mechanisms fail. Two of my three, all less than three years old, are somewhat hobbled. One set of spokes is splinted with a pencil and wrapped with gaffer's tape. 

And, of course, no matter how big your light source is there is always the idea that it could be bigger...which means softer...which means a whole different look. At one point I bought an 80 inch Lastolite umbrella with integral front diffuser for nearly $200 but it's a mess to set up because it doesn't have a traditional shaft. It's more like a beach umbrella and it requires a messy combination of adapters to get it on a stand and get a monolight firing into it evenly. But when I take the time to use it the effect is nice.

With this in mind I often browse the bigger websites looking for something that brings all the good stuff together without any downsides. I found it in the Fotodiox 72 inch umbrella.  It's a 72 inch, white umbrella so even without using a diffuser it makes the light soft. The umbrella is backed with an opaque black back cover to kill unwanted spill. At about $79 it comes with its own white, translucent diffusion front cover and it's own packing sleeve.  The spokes are made from a sturdy fiberglas and the whole melange sets up quickly and easily.

I've been using it all week long and I've very happy with the results. I would post a few portrait images but everything I've been doing lately has been for paying clients and I won't use on of the images until they've made they're selections and approved my intention to use their likeness.

I did want to show you what the umbrella looks like so I shot the two images (above and below) and introduced myself into the frame for relative scale. I had been working with incredibly volatile images in the VSL safety lab so I still have my retina saving safety glasses on..... Some images are just too sharp for conventional use....we're trying to figure out how to weaponize them...(not really).

The image below is one of Amy that we made during the set up of a portrait project for the Kip Schools a few years ago. We used the huge Lastolite umbrella for that one. It was pretty cool. Heading downtown to see if Austin has been overrun but out of town Formula One guests yet. Hope everyone is having maximum fun. I think I am.