Many of you are motivated or curious about moving into studio lighting. There are many options for use in studio lighting. Flash and strobes are two different entities with different purpose, uses, and approaches. Flash is a simple way to add light when needed. Most pros use studio strobes for commercial photography and flash when strobes aren’t practical. There is a big push by Nikon, and their Creative Lighting System, to get people to use SB800’s as if they were strobes. There is clearly some benefit to this approach, but not for everything. Once you bounce a flash into an umbrella or a light box, you diminish the power substantially, and this makes flash most usable for small portrait setups or something similar.
Studio strobes or any commercial strobes don’t use ETTL. It is all manually done by viewing and adjusting the lights after shooting the tests and reviewing your LCD and Histogram. You can easily mix flash and strobe. If you want to buy one or two strobes to get started, you can. Use the strobes as key/fill and the flash as a background light or something. You just need to buy an attachment that makes the flash fire when the strobes do. There are basically two types of strobes; Monolights and Power Packs with tethered heads. Monolights have all the electronics and capacitors in the head itself. Power packs have the electronics and capacitor in the power pack and you attach the strobe head by the cord to the power pack.
Here is an example, the monolight on the left and power pack with head on the right. Power packs have a lot more power than a mono light because you can get more into a power pack. I use the monolights 99% of the time.
Monolights have built in Optical Slaves and don’t need any wireless to make them fire. You just hot wire the key light or closest strobe to the camera and when you take the picture it fires, and all the others see it fire and they fire. Just make sure that if you buy strobes and plan to use a hot wire (Sync Cord), that you also use a SAFE SYNC (Wein). This goes into the hot shoe, then you plug in the strobes and that way you won’t fry your digital camera’s electronics.
I use Norman power pack strobes in the studio and have numerous White Lightning monolights (www.white-lightning.com). I also have been testing the Flashpoint series of lights, available from Adorama. I am impressed with the units and their price point. As a PPSOP student, you can buy these lights from Adorama as a package.
I have about 10 umbrellas of different sizes and several can be used as shoot-thru umbrellas. This gives me the option to shoot thru the umbrella, or bounce the light out of the umbrellas. You use Shoot-through umbrellas to create a large soft light source. I have a silver umbrella (medium sized), a large Brolley box (a cross between an umbrella and soft box) and a large soft box (I think it is 4' x 5'). The lightbox also creates a large, soft light quality, but is manageable as far as light spread goes. Then there are grids, to put on the head, for focusing the light as well.
What I would recommend starting out with is at least 2 large umbrellas that can also be used as shoot-though umbrellas. I personally only use white umbrellas because I like soft light. Silver seems to sell well, but there is too much contrast for my taste. Next, I would consider a large Softbox, stands, and strobe units. This will get you started with the absolute basics for studio portraits.
To decide among all this info, you must ask yourself what your goals are. If you plan to shoot weddings and family stuff, stick with flash. If you plan to get into portraits, maybe a studio, then move up to strobes, umbrellas, and all the accessories and do it right. I guarantee you will be glad you did, if shooting portraits are your goal.
Recap on general flash shooting
The easiest way in my opinion to use flash is in Aperture Priority mode. Set the camera to A mode, flash to ETTL and shoot away. Now, if the background is too bright once you start shooting and looking at your LCD, you should use EC (exposure Compensation). This means you are changing your shutter speed to darken the background. On Canon, you adjust the EC (or shutter speed) by using the Quick Dial on the back of the camera. When you look through the camera and move the QD you will see the exposure indicator move left or right depending on which way you are going. This changes the shutter speed to a - or a + exposure without moving the f/stop or changing flash exposure.
In manual mode, you know that you adjust either the S.S. or f/stop until the camera exposure indicator says accurate exposure for normal picture shooting. You turn the flash on ETTL and shoot away. The difference here is that if you want to underexpose the background, like in the previous description, you move the Main dial on top of the camera to change the shutter speed and either darken or lighten the background. F/stop can stay the same and the flash will automatically output the proper amount of flash based on the f/stop while in ETTL mode.
Mixing strobe and flash
As far as firing flashes with wireless, SB800 and 580EX come pre-built with wireless ability in them, and will fire most Canon flashes using this system. However, introduce a different brand, like Alien Bee strobes, and you have a new challenge. AB's do not have wireless ability built in and this is a problem. If you do want to mix flash and strobe, then you need a method to do this. Pocket Wizards are great for the Alien Bees, but not much help with the Canon or Nikon Flashes. One thing you can do is keep the flash on-camera, and when it fires the AB will see that and fire. (On-camera needs to be in manual mode or the pre-flash will fire the AB before the real flash fires) Do you want the on-camera flash lighting your scene? If not, then you would put a white card, clamped to a light stand, in front of the flash, to block the light from hitting the subject, yet deflect the light towards the AB so it will still fire. This takes experimentation.
Another way to do this, that I have used, is to open the pop-up flash built into the camera, if you have that. Take the PC cord (the cord that connects to the camera from the AB to make it fire) and place an optical slave in it. Set this right in front of the pop-up flash and it will fire the AB.
Keep in mind that using strobes with flash becomes a visual process, since there is no ETTL ability. You test, look at the LCD and Histogram, and test again, if necessary.