Getting nice, flattering light quickly is a huge challenge to wedding and event photographers. For years a bounce card or a small Stofen diffuser was pretty much the only option. Then Gary Fong invented the Lightsphere and made flattering, on-camera flash more accessible to the photographers in the fast-paced wedding world. Here I'll be taking you on a guided tour of the Lightsphere Collapsible.
The Lighting Challenges
Photography, literally translated, means "writing with light," and using on-camera flash to make your writing look good is tough. As great as speedlights are, when they're on-camera they tend to produce a light that is completely unflattering to our subjects, no matter what or who they are.
For event and wedding photographers, this isn't good. The light is hard and flat, much like shining a flashlight or car headlights on someone. While moving the flash off-camera does help a little, it is still the same kind of hard light.
Solutions come in the form of bouncing the light off a wall or ceiling, using an umbrella, or a bounce card. However, these light-diffusing (also called softening) techniques have shortcomings in the fast-paced event and wedding world. Sometimes walls or ceilings are too far away or colored.
Setting up and toting around an umbrella may not be low-profile enough, and a bounce card may still be too harsh and directional. The Lightsphere puts a little of bouncing, diffusion, and directionality into one package.
Putting it On
The Lightsphere comes with a simple, handy "cheat sheet" with instructions on how to install it onto your flash unit. Follow them.
Affix the Lightsphere onto your flash before you mount it onto your camera if you're using for the first time. The first few times the plastic will be very stiff and the fit very snug, but that snug fit is to prevent the diffuser from falling off. After a few uses, it will go on and stay on pretty easily. Push it on at a 45° angle and wiggle it into place. Then pull up on the larger outer portion and voila!
You can use it convertible-style or install the included white plastic dome. The dome can be installed in two ways for different levels of diffusion: compact and normal.
The compact mode "compacts" the light by decreasing the apparent size, keeping the spread more horizontal. It is great for areas with low ceilings or when you want a little more "oomph" at camera-level.
The normal mode increases the apparent size of the Lightsphere, giving you more diffusion. It's great for groups and portraits. Removing the dome entirely (convertible-style) sends a lot of light upward, helping you reach higher ceilings.
The main way you position your flash head is vertically and pivoted so that the narrow side is facing your subject, but keep the hinge oriented so that you can go from horizontal to vertical quickly. You'll have consistent light quality no matter your camera's orientation.
This is huge because even if your flash head gets knocked out of position, your light remains the same. I'm always knocking about my flashhead during receptions and news assignments. I don't have time to worry if my flash is "just so" and miss a fleeting moment.
Flash and Metering Settings
Understanding your metering system, how to meter, and how to adjust your flash in TTL and manual mode is crucial for any photographer. It is also important to know how much juice your light modifier will soak up. The Lightsphere is really efficient, costing only -0.7 stops without the dome. Adding the dome only costs another -0.5 stops if you point it straight at your subject. Otherwise, it hovers around -0.85 stops.
For all the scenarios, Gary Fong recommends using TTL-controlled flash, but that doesn't restrict you from using manual mode on your flashes. There are videos out there that suggest using the evaluative (matrix) metering setting, but I have found it to be easily tricked by the scenes commonly found in event and wedding photography.
Personally, I use spot metering to help me make judgements about my exposure and how I want to set my flash output relative to my settings. But which metering mode to use depends upon the situation and the effect you'd like to achieve.
Overall, TTL mode works excellently for nearly all situations and spot metering allows me to grab quick, accurate readings of various parts of a scene and decide how to expose the image.
The cheat sheet that accompanies the Lightsphere also includes suggested settings for your camera too. For indoors, ISO 800 is suggested and for outdoors, ISO 100. The cheat sheet also bounces between Program (P) mode and Manual (M) mode, depending on the situation.
P mode is helpful because it still gives you some control over the exposure and flash. In some ways it's "semi-automatic." M mode surrenders all decision-making to the photographer and won't automatically adjust any settings to compensate for a change in the scenery. That can be helpful if your camera keeps getting tricked.
While ISO 800 seems a bit low for indoor shots, you can compensate for it by opening up your aperture and slowing your shutter. In a typical indoor setting (kitchen, bedroom, conference room, etc.) ISO 800 works very nicely. With today's cameras, it produces very clean images. However, you'll find yourself at f/4 and 1/40sec to get a good exposure.
This setting is fine for slow-moving, still, or posed subjects. Fast-moving subjects will have motion blur and the risk of blur from camera shake gets pretty high.
ISO 100 is great for those sunny outdoor scenes. Dropping that ISO low also enables you to keep your aperture wider, decreasing your need for more power from your flash. Here, you can use the Lightsphere as a fill-in for the shadows.
The Lightsphere's efficiency and diffusion make it a great pairing for balancing your flash with the sun while keeping your shadows soft. With proper fill-flash technique, you can make your fill seem invisible.
Using the Lightsphere Off-Camera
The Lightsphere is a great tool for softening on-camera flash, but you can do the same by using it on an off-camera speedlight too. This makes the Lightsphere an even more versatile omni-directional flash. Stick it on a stand, inside a lampshade, or around the corner. Of course, you'll be limited to the capabilities of your flash-triggering system.
Aside from being a nice off-camera flash light modifier, the Lightsphere can also be used to enhance the reliability of firing your optically-triggered flashes because it bounces the flash all over the place, very useful if your optical slave sensor isn't facing your master/commander unit at all times (i.e. a reception hall).
A Trick for White Balance
The Lightsphere also has little trick up it's sleeve when it's used off-camera: It can be used for Custom WB profiles. The included white dome diffuser can be used a lot like an ExpoDisc to attain proper WB whenever there isn't something neutral-colored in the scene or you don't want to pack anything extra.
Simply hold it over your lens like a lens cap, snap your photo, and create your custom WB profile. After that, it can go back into the bag or onto the Lightsphere. Its large diameter makes it compatible with nearly any lens a wedding or event photographer would have.
As you can see, the Lightsphere is a simple yet very versatile and useful tool in any wedding, event, or photojournalist's gear bag. It is a very simple accessory to use, turning "ugly" light into "pretty" light within seconds.
With a little practice and balancing with the ambient, you can make this little modifier's lighting results look like you've got a shoot-through umbrella at all times. You just pop it on, pop it out, and pop your flash.