Sunday, April 22, 2012

Three On A Stick: Multiple Flash Main Lights

I had been postponing an article on multiple speedlights used as your main, or key light. I was waiting an opportunity to make a photo using the two Lastolite Tri-Flash brackets that I have personal experience with: The original Tri Flash and the Joe McNally unit.

The original Lastolite unit was the first one that I purchased. It holds three speed lights in a series of cold shoes that appear to be pre-formed into an aluminum extrusion. The most significant shortcoming is the lack of any secure mechanical retention. There is some clamping action provided by the foot of the speedlight, but not enough to inspire any level of confidence. I found that whenever I used them, I spent most of my time worrying about the speedlights' slipping out of their respective shoes.

The McNally unit had some major bells and whistles. I was taken by the fact that the cold shoes retained the speedlights using an actual clamp. However, both of the McNally units I purchased lacked sufficient clearance to properly clamp onto a flash. I wound up deepening the channel with a flat file. Once sufficient clearance was established, the unit worked fine. One nice feature is the rotating cold shoes. This allows you to rotate the flash body to get the best line of sight for reliable (hmmm...) iTTL synchronization.

Now this was all well and good, and I did use multiple speedlights in conjunction with some sort of umbrella light modifier. But after many, MANY dollars spent on these units, a third contender comes along that satisfies nearly all of my concerns at a fraction of the cost.

Adorama Triple Shoe Adapter. At about $20.00, I was skeptical, but bought two just the same. Well, you get what you pay for, but the functionality goes far beyond the price. It's an adapter that allows you to mount 3 speedlights onto a small base unit, but with a significant twist. First off, each shoe is a hot shoe, and all three units can be fired by using the built-in mini microphone jack.  Now if you have a radio controller that accepts a microphone jack (think Pocket Wizard), you can use fire all three flashes.  Secondly, the speedlights are retained by the retractable pin in the foot of the current Nikon speedlights, making it much easier to mount, and dismount, the speedlights. Granted, there doesn't seem to be any build quality in the unit, but if you already have a conventional umbrella bracket that uses accepts a 5/8" spigot to attach some sort of cold-shoe, this adapter is definitely worth the money. My advise would be to handle the unit with care and don't stress the mounted speedlights.

In the field, the Adorama unit worked exactly the way it should have. Using iTTL and 4 speedlights, the set-up was quick and easy. I used 3 lights, one for each shoe, in the Triple Shoe Adapter, all set to Group A, Channel 3. I used these settings so the remote units will work with my D70 camera's built in iTTL trigger which can only use the 3-A settings. It turns out that this setting works with my P7000 camera, but that's another story.

Planning The Shot: The lead photo was promoting a charity luncheon and fashion show that had a "safari" theme. As it turned out, their logo was a Giraffe. Now it just so happens that we have a bronze giraffe in Central Park, and my editor suggested that it might make a fun background. But what props could I add to carry the safari theme? I thought that if I went on safari, I'd be sure to bring a pair of binoculars and a camera with a long lens. So I rummaged up a pair of large binoculars and mounted on telephoto lens on non-functioning SLR body. I was good to go.

On the day before the shoot, I went to the park, and scouted for an angle that would allow me to bet a clean background around the giraffe's head. I made a mental note of where to stand to get the giraffe in the background, free from clutter and easily recognizable. I would have preferred a blue sky with some fluffy clouds but was forced to settle for a "leafy" background, courtesy of some background trees. There wasn't any way I could get enough light on the dark bronze surface to render any detail, so I was content to have just the silhouette.

Ready To Shoot: Luckily for me Ahnna, the publicist, came along with my two models, Tara and Liat. She volunteered to help hold the key light which allowed me to mount the key light on a hand-held paint pole instead of a light stand. I used three speedlights in the Triple Shoe Adapter and a Zumbrella in the shoot-through mode. Once everything was powered up and tested, I positioned my myself so I could the a clean outline of the giraffe. Next, I moved my models (forward and back, left and right) until they were properly positioned within the frame. This was a real time-saver because the relationship between the camera and the background was now a constant. Once I had Tara and Liat in place, I positioned Ahnna and the paint-pole key light about 6 feet away from the subjects with the umbrella held about 8 feet off the ground. Since I was almost 15 feet away, the light from pre-flash from the master unit actually bounced around the inner surface of the Zumbrella and eventually found its way into the sensors on each of the 3 SB-800s, which were set to add 2/3 of a stop of overexposure. I had dialed the output of the camera mounted controller to - 2 2/3 stops of output to just barely fill the shadows. Based on the previews, the fill appears to have been much greater than I had anticipated, but still nicely filled.

On thing to remember: Exposure is based on the distance between the key light and the subject. I could have been across the street and still achieved the same effect, providing the pre-flash could be seen and properly interpreted from that distance.

All in all, a pretty easy shot to make. It did require some careful planning, but the result was worth the trouble. and everybody was pleased with the finished product. I was done in 15 minutes, another plus.