Featured Photography

DIY Flash Photography for the Thrifty and Unrich

As I’ve mentioned before, I love Strobist super DIY photo guru, David Hobby. His blog, Strobist.com is a daily inspiration for me. When I got my first digital SLR, about a year and a half ago, I spent most of my time sculking about in the alleyways of my city, photographing “hidden treasures” that I’d find. This “derelict” phase stopped abruptly in July 2007, about 10 days into the 88 day Vancouver city garbage strike.

I then moved my attention to things that smelt nicer like cupcakes, Pez, & trees. And after a few months of photographing happy shiny things, I worked up enough courage to photograph real live people who were not always happy or shiny. My main lighting techniques were:

  • Natural light is your best friend;
  • A big window on a sunny or partially cloudy day is your second best friend;
  • Low light? Open the aperture as wide as that sucker will go. f1.4 is money;
  • Cheap whiteboard makes a really nice bounce.

During this time, I experimented with using my behemoth of a flash, the 580ex. But, it was so heavy, I always regretted bringing it out to live performances, and frankly it scared people, and now I have no friends. That’s an exaggeration. I have a few friends, it’s just they seldom talk to me.

In the last six months, I’ve started to the long journey to master off-camera flash setups in order to exploring light more and create cool fashion, modeling, and artsy shoots. The trouble is that I need to make these setups for cheap as I only found $1.45 in the crooks and crannies of my sofa.

Using Strobist’s awesome DIY projects as inspiration, I am starting a new series on Mostly Lisa entitled: DIY Photography tips for the Thrifty and Unrich.

For the first shoot I wanted to do something a bit moodier than a typical modeling/acting headshot using an off-camera flash, some hard reflective surfaces (both portable and non) and a wee bit of creativity and smarts.

How we did it:
For these two shots, we had two Canon speedlights (430ex and 580ex) with Stofen Omnibounces at the same height as the subject, pointed straight up to give a “bare bulb” effect that would simultaneously blow out the background (a white wall in my living room) and light up the two 2’x3′ pieces of whiteboard in front of the photographer’s face (just out of frame) as fill.

The flashes were triggered with two cheap and untrustworthy Gadget Infinity remotes and were at 1/8 power, with the 580ex maybe less two thirds of a stop because it’s a more powerful unit. We started shooting at f1.4, but the focus was a bit soft in the above photo, so we bumped it up to f2.8 and added the second flash to create edge highlights (as you can tell by the highlights on both sides of my hair).

Mostly Lisa for Strobist-1

The Set-up:
One whiteboard was clamped to another lightstand with a couple $4 Home Depot clamps duct taped together to make a two-way clamp and the other (actually two boards taped together) was standing up on a nearby shelf (like a Christmas card). The camera was handheld just behind and in the middle of the two bounces.

Diagram of DIY Shoot #1

Redpilot's Strobist Inspired Set-up

Some Levels and Color Balance adjustments were made in Photoshop to enrich the blacks, push the highlights up some more, and warm up the whole image a little bit. No retouching was done on the computer-induced-big-black-bags-under-my-eyes. Not one bit.

If you have any cool off camera flashy photos that you’ve experimented with, link them in the comments!

Or if this is all waaaaay too technical for you you can just answer one question:
What camera do you use?
I’m actually really interested what camera everyone has – even if it’s not a fancy smancy one. So, talk camera nerdy to me!

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  • Reply
    April 2, 2008 at 4:50 AM

    Nice photos, and a really good description of the proper use of flash as a primary light source (where proper == indirect). And the subject is awesome too, but that’s so obvious it hardly warrants mentioning.

    I’m mostly an available-light kinda guy, and I don’t have any noteworthy flash photos with me right now (my photo library is back home, and my laptop and I are on the road again this week). Generally I’d rather just crank up the ISO to 1600 and use Noise Ninja in post. It helps that 1600 on my 5D is cleaner than 400 on most cameras.

    I shoot with a 5D and a 10D and a host of L zooms and fast primes, so I’m not sure I qualify for the “thrifty” part of the equation.

  • Reply
    David Hobby
    April 2, 2008 at 6:35 AM

    Great, Lisa-

    You are doing just fine at the “lighting people” part. But I’d really like to see you quickly start to include some visual context!

    Look how much stronger your sig photo is up top of the page.

    Keep it up, keep it up…


  • Reply
    April 2, 2008 at 6:41 AM

    Great shots, loving the DIY tricks. I’ve got a Nikon D70s and a similarly strained pocketbook. I’ve got a couple lenses but my favorite by far is my 85mm f1.4 because I can crank it open and do a lot with natural light. A while back I did a goofy self portrait session using some Home Depot hot lights and some bounce cards. The results were mixed and I ended up going photoshop nuts on a few of them but it was a fun experiment. It just makes me want to actually pick up some strobes. Stuck trying to decide whether it is better to pick up some cheap strobes just to have them or to save up for something better. Anyways here’s a link to my little experiment. http://picasaweb.google.com/Greyphotos/NarcissisticSelfPortriatSession

  • Reply
    Christina Warren
    April 2, 2008 at 10:51 AM

    So I just saw you here http://commandshift3.com/site/mostlylisa.com and wanted to congratulate you on kicking ass!

  • Reply
    April 2, 2008 at 2:32 PM

    kewl soft light!!!
    yeah, i use the sheeetiest camera in the universe. aka a 3-year-old nikon coolpix 5600. it’s only reallly good for macro, and really really REALLY still shots. like, it has to be on a table or the ground or else it will blur.
    I’m doing the 365day challenge on flickr, and it’s making me learn how to make my photos more creative, artsy, etc. i’m learning things like macro (!!) and soft lighting, lomography, the difference white balance makes, and other things. i think that being forced (err not forced, but you know) to take a pic every day makes me think more outside the box, in order to get more views.
    and of course the flickr community rawks. there are some crazy creative people who have become my teachers :]

  • Reply
    Chris Magnusson
    April 2, 2008 at 9:34 PM

    I have a Pentax Optio something-or-other. I keep it in an iPod case. Also, a nifty Canon PowerShot G9 should be here in a week or so.

    I’ve used a bedsheet as a bounce before. I need to experiment more with my techniques.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2008 at 2:59 AM

    Fine. Uncle. I give in… My camera nerdines:

    Sanyo XACTI HD1000
    Sanyo XACTI HD700

    At least I’m brand loyal… Yes, I go for the hybrids. I know, they do neither still nor movie really well. Then again. I don’t do either well.

    Why do I turn into a cupcake when I post a comment here? s it because I’m just that sweet? {ba-dum-dum}

  • Reply
    April 3, 2008 at 3:36 AM

    Hottest post ever. God damn.

    I use a D80 nowadays, used to shoot Konika Minolta. Since Pocket wizards cost about the same as a small car where I live, I use CLS to trigger my flashes. Needs line of sight and all that, but it’s been fine so far.

    Also a daily reader of Strobist.com – and if you haven’t stopped by the Strobist Flickr group (which I believe you have, though) it’s definitely a great place to get inspiration and help. Lots of good folks there. And kudos to DH, a couple of comments up.


  • Reply
    April 3, 2008 at 4:07 AM

    Oh, and some pics.

    Here’s an off-cam shot I did some time ago. An SB-800 bounced against the corner of the room, standing camera front.
    Taken a few seconds after I popped me jailbreak-cherry (Yaarr).


    Kinda-portrait of a friend of mine, one evening out shooting random stuff.
    SB-800 with diffuser, 1 metre to camera left.


    Okay, this one is just goofy.


    SB-800 shot through a white umbrella just above the cake.


  • Reply
    Mostly Lisa
    April 3, 2008 at 12:46 PM

    @Pasquale — where’s my badger?

    @Spike — *jealous* if i crank the ISO on my Xti = crappy crappy nonsense. i actually always try to shoot at 100. I never go over 400, unless I’m in a really low light situation, in which case I’d use the 50mm f/1.4. i’ve gotta get Noise Ninja though.i’ve heard loads of things about it, just haven’t gotten round to searching for it. if you could link me, i’d probably hi-5 you!

    @David Hobby — keeping me on my toes, hmm? the main problem with the “visual context” part is that i’m working in a really small space and i lack a 3rd flash to get wikkid edge lighting. but when i come out of winter hibernation, i’ll start shooting some stuff outside my apartment. and just you wait, Mr. Hobby, i shall surprise you!

    @Will — it’s always a tough decision… whether to save up and spend the dough on something uber or head to home depot. sometimes no matter how hard you try to make shift stuff, it doesn’t seem to cut it. like i bought this super cheap umbrella (around $30) and whilst i was shooting a headshot session outside a small gust of wind totally bent it. boo! check out strobist. he is the strobe king. sure to advise you better than i.

    @Christina — my fav GP! thanks, try to kick as much butt as possible on a regular basis.

    @Mel — hi-5 on doing the 365 flickr challenge. i have thought about doing it many a times, but somehow i think there are enough photos of me in the world. plus, i’m almost positive that i wouldn’t be able to produce cool shots every single day. unless my mismatched sock collection all of a sudden becomes an internet phenomenon.

    @CTodd — ha! cupcake. that’s what you get when you don’t have a Gravatar. although, somehow i think you like being a cupcake. mmm, tasty.

    @Peter — nice one. your first 2 photos are set to private. me can’t seeeee. but yes, the Strobist Flickr group is uber. i’ve spent hours going through all the picts. so many amazing photogs outta there.

    PS. how cool is it that DH commented on ma blag?!?

  • Reply
    THE J-Mo
    April 3, 2008 at 1:07 PM

    I’m rolling with a 5D and a 20D as backup. I like shooting natural light or with a reflector to open up shadows if I can, but it’s no problem to use a bit of flash in a pinch. Sometime of course you have to use flash and the more practice you have doing that, the easier it is to get the results you want without having to do too much experimentation.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2008 at 1:38 PM

    Noise Ninja

    My 10D is a noisy beast above ISO 100 too, and Noise Ninja is essential.

  • Reply
    April 3, 2008 at 2:10 PM


    Ah, my bad. Just chop the “/sizes/o/” off the URLs :)

  • Reply
    April 3, 2008 at 4:38 PM

    I know you’ve never heard this before, but you are beautiful.
    How did you get your pupils so wide? I read that Victorian women had a way of doing it that did not involve narcotics, though I don’t know what it was.

  • Reply
    Duane Storey
    April 3, 2008 at 5:13 PM

    Good post on natural light. I’ve had a lot of experience doing flash photography this last year, and it’s challenging for sure.

    I have the canon 20D and the 40D, with the 24-70 f/2.8L, the 50mm f/1.4, the 70-200 f/2.8L, the 17-40 f/4.0L and a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 as well. The only thing I’d add to what you are saying is be very careful at f/1.4L – it’s really easy to have parts of your subject out of focus with apertures that wide. I usually try not to go lower than f/1.8 if I can get away with it, and if I have to I usually bump the ISO up to 3200 and back off on the exposure compensation to get the shot.

  • Reply
    April 4, 2008 at 5:59 PM

    I have a Canon SD400 that I use for quick photos especially self-portraits and videos. I have a Canon Rebel XTi with a 50mm 1.8 lens, and a Canon 580 EX II external flash.

    Thanks for the photo setup. Sometime this year I want to create a “Students of UBC” photo series and something like this in my residence studio would be perfect!

  • Reply
    April 5, 2008 at 7:22 AM

    Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi 10.1MP Digital SLR is what i am rocking with.. I actually just got it 2 days ago.. and i have gone crazy taking pictures of my babygirl and the dogs.. I think I am goin to burn all there eyes out! lol So your lighting tips are awesome. So know that you have saved the eyes of a 9 month old and two frisky pups!

  • Reply
    Adam Nollmeyer
    April 8, 2008 at 8:35 AM

    @lisa Good post. Way to spend the extra dollar (or is it 2) to get the Orange handles home deopot “A clamp” instead of the ones with green rubber. Green = GO(ing) to fall apart. Orange = Not fall apart.

    On the setup shot, It’hard to tell where the (shooting) camera angle was. Can you clarify.

    I use a Nikon D200, unless I need a faster synch speed than 1/250th outside, I might grab a D70 then as it’s 1/500th, but one can “cheat” it to almost 1/1000th. I’ll be getting a D300 soon, but it’s NOT all about the camera. ;-)

    @DH Glad you could make it to Phoenix, you were sold out, and I think I was working that day, but some flickr friends of mine came out.

    ~Adam / Acmephoto.

  • Reply
    April 9, 2008 at 12:34 PM

    Really interesting post! I’ve been reading your blog for a while…never commented, but you’ve lured me out with your photospeak. I’ve only considered myself an actual “photographer” since last August, but I jumped right into the action/sports photography end of the pool – mainly figure skating, but I’ve tried to branch out and try other sports. I know very little about any other kind of photography, but I’m planning to get some books and do the DIY-photography thing as soon as I finish school in a couple of weeks.

    Anyway, I have a Canon 20D, and for lenses, I use a Canon L-series fixed 200mm f/2.8 for action photos (once I rented the zoom 70-200 version and it was so rad), and a Canon fixed 50mm f/1.8 for everything else. I only have the on-camera flash, and I’ve only used it enough to know that I hate it. I can’t use flash for sports anyway, so I haven’t explored the whole lighting thing yet…hence, this post was quite informative!

  • Reply
    April 16, 2008 at 4:02 AM

    Hey there,

    I use a Pentax K10D with the AF 540 flash. Have 2 Morris Mini slave flashes, they work not too badly. a pair of 65 Watt slave flashes with umbrellas, and a 1.5 foot diameter ring light (found on ebay) Also have a bunch of stands, for lights and backdrops.

    Am trying to decide if buying a softbox is worth it or just stick with the unbrellas, do you have any ideas on that? Cheers

  • Reply
    MostlyLisa.com: Lisa Bettany. Canada’s Sexy Geek Blog » Blog Archive » The Rhythm n’ Flow of the 2-Point-Ohs
    May 6, 2008 at 9:20 PM

    […] am I sat in front of an uber kit? Kind of random isn’t it? More sweet photos and a special DIY photo blog from my latest shoot with uber Vancouver drummer, Jesse Godin this […]

  • Reply
    MostlyLisa.com: Lisa Bettany. Canada’s Sexy Geek Blog » Blog Archive » University Edu-ma-cation
    May 11, 2008 at 6:52 PM

    […] am I sat in front of an uber kit? Kind of random isn’t it? More sweet photos and a special DIY photo blog from my latest shoot with uber Vancouver drummer, Jesse Godin this […]

  • Reply
    May 12, 2008 at 8:45 AM

    I’m uber amateur. I embarrass my non-geeky compatriots because I’m always carrying a DSLR. I embarrass the geeky ones because it’s only a D40. I’m fresh out of college with all of the ensuing debt, so the accessory scene is not much of scene at all, really.

  • Reply
    Sean Hagen
    May 13, 2008 at 2:42 PM

    Well, I’m totally in love with my camera, the Nikon D80. It’s my baby.

    You’ve said in previous posts that you’re scared of taking photos of people. I’m the opposite. I love taking photos of people. Getting people to pose just isn’t the same to me, it has to be candid and in-the-moment.

    Just to illustrate:

    The way I think is: unless someone specifically asks me not to take a photo, then I’m going to take their photo.

  • Reply
    May 13, 2008 at 8:10 PM

    Very cool.

    I use a Nikon D50, but haven’t gotten into the whole off-camera lighting scene yet. I was thinking of getting some hot lights from Bunnings, which I’ll probably do at some point. I’d also like to get a new speedlight. I have an ancient one, which I bounced off the wall to take a photo of my husband.

  • Reply
    March 25, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    A very good example on how to use normal camera flashes for an amazing portrait photograph!!!

  • Reply
    Phil Steele Photography
    November 18, 2010 at 10:10 PM

    Lisa, great post (yeah I know it’s old but I just found it) which is sure to inspire people to try off-camera flash. And I wouldn’t be surprised if your self-portraits have inspired some marriage proposals from geeky strobists.

    You asked for links, so here are some recent model shoots I’ve done with off-camera flash (Canon 580 and 430 EX, white shoot-through umbrella in most shots)


    I started having so much fun with this that I actually created a video course teaching people how to shoot portraits with off-camera flash on a low budget. It’s available on my site here, if anyone is interested:


    Thanks for a great post. Love your galleries, and, as good as you are with flash, it’s your natural light work that I find amazingly beautiful.
    Phil Steele

  • Reply
    March 26, 2011 at 8:13 AM

    I have a £200 Nikon. Simple but takes really great snaps for me.

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