Strobist session at Barcamp Berlin 3

by Ole Begemann (contact info at bottom of page)
Strobist session at Barcamp Berlin 3 (by Ole Begemann)

This is a writeup of the session I held at BarCamp Berlin 3 on 18 October 2008. The idea was to show hands-on how to build the setup for a simple portrait shoot with cheap flashes and to show the effects of changes to the setup on the final picture. I’d like to say a huge thank you to all participants for your attention and the great questions you asked. A special thank you to Christina for volunteering as a model.

1. Starting point: camera’s built-in flash

Doesn’t look too bad, but it’s a little flat and there’s a nasty shadow behind the model. (Please ignore the distracting background. We had to use what was there.)

2. One off-camera flash at about 45º to camera right

The right side of the face is nicely lit but due to the very hard quality of the light the glasses and nose throw very strong shadows. Doesn’t look like an improvement to the camera’s built-in flash. Are we on the right track?

3. Put a shoot-through umbrella on the flash to soften the light

Ah, now we’re onto something! Looks well-balanced. Note how soft the shadows from the nose and glasses look compared to the shot above. The left side of the face is still completely in shadow.

4. Add a second light to camera left to light up the left side of the face

This is effective but comes off a little strong. Either dial down the power of the second flash or …

5. Bounce the second flash to the wall to get a very natural diffused light

Compare this again with the first photo (built-in on-camera flash) to see how flat that really is:

In Action

BarCamp Berlin 3 (by
Photo ©
photography session (by hebig)
Photo © Heiko Hebig

What equipment do I need?  

Flash units

Most used flash units with a standard hot shoe will work. It is imperative that the flash can be switched to full manual mode. Here’s an (incomplete) list of flashes that can be had for 100 EUR or less on ebay:

  • Nikon SB-24, SB-26, SB-28/SB-28DX, SB-80DX. The SB-26 might be the best of the bunch because it has an optical slave trigger, i.e. it can be triggered automatically when another flash fires. I have the SB-24 and it’s great, too.
  • Canon 540EZ (I got two of these, one for as little as 35 EUR), 520EZ, 420EZ
  • Sunpak 383
  • Vivitar 285HV: this flash recently went back into production so you can also buy it new.

Radio triggers

The radio triggers I used are called “Cactus V2s” and are sold by Hong Kong company Gadget Infinity. You can get them for 20-25 EUR (depending on the exchange rate) on ebay or at GI’s online store. Highly recommended for price-performance, even though they are not 100% reliable all the time.

Other stuff

  • Light stands (Lichtstativ, Blitzstativ, Leuchtenstativ) differ in stability, max/min height and ease of use. A cheap one suffices, it doesn’t have to hold a lot of weight. Example at German online store Foto Koch.
  • Gadget Inifinity is also a good source for cheap umbrellas and umbrella swivel holders (the things that go on top of the light stand to mount the umbrella and flash) but then your shipping costs will go up so compare prices! It might be cheaper to get those locally.

Where to learn more  

The best source is the Strobist blog by David Hobby. His Lighting 101 takes you all the way from choosing and buying your equipment to using it effectively. Highly recommended.

If you have further questions, ask them in the Strobist group on Flickr (or Strobist in German on Flickr).

If you live in Berlin, check out our local Flickr group berlinflickrtreffen. We have regular photo meetups and also do the occasional strobist workshop from time to time.

Berlin-based Radio Fritz interviewed me about the topic on Saturday. Listen to it (MP3, in German, my part is between 22:15 and 27:00). Shownotes at Radio Fritz.

Examples: what you can do with this  

Here are a few examples of Strobist shots. If you’re willing to experiment, there’s no limit to what you can do!

Photography is cool (by Till_Hamburg)
Photo © Till_Hamburg
Sceptic (by 96dpi)
Photo © 96dpi
Agent Taurec (by
Photo ©
Hooded Man (by [martin])
Photo © [martin]
Dana (by
Photo ©
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (by [martin])
Photo © [martin]
Three (by 96dpi)
Photo © 96dpi
.prisoner. (by Taurec)
Photo © Taurec

Comments and questions? Contact me