Lights, cameras, action….

I get asked fairly regularly about what photography and lighting gear I use, and on occasion the gear itself becomes quite important to a photograph I’ve made, so rather than dig too deeply into the gear side of things each time I break down a photo on this blog, I thought I’d take time out to address all aspects of my gear as it pertains to lighting in one post, and where necessary then I can link back to this as appropriate. If, like many others, you’re in the boat of wanting to invest in (or expand your) lighting equipment, this might help guide you in the right direction also. If I were reading someone else’s post about gear, I’d be less interested in what they use than why they use it, so that’s the approach I’ll take here, all from the perspective of light.

I’ll put links to all the gear below – I’m a big fan of real world Irish shops so will link to an Irish shop where the gear is stocked, but I’m also practical about cost, so where Amazon has stuff I’ll link to that also.  The Amazon links contain an affiliate code that gets me a few cents if you buy via that link, but don’t feel you have to do that!

Cameras

My workhorse camera is the Fuji XT-3 [Berminghams | Amazon] which is an APS-C mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses.  The important word there is mirrorless. Traditional digital SLR cameras have mirrors that reflect the image from the lens through the viewfinder while you compose, and then when you press the shutter release, the mirror flips up and the sensor is exposed. 

As the viewfinder is seeing an image from a mirror, it’s an optical viewfinder showing you a “real world” view through the lens.  A mirrorless camera does away with the mirror (saving a lot of space, making the camera smaller and lighter and also (due to physics) making lenses smaller and lighter.  Instead of the optical viewfinder it has an electronic one, and the sensor is constantly exposed, feeding an image to the electronic viewfinder.  If you’re familiar with the concept of Live View in Canon or Nikon terms, essentially a mirrorless camera is always in live view, but much more elegantly, and you can look at the viewfinder as well as at the screen on the back.  I am absolutely certain in a few years time all mainstream cameras will adopt this technology and we’ll wonder what we did without it.

The reason I shoot with a mirrorless camera is specifically because of that electronic viewfinder (EVF).  The main advantage of an EVF is that you can preview the exposure as you change your settings, and as you compose your image.  Being able to do that for every single shot changes how you shoot, primarily because it changes how you see light.  You end up with far fewer test exposures, an ability to react to difficult light immediately and without risk of ruining the exposure, and images straight out of the camera that are pretty darn close to perfectly exposed for any lighting situation.  You also seek out pools of light and pools of shade, which make photos more interesting.  It has been a game changer for me, and I’ll never go back to a camera that doesn’t have an EVF.

Why I chose Fuji is down to their colour reproduction, the usability of the cameras, their ecosystem (I also shoot with a Fuji X100F [Berminghams | Amazon] which, while fundamentally a different camera, still has excellent image quality and almost the same internal processing), and their range of lenses which are sharp, contrasty, light, small, and well priced.  The XT2 was the first Fuji camera I felt was up to the demands of a wedding, and so it proved to be for me during the two years I shot exclusively with it.  The newer X-T3 has just improved that experience. It’s not without its quirks, but neither is any other camera system.

From a lighting perspective what the Fuji X100F brings to the table is that it has a leaf shutter, and a built in 3 stop ND filter.  I won’t go into detail now on why those are important – that’s a topic for another day – but they do mean I can use flash to highlight a subject even in the middle of a bright sunny day in a way that is not possible with other cameras.

A final point about the cameras that some photographers mention when they know I shoot Fuji – as I said earlier these are APS-C (crop sensor) cameras, which is to say they have a sensor which is smaller than the traditional (full frame) 35mm sensor size.  That, theoretically, means two things – smaller pixel sites for the same given pixel count versus a full frame camera, and less shallow depth of field for the same given aperture versus a full frame camera.  The smaller pixel sites can mean more noise at high ISOs but I haven’t found that to be a real world issue up to ISO 6400, at real world viewing sizes.  I don’t think twice about shooting up to ISO 1600 as standard in fact, and will push to ISO 6400 if required. Also the noise from the Fuji files is a more film-grain like noise and more pleasing than what I used observe with Nikon.  The less shallow depth of field never bothered me as I was never an f/1.4 type of shooter when shooting full frame – I didn’t like the razor-think depth of field or indeed trust my focusing abilities to shoot in such a way.  If anything, in fact, the less shallow depth of field counters the high ISO issue because now I can get f/2.8 depth of field with an f/2 exposure and so keep the ISO down a stop.  So to me, unless you’re a full frame f/1.2 or f/1.4 type of shooter, the crop sensor v full frame sensor argument is moot.  What the crop sensor does get you though is much much smaller and lighter lenses.

Lenses

I’m not going to dwell on lenses at all as lens choices are a personal thing and not lighting-related as such – suffice to say I primarily shoot with (in full frame terms) 24mm, 35mm and (unusually, perhaps) 75mm lenses.

Flashes

Despite this blog, despite the flash photography courses I run, and despite a lot of the shots I like to show, I should say that the vast majority* of my photography uses the already present ambient light in a scene.

 

I do deploy flash at weddings, but rarely before the speeches (and maybe not even then), never during the ceremony (a self-enforced rule), and mostly to solve a lighting problem (poor quality or poor quantity of light) as opposed to for any other reason.  I do always light the first dance with flash, and I often do a creative night time shot with flash too where I setup something elaborate while the couple are having dinner and we take 5 minutes after dinner to get a night portrait that’s often predominantly flash lit.  We’ll talk about those quite a bit here over the coming months.

* I did a quick calculation – of my last 10,000 shots taken, 941 used flash. That said, it is mid-summer. That ratio changes a bit for winter weddings, but not as much as you’d think.

I use Godox flashes, because I think they are unbeatable in terms of functionality, reliability and price.  In the past I’ve used Nikon (also flawless, but three times the price and not camera-agnostic), Yongnuo and Nissin. Godox trumps all of them.

For on-camera TTL flash I use the Godox V860II [Amazon] which is a Fuji-friendly flash that speaks Fuji TTL language. They offer them for Nikon, Canon and Sony also. For drinks receptions or quick grab shots in low or muddy light, that’s the go to piece of kit, bounced off a wall, the ceiling or where the wall meets the ceiling. TTL means, essentially, auto – the camera and the flash figure out the power to use – but I generally have the camera in manual exposure mode and will compensate the TTL flash power where required.

For off-camera flash I shoot exclusively in manual mode on both camera and flash, so I use the Godox V850II [Amazon], which is pretty much the same as the V860II but without TTL. (It also supports 5 groups instead of 3 for some reason).

Both those flashes have built in radio receivers, and huge Li-Ion batteries that mean I only need to recharge them about every third wedding, and even then only because I’m paranoid. Officially they claim 600 full power pops.  I’m typically at 1/16th power or less, so that would be a LOT of shots before I’d deplete the battery.

Both the V850II and the V860II have flash power that can be adjusted in third-stop increments from 1/128th power up to full power, which is itself comparable to the output of an SB-910 in Nikon terms (i.e. quite bright).

Godox is also sold as Pixapro, Neweer and Flashpoint amongst other names, and sadly there are no Irish stockists so these are flashes you have to buy from the UK or Europe. Don’t expect much by way of official support either if something goes wrong, but I’ve yet to have a faulty one. Also you can buy 3 to 4 of these for the price of a Nikon or Canon equivalent so double up and you’re still winning.

I’m a fan of Godox because they have a whole eco-system of gear that works with everything else in the eco-system, and I also have the Godox TT350F [Amazon] (not shown), which is a small (and, for my uses, a little under-powered) 2AA-powered pocketable flash, and their mini studio light called the Godox AD360II, which I use for things like school portraits.  I also have a single Godox AD200 [Amazon], which is a more powerful flash, albeit with no zoom and no articulating head.  It is great for where you need more power, though. Especially via a soft box or shoot through umbrella.

In total (I probably need a support group for this) I have 12 Godox flashes.  But in my defence, many of those are to facilitate me giving workshops on flash even for people who have no lighting gear at all.  But as everything uses a 2.4 MHz radio frequeny and all can be fired and controllled from the camera with one of many triggers, I could aspire to a single image lit with 12 flashes (my current record is 8!).  Speaking of triggers…

Triggers

Most of the Godox flashes can themselves play the role of a trigger, but I tend to use dedicated Godox triggers all the same.  They are smaller and lighter and easier to use.  My go-to trigger lately is the exceedingly simple and fuss-free Godox XT-16 [Amazon].

There are other Godox triggers that I also own and use occasionally (the XPro-F [Amazon] and the X1T-F [Amazon]) that are more elaborate, but less is more when it comes to thinking about things like triggers in my opinion, and the XT-16 is virtually foolproof.  Its a 2.4 MHz trigger and it has not once mis-fired for me.  It control multiple channels, and up to 16-groups of flashes in a channel, so it’s more than adequate for even complex multi-flash setups.

What’s really really nice about this system is that I can change the power of any flash from the trigger in the hot shoe of the camera. For, say, the first dance I just need to put my flashes in position and power them on while the band are setting up, and then once the dancing starts if there’s a massive change in light levels in the room, or if the couple don’t dance in the middle of the dance floor, or if anything else unexpected happens lighting wise, I can make adjustments from the camera as I shoot. It’s a phenomenally useful thing to be able to do, and makes you able to simply get better photos.

When setting up a 3- or 4- light shot outdoors too, it saves a lot of running back and forth to sort out power levels.  So whatever flash system you opt for, make sure you get triggers that you can adjust from the camera position. You won’t regret it, even if they’re a little more expensive.  By the way, the XT-16 is definitely not what you’d call expensive.

The reason I have the XPro-F is that it facilitates quicker disabling/enabling groups which I sometimes avail of for first dance shots – that will be a future post.  And it (and the X1T-F which predated it) supports TTL off camera so I invested in them in case I’d want that, but in reality I don’t use either that much.

Modifiers

So you have a camera, lens and flash. What then? Well you can use that flash as nature intended, so to speak, but often you’ll want to shape the light from it in some way. This is where you can really spend money.

I have all sorts of modifiers, but what I’m falling back on more and more lately are some simple and portable modifiers from Magmod – most especially the MagGrid [Berminghams | Amazon] and the MagGel [Berminghams | Amazon]. I would say 95% of my off camera flash photographs use at least one of those.

The MagGrid is simply a way of controlling the beam of light from the flash, the MagGel is a way of changing the colour of that light.  My go to gels are CTO (orange) and CTB (blue) which complement each other nicely.  It’s quite extraordinary how much colour you can add to a scene with even just two well placed flashes gelled orange and blue (or other complementary colours).

Both the MagGrid and the MagGel excel at allowing you light photos in a way that means they don’t look lit.  We’ll see examples of this as a break down night portraits here, but that’s the reason they live permanently in my camera bag.

I also recently acquired the MagSphere [Berminghams | Amazon] (the white blob you see on the flash in the main gear photo) which is an attempt to turn the flash into a “bare bulb” source that is omnidirectional.  It seems to work well but I haven’t made a lot of use of it yet. And finally I have the MagBeam [Berminghams | Amazon] (not in the photo above) which is, essentially, a “zoom lens” for the flash. I have only used that once in a test shoot so I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to get it before you have more essential gear, but it does present some creative opportunities.

The really nice thing about the Magmod system is that everything is (as the name suggests) magnetic, and it really couldn’t be simpler to attach to a flash. I’ve been through a whole gamut of modifiers that attached in a million different ways, and nothing is easier than the Magmod system.  To attach the modifiers you place a Maggrip [Berminghams | Amazon] over your flash (put it on once and forget it) which contains strong magnets to which all the modifiers attach.  So you could, for instance, stack a gel, a grid and a bounce on the one flash and it’s all super stable.

There are two downsides to Magmod.  Firstly it’s not a cheap system but I just factor the cost of a MagGrip into the cost of a flash if I buy a new one, so I have one on every flash.  And as mentioned earlier, the flashes are comparatively way cheaper than Nikon or Canon or Fuji equivalents, even with the cost of the MagGrip.

The other downside is that you need to be careful with the magnets around hard drives, especially portable hard drives that you might have for backup and throw into your camera bag without too much thought.

Very recently I’ve acquired the new Magbox 24″ soft box [Essential Photo] and look forward to deploying it this season. It was a Kickstarter product, so at time of writing is pre-order only.

Beyond Magmod gear, I own a couple of shoot-thru umbrellas [Amazon] (43″ in diameter) which I use for family photos where there’s a need to do those indoors, and they soften the light in a really easy to use manner.  In terms of what to buy for a shoot through umbrella, bigger is better.   I find the 43″ size works well and the ones above can have a black cover added to turn them into reflective umbrellas.

I also have a Lastolite Ezybox soft box [Amazon] (useful for headshots), a Phottix umbrella-type Octobox [Amazon] (beautiful light source for big soft light, and great for family or child portraits) and even a pop up ring flash that I’ve never used!  There’s a goal…. to use the ring light for a blog post!

Light stands

I’m quite particular about my lightstands for a very simple reason. Because I may commonly use 4 or 5 of them in a night time portrait, I need them to be easily carried, robust, sturdy and reliable.

Having gone through many types of light stand, I’ve settled on stackable Manfrotto light stands [Amazon] – I have 4 small stands which go to about 7 feet, and 2 large stands which go to about 10 feet.  These are expensive, but definitely worth every penny for how they stack, how they survive being thrown around the car boot, and how they make it so much easier to load and unload gear.

It’s all well and good having a light stand, though, but you still need a way to attach a flash to it – that’s where an umbrella adaptor and cold shoe come in.

If I’m fussy about lightstands, I have full blown OCD about umbrella adaptors – I’ve been through every possible style and to be honest still haven’t found the perfect one, but I’ve settled on the Phottix Varos Pro M [Conns | Amazon] which has an angled umbrella socket to try to keep the flash centred in the umbrella, is sturdy and all metal, and easy to adjust.  It is slightly bulkier than I’d like, though, especially when stacking the light stands.  Since acquiring my Magbox soft box above I’ve also got a Magshoe [Essential Photo], and it seems to have the potential to be the best umbrella adaptor/cold shoe in the world – once I use it properly I’ll update here.

For now, on top of the umbrella adaptor I use a Frio Cold Shoe [Amazon] which allow for one handed use (really useful when you’re holding a camera in one hand and trying to set up a flash on a light stand in the other) and achieves the holy grail of securely holding flash but also keeping it easy to remove it.

There are a plethora of umbrella adaptors available, many with integrated cold shoes. And for those who aren’t as fussy as me the ones you’ll find on Amazon for a few pounds will do just fine, but make sure you keep an eye on them each time you mount a flash to make sure everything that should be tight is tight.

Not shown above, but also super useful, are Manfrotto Justin clamps [ConnsAmazon], which are strong clamps with a built in cold shoe that is adjustable.  You can mount a flash on most anything with those, without needing a light stand, and that can be really quite useful. I always have two in my bag – I’ve tried the knock off versions of these too but they can break or become loose over time, while the original clamps from Manfrotto hold their own (albeit they are expensive).

LED lights

Finally I’ve started playing a little with continuous light sources, both with flash and as an alternative to flash.

Typically thought of as videographer lights, these have a lot to offer a photographer, and come in various shapes and sizes.  The best I’ve found to date is the lightsaber-like Yongnuo YN360II [Amazon] which is a light wand that can pump out quite a bit of light in three colour temperatures – daylight, tungsten, or a mix.

I wouldn’t swear by the colour accuracy, but it’s good enough for non commercial applications for sure. The power level can be adjusted with a lot of granularity, and if you wish it can also create red, green, blue or any other colour from a mix of the three, albeit with a lot less power.

Creatively this offers a tonne of options, and is priced almost as a no-brainer.  It has a great battery too, plus giving it to a groomsman to hold for a photo and see him pretend to be in Star Wars really never gets old!


One last thing

In the spirit of this blog, I should fill you in on the lighting for the main gear photo. Here it is again to save you scrolling:

There are four light sources for this photo – three of which you can see, and the fourth is the ambient light on a cloudy day.  The sun is behind clouds off to the top of the photo, so the highlights you see along the light stand, and the muted highlights on the black surfaces are due to that (essentially) big white soft box in the sky, and there’s a hint of directionality about it as I shot the photo in the morning.  The ambient exposure is f/6.4, ISO 200, 1/250s, which is set to give the required legibility. The power of the two flashes is set independently simply to look good in the frame – they’re not really lighting anything (although they do give create some highlights on the MagGel, the aerial of the trigger, and the left side of the X100F). The same goes for the power level of LED light (although I probably had it set a little high in hindsight). The flashes were close to minimum power, and the LED light was at 10%.  Shot with a second Fuji XT2 and a 35mm (equivalent) lens.

That’s it!  If you have any gear related questions throw them in the comments or you can send me a mail or contact me on Facebook or Instagram and I’ll get back to you with as much advice as I can offer.

Next up: a breakdown of a photo you can do with a single flash and a gel.

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