Working with Studio Flash – Part I

To the beginner, using studio flash can often seem a daunting prospect. Whilst I would by no means call myself an expert, I have been using studio flash, on and off, for a few years now so thought it would be instructive to write down how I went about learning to use it, the ins and outs of hiring studios and working with models and various technical aspects of different studio flash types. I will try and illustrate these posts with some real examples as well as the all important lighting diagrams so you can use these as the basis for your own attempts. I’ll also point out some good on-line resources as well as classroom courses I’ve come across as I’ve tried to learn more about this topic. Please feel free to add comments, questions or suggest other areas I might cover.

So let’s get started. Below is the entry-level flash head from Elinchrom, the ‘D-Lite RX 4’. When I say “entry-level” please don’t think this makes it inferior in any way. It’s a good, all purpose flash that will deliver accurate light output (somethings that’s vitally important if you want to get consistent results on every shot). The only thing about this unit that is not professional, as far as I can tell, is that it’s not meant to work in a studio where it will be firing continuously for hours on end. For occasional amateur and semi-professional use I believe this is more than adequate. I’m not going to explain all the feature the Elinchrom has to offer; you can get these from their website and also find out about their higher-end offerings as well.

Elinchrom RX4 Head

Elinchrom RX4 Head

 

The controls on the back of this flash unit are fairly typical and with the exception of the “Eye-Cell” controls fairly self explanatory I think. The Eye-Cell addresses the issue that can be found when working with cameras that may release several pre-flashes to avoid the red eye effect before their main flash goes off. In this case a normal photocell would respond and release a flash with the first pre-flash of the camera. To avoid incorrect synchronisation the Eye-Cell detects camera pre-flashes and only fires when the main flash goes off. This actually only becomes an issue if you are using your cameras flash to fire the studio flash. Most times you are better off using a radio trigger attached to your cameras hot-shoe. The D-Lite kits come with an Elinchrom Skyport Transmitter which you attach to your cameras hot-shoe. This allows for remote triggering of the flashes from up to 50m indoors (30m outdoors) and can control up to four groups of flashes allowing you to control which flashes you fire from your camera.

Elinchrom Skyport-Plus Transmitter

Elinchrom Skyport-Plus Transmitter

The D-Lites come in two versions, a 200Ws (D-Lite-it 2) and 400Ws (D-Lite-it 4) version. Basically this means the ‘4’ give twice as much maximum power as the ‘2’. However don’t just think you should go for as much power as you can. In many cases, if you have a small studio (say in your backroom) the ‘2’ will give you all the light you need. I recommend you try them out either by hiring them in advance (try The Flash Centre if you are in the UK for this) or finding a studio that has D-Lites (or any other make you are interested in). Regardless of what make of flash you use the control panel is the important thing to get to grips with. Most manufacturers put their manuals online nowadays so you should take a look at these to get as familiar with them as you can before hiring a studio. Alternatively most studios will give you advice if you are a newbie (some may charge).

The main control you will be using on the back of the flash unit is the power up and down buttons. This is the one new users have most trouble getting to grips with in terms of understanding exactly what these buttons do in relation to what you need to set on your camera. I’ll attempt to explain these next.The first thing to understand is that the number you see in the display is just that, a number. It does not directly correspond to any numbers you set on the camera as this depends on a number of factors not least of which is:

  • How far the flash is away from your subject.
  • What light modifiers (umbrellas, softboxes etc) you have on the flash.
  • How many flash units you are going to be firing.

For this reason  even in this digital age where you can check the picture on the back of the camera it is still useful to use a flash meter. I use a Sekonic L-308S meter. Here is some info on how to use it.

Sekonic L-308S Flashmate Light Meter

Both the 2 and 4 D-Lites have a 5 f-stops of flash energy steps in 1/10 increments. Because the ‘4’ is twice as powerful as the ‘2’ this means both the minimum and maximum power of the ‘4’ is twice that of the ‘2’ (the minimum power of the ‘2’ is 12Ws and the ‘4’ is 25Ws). Something to watch out for if, as I said above, you have a restricted space and need to crank the power right down.

So what this means is that in terms of f-stops on your camera if you use a flash meter and the maximum flash output corresponds to f16 then the minimum will be f2.8 (that is 5 f-stops difference). In this case if the maximum power is number ‘6’ on the flash display giving you a setting of f16, one f-stop down will be number ‘5’ on the display corresponding to a setting of f11, number ‘4’ will correspond to f8 and so on. As the steps are in increments of 1/10 you could actually set the power to ‘5.5’ which would correspond to half-way between f16 and f11. Unfortunately most cameras work in increments of a third of an f-stop so this would actually mean you would set you camera to f14 or f13.

Sometimes people talk about flash light output in terms of f-stops. So they say the flash was set at f16. This means they set the flash power to a value which gave a camera reading of f16 (number ‘6’ in the above example). Turning the power “down to f11” means you turn the dial down by one f-stop (i.e. to number ‘5’) meaning a larger aperture (i.e. smaller f-stop number) on your camera.

So how do you actually figure out for a given flash-setup what to set on your camera? That’s the subject of my next post. In the meantime take a look at these two videos from Elinchrom and the photographer Chris Burfoot on using the D-Lites.

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