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Tuesday, 25 January 2011


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You hit it on the head, the great thing about digital is a lot of the camera outputs look the same from ASA 50 to 400 (maybe even higher)...the world now needs a 300-400 watt second monobloc that's operational on battery as well as the mains, is as tiny as possible, has a built in radio slave as well as a built in softbox collar as part of the unit, and a "long" tube to fill up those softboxes. Don't get me started on how ugly the light is from those little round tubes compared to the long Speedotron or old Profoto tubes: they're the best! The unit should be no bigger than a 12 ounce coffee can: you could pack 4 of them in a little bag!

Now, where's my 12 foot high heavy-duty light stand that can fold down to 20 inches! It'd have to have a zillion sections!

I have to laugh about your Speedotron "suitcase of bricks" analogy, you said it! Used 'em all my life, indestructible; but we always lusted for the Ascor lights with the stacking oil capacitors! No other "simple" way to stop a "beer pour" on 8X10 film!

How many images of Mike Johnston can be resolved in the iPad-based example of infinity, Mike?

I don't know how that happened. Are we accusing Jack of the sin of Photoshoppery?


I've got those stands, got brollies and a soft box. But I've got two canon "gizmahicky flashes" triggered by pocket wizards

Trick is to know their limits and work within them. Power and recycle times are the fly in the ointment but not a barrier you can't get over. Portability is a big plus, that's a fine set up Jack's got there my set up's gotta be well under half the weight. Right now, that's more important to me than the extra power.

That's not to say I wouldn't go for Jack's set up at some point, It's pretty cool. I'm not sure a use enough artificial light to warrant the gear I have already

My guess is you are planning to use the ipad as a digital display device for your images as a full size display. I think you are going to have a lot of creative fun in the future by adapting the older camera design to the newer display technology.


No, the iPad is Jack's. I don't own one.


The "best studio-in-a-box" that I know of was carried by Marie Cosindas.
An elderly Technika with 135mm lens, a Tiltall(?) tripod, a pack of 3x3 gels (Scotch taped over the lens for color adjustment), a Polaroid holder and a box or two of Polacolor film.
IMO, she made the greatest formal color portraits of all.

A shootout between a good lighting guy and a good strobist would be pretty interesting. I suspect a strobist with three Nikon heads and slave capability, and maybe a couple of LumiQuest accessories -- a system that would fit in a lunch box, rather than a backpack -- would hold up pretty well, especially if the strobist were allowed to use a few of the things sitting around a restaurant, like napkins and tablecloths...or that white shirt of yours. Your shirt would make a good mobile reflector, or, depending on your level of modesty, not a bad umbrella. Small mobile systems are interesting in themselves, and the need to improvise sets up even more engaging problems. I suspect the thing a strobist would miss most are not the lights or the power supply, but the light stands...


Flashcubes! Although they're a little hard to remote.

Never have worked with the old pack-and-head studio equipment. It was always unaffordably expensive for me, or so it felt. I did eventually get three White Lightning heads, which I've done some good work with. I remember Novatron coming out with systems that were at the very dangerous "can't afford it but it's not inconceivable" level (the dangerous level; the Leica S2 is no danger to me, whereas the Nikon D700 very much was and in fact I bought one). But then mono-lights started to be the hot (ahem) thing.

I wish I'd pursued my use of small strobes for location portraits more earlier, though; I started it in the early 80s out in Massachusetts, and then it sort of fell into abeyance, and got revitalized more recently due to David Hobby's Strobist blog (which I've learned some useful stuff from). On my own, I never made the step to combining location light and strobe light in the classic "Strobist" fashion, and it would have been useful, and I might have found it with more work. (Also, my cameras back then had slower sync speeds, which does limit the combinations possible.)

There are companies now making things more like the Vivitar 283 than the Nikon SB-900 -- manual strobes, adjustable power levels, intended for use in Strobist-type setups with radio or optical triggers (they have integral optical slaves). They're simple, and a lot cheaper than the SB-900 (like about 1/3 the price), and as powerful. Not as powerful as a real 400ws last I looked, though.

I learned bounce flash with fully manual equipment, and used it professionally for several years (working for the college alumni magazine; they paid me to take pictures, that's professional, right?). I have to say that I found the TTL flash on the OM-4, especially in conjunction with color negative film and a good lab, to be a huge step forward. In a lot of fast-moving situations, flash is still the one place where I find the camera can actually do a BETTER job of setting the exposure than I can myself on a single try.

...meant to mention in the above comment, I recently helped another photographer/pal do some annual report style portraiture for an investment firm. He rolled up in a Hummer, and when I opened the back, he had a stack of C-stands there waiting for me to cart them in! I said; "Yikes! Where's your location stands!", he said: "Go large or go home!"

Had to laugh, but it was the second time I heard this from a "pro"! I was talking with another buddy about how I was interested in the new APS-C style EVIL cameras, as I could stick everything I need, for the cameras anyway, into a little case. He said he likes to cart as big a "circus" into a site as possible, and has no interest in walking in with a little bag, like some "amateur". He said he also announces that "the photographer is here, a 'real' photographer", and that most of his clients "get it", as his snub against all the fly-by-night snappers.

I don't know about you, but my back's giving out! I need tiny!

As I recall, you weren't too hyped on tripods either, but now that you've got a whole plate view camera you have no choice but to use the ultimate image stabilization system. That said, given a choice between hot shoe flash units and an Elinchrom Ranger system, I wouldn't blame you or Jack for slinging that backpack over your shoulder and shouting "Hi-yo Silver*!

*For those of you too young or European to understand the reference, this was the catch phrase of the Lone Ranger, an American TV western hero.

I have both monolights and little hot shoe flashes. It's hard (for me anyway) to love the hot shoe flashes. These days you can get modestly priced, 3.5 pound batteries that drive monolights for hundreds of shots.

I must say I did a double-take on the original photo wondering about the use of flash. "Nah," I thought, "he'd insist on window light."

"He said he likes to cart as big a 'circus' into a site as possible, and has no interest in walking in with a little bag, like some 'amateur.' He said he also announces that 'the photographer is here, a "real" photographer'"

There was a photographer in DC once whose entire studio was built to photographic themes. The entry hall was like the inside of a camera bellows, the conference room was shaped like a giant roll of film. The studio was large enough to drive a semi into, even though most of the jobs required much smaller sets (I believe he said he'd had as many as three shoots going on at one time in different areas. Three-ring circus?!). There was a "client's lounge" overlooking the main shooting area with leather couches and a pretty assistant who served drinks and snacks.

Heap big circus. Maybe not the greatest show on earth, but for an AD who wanted to impress an important client it must have been tough to beat.


Jack has all the nice toys....

"now that you've got a whole plate view camera you have no choice but to use the ultimate image stabilization system."

That was actually a pretty big part of the decision process. Digital's high ISOs and IS systems had gotten me used to shooting in lower light, so when I tried the medium-format rangefinders with their slower lenses and "fast" B&W film that was half the speed at which I shoot digital, I discovered that I needed your "ultimate image stabilization system" (a.k.a. a tripod) more than ever. (That was approximately when my posts about tripods started appearing last year). THEN I started being frustrated by rangefinder cameras on tripods (as you know, you can get the framing right or you can focus the rangefinder, but often you can't do both at once with everything locked down), and I started thinking, well, if I'm going to be stuck with a tripod ANYWAY, I might as well get a bigger camera....


"discombobulated" and "discommode" in one blog post! You don't get that type of superlative writing in many blogs! Excellent, entertaining and informative story telling, as usual. Thanks!


Making that equipment smaller and lighter is really a good thing. I'm one of those who lugged their share of Elinchrom and Bron around, back in the days.

I wouldn't want that "backpack" though. Look at the picture: There's just one shoulder strap, when there could be two of them. Totally for "fashion" reasons. Bad ergonomics in order to look good, but you're going to pay for that stupidity at a physiotherapist some day.

Went to Jack's site and, lo and behold! There in the flesh he posted the first "official" leak of the new Leica S3! I love it! (Let's see; I predict this will be all over the Leica fora by the time the afternoon news shows start) 8o)
Thanks for the remembrance of many happy afternoons in my uncle's studio helping to set up, adjust and take down those big light sets as he plied his trade as a consummate portrait and wedding photographer.

So, i would like to know exactly what is included in this kit, and where to buy it all! =]

Hey Mike, has anyone ever noted your resemblance to Dave Van Ronk ? (earlier years)
the last profile shot in the set triggered an album cover or two..


Admittedly have not read the post, but...

This is really not an insult, really.

Seems to me we are seeing a lot of MJ lately.

I seem to recall a couple of posts about fashion a while ago.

I'm jest sayn'

Best regards,


I also suffer from a Speedlight ignorance, despite my appreciation of Joe McNally's work. I grew up believing in available light and occasionally suffering because of my belief.
As one who has only been reading TOP for about a year off and on, I am slightly distressed to have you reveal yourself on stage. I had imagined Tom Cruise in a Pendleton. My wife was thinking Sean Connery in a Pendleton. Not that you are not as compelling as those figures, just different, with a different shirt.
Keep up the great work. I start my day with TOP.

I also use the weird little hotshoe flash thingies, but I have to turn all the automatic stuff off because I can't figure it out. I measure and calculate! One of the HUGE leaps forward for me with lighting is the use of a digital camera as a polaroid. I can get the lighting right, swap cameras, and put the final on to film. Pretty sweet.

Jack can chime in for himself if he wants to, but he told me he prefers single-strap packs and sought this one out for that reason. He has trouble getting into double-strap backbacks but has no problems with the single-strap kind.


Where can I get an iPad in a sexy wood frame? I don't mean some iPad case, but an iPad made of a wood casing. Apple a la carte ... the Leica crowd would go nutz.

You are correct that a backpack with two straps might be smarter for long treks, and I tried one. But my treks are not far, and I find I am willing to use a single sling bag more often than two straps just from the standpoint of getting it on and off fast, as I told Mike. A single shoulder strap is at least healthier than using a hand grip on the pack, which I will do when moving it short distances. Trust me, none of this is a fashion statement, That would require me having a well dressed assistant to carry a trunk load of stuff on carts.

Mike, don't think the Strobist doesn't talk about Big Lights. I got my encouragement on my stuff from his blog here:

You wrote, and I started thinking, well, if I'm going to be stuck with a tripod ANYWAY, I might as well get a bigger camera....

I've been thinking the same thing for a while. I've been shooting a TLR for about a year or so, and I discovered the same thing about film speeds and tripods.* If I'm going to be doing 'record shots' for my family, I shouldn't be throwing away detail just because I don't like tripods.
Then, I thought to myself, "hmm, if I'm going to set up a tripod anyway, why aren't I doing this with a 4x5?"

So far, the answer is, "that's money I could spend on a digital camera that either has better high ISO performance or is smaller. (But if anyone wants to give away a Speed Graphic...)

Now, of course, I'm thinking about strobes, since film speed, etc. etc.

*only more so, since the high iso performance on an E-520 is pretty weak sauce. I haven't tested it yet, but the new Portra 400 probably outperforms it.

Hi Mike - how's the tooth?

Count me as one of the converted. After dragging heads and packs to a couple of shoots I tried using Speedlights (rather the Metz equivalents) and discovered that they work just as well and are even simpler to use.

Using both banks two separate flashes can be individually adjusted on the camera even in manual mode. You can dial them down as far as 1/125th, which gives plenty of scope for ambient fill. Dead simple.

Where they really score is positioning. I can tape them or mount them just about anywhere using duct tape or a couple of gorillapods, or use regular stands with a couple of shoot throughs.

I should also thank the Stobist for the plethora of modifiers, though to be honest you can do a lot with some white cardboard and the aforementioned duct tape.

I certainly would lust after that little outfit, especially with the S2 thrown in....

However, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, here is my little portable studio...


Apologies for the crap photo, I just assembled this quickly on the way to work. That means I forgot to include the three Gorillapods... and before everyone heaps ridicule on the Gary Fong thingys, I completely agree. NB the G11 works quite nicely with Speedlites actually - I do use this setup for eBay items, although I use a light tent.

OT a little, but I should chip in and say I sympathise with Sascha's comment. Having carried all sorts of camera bags for 40 years my camera load has steadily seemed to climb (are cameras just heavier today?) Where previously I could manage the convenience and ease of access afforded by a shoulder bag or slingshot, in the last few years I developed really painful problems in my left leg. It transpired that these were due to this weight distribution - at least when I started using rucksacs for heavy gear, the pain gradually went away. This was also another reason for me moving from Canon FF to Pentax for an all-day walkabout system.

The Quadras are very cool to a point* and I agree that they work best when powering one head/pack but, the best thing about them is that they're NOT monolights. I use monolights all the time [Hensels] and my biggest fear is that one will hit the floor. Then what? No head = no light.

Before all the years of using studio strobes I had put together my own speedlight kit using 283s so I've found this whole Strobist thing to be quite interesting. Even to the point that I put together another kit just to have one around in case I need it. That said though I've found the most intriguing use for a speedlight is on top of the camera ala Planet Neil[http://bit.ly/hkC8u2].

Recently, I did a quickie portrait in a cafe of a baristra at an espresso machine in a very tight space. I needed to light her but didn't want it to look lit as much as possible. Considering the track lighting and ambiance of the place I tried bouncing the flash straight into the ceiling using one of Honl's grid spots and voila! It worked better than expected. At the end of the day it comes down to getting the job done. On camera. Off camera. Available light. Its all good!

*My limited experience with Elinchrom has convinced me that they don't really live up to the perception of "Swiss Quality"

Speedlight challenged?

Check out the Backpacker's Studio here:


The hosts are on the move, really. Their advice on shooting with speedlights is refreshing.


OT, Mike, how did you manage to do the lunch thing with that tooth?

One word: ibuprophen.


...as some one brought up here, there is a "quality" to lighting equipment. I go to another blog (Strobist), and I'm amazed at what I see people doing with small hot-shoe flashes, but you know, it isn't the same as monoblocs, or strobe heads in softboxes, or...? It's a look, but all lighting looks are different.

Again, as someone stated, there's a huge difference between a Profoto or Speedotron "long-tube" in a softbox, and a Dynalight head, which is basically just shooting a hard light through a diffuser, it's not going out of the head sideways and lighting up the box interior for a softer look.

I use Travelites because they're cheap and solid, but I hate the look of the little circular flash-tube in most light-modifying equipment, and prefer the long diffused tube of the Profoto (which I can't afford)...this has started me on a project of modifying my softboxes, even to the extent of sewing a patch of translucent material with little reflectant spangles on it, centered on the interior diffuser, to try and get the light to diffuse even more.

If you actually have studied lighting for a while, you'll understand why two lights that look exactly like the same thing, Like a Mole Richardson 1K Fresnel and an Arri 1K Fresnel, actual put out two different "looks" in lighting, and why a lot of people who've been around prefer the Mole to the Arri.

It's one of the things that's truly definitive about ones understanding of lighting in photography: the quality of light. As an "old-timer", I'm absolutely vexed by how much alleged "professional" photography I see with really poor quality lighting. There is a huge difference between "lighting" something, and just throwing light on it. If you think you can buy a Profoto, Travelight, Speedotron, or Dynalight; throw a softbox on it, and you'll get the same light, you are most certainly wrong!

"There is a huge difference between "lighting" something, and just throwing light on it."

"If you think you can buy a Profoto, Travelight, Speedotron, or Dynalight; throw a softbox on it, and you'll get the same light, you are most certainly wrong!"

Well Tom, I am sure you are correct and with point 1 I concur 100%. How could anyone disagree?

With point 2, I am not so sure. Like everything in photography it's a matter of horses for courses. If you are being paid a few grand to shoot an ad campaign, then this matters a lot, but I think it's very unlikely that will ever happen to me, though I do occasionally assist.

If you are simply trying to overcome inconsistent situational lighting to shoot regular folks at work while trying to create a look that's entirely natural and spontaneous, then a number of small, inconspicuous lights mixed with ambient can in fact produce something a lot more effective, especially if the surroundings are an integral part of the shoot.

Also, unless you are shooting professional models, many subjects are overwhelmed into frozen cheezy poses by the sheer scale of the lighting rig, and that in itself destroys the shoot.

I guess my point is that there comes a time when gear becomes an obstruction rather than an asset and the quality of light is more dependent on the surroundings than the source, or simply less important than the other qualities of the shot. Sometimes even exploiting the inconsistent colour temp of the mixed lighting can have serendipitous results.

Note I am not saying this is the only or the best solution, only one of many options depending on subject and location. I am never likely to shoot for Vogue or do an ad campaign for Audi, so my experience in that sense is limited.

However it is seems to me that a lot of photographers become so reliant on what they already know, or are so heavily invested in gear, that they become constrained by it.

On the other hand, I know of one fashion photographer who uses the whole gamut of approaches depending on the shoot. He taught me that there is no right or wrong way, it all depends what you are trying to do...

Strobes and "speedlights" each have their advantages, but I was sort of unimpressed with the Quadra. First, even the entry level pack goes for way over 1000 euros here and that doesn't allow adjustment of power on each flash head separately. further, Elinchrom apparently makes a nice radio-based trigger, but it's just a dumb trigger, it doesn't have e.g. remote adjustment of power. To me, still under 30, having worked in the software business for years and watched cellphones and computers advance, seems like terribly old. The speedlights have primitive triggering, but at least are completely self contained with all sorts of useful modes and one can buy three high end models for the price of one entry level Quadra.

Hi Steve!

Not saying there's one perfect way to light, just saying that most people I see calling themselves photographers bought their lighting package based on something other than an exploration of lighting quality, how it looks, and what it does. I'm actually not quite sure that most of the photo-shoots I've sat in on, the person even understands "light quality", it's just an umbrella or a softbox here, a fill there; they might not even be able to recognized there's a difference in the light coming out of a softbox or an umbrella!

You can say there's no right way or wrong way to light, but I say that's sort of like the art school student being able to verbally rationalize poor art with a "concept". There's is certainly a broad spectrum of acceptable lighting techniques and schemes that a person might investigate to find their own "look", but there's also tons of people calling themselves photographers and lighting so that people or subjects look horrendous! That doesn't mean that it's just "their" way of lighting, it means they don't know what they're doing!

Having been in photography for 40 years, and also around the edges of the fine art scene for a few, I've come to realize that conversations like this are very uncomfortable for people, mostly because they don't want to end up on the wrong side of the definition...I used to work for a guy 30 years ago who didn't want to say anything was good or bad because of this fear, but the fact is,bad photography with bad lighting exists!

Hey, if it helps, I think all light modifiers are a compromise compared to bouncing light out of 4X8 foot "V" cards, I just can't drag them around to locations (but 30 years ago, I actually used to!).

Hi Tom,

I can't match your experience but I am sure what you say is quite right. I have been to lighting workshops that seemed primarily designed to sell accessories, not explain lighting. Youtube is full of "how to" videos which should be retitled "how not to" and there are hundreds of truly awful online professional portfolios.

So I am not in any way detracting from your point. I was rather describing the problem from the other end. Having achieved a workable "look", some photographers try to recreate it at every conceivable opportunity, even when it's complete overkill. A real light master (or indeed mistress) would have a wider repertoire.

By the same token, there are a lot of people who have been fooled into buying far more than they actually need for the kind of photography they do.

No different from cameras, really.


Great post and line of comments, very interesting. I would like to put in the good word for Kirk Tuck's "Minimalist Lighting" book on using speedlites in the commercial photography world. He makes an excellent case and the book is readily available at Amazon. Be sure to use Mike's links though.

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