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Photoflex Lighting School

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Natural-Looking Portraits on the Go

Lighting Equipment

If you shoot portraits and are tired of the harsh quality of light from your shoe mount flash, here's the solution: diffuse the light.

Nowhere in nature do you find the quality of light that a unmodified shoe mount flash produces. So why do so many photographers shoot this way? Because essentially, it's the path of least resistance. A built-in flash or shoe mount flash is easy to use and it helps to expose their photographs, but both options still produce a harsh quality of light.

But now you can have your cake and eat it, too. This lesson demonstrates how you can outfit your camera's shoe mount flash with an extra small lighting kit that will create much more naturally lit portrait results.

(Click on any thumbnail image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  •     The Kit
  •     Unmodified Shoe Mount Flash Results
Diffusing the Shoe Mount Flash
  •     Sync Options
Connecting a Wireless Receiver
Connecting the Shoe Mount Flash via a Cable

  •     Comparison

The Kit

Many people are often surprised to find out just how compact lighting equipment can become for transport. As you can see, when the kit we used for this lesson is broken down, it doesn't take up a lot of space. [figure 1]

Figure 1

These products were designed with transport in mind, and fit in most of our carry cases, which are sold separately.

Unmodified Shoe Mount Flash Results

For this portrait, we decided to keep things simple and shoot indoors against an old weathered door. [figure 2]

Figure 2

For the first shot, we set up a tripod-mounted camera with a shoe mount flash enabled. This flash would be the only source of light for this portrait. Once the camera and flash were powered up, we took our first shot. [figures 3 & 4]

Figure 3

Figure 4

As you can see, the flash worked well to illuminate our subject, but produced a hard-edged quality of light. Notice the sharpness of the shadow cast from the jaw line, and to a lesser degree, the nose.

There are also the inevitable shiny spots on the forehead, which, even if you want to spend some extra time on makeup, will always be more of an issue with an unmodified shoe mount flash. Since the flash is aimed almost directly parallel with the camera, there is a tendency for the image to become flattened as well. The shadow cast on the background is also detracting from the overall effect of the photo.

Diffusing the Shoe Mount Flash

To soften the harshness of the shoe mount flash, we decided to attach an Extra Small LiteDome® kit to it. If you're going to shoot with a soft box attached to the camera, you'll need to make some extra room. A camera bracket and some basic hardware is a common solution to create the space needed between the softbox and the camera lens.

Here's one way to set it up:

First, attach your camera to a camera bracket. Here we used a simple bracket with a telescopic riser. [figure 5]

Once the camera is securely mounted to the bracket, attach a Photoflex Shoe Mount MultiClamp to the riser on the bracket. [figure 6]

Figure 5

Figure 6

Next, set up the soft box from the kit using the Basic Connector (included in the Kit). Make sure the soft box is oriented the way you want it (either vertical or horizontal) with the threaded side of the connector facing down. [figure 7]

Figure 7

Next, take the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware [figure 8], also included in the kit, and attach it to the Basic Connector.

Figure 8

As you can see in the photos below, there is a small fixed post in the hardware that slides into the connector when the two are attached, preventing unwanted rotation. [figures 9 & 10]

Figure 9

Figure 10

Next, screw the small brass stud from the Shoe Mount MultiClamp into the bottom of the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware (tighten with pliers if necessary) and mount the stud into the Shoe Mount MultiClamp. [figures 11 & 12]

Figure 11

Figure 12

At this point, you have a few options on how to connect your shoe mount flash, depending upon the type of equipment you're using:

1. You can mount a wireless receiver to the other cold shoe of the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware and attach a sync wire to your shoe mount flash if your flash accepts one.

2. If your flash has wireless flash transmission capability and it can sync with your camera, you can set it up this way and remove the second cold shoe if you want.

3. You can attach one end of a shoe mount sync cable to one of the cold shoes on the hardware, and the other end of the cable to the hot shoe of your camera.

We'll first examine option 1 and then option 3.

Connecting a Wireless Receiver

If you're using a wireless transmitter and receiver, the second cold shoe of your AC-B222SM hardware can be utilized. Once the hardware is connected to the soft box, mount your shoe mount flash to the first cold shoe of the hardware. [figure 13]

Figure 13

To prevent light spill out of the back of the soft box, attach the Velcro®-lined rear patch that comes with the Extra Small LiteDome. [figures 14 & 15]

Figure 14

Figure 15

Next, attach your wireless receiver to the second cold shoe and mount it on the hardware. [figure 16]

Once the receiver is secure, you can sync it to the flash by way of a short cable. Here, we used a PC to Mini Plug cable. [figure 17]

Figure 16

Figure 17

With the shoe mount transmitter attached to the camera, you are now able to trip the shoe mount flash remotely. Here's our setup with the flash going off. [figure 18]

Figure 18

Connecting the Shoe Mount Flash via a Cable

For this alternate setup, we took one end of the hot shoe cable and mounted it to the hot shoe of the camera. [figure 19]

We then decided to remove the secondary cold shoe from the bracket (since we wouldn't be using a wireless receiver in this setup) and attached the shoe mount flash end of the cable onto the primary cold shoe. [figure 20]

Figure 19

Figure 20

Once this cable was securely mounted, we attached the shoe mount flash to the hot shoe of the cable. [figure 21]

To prevent any light over spill, we attached the Velcro® flap to the back opening on the LiteDome®. [figure 22]

Figure 21

Figure 22

And with that, our setup was complete. We powered on the camera, then the flash and set the flash mode to TTL ("through-the-lens" metering).

NOTE: When shooting with a setup like this, it's best to either set the focal length manually beforehand or set the focus mode to Auto, as manually adjusting your focus with your left hand holding the camera bracket can be all but impossible.

Once everything was synced up, we took another shot from the same vantage point. [figures 23, 24 and 25]

Figure 23

Figure 24

Figure 25

Look at the difference in the quality of light now. The shadows cast from the jaw line and subject's head are much softer and more natural-looking than with the shoe mount flash alone. The subject's features also have a significantly more three-dimensional feel to them, since we were able to move the light a little bit off the camera, and the skin tones are clear of the shiny highlights we had before.

The shadow on the background is less intense, and could be eliminated entirely if the subject took a step or two away from the background itself.

Even with just this extra small soft box, the difference in the quality of light illuminating our subject has improved.


Check out the differences in light quality below in this cropped, side-by-side comparison. [figure 26]

Figure 26

As you can see, this simple lighting kit can elevate the quality of light in your portrait work by softening those hard lines, decreasing highlights, and repositioning the source of light to a more camera-friendly viewpoint.

Remember to experiment with your lighting equipment and techniques, and above all, have fun in the process!

Lighting Equipment

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