Cheapo studio lighting ideas by use of hot shoe flash modifications

Discussion in 'Lighting' started by Mike Wilde, Aug 17, 2006.

  1. Mike Wilde

    Mike Wilde Member

    Aug 10, 2006
    Multi Format
    I do not have the resources for alien bees, etc to yield professional studio lighting equipment. Swimming lessons for the kids etc get to the discretioary funds first. Some day though...

    So I have adapted older hot shoe flash units that I have had for years to mostly rise to the required light source task. If it is a still life shoot, and the item being shot can take the heat of hot lights they are used, but for shots of people tungsten sources are usually too hot for the comfort of the people involved. (can make a great background light in an otherwise all flash shot though)

    Light stands, adjustable clamps, and silvered and shoot through umbrellas have been acquired by combing through the used area of my favorite camera store, Burlington Camera here in Ontario. (A great store, worth the trip if you live within 100km of the place and are passing by on the QEW.) Some items like slaves and synch cables I have acquired new. Flaky used synch cables are not worth it.

    A Wien flash meter was worth the $50 I bought it for. There are grander ones, but this one is simple, and fills by bill of setting levels.

    For large diffusion I clip a bed sheet or white tent fly sheet to the t-bar of the rec room ceiling with spring back clips, and weigh down the bottom to the required angle with bungee cords and sand bags. Actual sand bags are made from rinsed out milk bags filled with sand and taped up, They are slid into long cotton socks whose mate has died. The top is sewn over with a bit of webbing that is easy to attach to. Long tube socks with two milk bags inside weigh down the leg of a light stand quite well.

    My most recent upgrades are to add 'modelling lights' made from integral reflector incandescent lamps (60W, I recall). The socket mounts onto the flash by means of velcro and rubber bands. A bit of modelling clay has been used to form a cradle that keeps socket a bit off the body, so the incandescant heat does not melt the plastic of the flash unit.

    I calibrate the area of the incandescant front surface of the modelling light to mask off to match the raw flash unit light output pattern by using a point and shoot digicam on a tripod. Take a photo with the flash triggered. Then mask off the modelling light to match the flash unit. Refine by taking, deleting, and comparing shots of the light output of the modelling light with bits of masking tape temporarily placed. When satisfied, cut a piece of masking tape to cover the still uncovered face, remove the other temporary masking, and mark the top side of the bulb. Spray the face with bbq paint, to mask until the bulb burns out.

    The other pain with hot shoe is the way that they go through AA's, and how long they take to recycle when the batteries are getting long in the tooth.

    A side effect of the early obsolescence of personal computers has been adapted to solve this problem. I use scavenged PC power supplies to run the hot shoe flash. The PC power supplies produce +5DC with plenty of current (along with other voltages that are not used) The noisy cooling fan is removed, since the power draw is intermittent, and they cool naturally between flash discharges when the power drawn by the flash is virtually nothing. There is even an IEC connector on the case to provide AC power to the modelling light. The power cord to the flash is generic 18 gauge speaker cord. A wooden block cut to match the size of the 4-AA battery holder, with screw nails set in a the right point feeds power to the flash unit. Using this system they recycle in under 5 seconds.

    Flat reflectors are made from white foam core board scavenged from discarded public information centre plan presentation boards at my office; it comes 32x40" from this source, and this is big enough for me not wanting to get a full 4x8' sheet home uncut and paying retail prices. I tear off the attached plot, spray with spray glue (scotch 77 - great stuff if you keep the spray nozzles soaking in thinner) and attach crinkled then semi flattened aluminum foil to one side. Alternately, I paint them flat black to uses as flags.
    Careful and measured cutting and taping can yield good results too using foam core. For example I have made a portable small soft box that attaches to the front of the flash, and uses a white hankerchief as the front diffusion. Handy for outdoor portraits, using the flash as the key light, and daylight as the fill.

    I have found that clamping reflectors onto music stands that have an adjustable angle book platform and then sand bagged the base for stability is an inexpensive way to hold reflectors in place.

    My most recent 'find' is the purchase of a Metz 60CT-2 flash and power pack at a garage sale for $20. (There were other great deals, but mostly on 4x5 gear, but I have promised my wife I won't get into sheet film until the kids are in high school and big enough to help to carry the gear when we go camping.)

    The power pack needed some taping and repair - one of the shoulder strap clips had been broken off, it needed a new dryfit battery, and was missing the charger.

    The missing strap clip was repaired with a drilled out washer, an old dead backpack webbing loop, molding clay, and self amalgamating rubber tape (now sold at Home Depot - great repair stuff).

    The power supply specifications were found on the Metz web site, and an old calculator power supply brick was adapted to fill that bill.

    I was going to make up a power module inside the case of the sawed apart dead dry fit using about 15 NiMH AA's, but found a new dry fit at the electronics supply house that I went to that was only $40, which was cheaper than all the AA's I went in to buy. It was made by the Metz OEM, and matched in size the one in the CT power packs, but had push on lugs, not flat terminal pads. I took it home, bent the lugs backwards to match the location on the pad only terminals on the Metz OEM version of this battery, trimmed the case of the battery pack back to let the lugs version of the battery slide into the battery chamber a bit better, and was away to the races.

    If you are in the market for a new dryfit battery it may be a better bet to do what I did, and go to a place that sells UPS refurbishment batteries, rather than the photo retailer. The retailers in town wanted between $89 and $110 for a new dryfit.

    I would be interested to hear what other scrounged and re-invented lighting equipment and techniques that people have used to do shots with less than pro priced equipment.
  2. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

    May 17, 2006
    Northern Aqu
    35mm RF
    Well, one of the reviews of 'Learning to Light' (which I co-wrote with my wife Frances Schultz) said 'This book isn't worth buying because he tells you the same as other books on lighting. The only difference is that he tells you how to do it cheaper.'

    Obviously I don't agree with the first sentence but I took the second as praise. There are pics in there shot with desk lamps; with builders' lights; with home-made diffusers...

    The book is still in print, if you're interested: go to the 'books and magazines' section on


  3. Steve Smith

    Steve Smith Member

    May 3, 2006
    Ryde, Isle o
    Medium Format
    I don't usually take pictures with people in but I recently took some for a musician/singer friend to use on her advertising, website, etc.
    I don't really know what I'm doing with portrait lighting but I knew I didn't want any harsh shadows.

    I used an on camera flash (Hanimex 550) on a bracket with the head pointing up at a clip on 45 degree reflector and a second flash (Vivitar 285) taped to a microphone stand shooting through a white disc reflector (free gift on the front of Amateur Photographer a few months ago) held up with another microphone stand (musicians usually have a few of these lying around!).

    The pictures turned out quite nicely and I'm not sure if I could have done better given a selection of 'proper' studio lighting (although I'm sure others with actual studio experience could).