Welcome to the forum!

As an adjunct to the Tangents blog, the intention with this forum is to answer any questions, and allow a diverse discussion of topics related photography. With that, see it as an open invitation to just climb in and start threads and to respond to any threads.

Studio lights or flash?

ACLBurgerACLBurger Member
edited April 2014 in portraits & people
Mr. van Niekerk, you confuse me. I am now more confused than you know what in a tumble dryer.

“Learning” (rather trying to learn) from your tangents on how to use flash you have now made me believe you can actually get studio results by only using a single on camera flash. Let me put it this way, you Mr. van Niekerk can get better results using a single on camera flash, than I will be able to get with studio lighting. You see Sir, I was about to invest in some studio lighting and I returned to this site for a little information on studio lighting. Looking at your single on camera flash images I am no longer sure if it is worth investing in studio lights.

Ok, you need more information about my goal and intentions with studio lighting. I am an amateur with two years experience of digital photography. I had a HP 850 digital camera some years ago when digital was still very new (paid a fortune for it). It is only in the last two years that I have been getting really passionate and serious about photography. If only I had done it thirty years ago! Now I am considering portrait photography as a “retirement” pass time. I am thinking of a “studio” as mobile as possible to move around to do shoots on location and in shopping centers. Armed with a Nikon D200 and a SB80DX flash it might be a tall order.

My way of thinking is that I do not need a “better” camera but I can do with a better flash, like a SB600 or 700. Would that be a better investment than some studio lights?

I feel reluctant to post an image on this site as my standard of photography is way below anything I have seen on this site. However, how are you going to give me any advice if you have not seen any of my work? So, I am posting this image for you to judge. Please don’t laugh out loud! It is not a Neil van Niekerk and Neil van Niekerk would not sign his name to this image, it is an image captured using ideas from Neil van Niekerk.

My big question: should I carry on with photography? Is this image crap or any good? Did I do anything right when shooting this? Can I sign my name to this image? Should I investigate the possibility of obtaining studio lights or will two flashes do the job, the SB80 and a SB600 with the D200 or will a single SB700 do it (with some reflectors)? Should I rather watch cars for a “retirement” job?

Neil I know you can probably tell from the image exactly what I have done but here is the EXIF;
Nikon D200, SB80DX flash with diffuser dome fitted, turned 45 degrees towards ceiling and 135 degrees to the back. ISO 250, 1/160sec, Manual exposure, WB set to 5300K, Nikkor 18-135mm at 135mm. Shot in Jpeg, sharpened, resized and posted.

I was shooting in my ‘office’ at home with early morning light reflected from a west facing window on my right hand side. My model was not very co-operative as she refused to drop her left shoulder and sit the way I wanted her to sit. She is not nearly as stunning as any of your models but at least she is much more patient and I refused to pay her.

Please Neil, there is no such thing as an acceptable image, it is either crap or good. If it is crap I would like to know why and if it is any good that is all you need to say.

Kind regards,
Pop.jpg 254.8K


  • ZenonZenon Member
    edited April 2014
    Well I know this is addressed to Neil but I'll throw in my two cents as I follow his teachings. You must be having a bad day to consider giving up photography over one image :)

    I had a good look at it and it underexposed quite a bit. I opened it in photoshop and increased the brightness. It looks OK to me. The right side of the face is a little brighter than the left which gives it some definition or maybe a better term is not flat like direct flash would look. You might consider not placing the model against the wall which produced a shadow unless you are going for that look. Also you might think about getting a flash meter or using a simple technique like interpreting the histogram for correct exposure. Neil has a blog about that.

    As for single vs multiple light sources. You are comparing apples to oranges. There is no right or wrong, just different applications for different situations. If shooting in a studio then multiple light sources are preferable because you have better control between shadows and highlights. Like Syl Arena says in his books flash is not about controlling light, it is about controlling shadow that gives an image depth. Also in a studio set up you can add a 3rd or more flashes. The 3rd can be used for rim lighting. The flash is placed behind the subject to highlight and add separation. The first two are your Key and Fill lights. You set them up separately to give you that highlight and shadow definition.

    If you are looking for that type control then a studio set up is the way to go. As for flashes vs strobes? Do you want a permanent studio or do you want to be mobile and light? I have 3 speedlights. If I had the space for a studio I would have studio strobes and large soft boxes, etc. You plug them into the wall and have way more power to play with. In an ideal world I would have the permanent studio setup and the mobile one.

    As for single in camera flash - it is based on necessity. If I'm shooting a wedding or reception and have to be mobile then I use a single flash. We bounce to increase the light source - wall or ceiling. Also bouncing to the side gives you directional light which mimics a studio set up. Neil is not going to set up a studio in the room where a bride is getting ready but he will be able to bounce and get the results he wants. I have seen his images where he makes it look like she is sitting by a window and there is none. This just comes with practise and time and Neil has mastered this.

    The only other thing I noticed is you are using a dome on your flash. It is OK but does not really give you a lot of control when it comes to directional light. The dome sprays light all over the place bouncing off everything. By using flash head itself and adding the black foamy thing to control spill you can achieve directional lighting. It just takes time and practise.

    So no, your image did not look like c&^% to me so don't give up. You just need to decide what your application will be and then decide on what type of lighting you want to work with. I would start with getting the correct exposure and moving your subject away from a wall or better yet put the wall behind you.

  • ZenonZenon Member
    Oh yes. I'm not sure I would have responded to this so my apologies in advance Neil. Just like Aldo Rayne (Brad Pitt) responded in Inglorious Basterds after he killed Col. Hans Landa's (Christopher Waltz) assistant. He told Aldo he would be shot for it. "Na. More like chewed out. I've been chewed out before."

    I watch far too many movies.
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    Zenon, no please, I love that everyone chips in and replies and helps.
    This most definitely helps make the forum what it is. So thank you!
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    Back to the original question.
    Looking at the image, it is under-exposed. Not bad per se, but check your exposure metering.
    ACLBurger said: My way of thinking is that I do not need a “better” camera but I can do with a better flash, like a SB600 or 700. Would that be a better investment than some studio lights?
    I wouldn't advise you at this point to get studio lights. The money would be better spent on a better camera, such as a used Nikon D700. It would be a huge step up from the D200.

    Re flashes, don't go for the smaller units. I really would suggest the Nikon SB-910 at this point.
    Both the SB-600 and SB-700 are limited compared to the SB-910.

    But definitely not the SB-600. The SB-600 can't be used as a master flash, and has limited direction the head can swivel. It doesn't have enough power imho, to be used as a bounce flash - especially not when limited by slow zooms, and the Nikon D200.

    So before you invest in studio lights, there's other things you would be better off investigating.

    ACLBurger said: ISO 250, 1/160se
    Why such a low ISO?
    ACLBurger said: SB80DX flash with diffuser dome fitted,
    For bounce flash indoors in a typical room in a house, the plastic dome is unnecessary.
  • ZenonZenon Member
    Thanks Neil. My suggestion about studio lights was due to you can get pretty decent deals. Alien Bees is one of the best set of lights for the money. Of course there are more expensive ones and other manufacturers. Neil made some good points. My friend had a D200 and got the D800 last year and he is very happy with it. Another option is the SB-910 as Neil suggested as your main flash for all the bounce work and pick up one or two cheap Yongnuo (YN) flashes that have TLL for studio. That is of course if you want TTL. In studio work manual flash is better so perhaps get just one or two manual flashes and a flash meter. You can get plain Jane flashes for $70. You will need some triggers as well. Yongnuo have a both TTL and non TTL triggers. If you go with inexpensive secondary flashes and triggers you will have not spent a lot of money in case it does not work for you and selling them would be pretty easy. You could probably get two flashes, triggers and a meter for under $500. I'd keep the meter if the additional flashes don't work.

    If you are interested in YN I can post some links to some of their flashes and trigger systems.

    Here is a decent basic flash meter. I have the L358 which was very popular but was discontinued. There used ones available.


    Just in case


  • I sincerely wish to thank Zenon and Neil for the replies. Any and all comments will always be appreciated.

    Thank you Zenon, I did a re-shoot.

    Thank you for spending your valuable time to comment. “Not bad per se” I will take that as a compliment, coming from you.

    Maybe I am missing the bus, but I believe a better camera will not “make” me take better pictures. A D700, yes I would love it. To be honest, I made up my mind about a second hand D3x once I can afford it. You must remember I am not making money with my camera. I have to learn to take better pictures before looking at upgrading to FF.
    I appreciate your advice on the SB 910, and I believe it is the best tool for the job. It is however, not the best tool for my budget. I have to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

    Ok, let me try to understand things from a different perspective. I say: Studio lights – Neil van Niekerk sees the best there is, big bucks. I see a budget 2- 3 light setup. I say camera, you see a D4s, I see a second hand D200. I say flash and you see an SB 910 – I see a second hand SB 700.

    I told you I am way out of my league on this forum. Remember you guys are playing from a scratch and I am playing from an 18 handicap. I am learning, you are leading.

    ISO 250? The D200 does not like high ISO settings. Noise, I do not like it! You say, “to control exposure with flash you can adjust ISO, aperture, flash output and distance from subject”. The ISO was set to 250 because I wanted to reduce flash recharging time by limiting flash output. The aperture was wide open, allowing for “correct” exposure I adjusted ISO. Ok, the exposure was not correct, I should probably have bumped up ISO.

    The 1/160sec shutter speed is purely for preventing any camera shake, although I was using a tripod. If I understand you correctly it does not matter what the shutter speed is as long as it is within the sync range. Nikon D200 max flash sync = 1/250sec.

    The diffuser dome? Ok, I know it was not a good idea. To be honest, the only reason it was on there was to prove a point to myself that the Chuck Norris of Photography is wrong when he advises people to throw away that little dome. Sorry Neil, I should only have used your suggested method when bouncing flash. (But I am not throwing away that little dome.)

    After reading the response from Zenon I did a re-shoot with this result. I used a BPT (Black Papery Thing) to keep direct flash from my model. EXIF: 1/160 sec, f5, ISO 100, (I told the flash I was shooting at f11) Manual settings, WB 5000K. The lens is a Sigma 70-300mm.

    Hope this one is better.

    Pop.jpg 247.4K
  • ZenonZenon Member
    edited April 2014
    There is no camera in the world that will make you take better pictures in the general sense. The main difference is as you mentioned noise in low light situations and high ISO settings. Then there is advanced AF and bells and whistles that can help with highlight control which I don't use.

    Your still a tad underexposed however it has very good depth. Nice shadow in the left side which gives it a rich look so you are on the right track.

    Here is a simple things you can use to help with exposure. Whites are your friend. Get them correct and the rest falls into place. In this situation you could almost use the whites of the dolls eyes but there is not a lot of information.


    White towel method. I attended a lighting workshop put on by my local camera club they actually put big piece of white paper in front of the lens, put the lens on manual focus and adjusted the flash exposure to get the histogram correct, then shot the model.


    Last question. Is your monitor calibrated? That may be a reason why we see it underexposed. Otherwise you are on the tight track.

    I bumped up the curve a bit in PS. I think you should be closer to this.

    rrr.jpg 237.7K
  • I wish your model would smile...I'm sure she has beautiful teeth...LOL

    Thanks for the insight as well Neil and Zenon.
  • ZenonZenon Member
    More info for the histogram :)
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    ACLBurger said: After reading the response from Zenon I did a re-shoot with this result. I used a BPT (Black Papery Thing) to keep direct flash from my model. EXIF: 1/160 sec, f5, ISO 100, (I told the flash I was shooting at f11) Manual settings, WB 5000K. The lens is a Sigma 70-300mm.
    How did you get to those settings?

  • Zenon,

    Thank you very much. You made my day.

    No Zenon, my screen (s) is/are not scientifically calibrated. I have no idea of what a calibrated screen should look like. Calibrated to what? A printer? My camera’s LCD? A lab printed image? Is it worth trying to calibrate a cheap screen?
    Looking at images captured by Neil I only see very well exposed stunning looking images on my screen/s. “A wedding in Melbourne” Pei-Wen and Eric on the beach, the clouds, sky, colour of the sand, the reflection of the setting sun, skin tone it all look very real. His shirt looks whiter than her dress. The exposure and colours in that image look really good on my screen.

    Your rendition of my image has more punch. It looks much better than my attempt. The hair of the doll looks “alive”. I can see nothing “clipping” to the bright side. My rendition looks much “softer” than yours. So, Zenon, I think what I see on my un-calibrated screen is not really that far off from what it should look like.
    Neil is asking me how I got to those settings. The question is in line with your response.

    To answer Neil’s question:

    How do I get to specific settings:
    With flash (I am a complete idiot): I make a test shot and adjust by gut feel. Bumping up flash output by telling the flash I was shooting at f11 whilst the actual aperture was f5 is one way I found to compensate, to get the “correct” exposure. I guess it will only work until the flash is at maximum output. Thereafter I will start increasing ISO.

    The SB80 on the D200 does not work with iTTL. In Auto it exposes correctly as long as I set the correct aperture. I do lots of thumb sucking with flash.

    Looking at the histograms of most of my images it is clear to me that I tend to under expose. I shoot too much to the left.
    No, I have never used the histogram to determine the correct exposure. This is the first time anybody has given me any real good explanation as to why and how to use the histogram to get the correct exposure.

    I was going to ask “how do you determine if your subject is correctly exposed?” What is “correct” exposure?

    I will re-shoot until the Guru of flash photography (Mr. Neil van Niekerk) is happy with the outcome. Even if it is the only thing I do for the next year.

    Much appreciated,
  • Neil,

    It is not a matter of how I got to those settings only. You make me think, how do I get to any setting.

    Basically I will decide on DOF control, set the aperture to what I want, keep ISO as low as possible and then adjust shutter speed accordingly. I like shooting from a tripod whenever my subject is stationary.

    I now realise, I do not really know what correct exposure is. Simply trusting the exposure meter in the camera is not good enough. Lately I have had this feeling that I am missing “something” in my images. Could it be exposure? Is that perhaps the reason one image is almost good and the next is lacking something?

    Back to square one for me. Learning how to properly expose an image.

    Why am I using specific settings? What is the correct exposure?

    Thank you Neil, no spoon feeding here! Think, think, think.
  • Thank you for that link Zenon. Single flash with different reflectors.
  • ZenonZenon Member
    edited April 2014
    So your screen appears to be OK. I have an NEC monitor and use SpectraView which was made for NEC. People like the Spyder but I found it did not play nice with NEC.

    It is really all about the flash. Put it in manual, start at full power - 1:1 and work your way down. Compare the results to images you like and pick the best one. Then put it in TTL and figure how to match it. I still really recommend you using the histogram to your advantage and it does not hurt to have the blinkies on just in case there is white that is brighter in the background.

    Good luck
  • Neil vNNeil vN Administrator
    ACLBurger said: I now realise, I do not really know what correct exposure is.
    This was where I was headed with my question. Your photo is under-exposed again.
  • ZenonZenon Member
    When I shot my first wedding I used Neil's approach using the histogram to see where the whites fell. It was a life saver. A lot of white at a wedding. Collars, cuffs, purses, sweaters. I even used the table cloth as as reference. It is a lot easier than you think. If you are really serious a flash meter (much better) will take all the guess work out and you will get perfect flash exposures every time.
  • Thank you Neil.

    Ok, reshoot after learning a little about exposure.

    Neil, before you ask me again: 1/125ces, you know why: f5.6 - wide open: Manual settings: ISO800 because the histogram told me that is where I have to go: full power flash reflected from a TV screen using my Black Papery Thing to keep direct flash from my model. WB 5600K. The BG is a painters canvass (white).

    She is still not smiling because I am still not paying her. I am smiling!!!!!

    Is this better? SOOC Jpeg: sharpened.


    Zenon, I was looking at a Seconic. Between you and Neil - I might just get it right without a meter. What do you do if you leave the meter at home?

    Please ignore the vignetting?
  • ZenonZenon Member
    Looks like a good exposure to me.
  • Thank you Zenon.

    I think Neil is going to get me by the short hair about Max Flash Sync speed.
    Read the Tangents!

  • Sorry Neil.

    1/125sec is not acceptable. (Ses van die bestes vir my.)

    Is that the reason my camera has a x250 when passing BULB?
    Will I be wrong in assuming that X250 should always be used when shooting flash, EXCEPT when dragging the shutter?
  • WickWick Member
    edited April 2014
    Your picture was perfect. I like it. Much better than a perfectly exposed version...
    Look at your histogram- it's all there.
  • Thank you Wick,

    I really appreciate your comment. Do you mean you like the second image I posted better than the last one. I would appreciate if you can elaborate as to why you like it better.

    Wick, Neil said ‘it is not bad per se’ this comment is a compliment to me. What I read in this comment is “it is not the worse I have seen yet but there is a lot you need to learn to be able to sell your work”.

    The last comment form Zenon is: “Looks like a good exposure to me”. What Zenon is saying to me is “you have learned something, now go apply what you have learned”. Zenon could have told me how crappy the image is. Horrible composition with a distracting hand and rose, but no, the exposure looks fine. I have learned a very valuable lesson in using flash.

    Photographers like Neil and Zenon do not shoot Jpeg as a rule, they shoot RAW.
    They know why I posted these images SOOC shot in Jpeg and not in RAW.

    I will always appreciate nice comments but I get excited about learning something from any comments.
Sign In or Register to comment.