The third kit fetish

The Phottix 70cm collapsible beauty dish, adapted to fit an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra head.

Everyone knows about the fetish for camera bags shared by most photographers and anyone who has read this blog will know about my own personal one for card readers but there is a third one that has been exercising me of late. I have mentioned it quite a few times over the years and a particular need to have a repeatable set up has led me down this particular equipment rabbit hole once again.

I’m talking about lighting. I’m talking specifically about light modifiers. Those umbrellas, snoots, dishes, soft boxes and hybrid gadgets that you place on the fronts of your flash units in order to control and improve the light.

On our first day in the studio at college back in 1984 we were banned from fixing anything to the lights. Instead we had to place screens and diffusers in the optimum position independently from the light source so that we learned that there was no such thing as the perfect soft box, swimming pool or snoot. By inching a diffuser backwards or forwards by a small margin you could change the quality of the light considerably and you could use all sorts of flags and reflectors to stop the stray light from going where you didn’t want or need it. That was in the studio and that was a very long time ago. As soon as the restrictions about not using ready-made light modifiers was lifted we all sprinted for the big fabric soft boxes and rigid swimming pools and most never looked back.

Unfortunately I was left with a feeling that every time I used a light modifier I am making some really important and potentially detrimental mistakes. I blame the knowledge that I gained about the subtlety of light modification that I acquired in term one, year one of my formal photographic education for the dissatisfaction that I feel with every convenient and portable accessory that I own – and I own a lot of them. A brief headcount yesterday produced the following:

  • Four translucent or shoot through umbrellas
  • Two convertible umbrellas
  • Three reflective or bounce off umbrellas
  • One umbrella box
  • Two rigid beauty dishes
  • One folding beauty dish
  • Two square soft boxes
  • Two rectangular soft boxes
  • Three hexagonal soft boxes
  • Two strip soft boxes
  • Seven reflectors
  • One snoot
  • Three sets of grids
  • Two sets of barn doors
  • Nine reflectors

I have probably forgotten about some others but you get the idea; too many options, no clear direction and no way to always ensure that I have the right one with me at all times. Therefore the compromise is almost always to bring the two or three most versatile with me and have another three or four in the car before making the best of what I have.

This, surely, begs the question about which is my favourite. The answer is as simple as it is shocking. None of the above. My favourite way to work is often to use lights in a way that doesn’t give the signature look of a soft box or an umbrella. I like to bounce. Walls, ceilings, walls and ceilings or any one of a dozen other types of surface will almost always get my vote if I’m shooting a one-off creative image. I have written about my love of large pale surfaces and of using pretty much anything around as a bounce surface and it has become so important to me that creating a ‘look’ has become something I’ve had to work at. I know that something like 33% of photographers rock up and set up their lights complete with their favourite modifier and get on with the pictures and that another 33% turn up and shoot with available light. Many of the rest base their shooting options on what they find and choose between flash with their main modifiers or no flash at all. I like to think that I’m in a small group who will look around for ‘bounceable’ surfaces and go down that route as a matter of preference.

From my list of available light modifiers you can see that I never give up on my quest for ‘the one’ – the light modifier that will make sense of them all. I bought a new one this week and I’m off to use it today. Let’s hope that it both surprises and delights me and that the surprise and delight lead to being able to ignore some of those 1984 college year one, term one lessons

Modified beauty dish

A couple of years ago I bought a slightly used 14″ beauty dish with a fitting that I couldn’t identify. I used it a couple of times with my old Lumedyne kit and kept meaning to make an adapter so that it was easy to attach and detach without looking like a “bodger”. I never got around to it – largely because the work that I was doing didn’t really call for that kind of light. A couple of months ago I came accross the dish and decided to adapt it for use with my Elinchrom Ranger Quadras.

To make it work properly with the Ranger Quadras I had to remove the orginal fitting. The dish is made out of relatively thin aluminium and it was very easy to use a hacksaw to take the whole of the fitting off. There were three screws holding the wires that keep the dome on position and I removed those to get ready to use the same holes to attach the Elinchrom fitting. This was made from a 13cm reflector which was cut through the reflector bowl in three places, allowing me to spread the metal of the reflector wider so that it could be bent to mirror the curviture of the beauty dish. I then drilled three holes in the modified Elinchrom reflector to match the three existing screw holes in the beauty dish and screwed the whole thing back together. Finally I used some gaffer tape to cover the slightly sharp edges of the Elinchrom reflector where I had cut it.

What you see in the three images above is the “finished” beauty dish. It is lightweight which is great for heads as small as the Elinchrom ones and it puts out a beautiful even light. I have shot some portraits using it but I cannot show them here yet because the client hasn’t used them in the magazine for which they were shot.

The total cost was £20.00 for the secondhand beauty dish, about £25.00 for the Elinchrom reflector that was sacrificed to make the adapter and some gaffer tape. Change from £50.00!

As a footnote, the colleague who proofread this piece for me asked why the cable has two yellow stripes around it. The answer is that I like to be able to identify bits of kit from a distance and the two stripes signifies that it is a two (and a bit) metre cable and that it was bought at the same time as the head. Newer purchases get different colours and a three metre cable would have three stripes. A simple idea but it really helps when you are working quickly and need to set up kit or make changes in a hurry.