Last year, I started putting together a lighting kit that was hot shoe-based with the intent of being able to replicate some of the lighting at my disposal in the studio. Naturally, given the limitations of a hot shoe strobe when compared to 600w/sec or 1000 w/sec studio lights, I fully recognized that I wouldn't be able to light up the world. My goal was simply to have equipment that I could use for many off site applications, primarily location model shoots. Since then, I have gained much greater appreciation for the versatility and suitability of hot shoe lighting; as a result, I have broadened the horizons for which I have been, and will be, using the equipment.
If you're thinking about taking the plunge into this kind of lighting, hopefully my travel down the road of putting together this kind of equipment will be useful to you. Obviously, in order to have a portable, hot shoe based lighting kit, you need hot shoe strobes. For a number of reasons, I have opted to go with strobes that are compatible with the Nikon Creative Light System (CLS) and which have a Guide Number of no less than 100. I discussed the topic of strobes in a prior Blog post so I won't delve into strobe selection here. Since I also touched upon how to trigger multiple strobes in that post, I will not cover that topic here either. For purposes of this post, suffice it to say that virtually any kind of strobe is suitable for use in a portable lighting kit. Just remember that the higher the Guide Number of a given strobe the better, as in the more light it can produce. For my purposes, strobes with GN's less than 100 don't pack enough punch to be useful.
In this post, I will walk you through the light modifiers that have found their way into my lighting kit, as well as how I mount them.
The first step in my hot shoe lighting path was acquiring mounts/brackets for hot shoe strobes that would allow attachment of the strobes to light stands and accommodate light modifiers. Since I had a few umbrellas gathering dust in a studio closet, it seemed appropriate to finally put them to use. This was an inexpensive option to test the hot shoe lighting waters for me - umbrellas provide much better lighting than one can achieve through merely bouncing flash off a ceiling and I already had four that I wasn't using.
There are a number of inexpensive flash brackets designed to accommodate umbrellas (above, L) and I picked up a couple of these. I have since used them with umbrellas for various location group shots and the umbrella/bracket/strobe combination is certainly serviceable, simple to use, and easily portable. But I wasn't looking to just have something "serviceable", I wanted to be able to replicate some of my studio lighting effects. That meant taking it up a notch, i.e., being able to use light modifiers such as softboxes and/or a beauty dish.
With the foregoing in mind, I started by identifying light modifiers that I can't live without in the studio. First and foremost is a beauty dish (L) which I love to use as a key light, followed by any number of softboxes (R) that I like to use as fill lights. But before these light modifiers could be brought into the fold, I needed to find hot shoe strobe brackets that would allow me to use them.
No problem. With the popularity of hot shoe strobe lighting, flash brackets that will accommodate any kind of studio light modifier are readily available all day long for $30. These ingenious little goobers come in two configurations - one that attaches the strobe with the head at 90 degrees (L) and one which mounts the strobe wit the head parallel to the body of the strobe (R). The (L) version is known as the "L" bracket and the (R) version is called the "T" bracket.
When I decided to buy a couple of these, I went with the conventional version (L bracket), but as you can see from the images above, the "L" bracket does not allow you to insert the strobe head completely inside the light modifier. The adjustment knob (which allows you to slide the strobe forward and backward) will only allow you to slide the strobe forward just so far before it bumps into the light stand clamp. I imagine if one were to modify the knob or replace it with a 1/4"X20 screw, that issue would be resolved. Now, I'm not sure that having the strobe head positioned just outside the light modifier bracket has any effect on the amount of light created by the setup. Call me quirky, but I think it is much better to have the strobe head further inside the light modifier bracket so when I decided to add a couple more of these brackets to my kit, I went with the "T" brackets. It might just be a tomatoe/tomatoh thing, but at least by having both types of brackets, I have the option of going one way or the other.
With either bracket, light modifiers must use the Bowens mounting system. If you're familiar with studio lighting equipment, you know that there any number of different light modifier attachment systems, each unique to a manufacturer's studio heads/monolights. Bowens, Photoogenic, Alien Bees...the list is seemingly endless. As of right now, the only readily available flash brackets use the Bowens mount, which means any light modifiers you intend to use must have Bowens speed rings/mounts (shown above, with three protruding tabs). Bowens speed rings are approximately $20 apiece, so if you plan to use light modifiers that you're currently using in a studio with other mounts, you will need to pick up some of these and assemble the softboxes with the Bowens speed rings.
My current portable lighting kit includes: a 2'X3' softbox; a 10"X36" strip softbox; two 13"X56" strip softboxes (as of tomorrow when my second 13"X56" strip softbox is supposed to arrive); a 16" beauty dish; the umbrellas I mentioned previously (but since I have added softboxes/beauty dishes to the fold, they will once again gather dust unless absolutely necessary); and a couple of other light modifiers that deserve mention.
These 7' monsters come in three varieties - a diffused, shoot through version (L), a silver reflective version (R), and a white reflective version. I have a shoot through version and a silver reflective version. The shoot through serves many purposes. I can use it with a strobe to give off a huge amount of soft, diffused light , or when outdoor sunny conditions create horrendous shadows, it can serve as a great diffuser of sunlight without a strobe by simple positioning. The silver reflective version throws off even more light than it's shoot through brother, albeit harsher than the shoot through version. When i want to go with high key kind of lighting it is just the ticket, which is why I picked one up.
Because of the size (7 feet) of these bad boys, they're a challenge to use outside when it is windy. If you have the luxury of an assistant, they can be managed easily but absent an assistant to physically hold the light stand, you must weigh the light stand down. In any kind of meaningful wind, even weighing these down may not be enough so be aware of this limitation and plan accordingly.
With the advent of these guys, the need for using more than one strobe became necessary in certain situations. Trying to shoot through a 7' light modifier, or trying to reflect light off a 7' reflective surface, really tested the power of a single strobe. In no time, multiple strobe brackets (L) became readily available for a reasonable price. These take the place of the single-strobe bracket normally used with smaller umbrellas and give you the ability to use one, two or three strobes as the light source. Other than having three strobe mounts, they're basically the same as the brackets depicted at the beginning of this post using the same kind of umbrella mounting system. I picked up two of these, one for each of the 7' umbrellas, and they are amazing, essentially allowing me to triple the amount of light I can pump through or into the giant umbrellas.
If you follow my Blog, you know that I have begun testing the equipment on shoots to get a feel for it's capabilities. As mentioned previously, I have some prior experience with some of the equipment (using the small umbrellas on some group shoots) but in order to become comfortable with the new stuff I've been shooting with it as time permits. So far, it has done everything I need and then some. I'll keep you updated on my experiences as I continue to use the gear.