studio

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)

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.

TTL Versus Manual – Is One Better Than the Other? Watch the Real-Time Demonstration

TTL versus Manual Show Down - Which One Is The Right Choice?

Whenever I am out shooting in manual mode, I am inevitably asked why I’m not using a TTL solution. Of course, the opposite is sure to occur if I happen to be shooting using my using TTL Canon speedlights. The argument of TTL versus manual has been around since the very first days that TTL was introduced to the market. Canon and Nikon have done a very good job of selling their TTL solutions to photography customers – for good reasons. TTL offers, in a lot of situations, a fast way to get a good exposure in a photograph with very little pre-planning needed with your lighting solution.

However, is one better than the other? Manual is still the default for many products, with Manufacturers like Paul C buff snubbing TTL altogether. Does that mean that TTL itself is a flawed system? Or is it more of a case of a technology whose superiority comes with a cost that many manufacturers are hesitant to pass on to their customers?

I own both TTL and strictly manual systems. And I can tell you with all honesty that I use both regularly. For TTL my use is pretty much restricted to only one speed light at a time hyphen I feel that introducing a lot of speedlights to a TTL system does not always give me the results I am looking for. My use of TTL is also limited 2 photographs where I’m trying to move as fast as possible; trying to get as many setups and styles done in as short of time as possible. In cases like that I find TTL to be amazing. I just hook up a commander to my camera, set my other flash to slave and start taking pictures. Worst case scenario usually means I must dial in minus one or plus one exposure compensation to the flash to get the exposure I am looking for – no big whoop.

But the fact that you often will need to dial in some sort of exposure compensation highlights TTL’s biggest misgiving: TTL is basically just manual flash. Think about it, manual flash means that you must manually set your exposure. With TTL you are often doing the exact same functions: dialing your exposure for the flash either up or down until you get the amount of light you’re looking for. I’m telling you, manual and TTL is really one and the same. The only thing TTL offers is a starting point that it thinks is a correct exposure. You then make your adjustments based on that internal calculation. If the light conditions of your set changes, so does that internal base-line calculation and thus you have may have to change your settings once again. Manual, on the other hand, does not give you calculated starting point. Instead, you take a test shot, and then adjust accordingly.

After having explored flash photography for nearly a decade at this point and working with both systems I have come to this conclusion: Manual gets me to the desired exposure faster than TTL. Heck, sometimes TTL can’t even get me to the desired exposure at all.

It’s hard to explain why TTL can be so hard to work with so I spent an hour and shot some video of myself putting both systems to work under the same conditions. The final verdict is that I was able to get the exposure I was looking for in less clicks with Manual than I could using TTL.

Here are the test conditions we used:

  • Shot inside of my studio so all light was controlled
  • Canon Speelites for TTL
  • Paul C Buff Strobes for Manual
  • 3 Lights for each setup in the exact same position using the exact same modifiers
  • 2 lights with gels. One with a single gel, the second with 2 gels.
  • Static subject (foam head)
  • Counted the number of photos it took to get the desired exposure.

In the end I think it took 11 photos to get the TTL photo where we wanted it and only 4 to get the manual picture to the correct exposure.

Shot in TTL. Struggled to get the center, dark blue gel'd, light to put out as little light as possible. Key light (right) and kicker (left) also struggled to find a good ratio between them.
Manual mode. Here I took a picture and then dialed in the needed changes and viola - photo made to order in as few steps as possible.

Why do I think manual is faster?

Being fast with manual solutions comes down to two things, I believe. First is Familiarity — once you understand how your lights work in manual mode and get a feel for how much a stop of power is on your subject you can start to intuitively control your manual lights to get desired effects.

The second is total control. Manual lights are not affected by small or large changes within your scene. This means you can move background lights around have your subject turn from the left to the right, add or remove colored gels, etc in still have your lights out put the exact amount of power you dialed into them. TTL can and will look at all of these changes and produce a new lighting solution which may affect your exposure, requiring more adjustments.

Bottom Line: TTL is great in certain situations, but Manual works in all.

Watch the TTL versus Manual Video

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

Christmas Pet Portrait Photography How-to in Real-Time!

Setting up, how to deal with technical issues, comparing ttl and manual, and most importantly, photographing cute dogs!

I thought it might be fun to live stream an attempt at Christmas styled pet portraits. I say, “attempt”, because I didn’t really have a plan going into this. I bought a light curtain and that’s about it. In this video you’ll watch, in real-time, as I place lights, discuss the differences between ttl and manual, problem solve, and of course, take photos of doggies with a Christmas flair! The video runs about 1 hour and 50 minutes, so that should give you an idea of how quickly you can get this up and running in your own home studio! (Hint: the studio doesn’t have to be big!)

Products Photography in a Home Photography Studio

You don't need a massive studio and an army of gear to shoot great product photos.

I’ve moved 3 times in the past 8 years and have created 5 in-home studios in that same amount of time.  Every time I change up my studio I seem to find myself creating smaller, more compact and optimized spaces. The reason is simple – you don’t need a warehouse to take great product photos. 

The first step to creating your space is taking inventory of your most used gear – this single step will let you know exactly what sort of space you need. For instance if you rely heavily on natural light then you’ll need windows and perhaps less space for things like studio flashes and light stands. The type of photographs you take will also help inform you decisions on what type of space you need. In my case, I do a lot of portraits and commercial work. I also use studio flash which are often mounted on large C-Stands so that definitely increases both my vertical and horizontal space requirements.

In the end, I utilized a room attached to my house that is 24 feet by 10 feet. This room also has high ceilings, which means I can position my lights above my subjects. After doing some searching online, it turns out that even a compact space like this is pretty large compared to some metropolitan studios out there. I found some studios that are only 8×8, which is impressive!

While my studio is still very much a work in progress (we’re still finishing the walls and ceiling) it was in good enough shape to get things started. When I was contracted to do some product photos we got some things set up in quick order and started taking pictures. Over here to the right you can see what the set up is for this shot. We’re using a basic, plastic, folding card table. These products are shot on white, but we also wanted a reflection, so I used a clean white card with sheet of glass on top of that to help catch reflections. We’re using a two light set up. The first light is above the product and pointed backwards towards the rear of the table. The reason for that is you can highlight the curves and contours of the product without producing the hot, specular highlights you would get if you had the light directly in front of the product.  The second light is behind a collapsible diffuser. This adds a little highlight to the edge of the product, but mostly it’s just there to make sure the environment around the product is totally white.  I am also using a black flag (the reverse side is shiny metallic in this photo) at the very front of the product to subject extra light from the front of the product to help make the reflections pop out a little more. 

After tweaking the lighting and positioning a bit, we were very pleased with the resulting photos. It was nice to see that a little bit of planning could result in a studio space that was refined and streamlined and still produced the quality that we were looking for. You can see the results of our product photo shoot below. 

Being taught through inspiration

Being taught through inspiration

A wonderful producer who I’ve worked with for years would often joke when we had to copy and paste items from one of our earlier projects into something we were currently working on, “If you’re gonna steal, steal from the greats!”

Now, before we get anything further into my reasoning here, I am just gonna say the following: Don’t steal, or infringe on someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. That’s just theft, and it’s pretty low. As a graphic designer of over 20 years, I’ve had numerous designs and concepts stolen from me and it’s a terrible feeling to see someone else benefiting from your hard work. As artists, our biggest billable asset is our ideas, innovation and process. So respect other artists’ work as you would like your own work to be respected.

With that out of the way, I do also believe that you can learn a lot by seeing how other people approach their craft. That is, at its very core, the essence of teaching. Recent generations of photographers have been inspired by people like Annie Leibovitz, Joe McNally and Jeremy Cowart, among others. Those photographers were, and still are, inspired by other photographers and so on and so forth. Being inspired by other artists is a beautiful thing and, as an artist, there is no higher compliment than having a contemporary seeing your work and being inspired by it. 

I keep a folder on my computer of things I find inspiring. It can be anything from a color study, to a well designed website, brochure, a photo, a poem; it can be anything that catches my eye and stirs some emotion inside of me. In the case of photography, it could be an image that someone else has taken that intrigues me – the way they took it, the lighting, the pose, the setting. Whatever it is, it’s something that has inspired me. 

I’ll also use these images as a challenge and a chance to learn. I’ll do my best to figure out what sort of visual trickery and craftsmanship went into the making of their photo and then I’ll set out to see if I can faithfully recreate what it is I think they’re doing. Such was the case for Post Malone’s Twitter profile picture seen here to the right. This photo was shot by Nabil and you can follow him on twitter here: https://twitter.com/nabildo.

I think it’s just a pretty awesome portrait. I like the simple, monotonistic color scheme, the pose, the shadows. Basically, the whole mood of this photo is pretty damn cool. Because of that, I decided I would do my best to try and recreate it armed with only my own working knowledge of cameras and studio lighting. 

The first, and most obvious, aspect of this photo is the orange tone throughout. That’s a no-brainer that we’ll need to add some colored gels to the lights in order to achieve the same effect, however we need to figure out what sort of lighting we want to use first. Looking at this portrait a little more I suspected that the photographer was using a beauty dish, positioned directly above and pointing straight down at the subject. This would give the same deep shadows in the eyes we see here in the photo. There doesn’t seem to be any bounce light, so we’ll just move forward on the assumption that one one light was used to light Post Malone.

We will need a second light, however, to light the backdrop. I have a neutral gray seamless in my studio and I suspect that’s the same setup Nabil used in his photo. So, I’ll just take my second light, attached a 7 inch reflector dish so the light doesn’t spill off of the background and hit the subject, and then lastly we’ll put a gel on that to give our gray background an orange tone. 

The gels I decided to use were one full cut of CTO on my main light and one theatrical orange gel on the background light. The theatrical orange gel is considerably more orange than the CTO gel. The reason for this choice is because skin tones are already warm-ish, so I don’t need to over drive the orange on our main light – just enough extra orange to kick the skin tones into the realm of our backdrop. The backdrop, which is gray under normal lighting conditions, does need a little more color oomph, so that’s where we use the theatrical orange gel to full effect. See the diagram to the right to see our final set up. 

The next step is lighting ratios. I think I got kinda lucky on this one. My camera and lights were still set to whatever they were set for at my last photoshoot was and, as it turned out, they were dialed in pretty well for our first test shot here. In the end, I just had to tweak the main light at tad to get it into the correct range. My camera was set to f/8, 1/125 shutter, 100 iso. The main light was putting out light at f/11 and the background light was f/5.6. So basically, the key light was +1 stop over camera and the background was -1 stop under. Easy-peasey!

And here’s our final image:

Portraits with Shawn Cartel

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. 

LA Gear Show Commercial Product Photography

Well, this project was a lot of fun! Benjamin Lehman photography was asked by LA Gear to create some conceptual marketing photos showcasing their amazing line of shoes. I couldn’t have had more more fun working on these and they have turned into some of the most enjoyable photos I’ve ever had the pleasure to take!