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Smoke and Mirrors: Boosting Your Strobe Count on the Cheap


Not all that long ago, I was in the unenviable position of having only a camera, lens and flash. While the popularity of one-light tutorials and DVDs demonstrates that it's entirely possible to achieve excellent results with this limitation, what happens when you want to move on to more complex looks as your skills progress?

Most would simply say "hey, no one ever told you photography was going to be cheap," and while I'd agree with them, what are you supposed to do once you've mastered your one light, but can't yet afford or justify a second, third, fourth? In this article, I'm going to look at applying some ingenuity to basic lighting techniques, in order to boost your lighting abilities.

Duplicating a Light

Most of the work involved with lighting seems to consist of controlling and cutting out light from where we don't want it, either amplifying it or wasting it. But if your lighting is limited, it makes sense the full power of your light. Let's look at ways of controlling the light in a different way.

If you take a regular modern studio strobe with a protruding flash tube and/or frosted dome, you get a very wide spread of light. With a speedlight equipped with a zoom head, you can still get a pretty wide angle of light output.

Equal power (65Ws Einstein, 1/1 YN-560III), speedlight zoomed into 35mm for a similar spread angle.
Equal power. A 65Ws Einstein and YN-560III speedlight zoomed into 35mm (hence brighter appearance) for a similar spread angle.

The question is how to move this light around a studio space without actually moving the flash head. Assuming you have a single, hard source, to move it around you have two options: reflect and diffuse. Or rather, partial reflection and diffusion. Visualise splitting the wide spread of light into multiple chunks to be moved around where you need them. All you need are a few household items.

Moving the Light

First, we'll be reflecting the light from our point source to where it needs to go. There are three options for this: a bright white surface, a silver surface, or a mirror. The mirror is more efficient and will preserve more of your flash's power. However, it will be a hard light, as if it had come directly from the flash itself.

A mirror may as well be a window for all the difference it makes to the light path; pure redirection, no diffusion.
A mirror may as well be a window for all the difference it makes to the light path. Pure redirection, no diffusion.

The other option is a white surface. This could be anything, a foamboard, a tablecloth, a white table. This is going to reflect less light and spread it over a wider area, but the light will have a more pleasant, diffused quality.

The white side of a triflector board; the silver side is punchier with a little less spread.
The white side of a triflector board; the silver side is punchier with a little less spread.

The final option is to use a diffuser, but this cannot redirect light, only soften it in a straight line from the flash unit. This is useful to create key lights, since we can place it over part of the spread of light, and use the outer edges elsewhere, as I'll show in a later example.

No Flash to Waste

Another important question to ask yourself is, particularly before using a diffusive material, "do I have to use a flash here?" Look at what natural light is available, and the quality of that light. If it's large and diffused (or diffusable) use that instead of wasting half of your flash's output on a diffusion silk. Hard sunlight lancing through a window or slit in the curtains could also fill a role, freeing up for flash for something else.

Use your flash only for those elements that absolutely need it, and life should be easier.

The main additions to the basic lights and stands. Everyday stuff for photographers.
The main additions to the basic lights and stands. Cheap, everyday stuff for photographers.

Now that I've covered the general theory, let's dive in and see what's possible with bare-minimum equipment when we combine it with cheap items and household objects. I took an afternoon experimenting around the house with a couple of speedlights to see what portrait lighting setups I could conjure up. I was shooting self-portraits, which made working out the reflection angles a little harder. If you can have your subject sit in place while you work on the angles, it should go more smoothly.

Basic Split for Cross-Light

First let's start simple, creating a basic two-light cross setup.

Half the beam is diffused as key, half is bounced from the mirror.
Half the beam is diffused as key, half is bounced from the mirror for fill.

Using the mirror rather than a reflector let me place it further back, providing some flexibility with framing. This resulted in the following portrait.

Simple portrait.
Simple portrait.

Not bad, but the flat grey background feels a bit dull to me. Now I needed to get light on the seamless to give a brighter background.

Three Lights: Cross-Lighting on a Gradient Background

By splitting the light beam into three, we can get a bright graduated background, a soft key light on one side of the face, and provide fill with a reflector.

Now split into thirds, same as before but with one third lighting the seamless.
Now split into thirds, same as before, but with one third of the lighting for the seamless.

This is more like a traditional portrait with a key light, a fill light, and another light on the background.

A little more visually interesting than the first image.
A little more visually interesting than the first image.

Three Lights: Edge Lighting With Soft Key

With the basics out of the way, let's try some more interesting looks. First, one of my favourites: soft key light combined with rim lighting:

Commercial lighting with one light? Yep, it's possible.
Commercial lighting with one light? Yep, it's possible.

I dropped the exposure to get a shallow depth of field here; around 1/16th power.


This was a better result than I was expecting with such minimal gear. Normally to get this same look I'd pull out the beauty dish and stripboxes. Let's see if we can improve even further.

High Key Clamshell With One Light?

Here I discovered that a one dollar plastic party tablecloth makes a fantastic silk offering 9 x 4.5 feet of beautiful diffusion, perfect for a background light source for a high key shot. The bottom clamshell reflector was mounted on the mic stand at an angle, the top reflector was perched on a bench vice clamped to a light stand, angled downward by flying it from a shoelace duct taped between the top of the reflector and the stud on the light stand.

Tablecloths are amazing things.
Tablecloths are amazing things.

The result is predictably beautiful light from about $15 worth of stuff, a couple light stands and a flash.

Not bad for a one-light portrait with no real modifiers, eh?
Not bad for a one-light portrait with no real modifiers, eh?

Adding Natural Light

Natural light becomes a big save, because we can use it pretty much any way we want for any kind of soft lighting. I'm using it here to provide a beautiful golden key light while the background is nuked with flash from the right, adding a symmetrical rim that reminds me of the previous image.

Magic hour gives beautiful light directly into windows.
Magic hour puts beautiful light directly through windows facing the right direction.

The light is as good as the description implies.


This is the high key version, a Chiaroscuro effect could be achieved simply by moving the subject further forward from the background.

Abilities With a Second Flash

Of course, using two flashes gives us a bit more flexibility. Either one can become a single light which would be difficult using bounce, or they can both be multiplied, as the situation dictates.

Getting more experimental. The diffusers depicted here ended up not being used; would be interesting to see what effect they have.
Getting more experimental. The diffusers depicted here ended up not being used.

I was originally going to soften the front lighting, but I decided in the spirit of the afternoon's experiment, to see what happens when it's left hard. Does it create messy shadows, or does the equal power with reflectors create an unexpected result?

Hard and crisp, very interesting.
Hard and crisp; intriguing.

It's interesting, almost like a ringlight look. The light is even and crisp with good modeling, but without any strong shadows. Is it something I'd use again? Probably not, but it's useful to know for the run-and-gun bag of tricks.

Two Lights, Plus Natural Light

Combining all three gives us the ultimate flexibility available in this ultra-tight low-gear situation. I've actually kept it quite subtle here, using one as a ceiling-bounced hairlight instead of trying to fly a small mirror overhead.

Not the most extravagant usage of the lights available, admittedly.
Admittedly, not the most extravagant usage of the lights.

I left the mirror I was using as a reflector for this in the shot and separated the subject from the background with rim light and a shallow depth of field for a more naturalistic portrait rather than a studio setup.

But it does make for a nice result.
It does make for a nice result.

So there you have it. A few surprising images, I think, from an almost non-existent budget. Adding up everything I used on this shoot comes to less than $200. If you only use the one light setups and are more careful about backdrops and the like, you can get out for under $100.

Embrace Your Constraints

Constraining your abilities can sometimes be the key to growth as an artist. Having access to everything, making life easy, can lead to a creative plateau or stagnation. Stripping away the fancy new toys can be the key to self-improvement, to improving your eye and brain, providing an opportunity for inspiration to happen.

I found that a couple of interesting lighting scenarios are far easier to achieve than I originally thought, which I may plan to work into upcoming shoots, or stash in the bag of tricks for another time.

Embrace limitations. They make us better. Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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