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Product Photography with Speed Lights – 2 Part Video Series by Benjamin Lehman

Product Photography is not just for the realm of large flash - Speed Lights can do the job just as well, here's how!

Product Photography with Speed Lights Part 1

Product Photography with Speed Lights Part 2 (Compositing)

Quick Review: Neewer 36″x24″ Umbrella Softbox (Westcott Knockoff)

Quick Review: Neewer 36"x26" Umbrella Softbox (Westcott Knockoff)

The Best Photography Gear for a Home Studio

(This a completely non-paid, non-sponsored post. These suggestions are based purely on my experience.)

First off, let me just start by saying, I don’t believe in the concept of the Home Studio. I think a studio is a studio no matter where it is – Be it your living room or at a high-tech company board room, where ever you and your camera are, that is your studio.

Because of this I believe in flexibility and mobility to a degree. There’s no point in investing in gear that limits your ability to use it under different circumstances. Everything I own can be packed up, stowed away, carried, and set up anywhere I need it.

So, for this list, I am going to suggest gear and items that will let you practice your trade in any location, home or otherwise. Let’s get started!

First, camera. This one is easy: Get whatever camera system you like best.

Sony, Canon, Nikon, Hassleblad; these are all strong brands with decades of experience under their belts. The cameras they make are all great. Obviously, you’ll want a full featured camera — specifically a camera that has all of the features many look for in a ‘pro’ camera. The caveat there is that many pro features now live in lower cost models, meaning you can buy a professional camera at entry-level prices. The Canon Rebels and many of the D series Nikons are great, low-cost, cameras that will give you professional results. As for DSLR versus Mirrorless, that’s a whole ‘nuther consideration and a quick Google search will give you the pros and cons for each. Likewise for lenses; there are hundreds to choose from, but a good first purchase is always the 50mm lens. Every brand has a good, f/1.4 50mm prime lens that is both amazing and cheap.  

 

Quick Suggestions:

  • Canon Rebel T7 ($750)
  • Canon 6D Mark II ($1,300)
  • Canon 5D Mark IV ($2,800)
  • Canon EOS-R Mirrorless ($2,300)
  • Nikon D5600 ($700)
  • Nikon D500 ($1,800)
  • Nikon D850 ($3,300)
  • Nikon Z7 Mirrorless ($4,000)
  • Sony a7 ($800)
  • Sony a7R III ($2,800)

Next, let’s talk about tripods.

For the uninitiated this can be scary territory. The urge to spend 50 bucks on a small tripod from Best Buy might be too tempting to resist; and without knowing the drawbacks of a cheap tripod, it’s hard to know what you’re sacrificing with a low-cost purchase. You are going to have to spend a little extra money here but trust me, it’s worth it and it’s necessary. Everyone who calls themselves a professional photography will require a tripod at some point — no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. For this, I would suggest going to Amazon and just searching for any Manfrotto tripod. Manfrotto’s build quality is amazing, and for just a few hundred dollars you can get a tripod that will stick with you for years if not decades.

Quick Suggestions:

  • Manfrotto MKBFRA4-BH Tripod ($150)

Next up, light stands.

Simply put you’re going to need a light stand for every light you buy plus 1 or 2 extra. It’s okay to buy a couple cheap-o, 30 dollar light stands, but you will also want several robust stands as well. Once you’re outside and at the mercy of the wind, a 30 dollar light stand is going to end up costing you so much more in the long run — especially when your lights fall over and bust, yikes! So, buy at least one c-stand for stability and reliability, and then fill out the rest of your kit with lower cost, medium sized stands.

Quick Suggestions:

  • Neweer Pro with Boom Arm C-Stand ($130)
  • Impact Heavy-duty stand ($53)
  • Amazon Basics 7ft Stand – 2 pack ($24)

Lastly, we’re gonna tackle lighting.

Personally, I think this is the hardest consideration you’ll ever have to make as a photographer. Where as your camera is a tool that simply captures the light in front of its lens, it’s the light itself that constructs the image you’re taking. Adding to this the many light manufacturers and modifiers available (many more than Camera makers) and the fact that most systems don’t always work very well with each other — let’s just say you have a lot to examine here.

I use two systems in my studio kit. 1 set of larger, ‘studio’, strobes and another set of smaller speedlight flashes. I use them both equally, and I have found that there are just times and places where I’ll need the benefits of one over the other.

For the speedlights, I actually don’t suggest buying the cheaper knock-offs. They will work most of the time, but most isn’t always enough. I use 4 canon speedlights: one 600exrt, one 430ex III, and two 430ex II flashes, and they work ALL of the time. If there’s ever an issue with my lighting, it’s because I am doing something wrong, not the flashes.

For the larger studio strobes, however, it’s a different story. That market is filled with a bunch of manufacturers who craft incredible products. If you have the cash, then of course there’s the industry standard Profoto B1X which does everything under the Sun (with the power to beat the Sun at it’s own game, I should add). However, if you’re like me and need to be a little more frugal, you can find cheaper systems that work just as well. I prefer the flashes from Paul C. Buff. I own 3 of their studio strobes: one Einstein 640, one Alienbees B800, and one Alienbees B400. I can’t say enough great things about these flash units. In the 4 years since my first Paul C. Buff flash, they haven’t let me down – and trust me, I’ve mistreated them at times and yet they still come through for me.

You may not need 7 flashes, like I have, at the start, but you’ll certainly need at least 1. You can pretty much do everything you’ve ever wanted to do lighting-wise with just one flash – it may mean you have to get extra creative with how you stage your photo, but you can do it.

Quick Suggestions:

  • Camera Brand matched Speedlight ($300-$600)
  • Alienbees B800 ($280)
  • Paul C BuffEinstein ($500)
  • Profoto B1X ($2,100)
  • Brand Compatible Wireless Triggers ($50-$200)

And to finish off our chat about lighting, you’ll need some light modifiers.

Umbrellas are the most obvious and ubiquitous choice and for good reason – they are good at what they do. They are also cheap. Maybe less obvious, and also at the low end of the cost spectrum, you can get away with a $20 pop-up diffuser and a light stand clamp to clamp it to that you then fire your flash through to create soft light.

There are also a new generation of soft boxes that pop-up like umbrellas. They are light, cheap, and fold up so quick and easy that they are almost a necessary piece of equipment for any photographer who finds themselves traveling to take portraits.

Perhaps most importantly, light modifiers are going to give you the most creative latitude when it comes to crafting light on your subject. You may want 2 or 3 different modifiers, even if you only have one light. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, modifiers will give you the most bang for your buck in terms of creating beautiful and artist light.

One quick note about my suggestions here – every lighting system is different and so they all use different methods of attaching modifiers to the lights. Do some research and find which modifiers will work with your lights.

Quick Suggestions:

  • Neewer 32” Umbrella Octobox ($27)
  • Neewer 24”x36” Umbrella Softbox ($32)
  • 2 Pack, 33” White Shoot though Umbrella ($17)
  • 22” Beauty Dish ($80)
  • Paul C. Buff 86” White Umbrella ($40)
  • Godox 9”x35” Strip Box ($50)

 

And there we go, a quick start guide to the gear you may consider when setting up you studio, be it at home, or on the road!

 

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer in the Canton, Akron, Cleveland and Northeast Ohio area.

Self Portrait with the Paul C. Buff Octabox

Self Portrait with the Paul C. Buff Octabox

A photographer’s cheapest model is, as they say, themselves. So I put my cheap model to work utilizing the new octabox I got from Paul C. Buff (detailed here).

List of gear:

  • 5d Mark II
  • Einstein Flash Head 
  • Octabox
  • C-Stand
  • Low-rent model (me)

Below are images of the final result of the shoot, as well as a diagram of the set up.

You can do some pretty awesome photos with just 1 light and a nice modifier!

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer who works in San Francisco, Canton, Cleveland and North East Ohio. 

Must Have New Photography Gear: Umbrellas, Octaboxes and Simple Reflectors

Must Have New Photography Gear: Umbrellas, Octaboxes and Simple Reflectors

I’ll admit it, I am a gear hound. It’s down right thrilling when the UPS guy rolls up with a box full of goodies. But perhaps even more exciting for me is the experimentation phase that ultimately comes when a new piece of equipment is dropped on my doorstep. Cameras, lights, modifiers, stands, doodads, and widgets – every new tool in your digital photography arsenal allows you to explore and expand your style, and finding out exactly how you’ll utilize these new apparatus is 90% of the fun (the other 10% obviously the joy of just opening the boxes and squealing with glee.)

Today’s New Gear: Digital Photography Light Modifiers

If you’ve read my blog in the past, then you know I am huge fan of Paul C. Buff and the gear he has engineered. His Einstein light and Cyber Commander wireless sync trigger play key roles in pretty much every commercial photo I take. But I also have a lot of other pieces from his catalog of products, and Paul C. Buff light modifiers comprise a large bulk of my inventory.

White PLM™ Umbrellas

My first product on this list is the 51″ White PLM Umbrella from PCB. I am a strong believer that you can do amazing photos with very little gear. One light, one reflector, one modifier, one camera; that’s a basic recipe for success, and if you don’t believe just look at what Annie Leibovitz has done with just such a setup.

What more gear does allow you, though, is more flexibility and control over your vision. My current stock of umbrellas is rather anemic. I have one 24 inch shoot-through white umbrella and one massive 7 foot reflective umbrella, that’s it.  My 7 foot umbrella is a work horse and goes with me everywhere, but honestly, it’s just overkill a lot of the time. It’s also hard to work with in tight spaces. Because of this I decided to buy the 51 inch shoot through from PCB and, at $30, it’s sort of a steal. 

 

Medium Foldable Octabox

Octaboxes are magic. They do all of the great things a traditional, rectangular softbox can do, only better. How so? At equivalent sizes, they give off a slightly wider spread of light. They also create amazing catch-lights in the eyes of your subjects. 

They also come with two drawbacks. First, they are usually more expensive than a same-sized softbox. Secondly, they are a pain in the ass to set up. A tension-rod based octabox can drive any normal person to the cliffs of insanity. That is, unless, you spend a little more money and get a foldable octabox! And that’s just what I did. I already had an octabox in the same size range, but the time and effort needed to get it ready meant it spent a few opportune moments in it’s bag rather than on the end of a light stand – that’s a bad thing. Now I am looking forward to using this new foldable version in situations where I may have defaulted to a regular softbox out of the necessity of time and sanity. 

 

7 inch Standard Reflector

Just as the name indicates, this is a pretty standard piece of light modifying gear. Just how standard? Well, one of these reflectors come with every Alien Bees flash head you buy, so it’s pretty ubiquitous with Paul C. Buff gear. However, my Einstein did not come with one. So, where I have one of these for each of my Alien Bees, my Einstein sits awkwardly bare of a reflector and, when it comes to basic light control, nothing quite does the job of blasting light in a particular direction better than a 7-inch reflector!

It’s pretty obvious from my work that how I work with light is more important than which camera I am using. The camera itself is just a tool to capture the information that’s put in front of it. It’s the job of your light, and the tools that shape and modify it, to make that information something that’s intriguing to the person looking at it.

Benjamin Lehman is a professional, commercial photographer who works in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Canton, Cleveland and North East Ohio. 

How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat

How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat

Environmental Portraiture

Also known as, “A face in a place”, is by far my favorite type of picture I am asked to take. The reasons are varied; I like dealing with interesting people, I enjoy traveling to new and different locations, and most importantly I like the opportunity to tell a story with my photos. 

As photographers, we usually go into a new project with a mental check-list, or to-do list, of what we want to accomplish. With environmental portraiture, the most important ‘to-do’ is the part regarding the story telling aspect of the photo I am about to take. The idea here is simple: Take a photo that tells the viewer something important about the subject. Nat Geo photographers are gods at doing this. Annie Leibovitz, someone I deeply admire, is another artist who just knocks her photos out of the story-telling-park every time. 

I used to think the story telling aspect would be hard part of the process, and it can be in some very special circumstances. However, with just a little practical self-control (i.e., just keepin’ it simple) you can turn the story telling phase into something that can happen quickly, easily, and enjoyably.

For my example here, I am going to use the guys over at Warrior Beat as my example. Warrior Beat is a non-profit organization that provides professionally facilitated drum circles to US Military Veterans who are suffering from either mental or physical disabilities. They do a lot of great work and are one of the few for-veteran organizations who use art in healing. (Disclaimer: I not only help and work with the boys and girls at Warrior Beat, but I also designed their logo and act as a co-founder.)

Most of the members of Warrior Beat are veterans themselves, having served over seas, fought in battles, and returned home with scars of their own. They are also an organization who’s public profile is rocketing faster than they expected due to the good, and unique, work that they do. 

When the time came that they needed some updated member photos, the challenge was set; how do we take portraits that will give viewers, (who may also be potential donors to their charity), an at-a-glance idea of who they are and what their message is?

The first step in environmental portraiture is the story.

Ok, so putting that to use here’s what we know about Warrior Beat’s story:

  • US military veteran based service
  • Many Warrior Beat members also have a military background
  • They use drums in a therapeutic setting

With these three simple, but important facts we can start to paint a picture for our photos. We want our story to hit as many of these bullet-points as possible. 

Next Step: Location

The next most important part of an environmental portrait? The environment, of course! So, what better place than a military museum? The MAPS Air Museum to be precise. 

A quick note on securing locations

A lot of locations will be happy to donate their time to worthy causes. A military-based museum will more than likely donate their space to you for photos when your subjects are also military vets. This applies to a lot of locations and situations. To repay the favor, offer to send them copies of the photos for use in their own social media, or print publication usage. Be sure to give them a social media thanks (with a link!). Those types of gestures go a long way into building a rapport with groups who may seek out your services later once they see how awesome your photos are!

We walked around the museum for about 20 minutes, trying to find a good location, and quickly realized our best bet was a Cobra helicopter sitting in front of a 2 story US flag. The Cobra helicopter was used in multiple branches of US military services, and the flag itself was just too good to pass up. It totally reads as military, as patriotic, as veteran; right off the bat we can check off two items on our story telling list.

The last item on our check list, tying our subjects in with their facilitated  drumming service to veterans, would be as simple as just having the Warrior Beat CEO hold up a drum for his portrait. 

Photography Gear and Setup

For my gear I used the following:

The good news was, I didn’t have to light the ginormous flag. There was a bank of windows behind it that would take care of that issue for me. But, what that does mean is that, I now have to light my subjects to work with what’s coming through the windows. 

Luckily, with just 3 flashes and some basic know-how on lighting ratios, I was able to dial it in. Specifically, I used the Einstein and beauty dish as my main light for my subjects. I was shooting slight up at my subjects to give them a little more gravitas and presence within the photo frame. This meant I was able to bring the light down a little more than usual to help keep shadows to a minimum. I didn’t want to remove all the shadows, however, since I felt a little sharpness in the photos would help translate the perception that these guys have seen some sh*t, which they have, and have been changed by it, which they also have.

The second light, an alien bees b800, inside of a 4 foot strip light, acted both as a slight fill light as well as kicker light for the helicopter. I needed to brighten up the details of the Cobra, so I just turned the light little by little until I was able to get just the right ratio of light spilling between the copter and my subject.

The last light was a small Vivitar 285HV on the ground near me that just barely threw a little extra oomph at my subjects. Again, I wasn’t trying to eradicate the shadow, but I did want to fill in a little detail in the darker spots, like under their chins, to help define their faces a little better. 

I used my 70-200mm lens so I could compress the distances between subject and background. The idea here is to give my subject a greater sense of scale so he can compete better between the larger helicopter and flag in the background. 

Once the lighting is all dialed, (remember, we’re exposing for the natural light that’s coming in and hitting the flag), it’s time to take some photos and, hopefully, capture a story!

In conclusion

Crafting a story doesn’t have to be the hard part of environmental portraiture. Instead, use some very basic ques from your subject to help guide the narrative. Sometimes you need to go over board and spend a good deal of man-hours and money to handcraft the perfect story telling photo, but other times you can rely on more modest techniques to conquer the same problem.

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer who works in the San Francisco, California, Canton, and North East Ohio areas. 

 

Me, on the floor. Here you can see how I’ve set up my lights, and my subject, in relation to the background. 

The final frame of our story telling, environmental portraiture.