Hard Light And The Speedlight

I don't talk about speedlights much. A couple of times in the past when I did I must admit that the conversation was mostly negative. The negative part was mostly in the context of examples I ran across of speedlight use that I had to ask myself "Why, why, why". Like using a dozen speedlights for the sake of getting enough power - really - add up the cost of doing that and the inconvenience of dealing with a dozen different little lights and mounting them, and triggering them on TTL, etc, etc, etc.

Just because I disparage the use of tiny little lights in some usage contexts that I believe are purely "hey man look at me" for internet marketing purposes - scenarios that really aren't that useful or practical - that doesn't mean that I don't use them. On the contrary I absolutely use the crap out of them. I have four SB-800 units. Today I would probably by Nikon SB-700s or maybe just maybe splurge on SB-910s. I would like to think I would go w/ the 700's but based on my M.O. in the past I would likely spend the extra for the big ones and then regret it.

I don't have four of them because I use all of them all the time. Actually I can't even find two of them. I know I owned them at some point. Maybe they will turn up. I acquired 4 because I have had those little guys go belly up more than once. Just like I have extra flash tubes for my big light systems. Having extra flashes is pretty much necessary if you depend on them to make the shot. Trust me they will break at the worst possible moment either from droppage or blown electronics or something.

Most of the time in use I will use one or two and then those two will be used as hard sources. I love hard light sources for key, for accents, especially when using little lights. No real power issues when using them as hard sources and once you have a sense of how to do it you can make really good looking stuff. Heck even with big lights I probably use them hard more than I do soft. Of course using speedlights is typically a matter of portability and convenience. Assuming you paid all the money for the ability to control output from the camera without running back and forth or hiring an assistant to do it there are a couple of things that become really inconvenient. What I hate is when that convenience becomes a giant pain in the ass.

There are two things that are really really important when using speedlights as hard sources. First off is making sure they fire. Second is the ability to position and aim them very precisely. Believe it or not those two things are actually closely related. Most of my own personal frustration with speedlights really has boiled down to aiming and positioning while still getting the damn things to fire. In a lot of cases I would just say the hell with it and bring the big lights and radio triggers. I can aim and control those things extremely quickly and with awesome precision - especially with 250W modeling lights. Triggering? No issue with a couple of PocketWizards.

Of course you can just buy one of the new wiz-bang radio transmitters that allow output control and TTL from the camera or replace your entire system with Canon's new big-boys, or wait until Nikon gets with the program with it's own built-in radios. Too bad all of those solutions add crazy amounts of cost. Actually nutty insane amounts of cost. Even if you do that there are still issues with aiming speedlights precisely - at least there are if you want to do it quickly.

After taking a look at the issue for my own use I determined that the nature of the problem lies in they way speedlight stand adapters are designed. They suck. They all have at least one show-stopper issue that really gets in the way and makes using them painful.

  • First off - most of them have a fixed elbow sort of arrangement where they will allow a range of movement in one up down plane but now side to side. Useless because turning the light stand to get side is not real precise and had it's own set of issues. It also violates my "one knob" mentality. Fiddling with six different adjustments sucks vs. one. Especially when its error prone.

  • Two - a heck of a lot of the adaptors only mount on the light stand one way. Namely up. This sucks because you almost always want to point the little bugger down. The only way to do that with these umbrella adaptors is configure your speedlight head as if it were on top of your camera with the flash tube horizontal and forward. I almost never want my flash head pointed that way. Actually never. You need to be able to mount those things sideways on top of the light stand so that the motion allowed will point the flash down while the speedlight has its head positioned at 90 degrees and you can rotated it horizontal, vertical or somewhere in between. This is super important because when you can do this the positioning and aiming of the head can be completely independent of the way that little TTL sensor window on the flash is aimed. This solves 90 percent of TTL trigger issues in the real world.

I looked everywhere and there are none that addressed this issue. In the past I have dealt with this buy using two stand adaptors of varying types together. One to make it point horizontal and another to actually position and aim the flash. The second one always being the little ball-head type that allows freedom of aiming in any direction. The problem with this are two are ungainly, rickety, have too many knobs, etc. Even if you find one that is just a 90 degree adaptor it's one more thing to screw together that seems to either be lost or come lose and need tightening every time you look at it funny. I did find one little kit of a ball head and 90 degree adaptor for sale. Too bad it's nutty expensive. Like $100 expensive. Too bad it's still two pieces.

Here is what I finally did for myself. I bought anything that even looked like it could work for a reasonable price. I then proceeded to break out the heavy equipment and modify it myself into something suitable. What I came up with is one that started out as a ball head type that only mounted in the up and down orientation but had a very long base as well as a lock down screw that was positioned so that I could drill a hole of the same size as the one in the base in a perpendicular direction. It actually looks like it was made that way - amazing. I am quite dangerous with power tools and have a tendency to overkill it ending up with total destruction at the end of it.

This is one of the little things that I had been chatting on and on about over the last week or so. I took it out into the field Tuesday for live testing in real world conditions and real world subjects with real world usage. I shot the image at the top of the post using it. In fact I used only one flash for the whole day of shooting and every single flash situation I took the hard road. Namely using the flash where the positioning, triggering, aiming was absolutely critical for making the shot work at all so that I would actually have to use the little device a lot.

In other words - I purposely set up scenarios that have driven me absolutely insane in the past using speed lights and your typical umbrella adaptor. My findings were very positive. Actually astounding. I don't think I used one four letter word the whole day. I made all sorts of stuff like this with completely different setups. Cool.

It looks like this…

Looking at the above image you can see the original mounting hole in the bottom at the far right. The hole perpendicular to that with the silver threaded thing-y inserted is the modification. That silver threaded thing-y is acutally about the same as what at the top of most light stands when you buy them. the silver insert is something I don't used that can screw into tripods and other stuff that just has threads - useless. I chuck mine into a bin with other useless crap I don't know what to do with and mount directly on the top of light stands.

Now understand - this is not of RRS or Novaflex quality. It's of reasonable Chinese quality with RB hand made modifications. Personally I would not use it to mount a flash and a large umbrella. I would use a perfectly good Manfrotto for that. I have a bunch of them. Too bad I hate umbrellas and they are easy to aim anyway - actually they don't really need aiming.

I went ahead and bought ten of these buggers and did the modifications to them. I will have them up in my little store within the next few days for anyone that is interested. Of course I might get distracted and they will not end up there for a week or so. If you want one - as a beta tester w/ some free chit chat type of support just email me at rwboyer@mac.com with your address and I'll get it out to you in a jiffy at the low low introductory price of $25.

Made this image a little later - again hard flash with precise aiming and positioning requirements to pull it off. Took me all of two tries and 30 seconds to get it all right in both cases.

I hope some of you have been looking for this type of thing. If not I will have 10 spares for when I eventually loose my own personal stash.


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