I’d love to be a better flasher, but I don’t seem to have the time or the right subjects. I’ve read all the Strobist articles and assembled a small bag full of snoots and softboxes. All home-made of course: this is what cereal boxes would want for themselves, if only they knew.
And yet I find myself mostly using a diffuser with a flashgun mounted directly on the hotshoe. I think it’s because, in the situations where I use flash, I have neither the space nor the extra limbs needed to do the off-camera thing. Nor do I have an assistant to stand at the back with a flash on a slave cell to give a bit of background separation.
As for the diffuser, it’s the cheapest of eBay jobs. I did start with a nice frosted plastic ball that was supposed to be a detergent dispenser in a washing machine, but it was tricky to mount. I did the traditional bodge with a bit of white plastic cut out of a milk carton. This is great when you can get some bounce off a ceiling or you are close to the subject. I graduated from that to a softbox. Not your professional beach umbrella-sized bit of spotless white cloth, but an inflatable one that I fixed to the flashgun with gaffer tape (because the supplied elastic wasn’t up to someone who moves around). You can just imaging how impressed people were when they saw be blowing up my flashgun. About as impressed as if they caught me inflating my girlfriend. You want to make a literal remake of that David Hemmings film? I’m here for you. It worked just fine though, but the push-on diffuser does a similar job and is less fragile.
There was a time when flashguns were the ginger orphans of photography. I’ve got a load of different types (of flash, silly) picked up from photo-shop remainders bins, car boot sales and charity shops for next to nothing. I guess the separate flashgun was killed by the point-and-shoot with its autofocus and built-in flash. And then the dedicated flashgun came along and applied its boot to the flashgun neck. The nice thing is that a lot of them are automatic, so they can be placed in a position and plugged into a slave cell and left to get their exposure about right. So I ought to be a lot better at this kind of thing than I am. The most I have ever done is to rig a second flash on a slave cell as a backlight – see the picture of the Beemer above.
I even bought a couple of studio-type flashes. These are a couple of mains-powered jobs sold for the ‘serious amateur’. Basically as a means for some pervy to shoot ‘figure studies’ in the lounge while pretending to be a serious student of form. I bought them because I got the pair for a fiver, not because I had a desperate need for more photons (or perve). So I have the makings of a reasonably useful studio flash setup. I’m sure that, if I did much portrait work, they might come in useful. But it’s hard enough to get friends and family to allow candid shots, let alone ask someone to do the ‘chin down, look up at the lens, blue steel‘ schtick.
I’ve even got a flash meter. Had it for years. It fell into my bag about the same time that nobody wanted handheld meters any more. (The advantage of great age is that what was old becomes new again). Very useful with film, but you’re usually better off chimping the shots with digital as you can see the light balance immediately.
I’m a great fan of trailing-curtain synch though. I like the way I can balance a daylight shot with a bit of flash to freeze the detail, and still get a bit of motion blur.
You can see why my inflatable softbox and off-camera flash have not come in terribly useful. This again is a job for the on-camera diffused flash. We used to call this synchro-sun. We also used to believe that you needed a leaf shutter to do it properly.
So where am I going with this? I would like to be much better at the off-camera, multiple flash thing. But the only way to learn is to practice, and I never seem to find myself in situations where it would either work or I need it. Think of some typical scenarios: shooting kids at Santa’s Grotto for a charity in a packed room and milling crowd; anything that goes fast and explodes; people moving about…. I think I’m stuck with the one thing I know works: an on-camera, diffused, dedicated flash with an occasional slaved flash in the background.
Perhaps I should buy a cheap ring-flash and take up portraiture? At least it’s not landscapes.