How big a fill flap is right for you

I was too busy shooting weddings in June, in July I was recuperating from June and teaching at the Maine Media Workshops, August was just too damn hot and the weddings were happening again, and September and October were filled with finishing, editing, rewriting, and placing pictures for my new upcoming wedding book: Digital Wedding Photography: Art, Business, and Style which is due out in stores on May 3, 2011 which is just before the wedding season starts again. But it’s November now, the clocks fell back an hour last night (a sure sign the winter wedding doldrums are upon us), so I can no longer blame being busy as a bedbug as my reason for not posting to this blog…so my apologies…and let me get back to it…so how about fill flaps?

Everyone uses them (well, maybe mostly photographers who use on camera flash regularly), many flash manufacturers include them in their flash units, some manufacturers actually make only them, and there are probably as many names for them as there are people who use them (fill flaps, bounce cards, bounce fill reflectors, etc.). But, how many photographers actually think about what they do and how big they should be? Should we just use the one that the camera and flash manufacturers tuck into their flash offerings or should we try to figure out what works best for each of us individually? Or should we try and figure out if different sized fill flaps should be used for different situations? What follows (in part) is how the subject is handled in my new wedding book which I already plugged in the first paragraph of this post!

Many years ago, a few of us wedding photographers were sitting around a bar (after a long weekend of weddings) arguing about just how big a fill flap we should use. The main revelation of our discussion (other than me really liking 12-year old scotch) was that using bounce flash with a fill flap really broke the light into two components. One component was the light the bounced off the ceiling and was directed back down towards the subject, and the other component was the light that bounced off the fill flap and was directed straight ahead towards the subject.
Once we sobered up, we figured out that the important point about the two components was how they compared to each other! From experience we knew that, when we were working with two separate flash units, we generally preferred that one flash (the main light) was about 1.5 to 3 f/stops more powerful than our other flash (the fill light). The brightest bulb amongst us declared that the two components—our one-flash, bounce-plus-fill-flap setup—could be treated the same as our two-flash, main-plus-fill setup. A collective decision was made to figure out just how strong different-sized fill flaps were. What follows is the method we used to test a whole lot of different sized fill flaps.
Realizing we were interested in how the two components compared to each other, we set up the flash unit in a bounce light position, but without a fill flap, and took a few meter readings from about 10 feet away and from 7.5 feet away. The room we were working had about a 10-foot-high white ceiling. The flash meter reading was about f/8 for the 7.5-foot shot and about f/5.6 for the 10-foot shot. Now that we had this information, we had to devise a way to measure the intensity of light bouncing off various-sized fill flaps. This is what we did.
We took a large, open-topped cardboard box and painted the inside of it black. Next, we turned it upside down (so the open side was facing down) and suspended it between two Auto-Poles (but we could’ve just used two tall light stands). The box was held in place with simple hardware store “A” shaped spring clamps (the kind every photographer has hanging around their studio). The open bottom of the box was approximately 6 to 7 feet off the floor. Next, on a third light stand; we placed a battery-powered flash unit set in the bounce light position (meaning the reflector was pointing upwards) under the box so all of the bounce light’s power was directed up into the black box. We left about 18 inches between the top of the battery-powered flash’s reflector and the open bottom of the box. A quick test with a flash meter set about 10 feet away from our test setup showed that all of the bounce flash component was directed into and trapped by the box. Finally, we taped different sized fill flaps behind the flash head and took meter readings of each different sized fill flap as we flashed the flash. Because our black box captured and contained the bounce light component of our bounce-plus-fill-flap setup, our meter readings were only of the fill flap component of the flash unit’s output. To better understand what our testing setup looked like, check out the sketch just below.

Here’s what we found out:

1. The smallest fill flap we measured was 2.5 X 3 inches (approximately 6 X 7.5 cm) and found it had created a meter reading of f/2.8 for the 7.5-foot shot and f/2 for the 10-foot shot. While this size of fill flap was at the extreme edge of our desired difference between the two flash components (about 3 f/stops) we also found that by moving the fill flap slightly forward into the flash’s beam by using a fingertip pressing on its back we could increase its output by one f/stop. In that case the difference between the bounce flash and the fill flap would be two f/stops, and that, to my taste, seemed perfect.
2. Next, we tried a fill flap that was approximately 3.5 inches (about 9 cm) square. This increased the fill flap’s output by about 1 f/stop. To this day, I use two fill flaps sized to these dimensions when I’m shooting bounce flash. I use the smaller one in rooms with high ceilings and the larger one in rooms with more normal ceiling heights. I make this choice (when shooting manual flash) because I have to open up my lens a stop or two more for proper bounce light exposure in rooms with a high ceiling and the bigger fill flap creates too strong a fill-flap component when I’m in a larger room with a higher ceiling.
3. One of the photographers participating in this experiment then asked if we could switch the two components around and make the fill flap the primary light component so we made an even bigger fill flap and tried that one out. The new, larger fill flap was 5.5 X 3.5 inches (approximately 14 X 9 cm) and it (unlike the smallest one) was arranged horizontally.
4. Although I didn’t agree with making the fill flap the primary of the two lighting components, on a hunch, I agreed to experiment with the larger-sized fill flap for a specific reason. Sometimes, a room’s ceiling is painted a color other than white. If I put on my largest fill flap and tilt my flash head forward one or two clicks, the big fill flap acts almost like the box with the black inside in the experiment we did. This means the bounce component of the flash is almost entirely blocked by the fill flap and, for all practical purposes, the flap itself becomes my only light source. That completes the circle because when I do this I’m back to one component lighting.

Four images follow: Top left: Nikon’s built in fill flap for their SB-800, Top right: My custom made mid sized fill flap,

Middle: The three fill flaps I carry in my case,

Bottom: An image taken with my largest fill flap.

Posted on November 7, 2010 at 4:54 am by Steve Sint · Permalink · 2 Comments
In: DIY, Working with Flash · Tagged with: ,

Making Backgrounds Pop!

In my last post (Thinking out of the Boom Box) I wrote about certain lights having a life-force kind of energy that when used, if I did it right, could transfer that energy to my subject. While this is all well and good, being truthful, I must admit that harnessing this energy and transferring it to my portraits (as opposed to still life subjects) is difficult. That’s because this type of lighting is so edgy and crackling with power that it accentuates skin flaws and creates shadows that can be difficult to control – often to the detriment of how my subjects look!

Many accomplished photographers know this and when they light a face, looking to show its three-dimensional qualities while hiding skin imperfections and creating open shadows at the same time, they immediately choose or look for a large light source to illuminate their subject’s face. Whether it’s open sky or open shade outdoors, or window light, an umbrella, a diffuser, or bank light when working indoors, I consider these light sources to be more amorphous in nature. Instead of putting out a hard-edged beam I tend to think of them as putting out something more soft-edged, more like of a cloud of light, or a blob of light, or a powder puff of light. I started to use my “blob” lights for my subject’s faces almost exclusively. After a while, I even started to think of my large light sources as producing soft light and my small light sources as producing shards of light. I started to use my marshmallow lights for my subject’s faces almost exclusively.

To incorporate my “shard” lights into my portraiture, so I could pick up their energy, I started adding a hair light to my lighting design that was mounted on my boom and positioned the boom the way it was originally designed to be used. While doing this made my subject pop the background wall behind my subject (mostly in average type of rooms) was still lit by my amorphous, soft lights that made those walls look….well, how should I say this….I know, dull and lifeless!

To get away from “dull and lifeless” and get to snap, crackle, and pop for my backgrounds I started to use a light with a 20-degree grid on it to light my backgrounds. On a blank wall, or a seamless, or muslin backdrop many photographers (and me too!) use a tiny, short stand and place the light with a grid on it close to the floor behind their subject (see the first two photos). But, if the wall had furniture or a plant in front of it, or a painting hanging on it, putting my background light close to the floor created very unnatural shadows above these design details. For a while, even though it worked some of the time (see the third photo), because these unnatural shadows often looked so terrible to my eye, I just stopped using a background light altogether and let my soft lights illuminating the primary subject light the wall (with the design details on and in front of it) light my background as well. Unhappy with my results (no snap, no crackle, no pop) I finally got around to using a light with a grid on it, placed high and off to the side, to skim across the wall’s surface. Doing so made the background wall look exciting and interesting instead dull and lifeless and, as an added benefit, eliminated the unnatural shadows I hated so much. Now, check out the two photos of a catering hall lobby wall. The first is lit by only soft frontal light that will eventually light my subject too versus the second to which I added a 1.5 f-stop more powerful light with a 20-degree grid on it that skims its surface. That last photo is of a bride in front of a draped wall that uses the high light with a grid on it just off set to the left and skimming the wall’s surface. Which lighting technique do you think looks more interesting? That’s a rhetorical question because I like the high grid light better and think it adds bit of the light energy to the background that I’m talking about so that’s how I’m lighting it….at least for now!

Till my next post, take care, and why not make those backgrounds pop!


Posted on October 27, 2010 at 1:52 am by Steve Sint · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Working with Flash

Workshop/Demo Announcement, 12/13/10

When: Monday, 12/13/10

Time: 7:00 PM sharp

What: Light Modifiers: How to Use and Make Them

Where: Soho Gallery

15 White Street; New York, NY; 10013-2406

(212) 226-8571


Sponsored by: The Park West Camera Club and Sekonic Meters

Admission is Free. There will be a drawing for Door Prizes at the end of the evening

More info as date approaches:

Posted on October 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm by Steve Sint · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: Workshops & Lectures · Tagged with: 

Thinking Out of the Boom Box

A short sidebar from my upcoming Wedding Book: Digital Wedding Photography: Art, Business, and Style.

A lot of professional photographers, and other imaging and sound professionals, know all about booms. Primarily, they use booms to defy gravity and float a light over a subject’s head with no visible means of support (is this illegal? ha ha!) in the picture’s frame. This, in turn, allows them to create a beam of light hitting the subject from above and behind that can make their subject look angelic while keeping the top of the subject’s head from merging with the background.

I often tell green assistants that the goal of my lighting technique is to make my subject come alive – as if my lighting has a life force energy all it’s own and through its proper placement and intensity can transfer that life energy to the subject. Because of how it can position a light, I often times even consider a boom to be a light modifier! Further, because of a boom’s importance to me, of the 4, 10-foot light stands I pack in my pole bag, one is a boom/light stand combination made by Manfrotto called their Convertible Boom/Stand 420 – Black (part # 420NSB).

But, defying gravity is no easy feat and there are a few safety precautions you should take when setting up a boom to be used as a hair light – just in case gravity decides it doesn’t want to cooperate. They are as follows:

  1. Always place one on the boom stand’s three legs directly under the boom arm’s extension.
  2. The longer the boom extension is, the more important it is to always use a counterweight hung from the tail end of the boom. As an aside, attached to almost all my camera bag straps, are light-weight aluminum, carabineer clips that I use to hang my counterweights from. The clip goes through a hole that’s drilled in tail end of the boom and the counterweight is hung from the clip. These clips are available in most hardware stores and are both lightweight and inexpensive.
  3. No matter what, don’t exceed the weight limits of the boom you are using!
  4. Sometimes a second weight hung from the stand’s base will help stabilize the whole thing (boom and stand) to keep it from toppling over!
  5. Even if you follow rule 4 directly above as an insurance policy, always try to position the boom’s fulcrum so that the boom itself (with your light at one end and the counterweight at the other) balances at the fulcrum right over the light stand that is supporting it.

While rules 1 and 2 are imperative to follow you might get away with not using rules 3, 4, and 5 if you are using a very light-weight flash unit such as a battery powered, shoe mount flash (think Nikon SB-700, Nikon SB-900, or Canon 430EX or Canon 580EX. However, throughout this book I have consistently stated that all rules are meant to be broken but, as a word to the wise in this particular instance, Don’t Break These Rules!

With all of the above out of the way let’s spend a moments on another way to use a boom creatively. Manufacturers will often tell you how you should use a piece of equipment they produce but often, in my opinion, you are better off taking the manufacturer’s recommendations with a grain of salt and instead try to think outside of the box they draw for you. To this end, one way to get a textured surface to really pop (come alive) is to have a light skimming across its surface. But, if that textured surface is laying on the floor, getting a light positioned low enough to skim its surface is no easy task. Enter the boom that I carry with me but instead of using it to position a hair light (as it was originally intended to do) I use it to position a light so it skims across the floor.

Three photos follow. The first two are a wedding invitation placed on a piece of layered, wrinkled, pink cloth and sprinkled with artificial white rose petals (see page XXX). The first image is lit by a single flash unit projecting through a shoot through umbrella while the second one has a second flash unit added so that it is skimming the set-ups surface. While the difference is obvious I think it is a good example of how light can transfer its life-force energy to a subject and make it come alive. The third picture is how I positioned my boom light stand to pull it off. The moral for you is try to think out of the box and use your equipment in new and creative ways that are not always the way things are designed to be used!

Posted on October 11, 2010 at 8:48 am by Steve Sint · Permalink · 15 Comments
In: Working with Flash

An Inexpensive Light Modifier and FREE SOUP!

A short excerpt from my upcoming wedding book: Digital Wedding Photography: Art, Business, and Style.

An idea for the frugal photographer.

I have a friend who owns a Japanese restaurant. Two years ago he invited me and my girl to an after hours Christmas/New Year’s Eve party at his restaurant. After eating some of the very special food, I decided to take some photos of the festivities. Wanting to work light and fast, I put a Fong Dome on my camera and started to take some photographs. One of the sushi chefs saw my Fong Dome, disappeared into the back of the restaurant and returned with a medium sized, frosted plastic soup container and told me it looked just like the light modifier I had purchased. I had to agree and went back to taking pictures, enjoying the party, and eating the great food! The following year I was invited to the bash once again. This time one of the staff members brought his own DSLR and riding on top of his accessory flash was the soup container I had been shown at the previous year’s party!

The following morning (after my head had cleared from the previous night’s saki and beer!) I rummaged under my kitchen sink and found a stack of my very own medium sized soup containers that I had saved to store leftovers in. I held my flash head against the outside, bottom of the container and marked where the corners of the flash head fell on the container’s bottom with dots using a Sharpie marking pen. Being very careful not to cut myself (BEWARE and BE CAREFUL if you try this!) I cut lines through the container’s bottom connecting the 4 dots with a sharp  #11 blade in an Ex-Acto knife. I made sure that I cut the rectangular hole slightly smaller than my flash head so it was a tight fit. I pushed my flash head through the resulting hole and used a Stofen dome on the front end of my flash unit (which was now inside my soup container) to hold the container in place. I popped the cap on the soup container and made some test shots. The results were promising but I thought I could make them better. After taking my container off the flash, I sanded the inside of the container’s front and stuck a patch of white gaffer tape on the container’s back. Thinking about this more, the next time I do it I might try some aluminum foil with the dull side facing the flash’s beam. Finally, I added some more white gaffer tape to the edges of the rectangular hole in the bottom of my container to cover up my sloppy cutting job. I used a manikin head placed close to a wall as my test set-up to see the effect my soup dome had on the shadows created by my on camera flash and my results were better still.

Below you see DIRECT FLASH on the LEFT and the same image lit by my SOUP DOME on the RIGHT.

ss1_0324_bw   ss1_0325_bw

Cap on, Cap off (so you can see what’s going on inside my soup container).


In a tight economy, getting free soup when you buy your light modifier seems like a good deal to me (especially if you don’t already have such a container under your kitchen sink as I did!)! So, with apologies to dome makers everywhere, and to paraphrase Tina Turner in the Mad Max movie series: Welcome to Soup Dome!

Posted on October 5, 2010 at 8:18 am by Steve Sint · Permalink · 3 Comments
In: DIY, Working with Flash