Speedlite Modifiers

Take control of your speedlite and make better flash pictures.

Anne et Peter
EOS10D + 100 f/2.8 USM + 550EX + Lumiquest BigBounce

Flash: Always Available but often Misunderstood Light Source

There are many situations where available light is just not enough to take a picture of your favourite subject. In those situations, speedlites provide a portable solution to illuminate the scene and allow you to take the picture you want. Once you’re back home, you look at the image and it’s not what you expected… it’s too bright, shadows are dense and intrusive and it looks quite flat, without any sense of depth or relief.

To make great photos with flash, you have to take control of the light and shape it to fit your needs. There are many attachments for your speedlite on the market that can help you achieve your best flash photo’s ever, but before you rush to the store, you need to understand how they work and which one is best for your intended use

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Flash coming from a handheld 550EX fitted in a portable softbox, placed at armlength to the side of the subject
EOS10D + 17-40L + 550EX in Ezybox softbox

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Direct flash from a hotshoe mounted speedlite
EOS10D + 17-40L + 550EX

Light Quality

The quality of the light is determined by several factors. The size of the light source, the distance to the lighted subject and the direction of the light all play important factors in how the subject is rendered.

All flash modifiers apply changes to these factors to effectively enhance the quality of the light for your intended use

Size & Distance

The size of the light source is arguably the most important factor to consider. It determines the quality of the shadows. The size of the light source is relative to the subject, meaning that the size of the subject and the distance to the light source play an important role in the perceived light quality.

Speedlites can produce a lot of light but it all comes from the small surface of the front flash screen. Many speedlites boast a zoom function that matches the focal lenght of the lens used. This zoom function changes the coverage of the light beam but the size of the light source remains the same. As we will learn in this article, this zoom function is key to make optimal use of the modifiers.

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550EX with Omnibouce and a small white card as reflector

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550EX in wireless slave mode with Lumiquest BigBounce

The primary goal of a flash modifier is to increase the apparent size of the light source. Smaller versions consisting of a plastic cap or sphere actually spread light around and rely on nearby walls to bounce light back to the subject. The bigger versions that attach to the flash with hook&loop straps, spread the light internally and force it through a diffussion screen, effectively increasing the size of the light at expenses of more power.

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On the Pic: EOS3000+550EX

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Light quality comparison: direct 550EX

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550EX + Lumiquest Promax System
Note the softer shadows and reduced glare on the skin of the model

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EOS3000+550EX fitted with a Lumiquest Promax System: internal white reflector and frontal diffusion screen. The Promax system is very flexible, allowing for many possibilities

Getting the Best out of your Speedlite and Flash Modifiers

One of the main tell-tales of flash photography is the flat look given by the light coming from right above the lens. It kills all shadows and the sensation of textures.

By combining a flash modifier to diffuse the light with an off-camera placement, you can achieve “studio” quality images on any location and on the run.

The wireless capabilities of the speedlites offer the ultimate flexibility to place one or several lights anywhere around your subject, while the evaluative metering takes care of the exposure

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EOS 10D + 550EX with Lumiquest Softbox. Flash off camera with OSCS2

EF 28-135 IS @ 28mm

1/200 f/8 ISO 200

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EOS 10D + 550 EX Master + 550EX ETTL Wireless Slave with Lumiquest BigBounce on Table top tripod

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EOS 10D + 100f/2.8 USM + 550EX Master on camera (flash=off)

550 wireless slave with Lumiquest bigBounce

1/640 f/2.8 ISO200 (to freeze the movement of the veil) FEC= -1,1/3

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“how to” image showing the close positioning of the assistent holding the wireless slave

Color Balance

[todo: there’s a slight warm up effect introduced by most (all?) attachments.]

Speedlites and Studio Gear

The EOS Speedlites, and in particular the high-end of the range like the 550EX and the 580EX, pack enough light to power bigger light modifiers such as umbrellas and softboxes that you typical find in “pro” studio’s.

If you are serious about portrait photography in the studio, probably you better invest in a good studio installation but if you, like many other EOS users, already have a Speedlite and would like to improvise a portrait session of your family or friends, with our advice you will achive professional looking results out off your EOS equipment.

The Improvised Garage Studio

Improvise a studio in your garage

“Being an enthusiast for some years already, family and friends know which door to knock when they have photographic needs. In this case, a colleague from work needed some last-minute headshots for a certain event.

She called one afternoon and we agreed to do the shoot that evening. I have two 550EX but I knew that I could not achieve the look she was after with the speedlites alone so I started improvising some studio-like setup for her arrival.

I took a big white (rain) umbrella we had and removed the handle. I luckily had an umbrella support that came with a Manfrotto Magic Arm and it could hold the speedlite and the umbrella in position. A piece of styrofoam held by her friend served as fill-in while a second speedlite gave some lift-up to her hair.

After the setup was in place, E-TTL gave the right flash exposure and all I have to do was to capture her character… focus on the image and forget about the equipment

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EOS 10D + EF 100f/2.8 USM + ST-E2 + 2x 550EX
1/160 f/5.6 ISO 100

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EOS 10D + EF [email protected] + ST-E2 + 2x 550EX
1/160 f/5.6 ISO 100

Wireless on Location

One aspect where the EOS Flash system shines (pun intended 🙂 is in its flexibility. The wireless flash system is the key to succesfully use the speedlites with bigger modifiers. Given the masive size of the attachments, connection cords like the OSCS-2 are too short to provide enough working room. If you have already a wireless capable speedlite (such as the 420EX, 550EX or 580EX) you should consider investing in the ST-E2 wireless controller to preserve E-TTL capabilities when using a softbox or umbrella.

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Model on Location

This model shot was done on a small closed garden from a fashion store.

One 550EX shined through the Lastolite Ezybox while a second one on the floor lighted the background.

The wireless system not only means no sync cables but as the speedlites run on batteries, there’s no need for power leads or dependence on the presence of outlets on the location.

The setup was very unintrusive and even could be moved around without incovenience to look for different angles.

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EOS10D + EF70-200f/[email protected] + ST-E2. 550EX on Ezybox softbox
1/160 f/5.6 ISO100

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Overview image. EOS 10D + [email protected]
1/160 f/5.6 ISO 100

Crash the Party

Three good friends from high school met in a birthday party after almost 10 years without seeing each other.

To keep a good memory of the day I proposed to make portraits of them and send them to each one.

I had the very compact Lastolite Ezybox and my photo backpack in the trunk of the car. With their help I improvised a photo session in the middle of the party. It was great fun for all of them who alternated to help holding the softbox and reflector on position.

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EOS10D + 17-40L
Handheld 550EX in Ezybox
1/200f13, EC=-2, FEC=-1,1/3

A Day Out

The Lastolite Ezybox and the speedlite make a great flexible combination. It can be handheld to pursue very mobile sujects like this little toddler learning to walk. I followed her and her parents around their garden to produce some album memories.

The shot against the sky was done with the Ezybox held in one hand and the camera in the other, while her dad was making her “fly” on the blue sky. The result is a soft fill-in from the softbox balanced with the bright light of the day.

Zoom Matters

[Gerard’s note: This is somehow more technical but the ‘secret’ key to the optimal use of the modifiers. ]

Most Speedlites [table?] have a zoom function that matches the focal lenght of the lens with the coverage of the flash. The models that allow you to manually modify the zoom setting of the flash head are certainly the most recommended to use with the flash modifiers. Attachments with a diffusion screen require wider coverage to optimally use all the difussing surface.

Recommended zoom settings

Flash zoom
Lumiquest BigBounce 24mm
Lumiquest Softbox Auto
Lumiquest 80-20 50mm
Sto-Fen Omnibounce widest setting/wide-angle panel
Softbox widest setting/wide-angle panel
Umbrella 24mm/35mm

No Speedlite?

If you don’t have an speedlite, we have a cool technique for you to try with your built-in flash at the next party.

Find a white balloon and just hold it on front of your built-in flash to soften the light. The effect is subtle but it will for sure make your friends smile!

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Image taken with the built-in flash
EOS 10D + 28-135 IS

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“how to” image of the white balloon technique in action

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Resulting image taken with the white balloon in place. Note the softer light and reduced contrast