Sunday, May 15, 2016

Paper Plate Flash Modifiers

It's a bit odd to include a paper plate as a flash modifier, but after resorting to this film-era technique in a moment of pure desperation, it's a worth while trick to remember. Stuffing one in a side pocket of a camera bag is easy enough, and can often be found on location if there's a buffet table nearby. By holding a paper plate at a 45 degree angle above your skyward-pointing shoe mounted flash you can improve you flash photos with little or no cost.

What It Does:
  • Reduces Red-eye: By pointing your flash head upwards (I assume that you're using a suitable shoe-mounted speedlight), you raise the light source a little farther above the lens axis, reducing the chance of red-eye.
  • Provides Better Modeling: The elevated position helps to cast some shadows on your subjects, adding to the three-dimensional rendering of your image.
  • Increases The Size Of Your Light Source: Resting the plate on the edge of your speedlight does little to increase the apparent size of your light source. Raise it up a few inches and the normal spread of the light illuminates more square inches of the plate, giving you better light wrapping around the edges. 
  • Minimally Decreases Effective Flash Output: You don't lose much light, a good thing when working at longer distances or when you need a short recycle time.
What It Doesn't: 
  • Improve Flash Of Depth: Unlike bounce flash, paper plate light is basically direct flash and subject to the same limitations. All of your subjects must be at the same distance from the flash/camera combination, or there will be noticeable variations in amount of light each subject receives. This shot is evenly lit from left to right, as their distances from the flash are essentially the same.
  • Prevent Hotspots: With direct, on-camera flash, you an expect a hot spot, or specular highlight, appearing on any highly reflective object in the background. Make sure that your subjects and your background as as close to perpendicular to the lens axis as possible. I'm at a loss to explain the single glare spot off the door frame at camera right. But by keeping your subjects in the middle of your composition, you can eliminate the most obvious hotspots at the center.
Viewed from your subject's perspective, the paper plate on the right produces a much larger lighting surface compared to the Gary Fong Cloud Dome on the left. The plate's flat surface produces a narrower light beam than the Cloud Dome, as all of the light is directed towards the subject with little or no light bouncing into the shadows.

In summary, the paper plate can/should be used:
  • Up Close And Personal: When your subject to flash distance is relatively short. This gives opportunities for the reflected light to wrap around the edges a bit to soften and fill the shadows. If you tend to work with wider-than-normal (but not super-wide) lenses, this works well.
  • Photographing Picket Fences: Picket Fences are the typical lineup of subjects, shoulder to shoulder, smiling into the camera.The constant flash-to-subject distance insures even illumination for everybody.
  • Super Compact: You can find a place to put a paper plate. In most cases, you can steal one from the buffet table.
Avoid the Paper Plate when:
  • You Can't Spare A Hand: Obviously, you need to devote your free hand to hold the plate, and if don't have one, you're better off with the Cloud Dome, or even one of the Lumiquest Bounce products.
  • You Need Super Wide Coverage: A 28mm equivalent lens is probably the widest focal length you can use (That's 18mm in APS terms).
  • You Need Style Points: Using the paper plate truly helps you look like Angus MacGyver. However, if you're wearing a tuxedo, the "look" just doesn't make it. The Cloud Dome is so popular with event photographers that using one instantly puts you in the Pro Category.
One final note: Use plain white, non-glossy paper plates. Any color tint will be transferred to your subject. Avoid plates with a St. Patrick theme, as one's subjects should wear green, not appear green.