eTTL for studio portraits??

Yes, I know that I am still on a bit of a Flash Fu kick. But here’s why: I truly believe that few photographers are really leveraging their investment in speedlites as much as they can be. Many (most?) pop the speedlite on top of the camera…and that’s about it, except for maybe incorporating some bounce techniques. Off camera flash with speedlites? I’m beginning to see more of that happening, but perhaps not nearly enough. Why not? To really master using speedlites off camera, one has to:

  1. recognize the power that a speedlite packs,
  2. invest a little in equipment to properly use speedlites off camera ( it really doesn’t take much coinage),
  3. RTFM, (read the “free” manual)  🙂
  4. understand and leverage the intelligence of the camera/speedlite eTTL (or iTTL for Nikon) linkage and leverage it whenever possible, and
  5. practice, practice, practice!

After being a purely “manual” photographer for a number of years, in the past few years I have somewhat begrudgingly forced myself to partner with the intelligence built into my newest camera and flash combo, the Canon 5D MKII and the Canon 580EXII speedlite.  I have found that by understanding the full capabilities of these tools I can offload some of the thinking when necessary and concentrate more on the creative aspect of the shot.  I’ve shown some of my success in using these tools coupled with RadioPoppers to  facilitate adding eTTL flash to high contrast scenes shot in full sun.  It’s worked well, and is now something I do for almost every outdoor portrait or wedding shoot.

So that got me to thinkin’:  Could I begin to successfully use eTTL flash in my in-studio portrait work?  Is that sacrilege?  My thought is “why not?”.  I use eTTL flash for environmental portraits.  I showed this spring how one can use eTTL flash for food photography.  Why not try it for studio portraits??  The biggest reason I could think of, and it is valid, is that I have invested a lot of money into studio strobes and softboxes.  The only other reasons I could think of were:

  1. Would the light be soft enough?  Speedlites are a small, hard light source.
  2. Would the lighting be consistent?  Ah, that could be the big one.  After all, one of the major benefits of using studio lighting is consistent, repeatable results.

I tackled the “softness issue” first by opening up the wallet (but not very much) and bought two Creative Light softboxes:  a 5′ Octobox for my key light ($206 retail) and a 2′ square softbox for my edge/hairlight $155 retail).  I also needed two speedlite speedrings at $97 each.  [Full disclosure note:  as an instructor, I did receive a educator discount from MAC; the prices shown here are suggested retail…I paid less.]  So for $555 — less than I paid for my Larson 4×6 softbox — I had a two light speedlite studio modifier kit.

Like any mad scientist, I opted to first implement my test on the nearest subject…myself.  Hey, I didn’t have an Igor handy, so what was I to do? I set up a 5D MKII on a camera stand, manually guess-prefocused a 70-200 lens (now that is NOT easy), set my shutter speed to 1/160th, my aperture to f5.6 and my ISO to 200.  The Octobox was set to camera right as key with a 580EXII set to eTTL, 0EV.  The 2′ square was set behind me opposite the key at a 45 degree angle, another 580EXII set to 0 EV   Both speedlites were fired by RadioPoppers in order to maintain the eTTL connection with the camera.

Michael Mowbray self portrait using eTTL Flash FuThe result?  Pretty much dead on.  Aesthetically, I would dial down the EV on the edge/hair light.  But overall, impressive!  (Except for the hideous model.) The light from the 5′ Octobox was pleasing.  The edge light was snappy.

The bottom line:  Just two speedlites, some inexpensive softboxes, NO METERING — just set an aperture and go with eTTL.  And just for the record, I shot a number of additional images and in each the key light was consistent and repeatable.  I just messed with the EV value on the edge light to pull it up and down.

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