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With the introduction of the StarFlash series, Photoflex has made a graceful entry into the world of professional strobe lighting. Recently, we decided to take these new monolight strobes for a test drive.

This lesson will show you how these strobes work and how they can be used in a professional studio setting. We love what these lights can do, and we hope that you will, too.



(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • An Introduction to Strobes
  • Setting Up the Photoflex StarFlash
  • Removing the Lamp Cover
  • Attaching the 7 inch Reflector
  • Turning the StarFlash On
  • Using the Proportional Power Dial
  • Using the Modeling Light
  • Using the Slave Sensor
  • Test Firing the StarFlash
  • Understanding Flash Exposure
  • Attaching the Sync Cord
  • Using a Flash Meter
  • Taking the First Shot
  • Using the Starflash with Umbrellas


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    An Introduction to Strobes


    Studio strobes can be one of the most intimidating subjects for amateur and professional photographers alike. The truth of the matter is that strobes, if used correctly, are one of the most useful lighting tools available. Most photographers who are ready to learn how use strobes probably have some experience with their on-camera flash units. Studio strobe are basically the same thing, but with a few notable differences.

    With most modern SLR systems, the on-camera flash is TTL (Through The Lens Metering) dedicated, allowing the user to make correct flash exposures in auto mode without having to think about f-stops or power ratios (This is a really handy feature for wedding photographers and photojournalists who have to think fast and get every shot).

    Studio strobes, on the other hand, do not have an automatic mode, so they require careful and accurate exposure control on the part of the photographer. The most obvious difference between studio strobes and on-camera flash is power. Strobes have a lot more of it, which allows better control and versatility in a professional studio setting. Before we begin our lesson about the Photoflex StarFlash, let's consider the different types of strobes on the market and the characteristics of each.

    First is the portable, on-camera flash unit discussed above. All of today's digital SLR manufacturers make an affordable, fully-featured flash for their cameras. This kind of flash is very versatile for location photography, but is not ideal for most studio applications.

    The second kind of strobe is the AC powered strobe kit. It consists of a central power supply plugged into the wall, which powers multiple flash heads. The biggest advantage of this kind of system is that you can usually get a lot of power in a very economical package. This is why most studios prefer this kind of strobe solution. It simply gives the photographer more bang for the buck. Another advantage of this kind of strobe system is that the power ratio settings (explained below) for each unit are controlled from a single location, the power supply. This is definitely handy when you have strobes positioned in hard to reach places, such as up by the ceiling or far apart across the studio. The disadvantage to the AC powered strobe kit is in its size and weight. For those who want to use strobes on location as much as in the studio, lugging around a power supply with heads and accessories can become quite an inconvenience.

    The final type of strobe is the self-contained monolight. Monolights are made with their own AC power supply built into the unit. This means that the strobe unit itself is plugged into an outlet, eliminating the need for heavy powerpacks and extra cables scattered around the floor. The Photoflex StarFlash is an excellent example of a monolight. It is made in three different versions, each having a different maximum power capacity. The units are relatively light, portable, and pack more than enough power for most studio and on location purposes.

     



    Figure 1

    Setting Up the Photoflex StarFlash

    Before you can start shooting professional looking pictures that your friends or competitors will envy, you will need to set up the StarFlash. The first step is to attach the strobe unit to the tilt swivel shown in figure 1. The swivel is necessary to enable easy turning and angling of the strobe unit. This particular tilt swivel, included with the Photoflex StarFlash, has an extended handle making one-handed operation and adjustment extremely easy. Follow the illustrated instructions below to attach the strobe unit to the swivel.

    Locate the rail on the bottom of the StarFlash and the matching groove on the top of the swivel. Make sure that the tilt handle is pointing away from the front of the strobe (figure 2).

    WARNING: Never attempt to mount the strobe without the lamp cover securely attached. Anyone can make a mistake, and this simple precaution will help keep the lamp in your StarFlash from getting damaged.



    Figure 2

    Slide the strobe into the groove on the swivel as shown in figure 3.



    Figure 3

    Position the swivel about half way along the bottom rail, roughly in the center of the strobe unit. The more balanced the strobe is, the easier it will be to adjust later. Tighten the round knob found on the side of the swivel (figure 4).



    Figure 4



    Figure 5

    The bottom portion of the swivel attaches to any standard light stand. The side knob locks the swivel in place once on the stand (figure 5).

     



    As mentioned above, this unique swivel allows for easy one-handed operation, making small lighting adjustments on the fly a breeze. To use the tilt handle, twist the handle counter clockwise to loosen it. This allows the swivel to tilt and turn freely. To lock the swivel in place, turn the handle clockwise. Figure 6 below illustrates the proper use of the tilt swivel on a lightstand and attached StarFlash.

     



    Figure 6


    Removing the Lamp Cover

    After making sure that the strobe unit is secure on the light stand, you can go ahead and remove the protective lamp cover from the front of the strobe. To remove the cover, pull back on the gray, sliding lever found on the top front of the unit (figure 7).



    Figure 7

    Turn the cover slowly counter clockwise until you feel a click. You should then be able to slide the cover straight out (figure 8).



    Figure 8

    Carefully remove the lamp cover as shown in figure 9. Try to avoid touching the cover to the lamp itself.



    Figure 9

    After removing the lamp cover, you will see two different lamps (figure 10). The modeling light is a standard 250W tungsten bulb attached in the middle. Surrounding the modeling lamp is a donut-shaped flash tube.

    The locking system that holds the lamp cover in place is also used to hold accessories such as various size reflectors and soft box connectors. The following steps will explain how to attach some of these strobe accessories to the StarFlash. Once again, whenever anything is removed or attached to the front of any strobe, extra care should be taken to avoid damaging the flash tube as this is an expensive component to replace.



    Figure 10



    Figure 11

    Attaching the 7 inch Reflector

    The 7 inch reflector is a basic light accessory, which is used to direct the light onto the subject. Attaching the reflector is done in much the same way as removing the lamp cover, except here, the procedure is done in reverse. First, match up the three square protrusions on the back of the reflector with the insert points on the front of the strobe (figure 11).



    Figure 12

    Insert the reflector into the locking mechanism as shown in figure 12.



    Figure 13

    With all three metal guides in place and seated, turn the reflector clockwise to lock it in place (figure 13).

     

    Now that the reflector is attached to the strobe and the entire unit is secure on the light stand, we can begin using the StarFlash.

    In the following steps, we will explain the various controls and functions found on the back of the StarFlash. Remember that these functions are similar on most other brands of strobes. We will point out any features that are unique to the Photoflex StarFlash, but mainly, we will be dealing with general strobe functionality concepts.

     

    Turning the StarFlash On

    Figure 14 shows where to plug in the power cable and where the power switch is located. Make sure that the plug is secure before turning the strobe on. One important thing to keep in mind is that studio strobes are designed to harness a large amount of electrical current and to release it in a 'flash'. Many older strobes systems were notorious for power surges and even dangerous explosions when not handled properly. Thankfully, Photoflex has designed the StarFlash to deal with some of these concerns. Nevertheless, we feel it is alway better to be safe than to take chances, especially when using older strobe systems.



    Figure 14

     



    Power - How much is enough?

    The power of a strobe unit determines the intensity of light the strobe can produce. This is measured in watt seconds (Ws). The PhotoFlex StarFlash comes in three different power ratings: 300Ws, 650Ws, and 1000Ws. While these watt second measurements are useful for our research and development department, these numbers can sometimes confuse photographers. In the studio, we prefer to measure the light with a light meter as explained below. The important thing to remember is the higher the wattage, the brighter the light source.

    When purchasing studio strobes it is important to choose a strobe with an appropriate power capacity. One rule of thumb is that it is good to have a little more power than you think you need. This is true for two reasons. First of all, it is always better to use a more powerful strobe and have the power turned down (we will explain how to do this), than to always have the power set at maximum on a weaker strobe. Doing the latter will cause the flash tube (the most expensive replacement part) to burn out much faster. Therefore, spending the extra money on a higher wattage unit may actually save you money in the long run. Secondly, it is simply a good idea to have the extra power in case a shooting situation calls for it.

    On the other hand, some situations require a much weaker light source than a high power strobe can produce. For example, adding a little bit of fill light to the background or shooting close-ups with shallow depth of field would require a very low-powered light source. In this case, a 1000W strobe would put out way too much light even when set to its minimum power setting. With these considerations in mind, we would recommend a novice user start with a bit more power than necessary and then decide whether a weaker unit would be useful.


     

    Using the Proportional Power Dial

    Next, let's have a look at the proportional power dial shown in figure 15. This dial gives the ability to control how much power the strobe unit is putting out. We have the ability to set the power to full, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, or 1/8, with smaller steps in between each setting. This is a key feature on any strobe and is very useful for controlling the intensity of light on the subject, especially when using more than one light.

    The most basic application of this dial is in a case where a strobe is too bright, overexposing the subject. A common solution to this would be to move the light back, away from the subject. This is fine for those of you who have an airplane hangar for a studio. For the rest of us, working in cramped spaces, moving the light back may not always be an option. With the StarFlash, we can simply turn the proportional power down until the light is at the proper intensity. Proportional dials are also useful in situations where multiple lights are being used and one light needs to be less bright than the other.

    Before we move on, we must make clear that, in order to perform any of these lighting controls, we need to use a handheld flash meter. As we progress with this lesson we will introduce our flash meter to show how these various controls can be applied. For now, just remember that the proportional power dial is used to control the intensity of light coming from the strobe unit. Later, we will show how to use the flash meter to measure the intensity of light and to control your exposures with multiple flash units.



    Figure 15

    Using the Modeling Light

    Just about every strobe we can think of comes equipped with a modeling light. The StarFlash is no exception. The modeling light is a relatively dim, continuous light that can be turned on or off at any time. This light simply lets us preview the position of the lighting in relation to our subject and is not meant to be the actual light source for the exposure.

    The modeling light switch shown in figure 16 has three positions. Setting the switch to the middle turns the modeling light off. Flipping the switch to the setting marked "max" turns the modeling light on at its maximum brightness level. Flipping the switch the other way to the "prop" setting enables the modeling light to be used in conjunction with the proportional power dial. The proportional modeling light option is especially useful for comparing the light quality of two flash units set at different power settings.



    Figure 16



    Using the Slave Sensor

    The slave sensor (figure 17) is another common feature found on most professional strobe units. On the StarFlash, the slave sensor is located at the top of the rear panel. The function of a slave is to trigger the strobe whenever it senses another strobe go off in close proximity. This is a very useful feature as it allows several strobes to be fired simultaneously with out any wires connecting the strobe units.

    For example, if we want to use two strobes to light our subject, only one of them needs to be connected to the camera. The other strobe can sit wireless from the camera, with the slave sensor turned on. As soon as we click the shutter, the strobe that is connected to the camera will go off. The light from that strobe will reach the slave sensor on the second unit, triggering that unit to fire as well. All of this happens much faster than the time it takes for the shutter in our camera to open and close.

    As you read on we will show you an example of how to work with the slave setting. Figures 18 and 19 illustrate the slave on / off switch. For now, we will keep the switch in the off position.




    Figure 17

    Test Firing the StarFlash

    Next, we will turn our attention to the right hand side of the rear panel. There we will find a red button labeled "test" and a white button labeled "sound". Figure 20 shows the locations of these features on the StarFlash unit. As you can probably guess, the test button is used to fire the flash. With the unit turned on, go ahead and push the test button to test fire the strobe.

    Directly above the test button is the sound on / off button. Turning this button on will produce an audible beep as soon as the strobe is charged and ready to fire. You can see how this works by depressing the sound button, locking it into the on position. Then, fire the strobe again. After a few seconds the strobe will beep letting you know that it is fully recycled.



    Figure 20

     

    When firing the strobe, you should also notice two active LED lights labeled "charge" and "ready" (figures 21 and 22). As soon as the strobe goes off, the LED labeled "charge" will light up red. This lets you know that the strobe is in the process of recycling or charging. When the strobe is charged back to full capacity, the green LED labeled "ready" will come on.

    When using more than one strobe in the studio, it is usually impossible to see all of the LED lights as they turn on and off. This is where the sound feature becomes essential, because it will let you know when every strobe is recycled and ready to fire.

     

     

    Recycle time

    Anyone who has ever tried to shoot more than a few shots in succession using the on-camera flash unit of their camera probably knows what recycle time is all about. On any strobe, the "recycle time" is the time it takes for the unit to fully recharge after firing. Most on-camera flash units have a recycle time of 5 to 8 seconds. Often this is way too long in a situation where the subject is moving and you need the ability to shoot fast.

    The recycle time on the StarFlash varies depending on the power of the strobe head and the power ratio setting (explained below). The 300Ws has a recycle time of 2 to 3 seconds, the 650Ws StarFlash unit has a recycle time of 4 to 5 seconds, and the 1000Ws unit has a recycle time of 5 to 7 seconds. In theory, the more power that needs to be recharged, the longer the recycle rate. In practice, 2 to 5 seconds is probably fast enough for most studio applications.

     

     


    Sync speed

    When using any kind of flash or strobe, there needs to be some kind of connection, or communication if you will, between the camera and the strobe unit. The term photographers use to describe this connection is "sync". When using the advanced TTL flash units described above, the sync is made through the hot shoe of the camera, which can have up to 5 contact points, allowing for highly sophisticated electronic exposure calculations. With studio strobes, the sync consists of a simple cable with one standard connector, universal to all cameras and strobes. As you read on, we will show you how to use the sync cable with the StarFlash.

    The sync speed refers to the camera and to flash photography in general. Most 35mm and digital SLRs have a sync speed of 1/60th to 1/125th of a second. This is the shutter speed that is best suited to use with a flash. This is because digital SLRs have a moving mirror and shutter curtains as parts of the shutter mechanism, the camera needs to allow enough time during an exposure for the mirror to lift up, the shutter to open fully, and the flash to fire. Using a faster shutter speed (1/250th or higher) can result in partial flash exposures because the shutter curtain was not fully open, or no flash being recorded at all.

    Figure 23 shows an example of what happens when the shutter speed on the camera is set higher than the maximum sync speed. In this case we used 1/500 as our shutter speed. The result shows how only half of the frame received any exposure while the moving mirror in the camera blocked the other half. The next image (Figure 24) shows what happens when we set the shutter speed too low (in this case we used 1/4 second as our sync speed). Doing this results in more ambient light to be recorded, which accounts for any camera shake to be recorded as well. Every camera has a slightly different sync speed capability, so check the manual for your camera to make sure you are using the correct flash sync speed.

     

     

    Flash duration

    Often confused with sync speed is the term flash duration, which refers to the length of a single flash burst. This concept is closely related to shutter speed. However, we must be careful not to mistake one for the other. When a flash goes off, the burst of light is much faster than the sync speed. An average flash duration can range from 1/1000th sec. to 1/5000th sec. whereas the sync speed on your camera is operating at only about 1/60th sec. This means that the shutter in your camera is open much longer than the duration of the flash burst, allowing more than enough time for the shutter to open, the flash to fire, and the shutter to close.

    The actual flash duration on any given flash unit is a minor issue for most photographers unless extremely high speeds are being used to freeze very fast-moving subjects.

     

     

    Understanding Flash Exposure

    In the following steps, we will guide you through the process of using a flash meter to measure the light intensity of the StarFlash. Then we will introduce our digital SLR and begin taking our shots with the strobes. Before we do this, let's discuss some underlying concepts regarding flash exposure.

    You should already have a basic understanding of how to use your camera in manual exposure mode (If you are unfamiliar with the manual exposure mode in your camera, please refer to any of our basic camera lessons). Normally, when making manual exposures there are two elements that need to be controlled, the shutter speed and the aperture. This concept changes slightly when using strobes. With strobes, the shutter speed on the camera is not used to control the exposure, but simply to allow enough time for the strobe to fire.

    As we previously mentioned in the basic concepts section above, the flash duration is actually much faster than the shutter speed in the camera. Thus, the duration of the flash acts as the actual "shutter speed" for the shot. The shutter speed on the camera is set to the ideal sync speed, which is around 1/60th of a second on most cameras (check your camera manual to find out the sync speed for your particular camera make). Most cameras will allow you to sync a flash at a slower speed, but remember that using a slower shutter speed in the camera will cause ambient light to record as well. The idea behind 1/60th is that it is too fast too record any ambient light in a studio setting and slow enough to allow for the flash (and slaves) to fire before the shutter closes.

    Once the proper sync speed is set, there is no need to worry about the shutter speed. The only camera adjustment that needs to be controlled is the aperture. The aperture alone will control the exposure, which will change based on the intensity of the light coming from the strobe (this is determined by the distance of the strobe from the subject, the power capacity of the strobe, and the proportional power setting). Because the meter built into the camera does not have the ability to meter a strobe when it fires, using a handheld flash meter becomes crucial.

     



    Figure 25

    Attaching the Sync Cord

    Up until now, we have been exploring the features of the StarFlash and discussing some essential concepts surrounding studio strobes in general. Next, we will show you how to use this strobe unit in conjunction with a light meter and camera.

    To begin, we will need our sync cord, shown in figure 25. This cable is used to connect the strobe to the camera or light meter via a standard sync connection (often referred to as PC-sync or X-sync). Once you examine the cord, you will find one end that looks like a standard 1/4-inch stereo plug and see that the other end is a smaller PC-sync connection.

    Insert the larger end of the sync cord into the socket labeled "sync" on the bottom right of the rear panel as illustrated in figure 26.



    Figure 26

    Using a Flash Meter

    The flash meter is a device, which measures the light output of the strobe and lets us know what aperture to use on our camera for proper exposure. For this lesson we used a Gossen Digipro F light meter, which has a flash metering mode built in. Figure 27 illustrate how to plug the sync cord into the PC-sync socket on the flash meter.




    Figure 27

     

    Taking the First Shot

    For our first shot we set our camera to ISO 100, the White balance to 5600K (to match the daylight color of the strobes), and the exposure mode to manual. With our meter and camera ready to go, we setup a simple product shot to demonstrate the StarFlash in action. We chose a small toy car as the subject. We used a sky blue seamless paper background rolled out on a table and a small granite rock as the base for the car to sit on. For this shot, we decided to use a single strobe in order to simplify our procedure and to simulate a natural outdoor lighting situation (direct sun low on the horizon). We place the 300W StarFlash slightly above the surface of the table and directly to the left of the car. The camera was also positioned at a lower angle to make the car look a little larger than life.

    Feel free to experiment as much as you like with your first setup. Try to move the light around and try using different kinds objects. The important thing here is to keep the set as simple as possible and to have a stationary object. This will allow you to take many shots and compare the results with greater ease.

     

    With our car, camera, and light in position we attached the sync cord to our flash meter and took a reading (Figure 28).



    Figure 28

     

    Our first reading told us that the aperture would need to be f/32 for correct exposure at ISO 100. This told us that even the 300W strobe (the lowest power rating in the StarFlash series) was still a bit too powerful for this particular situation. In fact, our lens only went up to f/22. Also, we wanted the ability to use larger lens openings for shallow depth of field (a stylistic decision).

    Because we wanted the light to be direct and very close to the subject, we knew that we would not need very much power. Checking the back of the StarFlash, we noticed that our first meter reading was made with the power set to full. We decided to turn the proportional power dial down to about 1/4. We took another reading and found that f/16 was now the correct aperture. We decided that the light could still be reduced by one stop, so we turned the dial down to 1/8 (the lowest setting. This gave us a reading of f/11, which is just about where we wanted our depth of field to be.

    We then reattached the sync cord back to the camera and made sure that our composition was just right. Figure 29 illustrates our setup at this stage. With the camera set to f/11 we fired our first shot (Figure 30).

     

     

    As you can see our first shot (Figure 43) is correctly exposed at f/11 and the depth of field is just about right.

    Next, we decided to add a little flare to our shot by inserting a pocket size gold litedisc on the right side of the car (Figure 31). We positioned the disc close to the car, directly opposite to the light source in order to reflect a little bit of warm light into the shadow area.

    After taking a few test shots with the card in slightly different positioned we came up with our final image (Figure 32).

     

     

    Using the Starflash with Umbrellas

    Now that we demonstrated how easy it is to use one strobe in simple product lighting solution, let's move on to a more complex setup using two StarFlash units and two umbrellas.

    For this slightly more advanced demonstration, we decided to use a live model to create a simple portrait using one main light and one fill light. To do this we had to start by considering how much strobe power would be necessary to achieve our desired result. It is important to understand that when light is bounced into an umbrella, its intensity is significantly reduced. Also, the light will be positioned much farther away from the subject this time than it was when we photographed the toy car. In light of this, we opted for the 650Ws strobe as our key light confident that it would provide us with plenty of power for a head and shoulders portrait without having to turn the power dial to FULL. We used another 650Ws unit for our fill light.

     

    With our strobes mounted securely on swivels and stands we went ahead and attached our umbrellas. For this shot we decided to use 2 Photoflex 60-inch Convertible Silver Umbrellas. The umbrella attaches to the swivel just below the strobe unit. First, open the umbrella as you would any rain umbrella and lock it in the open position. Then, attach the aluminum umbrella rod to the swivel. Finally tighten the small locking knob on the side of the swivel (Figure 33).



    Figure 33



    Figure 34

    We set up our key light on the left side of the model, about 45 degrees from the camera. We raised our light slightly above the model's head and pointed it down towards her face (Figure 34).



    Figure 35

    We took several meter readings at different power settings to find until the aperture fell with in the middle range (around f/8 to f/11). The resulting image showed good exposure on the left side of the model's face, while the right side of her face fell into a deep shadow (Figure 35).

    Next we added another 650Ws StarFlash to the right side of the model and slightly farther away from the model than our key light (Figure 36). We wanted this second light to act as a fill light for the shadows, but not to overpower that side of the face with light. With the key light turned off, we metered our fill light adjusting the power setting until we had an aperture reading that was one stop larger than the reading taken from the key light. This would produce a key light to fill light ratio of 2 to 1. For example, if we used f/11 to expose our key light, we would want our fill light to read f/8. This means that shooting at f/11 would expose the key light accurately, while under-exposing the fill light by one stop.

    Before we could take the shot, we had to make sure that our key light was connected to the camera via sync cord. We turned on the slave sensor on our fill light enabling it to trigger simultaneously with the key light as soon as the shutter is pressed.



    Figure 36

    The result (Figure 37) shows how the second light has filled the shadow areas on the model with light. Notice that these shadow areas are still slightly darker than the area being lit by the key light, creating a pleasing three dimensional quality in our portrait. To learn more about how we created this portrait using 2 StarFlash units and 2 umbrellas, check out our new lesson called...



    Figure 37

     

    Summary

    As you can see, the Photoflex StarFlash is an easy to use, professional studio strobe unit, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities for studio photographers. From stopping action, to controlling depth of field, to lighting a giant group portrait, the StarFlash makes many otherwise impossible lighting solutions a reality. The lesson above is meant to serve as an introduction to using strobes in the studio. If you are new to strobes, we hope that this lesson was useful for getting you started on the path to making professional quality images in the studio. Check back for more lessons about how to apply the some of this information to more complex studio photography situations.

     


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