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Photography

Build Your Own DIY V-Flat Light Modifiers

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This post is part of a series called DIY Photography and Video: Gear, Tips and Tricks.
DIY Boompole Carrying Case

V-flats are a staple of studio setups and have a wide array of uses, but the "real" flats they're usually made up of are a type of foamboard for display mounting called Gatorboard, which comes in large, thick sheets which are nice and sturdy. Cheap version are usually made from 1" polystyrene insulation board, which requires painting to be useable and is prone to chipping and breakage.

In this tutorial, I'm looking at creating a v-flat setup using sheet on PVC framing. While I'm not usually a fan of PVC gear (mainly because it looks unmistakeably like PVC gear) this design is far more rugged than the usual cheap alternatives while not being significantly heavier.

It is much more versatile than the traditional thick foam versions. V-flats are also a fairly casual, rough-and-ready thing even in the highest-end studios, so there's no real worry about looking "amateur" to a client.

My version is also modular, so you could technically have z-flats or w-flats if you so wish, and of course you can use a Super Clamp or Gorillapod to attach small lights, flags and more to the frame.


1. Materials

For my setup, I'm using 6x3 foot sheets of fluted/corrugated polypropylene sheet (usually known as Correx or Coroplast) as the main bounce board panels. The frame is constructed from 1" Sch40 pressure PVC, which I found to be a good compromise between the low weight of 3/4" and the rigidity of 1-1/4". If you go bigger with your setup, you may wish to move up a size, but I've found 1" to be quite adequate and I think it would be fine at the full 8x4 foot size.

vflats_01

I'm limited by what I can fit in a small five-door sedan, so three feet wide is the largest I can go. This also helps in the relatively limited studio space available, where four feet would be overkill anyway.

While I have PVC cement, I'm dry fitting my frames together, as it holds sufficiently for my purposes, can be knocked back together easily enough on occasion, and can be dismantled if desired for reconfiguration, storage, travel, etc.


2. Measuring and Calculating

The exact dimensions of your cuts will probably depend on the PVC system you use. The dimensions I use in this tutorial are for the TrueFit system from Charlotte Pipe.

First, I need to know how large the tees and elbows are, since these dimensions will be a part of the overall frame dimensions. Then I need to know how deep the PVC fits into the fittings, since this needs to be subtracted from the fitting dimensions. The TrueFit fittings appear to be 1 1/32" deep, but I'm ignoring the 1/32- this doesn't need to be flawless, and since pipes rarely seat all the way into the socket, it'll come out at the end anyway. Generally one inch pipe will have one inch sockets, but you should check just in case.

Now you see why I normally recreate these scrawls as nice vector diagrams for you!
Now you see why I normally recreate these scrawls as nice vector diagrams for you!

Now these dimensions can be put together to give the pipe lengths for the seven segments of each frame. I'm doing seven-foot frames, for several reasons, the main one being that six feet isn't really high enough a reflector for a standing subject's face.

It also gives me a gap underneath to allow maneuvering of light stand legs or routing power and sync cables, along with a bar that can be sandbagged or taped down when outdoors or if using a heavy-duty fan. If I'm doing full-length shots where I may need the bottom fully lightproof, a dollar sheet of foambard or posterboard will close the hole easily enough.


3. Building the Frame

Cut the Pipe

Since PVC is basically K'Nex for grownups, this part is really quite simple. First, cut all the sections for the side segments, 16 in total. These are 39 3/4" long for me. I grouped them into sets of four as I went to make life easier. Then cut all the horizontal segments, which there should be 12 of, unless you decide to skip the centre bar. I grouped these into sets of three as I went.

Easy to keep a quick visual eye on progress while cutting, and avoid waste.
Easy to keep a quick visual eye on progress while cutting, and avoid waste.

Build the Sections

Once this is done, it's just a case of pushing the right pieces together. To make sure they hold, I used a fair amount of bodyweight for each fit, which should make them difficult, but not impossible, to knock apart. If you want to make dismantling easier, ream out the sockets to the exact diameter of your pipe and use set screws to hold them together instead.

Make sure your fittings are facing in the same direction as you go. I just made sure the socket openings were roughly parallel to each other when I looked down the piece.

Turns out the Canon kit lens goes to f/36. Huh!
Turns out the Canon kit lens goes to f/36.

Join the Dots

I built both side sections at once, put the crossbars into one of them, then lightly fitted the other side piece onto those, starting from the middle, before pushing down from one end.

Well that was easy...
Well that was easy.

Now it's just a case of making the other three!


4. Prepping For Painting

Halve the Straps

The PVC conduit straps/clamps we're using here don't all need to be two-hole, but it's cheaper to buy them that way and cut them in half. This gives slightly less hold than the three-quarter grip of a one-hole strap, but because we're putting them on every single segment, it'll be impossible for them to move anyway.

Leave four of the straps to clamp the centres of the flats, then cut the rest in half. This should give you four two-holes, 20 one-holes, plus a spare that you can leave as two-hole or cut in half, either way's fine.

PVC cutters: endless fun.
PVC cutters: endless fun.

Drill the Holes

By drilling the holes first, it's impossible to damage the paint layer with the drill bit. So take one sheet, put a frame over it, and measure the halfway point of each section. Put the strap or half-strap at that point, then mark the centre of its hole(s) on the plastic sheet. Do this for all seven (eight if you're covering the entire frame) holes on one sheet.

Measure the section, then measure half way along. Easier than trying to place the clamp halfway along in one go.
Measure the section, then measure half way along. Easier than trying to place the clamp halfway along in one go.

Line up your plastic sheets as best you can upside down, so that the top edges are on the floor. Then try to make the sides line up too. They probably won't match exactly, but you should be able to get them reasonably close, then spring clamp them together in place.

Laying them across a table with the hole being drilled just off the edge was the easiest method, just hold the edge together (or spring clamp around the outside) where you're drilling so that the sheets don't spread apart. You should end up with four sheets, identically drilled, nice and neat-looking.


5. Painting and Joining

Almost done! It's time to break out the flat black spray paint and cover one side of the Coroplast, the frames and the top/sides of the straps. You may want to give the surface a light sand with a very fine grit emery first, since the surface can be quite glossy, though it's not strictly necessary for this plastic.

I compared Krylon Fusion and Rustoleum Painters' Touch, and while the rotatable flat nozzle of the Fusion is handy for thin, linear stuff like the straps, the Painter's Touch gives far better coverage and opacity for area surfaces while being significantly cheaper ($3-4 a can vs $8-10 for the Krylon). Since it takes about a can per panel, that price difference adds up. Look into what's suitable for plastic local to you, as there may be a better alternative depending on location.

Oooh, pretty!
Oooh, pretty!

At this point, I added some gaffer tape to the areas where the straps grip the tubing, since the paint is relatively easy to wear off, particularly in the first week after painting. I may also add gaffer tape to areas where it gets gripped or bumped a lot, depending on how it wears.

Now it's all ready to put together, so slot a washer onto your seven/eight bolts, and push or thread them through the holes in the sheet from the white side. On the black side, add another washer. Lay your frame over the sheet in place, and now you can add the straps. Another washer and a nut on each bolt, tighten everything up, and you're done!

Almost there...
Almost there.

Once you've done all four panels, grab the Velcro and fasten together the PVC frames at the joints and straps. You don't need to worry about whether the v-shape can rotate 180 degrees to create a corner in either orientation (frame inside or frame outside) since you can just loosen up the Velcro at any time. Bungees or more Velcro could be used to keep them folded flat in storage.

Yay!
Yay! You can use strong backlighting to see where to touch up the paint on the sheets, if they're not opaque enough for you.

You now have two complete v-flats, with adaptable frames and replaceable sheets! Now let's look at some of the basic uses of v-flats to get you started with them.


6. Natural Light Fill

If you have large windows or French doors, this is an easy way to create a big, soft, beautiful light that's ideal for portraiture and glamour.

Basic natural light portrait setup. Sue Bryce uses this all the time.
Basic natural light portrait setup. Sue Bryce uses this all the time.
The clearly visible difference. Much softer whilst retaining modelling.
The clearly visible difference. Much softer whilst retaining modeling.

7. Strobe Reflector

Enclose your subject in a box, and fill it with light. Instant high-key look without huge light.

I call this "The Cage" on shoots. Hopefully that's hilarious and not peturbing.
I call this "The Cage" on shoots. Hopefully that's hilarious and not perturbing.
Nope, no huge octabanks here, just a couple of regular cheap two-foot softies.
Nope, no huge octabanks here, just a couple of regular cheap two-foot softies.

8. Background Strobe Separation

If you're strobing your background in a smaller space and don't want the spill from those lights to fall on your subject, v-flats are generally the standard way to do it. Thus you can carefully control the lighting of your subject, without losing control of the background, and without needing white seamless 14 feet high and your subject 20 feet off the background!

The primary purpose of v-flats in studio photography, generally speaking.
The primary purpose of v-flats in studio photography, generally speaking.
Some nice soft wrap, but no blinding rimlight. Perfect.
Some nice soft wrap, but no blinding rimlight. Perfect.

9. Negative Fill

Flat black absorbs light. Simple. You want to drop those shadows, regardless of lighting situation? Just flip the flats. The panel will block ambient and bounced strobe, and the matt black surface will gobble up any stray light bounces from elsewhere, including from the subject itself.


10. Multipurpose Framing

I designed the frame to be able to serve multiple purposes by detaching the Coroplast sheets.

Diffusion/Scrimming

Simply stretch a piece of diffusive fabric in place over the frame, tape or spring clamp it on, and you have a large diffusion panel that can be held by stand clamps or, due to the centre bar, by an assistant.

Backgrounds

You could use a v-flat as-is for a backdrop, or you could bolt on an 8x4' sheet of hardboard, Lauan or thin ply to create a customisable wall or corner set. Bolt it to one side of a section, and direct the other side behind it, effectively creating a traditional flat. Use both v-flats to create a corner.

I'm sure there are more possibilities than these with such versatile frames. If you have any ideas, comment below!


Time to Bounce

This is a fairly simple project that should net you a tough, multipurpose setup for around $100 or so, plus a couple of hours to put it together. It's also fully customisable to suit your needs. So, happy bouncing, blocking, diffusing and filling!

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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