Four and a half years ago I wrote a post, Umbrellas are for rain!, and shared a few photos that Wen and I took outside using regular Nikon flashes with a shoot-through umbrella to diffuse the light. It did certainly cross the line of not taking photography too seriously, but only by a little; after all, it’s just an umbrella!
My use of flash has decreased since then, from 33.5% at the time (with the D7000) to just 21% in 2015 (with the D800), in part because the full frame D800 can produce decent results even in fairly low light (even though it doesn’t hold a candle to something like the much newer D5). At the same time, the lighting equipment I have available jumped into the truly ridiculous category (given that I still don’t think of myself as a photographer). This was all thanks to gifts from my mom and Sugawara San, not due to my own going crazy!
elinchrom D-Lite 2
The elinchrom D-Lite 2 is an AC-powered studio flash unit. It’s 100% manual; you’ve got to set exactly the power level you want, connect it to your camera with a cable, and it will fire every time you press the shutter button on your camera. It works just as well with old film cameras as it does with modern DSLRs, but if you’re used to your flash automatically figuring out what the right power level is, then a unit like this will take some getting used to!
A pair of these came in a kit together with a softbox and a stands. The softbox reflects and diffuses the light from the flash head itself, and creates a much bigger effective light source if you’re close to the object you’re taking a picture of. Once assembled, the setup looks like this:
I now use these almost anytime I’m taking a picture of the types of things I post here – since I almost do those things at night when there’s no light available. The manual operation seems a little daunting at first, but once you’ve used them once or twice it’s actually pretty easy since you’ll use the same settings basically every time. These are often used for portraits and the like, but since everyone here is asleep I took a picture of a really old dusty toy instead:
Zoids! I doubt anyone remembers those, but it was great to build them up out of smaller parts back in the 80s:
At first glance, it must seem ridiculous and expensive to get studio equipment – but it is surprisingly affordable. For instance, if you just want to experiment, B&H sells a brand new, reasonably reviewed kit for $127, which includes the flash unit, softbox, and stand, and cable. That kit has a 100W/s flash, as compared to the 200W/s D-Lite 2 – but I almost never use the D-Lite 2 above half power – and 100W/s is a good bit more than almost any camera-mounted flash. It’s also much cheaper than a TTL flash of similar power from your camera vendor, despite having a stand and softbox. It’s not for everyone, but if you take lots of indoor pictures I’d definitely recommend giving it a try!
Bowens esprit 2
If the shopping trip to Glazers that picked up the elinchrom kit had ended with the above, that would already have been well beyond my needs. But, there was an apparently “great deal” on something that goes so far beyond what I need (especially given the low noise levels on current digital cameras) that I have basically never used it. That deal was on a Bowens espirit 2, which is a 1000W/s light cannon that allows you to engage the sun in direct combat:
I’m not kidding about the sun thing; 1/10th that power is already enough to take pictures at ISO 100 f/8, but if you want to get rid of those pesky shadows for a subject that’s actually standing out in the sun, then this thing is your ticket. It’s also theoretically useful if you’re taking group photos, and need to cover a wider area in light. Just don’t point this thing directly at people or you’ll blind them! You really have to use a reflecting or shoot-through umbrella.
Firing this thing at full power really makes you feel like you’re already part of a Type II civilization. Or a Star Wars villain, cranking the power to 100%, waiting for the green light to indicate that it is fully charged, and then pulling the trigger to blow away some unsuspecting victim.
Manual flash cables are kind of a pain, so it was great to discover the Yongnuo RF-603 radio transmitters! Whereas fancy RF units that support Nikon or Canon (or other’s) TTL systems (where the camera and flash figure out the right exposure for you) cost around $200, a pair of these go for just $27!
These small battery powered devices are actually really versatile and useful, and I highly recommend them. You can do any of the following with two or more units:
- Connect one unit into your camera’s remote release (using a cable like the one shown on the right), and use the other to remotely trigger your camera. This seriously beats setting a timer and running back into a group shot, and it’s way cheaper than what your own camera maker will try and sell you, plus it is radio frequency so you don’t need to point at the camera and look foolish in your own picture.
- Put a unit in your camera hotshoe, and trigger any hotshoe-based flash (like the one you may already own) remotely. If your camera/flash don’t have built in features for remote operation, this is a really cheap way to get this capability – though it does require that you can set power on your flash manually (or that it defaults to max power). This also lets your synchronize multiple flashes.
- Same as the above, but attaching a PC sync cable to fire flash units like the two I mentioned above.
The nice thing about the RF-603 is that the shutter release vs. flash release are independent signals, so you can do two of the above concurrently! This allows a single unit to be used in your camera both to trigger the shutter and to remotely fire a flash.
Just for fun, I took a few comparison shots that illustrate the power levels of different flash options. All of these are at (or adjusted to) ISO 100, f/5.6. I used the following:
- D800 built-in flash
- Nikon SB-400, the first flash I ever purchased. The main benefit it adds is the ability to bounce off the ceiling.
- Nikon SB-800, a larger unit that uses 4 AA batteries and has been my primary flash for many years.
- elinchrom D-Lite 2
- Bowens esprit 2
First up, the D800 built-in flash. Unsurprisingly, at ISO 100, it lacks the power to light things up even at f/5.6:
Next, the Nikon SB-400, which actually had slightly less output (but perhaps a little more dispersion):
Finally, the SB-800 started to deliver enough power to brighten things up a bit. I think it’s equivalent to about a 90W/s, so you’d expect this. Of course, when operating the SB-800 at full power, you have to wait a long time for it to recharge:
The elinchrom D-Lite 2 has similar apparent brightness, but only because it had much wider dispersion; you’ll notice that more of the background is visible than with the SB-800. It’s roughly twice the power of the SB-800, but also recharges quicker at full power due to having AC power:
Finally, the Bowens really lights things up – you can see much further into the forest behind the garden area. The photo understates how blindingly bright this was, especially at night. It also shows how anything even remotely near the Bowens will be over-exposed, even at ISO 100, unless you stop down to at least f/8 or so:
Take that, sun!