Big Light vs Little Light

Today’s photography tips and tricks blog is all about the difference between big, powerful light sources and small, low powered light sources. Many photographers might wonder how (and if) you can use a small light source and still get that painted-on look with light, so we are going to talk about the reality of that, and how to get the look you want, and use the gear that works for you.

You can get that painted-on light look by using great, natural light like in the shot above, but today we are going to talk about off-camera light sources and break down the “quality” of their light. All of the principles we will discuss directly relate to natural light as well, so keep that in mind!

So, what is the big difference between a large light source (like a big soft box) and a small light source (like a speedlight 580 or SB 800)? The difference in the “quality” of the light source is night and day! And by quality, we mean soft, even light that looks like it was photo-chopped before you actually photo-chopped it. Let’s look at the real difference between large and small light sources.

Large light sources: Soft and pretty looking, softer shadows, light that appears to be painted-on, very flattering to any skin type, easier to work with and more room for error

Small light sources: Harsh looking light, added contrast, not flattering to skin (especially in-perfect skin), slim margin for error when using it

It is very important, I believe, to be able to handle both small and large light sources because you can’t always use a large light source all the time, especially when shooting weddings because things are not always in your control and not every lighting technique is practical. But seeing how much cooler large light sources can be, we are going to go after those light sources whenever possible.

Let’s take a look at a few images and a few different light sources to show the pro’s and con’s of each, then how to get the most use out of them.

| Speedlights |

(The above shot is not ours, but one we grabbed from online).

These light sources are small and portable, but unfortunately the light that comes out of them is very small in comparison to a person, so the light is very specular (meaning there are lots of bright and dark area that create some nasty contrast in a bad way), and the light is very harsh. The reason the light does not look very good is because it is small, and small light sources are not very pretty looking. Digital cameras see this type of light and are not happy because in digital photography, there is not a lot of dynamic ratio (the camera cannot see dark shadows and bright highlights very well), so because this light does exactly that, it does not look that good.

Solution? Take the light that comes out of the small flash, and make it bigger, thus creating a much less contrasty and softer light source which looks much better. You can do that by bouncing it off of a large wall (which we do for getting ready shots and at wedding receptions when there is no natural light to use)

or, you can put some sort of modifier over the light to spread the light out and make it look better like:

| The shoot-through umbrella by Westcott |

Pro: Light gets bigger and softer and looks better. This is also cool because the light falls more evenly on the edges because of the U shape of the light. That means you won’t get a hard, defined shadow on the ground if the light is hitting it. The light is very light-weight and very portable. Great for taking shots of lots of people because the light goes pretty much in every direction (when you are shooting through it).

You can get a mounting bracket, put your speedlight on a stand and have it fire through the umbrella (you can also use studio strobes with this umbrella).

Con: The major problem with this type of lighting is that the small light source on your speedlight creates a hot spot on the front of the umbrella, so the light ultimately does not come out of the front evenly which makes the light not as big as you think. You may light your subject fairly well, but it won’t have that painted-on look. Since there is more light coming out of the center of the umbrella, you still get a slightly contrasty shot, although it is a HUGE improvement from not using anything at all. You have to keep it super close to your subject to get the type of look above, but then it really can get it your way, plus you can’t get much power out of it. The above shot was done at ISO 100 at f/5 with the light around 1.5 feet away. This MAJOR con means that you are stuck using this in low-light situations and have no hopes of overpowering the sun during most of its stay in the sky.

| The speedlight softbox, Apollo from Westcott |

Pro: Similar to the umbrella idea, except this light is more directional, meaning it shoots the light at about a 40 degree angle. You can get more power from your speedlight since all the light is going in more of a straight direction and you are not losing light out of the sides and back.

Con: Same problems as the umbrella especially when you are shooting the speedlight as shown in the example. It creates a hot spot which makes the light harsh. You can turn it around so that it first bounces into the back which helps the light to come out more evenly and softer in the front. The problem is you then lose power because the light is bouncing around first, then coming out of the front. So, they use that silver liner which is more reflective and helps boost the power, but ends up making more hot spots and ultimately, not the most even spread of light. Awesome though for those that want to travel light and up their game! (This light can only be used with a speedlight).

| The Westcott 24×32 studio soft-box |

Nashville, TN Photography Workshops

Nashville, TN Photography Workshops

Pro’s: Its awesome. All the light in the above shots looks painted-on, and none of these shots have seen Photoshop and only two have had minor skin retouching done. This type of light source really creates beautiful, indirect looking light that is truly soft and pretty. We use this size box because it is just big enough to use at a nice working distance to get that studio look on-location (we keep it no more than 6 feet away), but small enough to be practical on weddings and engagement shoots. The reason this light source works so well, is because inside the first layer of diffusion (which velcros off the front) is a second layer of diffusion, or an inner baffle. This baffle gets hit with the flash first, which spreads the light out, then it hits the front of the softbox and comes out very evenly, which makes the light source actually 24×32 inches worth of light with little or no hot spots. The light looks really soft and really pretty. Both layers of diffusion are also thicker than on the speedlight softboxes and umbrellas, so that helps the light to spread out even more.

Con: While the box itself is not very heavy, the light you put in it can be. You need a much more powerful light because of all the diffusion (and if you want to overpower the sun), so a speedlight won’t give you much through this baby. You can get rigs to use this with a speedlight, but you will be very limited in power because the speedlight is only 60 watts. Most shooters (including us) use a studio strobe to shoot through this softbox. Strobes can weigh 5 pounds or more, PLUS you have to have a power source which can make things very heavy.

Solution: The below unit is about to change studio lighting on-location and make powerful strobes VERY practical for those who don’t want to lug around heavy gear.

Introducing the Elinchrom Quadra system! This entire unit with the batter pack and flash head, weighs exactly 9 pounds. That is about a camera body and two lenses. This puppy puts out 400 watt seconds of power and can go all the way down to 8 watts, will fire about 150 times on a single charge (and you can get two batteries for it and swap them out as needed), you can recharge the battery to 85% in about 90 minutes and you can use any size softboxes you want on the half-pound flash head. The head weighs less than your speedlight!

This is the ultimate solution to handle almost every lighting situation that you encounter on-location and give you the power to control and create. Very cool! If you are local to Nashville or live within 3 states of us, Dury’s downtown pro-shop is the ONLY place you can get this system and I highly recommend that you talk with Nick Coury when you head in there!

| Now for the ultimate in soft, pretty lighting, the Octabank! |

Pro: Kick butt lighting that literally wraps around your subject. The unique design and shape creates light that is uh-mazingly wow factor.

Con: Usually too big and to much of a sail in the wind to be used piratically without an assistant. We have a 7 foot version of this and the light is superb, but that baby is BIG! You can get smaller version that produce some outstanding light, so look at a 3 foot version for a similar look.

So, it is important to know and understand light and how it reacts with different light sources so that we can pick and choose how we want our images to look, and how we want to shoot. None of the above lighting sources are the right or wrong ones to use, that all depends on you and your style and how you want to practically shoot day to day. The greatest of photographers understand ALL different types of lighting (including natural light) and are able to create no matter what hand they are dealt. It is important to educate ourselves as much as we can and be masters of our craft, so that we can ultimately find out what we want to do and how we want to shoot, and deliver a great product to our clients at the same time.

Is there a lighting question that YOU want answered? We may be able to help! Shoot us an email from our brand spankin’ new contact form on our photographers website!