My Softbox Setup

Following on from the Zen of Hardware, how do I setup my equipment.

I use Westcott Apollo softboxes, primarily because they are designed to work with speedlights. This makes me a little more flexible, and more mobile.

I currently use their 28″ and a 50″ collapsible Softboxes. These need an umbrella mount to attach them to a light stand. I use the Manfrotto 1052BAC fold down light stands and the Manfrotto umbrella mounts.

I also use PocketWizard TT5 radio transceivers. This presents a problem with the umbrella mounts, as it places the speedlight unit very high in the softbox. This isn’t a major issue, but when you are trying to get a full spread of light out, and achieve a nice soft coverage… every little bit counts…

I discovered that PocketWizard produce an AC-7 radio interference (hard) shield (lovely idea by the way, very cool), and this places the Speedlight on axis with the umbrella column bringing a much more even spread. I am still testing to see if a dome diffuser works better with this, than the 14mm wide-spread cover.

I can now setup my softboxes on their own channel with the PocketWizard’s and adjust them independently with the AC-3 commander from on top of the camera. I get up to +/- 3ev points of adjustment in 1/3 stop adjustments. Plus the in camera flash global compensation adjustment.

An alternative to the light stand is a Monopod or a Tripod. This can give a slightly lower perspective with the Tripod, and you will need a Voice Activated Lightstand with the Monopod.

Please note that I could use a sync cable to achieve what the PocketWizards do, but my speedlights do not have a sync socket… which would mean an extension cord and socket (try, they have some awesome cables), which still lifts the speedlight away from the umbrella spine. The combination of the AC-7 and the umbrella works out for me right now.


The Zen of Hardware

Ok. I know, it isn’t about hardware… It’s about vision, creativity, thinking on your feet, problem solving… Etc…..

But at some point you have to bolt stuff together in a semblance of some order. This has to be organised into a layout that places me (the photographer), my subject, the light and the shadow in the right place… against the plan, to achieve the ballpark of what you set out to do… to achieve the vision…

Don’t forget they may be other people involved in this process; the subject themselves may have a very clear view of how they want to be seen, the make up artist has to interpret your vision in their own particular way, and artistic director may have their view on what needs to be achieved, etc… these are all the ingredients for your particular recipe…

Of course, this is still part of the iterative process that takes place to develop the image into its final form (small steps), using the plan as the direction that you want to move in.

A fundamental thing here is to understand what your hardware can do, and what it can’t. Get to know your hardware, very well. Take pictures of anything you can lay your hands on, as often as you can. Explore the boundaries of your equipment, and constantly challenge your own view of the world…

Do your drills, setup and tear down your equipment, so that you can do it without thinking… This way you can concentrate on what you want to do, create an image…

Until next time, get out there, and create more images…

The anatomy of a shoot

How do I structure a shoot…?

This is one of those vague questions, but I will try to share with you how I approach a conclusion… successful or otherwise… (this will be a bumpy ride, but stick with it, we will get there…)

One framework I use to organise my thoughts is; what, so what, now what… Basically, what do I need to achieve, why does it matter (and to whom), and what should happen next…

Invariably, even if this is a personal assignment, these questions need to be answered and validated very early on before any real effort is put in… It gives the whole process a framework, and potentially encourages greater success than not using any sort of framework, or just winging it.

So, let’s illustrate this with an example, a local photography club want to encourage their members to keep pushing forward. They want to increase their enthusiasm. Each member has a unique set of desires and dreams… To keep them focussed a practical demonstration is arranged every meeting to focus on a particular style or genre of photography. These form the “what”

Some of these are occasionally merged into one session for expediency.

Amongst their many suggestions, members have requested night photography, capturing motion and light painting. Now we can merge these together…

I have been using my portrait style to demonstrate these practical sessions, and hopefully provide some encouragement…

For this upcoming session an idea started forming from these requirements, keeping in mind that it has to be simple to achieve, informative and engaging. This is the “so what” part, the target here is to illustrate as many genres as possible, attempting to perhaps influence, or expose, the members to different formative creative directions…

Motion and night photography say long exposures to me. Luckily where the club operates we are not short of some spectacular lighting and water displays. That works, an image right there…

There is also an opportunity here for light painting… Another image there…

(a lovely collection here:

(another lovely collection here:

(and another here:

An aside here, we have just experienced GPP2012, the largest gathering of photographers in region. A great deal of fun for those obsessed with photography which wrapped with a shoot out between David Hobby, Martin Prihoda and Mr. Gregory Heisler… It’s no surprise who won. But the image that Martin attempted caught my attention.

(A lovely review of the shoot out by David Hobby here:

I also have another mistress driving me, my desire to turn every image into a portrait… Why not try and keep the majority happy.

As you can see, the idea comes together from a large variety of disparate sources. As a result becomes a hybrid solution..,

The opportunity here is to create a number of unique standalone images, which then also form the components of the main image.

So, now we have the “what”, and the “so what”, now comes the “now what”…

We have a 45 minute window in which to achieve all the above.

Key thing here is to get to the point and deliver the component images, then combine them to form the hybrid image. Plenty of audience participation, everyone is a winner…

So what are our component images:

  • A night exposure
  • A light painting
  • A light painting and night exposure combined

Resulting in:

  • An ambient light adjusted exposure and night light balanced image with light painting. (my little twist of turning this into a portrait)

Is this what eventually happened, well in a word no…



We ended up with the merged image, which everyone collaborated in…. a result from an educational perspective. Hopefully, some of the members left with a slightly different view of the world…


A simple softlight still life with a detail light.

So we have a simple goal here, to capture a still life quickly for an image for an online auction site to sell some unused items to clear some space for some more used items…

My illumination of choice currently is Softbox’s nice and close. And for a still life such as this, relatively straight forward.

Single softbox illuminated still life

One Softbox to my immediate left.

I know, I can hear Joe McNally and David Hobby in my ears too… so, I am not outside, so all the light is my own… no ambient to deal with… with the white backdrop behind the items (and close) there is enough soft light to go round, as Zack Arias would say one light is all you need… but with out loads of time to play with, it is a little flat…

All I need now is to bring a little detail in, to add some texture, and form to the items… because frankly the image above is a little flat.

Gridded Flash bottom right

Gridded Flash bottom right

A good polish, and where exactly do I need to add my detail light…? with a Grid and straight across…? Not quite right, so lets move it…

The key light is turned off here, so I can see what is going on, Key light was set in the previous step, so when we are happy we can layer it back into the mix.

Gridded Flash Bottom Center

Gridded Flash Bottom Center

Straight on now for the second light, so I get a reflection off it, already got a nice one from the softbox guitar top left. Nope, still not right… It just doesn’t look right. so keep moving…

Lets move it again, nope… should I give up now…? Nope… keep going… keep exploring… Turn the amplifier a little anti-clockwise so that I can pick up a reflection off the grill…

Flash behind Scrim

Flash behind Scrim

Back to the second light here, trying to get it right… I really like the look of it now… so lets explore the setup…

Setup shot for final image

The Breakdown.

Bring in the scrim modifier, clamp it under the softbox, place the flash on real wide directly behind it, and now my soft box is double height. Now I can see that nice crease in the guitar body, bottom left. I think we are done.

Final image

The Final Image

What did I use here:

  • My trusty camera
  • Two small off camera speedlights.
  • A 28″ square Westcott Apollo softbox
  • A Westcott Illuminator/Reflector 4 in 1 kit
  • Pocket Wizards TT5’s, and AC-7 and an AC-3
  • A Peter Honl Grid and strap
  • A Manfrotto background stand set, and a Manfrotto light stand.

Final image details

Both Speedlights are on TTL, with no adjustment.

Shot taken at an effective focal length of 61mm (I’m on a APS-C sensor)

F/11.0, 1/125 sec, ISO 200