For a shoot involving portrait head shots I would normally grab a couple of cases containing monolights, some light stands, a couple of soft boxes, a beauty dish, and a background stand with a roll of seamless white or gray paper. I was told not to bring that. "Just bring a flash", they said.
That was not an option for me. I know what portrait/head shot images look like when taken with "just a flash". The images look like crap because the lighting is not flattering to the subjects and no one is happy with the results. But clients don't know that. To them, as long as there's enough light to take a photo, that should be fine. As a a professional, I know better. Plus, my reputation is on the line and the last thing I want is for people to judge me by inferior images I created, even if the client unintentionally handicapped my efforts.
Forced to compromise, I resorted to a quick, easy (and cheap) alternative to my usual studio lights - speed lights with small soft box diffusers.
A couple of years ago, I was strolling through Best Buy and stumbled across these small speed light soft boxes that fold flat for storage and attach securely to any brand of speed light with an elastic velcro strap. I found two in open boxes and couldn't pass them up for $15 apiece. I didn't know if I would ever use them but for $30 for the pair I thought they might come in handy someday.
Since then, I've used them a lot. When shooting grip and grin events, these are my go-to speed light attachments. I can angle the flash 45 degrees up and bounce the light off a ceiling or shoot straight at the subjects. Either way, the light that reaches them is soft and shadows behind subjects are virtually eliminated.
During a recent event, I used the soft box on a speed light, mounted the speed light on the hot shoe of my camera body, and pointed the soft box directly at my subjects. I was afraid that the speed light wouldn't be able to diffuse the light sufficiently to light up all the subjects in this image but it was absolutely no problem for this little soft box. There are no shadows behind the subjects, little if any light fall off, and the light is flattering, all things considered.
But a head shot photo shoot was an altogether different challenge. Would these little soft boxes do the job, give me the image quality I strive for, while at the same time allowing me to use a minimal amount of gear?
These are examples of the end result from the photo shoot at Gold's Gym. Head shot portraits of some of the staff taken with two speed lights and two of the Best Buy speed light soft boxes.
Because space was at a premium, I did not use a background stand or seamless paper for the shoot. However, I did use a couple of light stands to set up the speed lights. Although I packed a stand and paper roll (just in case there was no suitable background), after arriving on location I found a gray wall that was out of the way and which served as a perfect background.
Positioning the subjects 5 feet away from the wall, I set up the lights at 45 degree angles on either side of the subjects. I set the speed lights to Manual mode, used a flash meter to test the exposure, and first metered the speed light on the left (my key light). I adjusted its power and distance from the subject until the meter read f8.0. I then did the same with the speed light on the right (my fill light) until the meter read f5.6. If I had wanted to really simplify things I might have been able to use a reflector for the fill instead of the second speed light but a reflector would have taken more room so I went with two lights.
So, if you're ever confronted with a portrait shoot where space is a premium, if you choose to do a shoot with a minimal amount of gear, or if you simply want to dabble in studio portrait photography and don't want to spend a lot of money, give these small soft boxes a shot. Even with the speed light strobist craze that has jacked up the price of used speed lights, brand name speed lights are still available on the used market. Since I prefer to use the lights in Manual mode, there are plenty of used Nikon SB24's, SB25's, SB26's, etc. available for $30-$50 apiece. Depending on the model, infrared triggers will remotely trigger them. If not, there are many inexpensive (but dependable) wireless triggers that work perfectly well.