Earlier this week I had a couple of days of shoots for a magazine article. 3 people over two days in three very different settings. Day one was two people in midtown Manhattan, and then a third on day two in White Plains. Due to the time between the shoots on Monday and the travel on Tuesday, I wanted to travel as light as possible. So in the end, Meg and I went on these shoots with just a couple of speedlights for lighting. Those, plus a travel stand, 32" softlighter, 36" reflector/diffuser, and the IR controller, all fit very nicely into the backpack Meg carried. Much smaller and lighter than the AcuteB setup would have been. Maybe McNally's book from last week also fed into my decision, but I wanted to see what I could do with the little guys. To be honest, I'm pretty impressed.
First shoot was outside in a shaded courtyard. Cool skylight was coming down from between the tall buildings so fill wasn't too much of an issue. So I had Meg shoot the 580EX through the diffuser to the subjects right hand side to give the shots a little drama. Now, I know this is no big deal, but for a guy like me who usually uses available light or a single big source to mimic sunlight, I was 'getting fancy'. This worked well, though we did have to fiddle a bit with the FEC to get the output of the flash at the right level, a stop or so above the ambient.
Later that afternoon we shot subject number two in his office. I was told that the office was nice. It really wasn't. Not terrible, but certainly not interesting from a photo perspective, and quite dark with a very warm wood tone to everything. So we did setup the 580EX on the stand inside the softlighter as a key, with Meg off to the side again with the 550EX shooting through the diffuser as a kicker. I was pleasantly surprised to have the 580 talk to the camera from even inside the softlighter (it was the only way we could get it to setup) I guess the fabric was thin enough to let the IR beam in. Getting the ratio between the two lights too some more fiddling. On the Canon system, you can control the ratio between the two lights on different channels from 8:1 all the way to 1:8. In the end though, I found it much easier to just have Meg manually bump the light up or down from the flash itself using exposure compensation.
The third shoot was in a very modern office with some bright orange textured walls and frosted glass. Using a similar setup to the last, we used one light on the stand with Meg coming in from the side or back. This setting however, was more conducive to photos, so I was probably most happy with this third set of pictures. The orange wall made a nice backdrop, and the indirect window light in his office made for some nice classic shots.
All in all, I think I'm sold on the speedlights. There are limits of course. If you need a lot of light or a bigger source, then you're talking the big guns. If I were outside and want to shoot into a 60" softlighter for example, then I'll bring the AcuteB. But for this kind on thing inside where you can control the ambient, and shoot at iso 400 or 800 so that you don't need too much power from the flashes, it's ideal. Color temp is an issue. So I think I'm going to look into buying a set of gels like they use on strobist all the time. I'm not totally psyched by how they attach, the whole thing sounds a bit kludgy and messy to me, but I'll learn to deal. I was also impressed with the STE2 Speedlight controller. We didn't have too much trouble with the flashes not firing. It's not ideal outside in wide-open spaces in direct sunlight, but if you're in shadow with line-of-sight or inside where the beam can bounce around a bit, it's pretty perfect. I was looking at those new pocket wizards (on backorder at B&H) which do TTL. Basically, the same thing we did, except via radio instead of IR. But I'm not sure I need them right now. On the rare occasion that I'm out in sun with speedlights, I can just use my current wizards and manually set the flash power.
Also of interest is the fact that when I came home and started messing with the files, I found myself doing less processing. Or more precisely, I did my normal stuff and then backed off a lot on the opacity. Not sure if it was because of the more dramatic lighting on-site or what, but it's an interesting development for me. We'll see where it leads.