Improving Your Flash Photography
12/12/13 -06:40 Filed in: Food Photography | Website
I recently picked up a flash accessory that has helped solve a food photography problem that had cropped up in the last year or so. I used it for the first time this Thanksgiving and found it works well and also will help solve some other tricky lighting issues I’ve had. The item in question is the Lumiquest FX LQ-111 Colored Gel System, which sells in the low $30.00 range and is available both online and in larger camera stores. Towards the end of the blog I will provide a gallery where you can view comparable images side by side to judge for yourself the improvements to the images.
Now why a colored gel system? The smart alecky answer is: “Why not”? Truth in advertising: I was looking for a small portable soft box for my flash that I could fold up and keep in my cameras bag. This item is not a soft box technically, because it uses 5 colored gels to add theatrical colored tints to your image. But without using the gels it behaves like a soft box. I was at the store to buy an upgraded version of my detachable flash and wanted to pick up a soft box while at the store. I’d wanted one of these for a while and kept procrastinating. While I was at the store I wanted to get a softbox too. I didn’t care for the portable soft boxes that retailed for less money than the FX, so for a little more money I got some colored gels in the deal.
OK why a soft box? Well as anyone who has taken a picture with direct flash knows, the lighting straight from the flash head can be very harsh. It can also not have even edge to edge coverage. Also items with shiny finishes (like silverware or cooking tools or even glazed dinnerware) can show harsh reflections. I have long used bounce flash to help avoid some of these conditions. I purposely bought a high end point and shoot camera to get a hot shoe for a detachable flash. One of the features of detachable flashes are their moveable heads which can tilt and swivel. Most of the indoor food pictures on this site are taken with indirect flash bounced off my white Kitchen or Dining Room ceilings. By aiming the light up to and bouncing off the ceiling you get a wider, softer looking beam of light illuminating the food. The lighting is softer and you have far less problems with harsh reflections and uneven edge-to-edge lighting. For more on indirect flash see my additional blog entries listed at the bottom of this page.
Up until August of 2012, my outdoor photos from April to October are also indirect bounce flash. When I bought my first EZ-Up shelter I picked white as the color so the roof could double as a giant “umbrella” to bounce the flash off of. It worked pretty well. I could always tell the pictures I took out at the grill in the winter when the EZ-Up was in storage. The lighting a was harsh and less even. When my grill gazebo was built in September of 2012, I no longer had the luxury of bouncing the flash off the roof. The wood roof color would be picked up in the reflected light and food tinted with the color of pressure treated lumber is not at al attractive. I know this for sure, because I did give it a try.
My temporary solution was to stand farther back from the grill and use the telephoto end of the lens to zoom back in on the food. By standing farther back, the direct light beam had more distance to spread and the intensity of the light falls off. This helped somewhat with the harshness of the lighting and a little with the evenness. But helped is the operative word here. I could always tell instantly which grill photos were shot indirectly using the EZ-Up as a target to bounce off of. The real solution was to either bounce the flash off an umbrella or other white reflector or put something on the flash head to help diffuse and spread the light. Setting up any photo gear outside, even under my grill gazebo, was not even considered. A large softbox would give the best lighting, but it too wasn’t practical and wasn’t inexpensive either. I needed something small, quick to put on and quick to take off. I am often taking pictures in the Kitchen, and then I am running out to the grill to add something or turn it, baste it etc. and then it is back to the Kitchen. I use the camera at the both the grill and in the Kitchen. I needed a solution that was quick to add and remove. A small portable softbox was a good compromise solution. I say compromise solution because the small size that gives it portability and relative ease of installation also limits the amount of diffused light it can provide over a given area.
The Lumiquest FX consists of a 4 1/2” x 3 1/2” (11.5 x 9 cm) frosted lens made out of a flexible plastic. This is the footprint of the Lumiquest when it is folded up flat, with the folded thickness being 1/4” (0.66 cm). There are four tapered trapezoidal-shaped sides attached to the front lens and these end up being angled so they come together and attach via tabs to the flash head. These tabs attach to the flash head using supplied Velcro strips. There is also an optional tie you can buy if you don’t want your flash head covered in Velcro strips or have more than one accessory you need to use with your flash head. To mount the Lumiquest you unfold it and attach the top tab first. Then you fold the unit down and attach the two side tabs, followed by the bottom tab. When mounted to the flash head, the lens of the Lumiquest projects 1 1/2” (3.75 cm) from the lens on the flash head. To use one of the five colored gels you undo the top tab and fold it up and out of the way. The gel slips into some slots just behind the frosted lens. The process of mounting the unit becomes quick and second nature after a few uses.
So how does it work? Reasonably well actually. The area receiving the diffused light is relatively small, particularly compared to the light you get bouncing off a large ceiling. But for taking food shots on a grill the size of my Big Gren Egg, you don’t need a real large area. The other consideration is light loss when using this unit. The printed materials state you lose 1 f-stop of light. Most detachable flashes allow you to use flash exposure compensation. For my Canon Speedlight you get +/- 2 f-stops adjustment in 1/3 f-stop increments. I thought I was going to have to increase the flash power, but often I ended up reducing it. This was particularly true when I was shooting shiny or reflective items. In addition to use outdoors shooting food on the grill, I found another use for this softbox. Most of the gear shots on the site are shot on top of my Dining Room table. The shiny surface of the table shows harsh reflections even when I bounce the light off the ceiling in my normal fashion. For these table shots I end up aiming the flash head at all kinds of odd angles to minimize the glare. Oddly enough when there is lots of food on the table glare never seems to be a problem.
So far I am well pleased. This is not a PERFECT solution due to the small size of this unit. But it is far better than nothing and much better than standing away at a distance and using telephoto. There is a little extra time required for me to try a few test shots to get the exposure compensation right. One of the bonuses of digital photography over film is these experiments are virtual free to the end user. I am sure over time the settings I need will become second nature, but for now two or three test shots and I am good to go. The small size of the unit allows me to keep it in my camera bag at all times. I am sure there will be other times when it will come in handy. So if you are looking to improve your food photography and have a detachable flash with a swiveling head, try bounce flash (links to blog items below). For situations where you don’t have a large white area to bounce off of, consider getting a small softbox like the Lumiquest FX.
Here is the original reason for buying the Lumiquest: Here is an outdoor shot taken in the winter where I could not use bounce flash of the roof of the EZ-Up, which was in storage. (left). This shot shows a similar shot from a similar distance where the flash could be bounced off the roof of the EZ-Up (right).
My 2012 turkey picture taken on the BGE at the same time of day as this year. For this one I stood back to give me some distance for the flash to fall off and used telephoto to zoom in and frame the image. (left). This shot shows a similar shot from 2013 using the Lumiquest. I am standing close to the grill and letting the softbox diffuse the light. If you look closely, the lighting is less harsh with less contrast. There is less harsh reflection off of the aluminum foil and I find the photo more pleasing to the eye (right).
This was an added bonus to buying the Lumiquest. This Gear shot using my Dining Room table suffered from glare even using bounce flash off the ceiling. (left). Using the Lumiquest AND bouncing the light off the ceiling resulted in a much better shot with even lighting. I did have to adjust the flash output, but it was easy to get the look I wanted (right).
Here are some more examples from a Gear shoot in my Dining Room. Bounce flash only. (left). Using the Lumiquest AND bouncing the light off the ceiling (right). Note less glare off the table, the more natural lighting and less glare and reflection off the metal grill grids.
SOME RELATED LINKS: Here are the links to some earlier Blog entries on using Bounce Flash
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIP 2006 Blog Entry
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS 2010 Blog Entry
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