New Toys!

Recently I did a shoot with Harlean (who is a fiction), and ended up cranking the ISO setting on my camera up to 1600 just to get shutter speeds in a reasonable range. That left her with some pretty tough cleanup in post production, and meant the pictures were not what they could have been. “That does it!” said I, “We’re gettin’ us some lights!”

After some research I chose Alien Bees for my new strobes. In (sometimes heated) discussions online the only concrete criticism light snobs could downgrade the Bees for was not costing enough. The day I’m good enough to say, “you know, I could really use better strobes,” will be a good day indeed. (Although, I once thought I would never need more camera than the one I have now, and guess what? I think I’ve actually reached the stage where I would get better pictures with a better camera. No one is more surprised by that than I am.)


My new Alien Bees, ready for work.

Anyway, the lights arrived today and I made a shambles of the living room unpacking boxes and setting things up. Pretty slick, huh? I’ll still be looking at accessories — first step, CTO gels to mix better with the ambient light, then maybe a softbox or two. We’ll see. There’s more than enough to keep me busy as it is.

Naturally, I wanted to get to work taking pictures right away, but it would not be fair to ask a human to sit through hundreds of experimental shots while I fiddle around with lights in the “lets see what this will do” mode. I asked my sweetie if I could borrow some shoes to shoot. She has a few pair kicking around. I figured shoes were interesting, and had an architectural quality. I wanted to see if I could capture the curves and forms with well-placed light.


Still life with high heels.

I wasn’t very specific about what sort of shoes, but she came through with four shoes that each presented different lighting challenges. One high-contrast, another very shiny, and so forth.

I took a lot of pictures of shoes, at different angles and with different backgrounds. In some cases, the background was lit better than the shoe, in others, some details of the shoe were lost. In many you can see my reflection in the leather, not just the reflection of the lights (which is problem enough).

Note that I didn’t spend a lot of time choosing the photos to go in this episode — they’re decent examples but not necessarily the “best” — whatever that means. Each of these has something I like, however.

It became apparent pretty quickly that having lots of light is useless if you can’t control it. I knew this intellectually already, but there’s nothing like getting down there in the trenches to bring the lesson home.

more shoes!

Another still life with shoes.

I also got some fun serendipity along the way, like light reflecting off the lining of one shoe creating a great highlight in the heel of another.

I got a bit worried after a while, that I couldn’t turn the lights down enough to let me open the aperture to limit my depth of field. Now, there was a problem I didn’t anticipate. It turns out, as I was reviewing the photos to post here, I realized that my camera was still set to ISO 1600 from the other day. Tomorrow when set the speed down to a safe and sane 100, I’ll get much richer pictures and a lot more options for exposure. So, while these pictures have their flaws, I’m really excited about how my pictures will look after a few thousand more practice shots. Woo hoo!


9 thoughts on “New Toys!

  1. I have discovered that when sailing, I do better when wearing something with leopard spots (sometimes visible, sometimes not). That stiletto, however, probably would not improve my sailing performance. Still, ooh-la-la!

  2. Jerry, This is Jesse’s pal, David. Remember me? I have some photonerd questions. I love the soft light of your test shots! Which model of Alien Bees did you get? I’m trying to figure out how much power I need.

    • Of course I remember you! Some good times in Las Cruces, and later in Austin.

      I got a pair of B800’s, and they’re plenty powerful enough. I’m glad I stepped up from the 400’s though. Later on eBay I picked up a White Lightning X800 (same manufacturer, but an older model line) to use for hair and rim lighting.

      If you want to get a big jump-start in the gear department, you could do worse than bidding on this Busy Bee kit. It’s a lot o’ dough to spend all at once, but you’ll have everything you need to stay happy for a long time.

      I found myself preferring the light I got using a shoot-through umbrella much of the time, so I ended up ordering another fairly large one of those, and some other bits to try to get the rim/hair/accent light under control (I don’t always succeed with that). I also became happier when I got the radio trigger (the cable just wasn’t reliable enough – maybe a bad connector on my camera?). I bought the basic transmitter that goes on the camera but the fancy receivers, so one day when I’m feeling flush I can get the CyberCommander and I’ll be set.

  3. Dude, thanks for the advice! Much appreciated. The B800 was in fact the model I was interested in, but I didn’t want to be kicking myself for not getting the B1600 later. Its reassuring to hear they’re enough for you (of course, you’ve got a f/1.2 lens which could probably make due with the light reflected off ladybug’s back). I’d be all over that Busy Bee kit, but unfortunately this is something I have to save my pennies for, so it’ll be awhile before I’ve worked up the dough. When that comes closer, I’ll probably hit you up for advice regarding triggering. Thanks!

    • I’ve recently done some reading, and where I thought the Einsteins were a straightforward upgrade from the Bees, they are a groundbreaking light when you need really fast flashes, and they have better temperature consistency across the power range.

      Now, I’ve never once said, “That shot at low power feels too cool, compared to high-power shots.” The bees are pretty good at that stuff anyway, but there’s physics involved. I’ve also never said, “man, I wish I could have frozen the action better.”

      But if you can imagine yourself saying either of those things, then the Einsteins are a pretty good choice. There’s the classic triangle: short duration, color consistency, and price: choose two. Einsteins cheat the system by giving you a switch to decide, for a particular shot, which two.

      I sure as hell don’t need them, though.

    • Months later, another comment about your question:

      Shooting at f/1.2 can be a problem with strobes. They just turn down far enough. When I want the super-shallow depth of focus that wide-open lens geometry gets me, I actually put a 3-stop neutral-density filter on the lens so the strobes don’t blow out the shot. This in turn puts the auto-focus mechanism into blackness, so manual focus is required. That in turn means the subject has to be very still, and remain in the super-thin focal zone between the time I set the focus and take the shot, which is at least a couple of seconds.

      • I just now saw these responses! (That’ll teach me for not enabling e-mail notifications.) I ended up going all-in with speedlights for the time being. The decision was driven by a combo of cost and portability. However, I’ve decided that any additional lights I get will be monolights — either the ABs or the Einsteins. Probably ABs due to cost.

        Yeah, I can’t imagine taking a portrait at f/1.2, except for some kind of one-off, special effect kind of shot. It would be a bit of a challenge to even get both eyes in focus shooting that wide. But I bet it’s nice to know you have it, and the IQ is probably awesome stopped down just a little.

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