Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Ba Wang GY180 Flash

I have bought a new bit of kit, its a 180WS mains powered flash that I ordered from Hong Kong off of Ebay. I'm going to write a review of it, but before I do I would like to explain a bit about the background of this purchasing decision. Scroll down if you want to skip straight to the review. I first got into artificial light when I joined The Camera Club in Kennington. Its a great little place, two well kitted out studios with Bowens flashguns, and a gallery space. I took a couple of lighting classes and then having learnt a little a rented the studio for a few solo sessions with some models I met off the internet. I was well and truly hooked, but the fact was, cheap as the studio was I couldn't afford to shoot very often even at £8 per hour. I wanted to get my own set of studio lights, but they were far too expensive for me to have my own set. So I headed down the Strobist route and bought a bunch of small flash guns and started shooting on location. It was liberating I could take them pretty much everywhere I went and wasn't tied to the mains. I missed the modelling lights and I missed the power, but not as much as I though I would.

Fast forward to today, and I have been trying to do these tight snooted shots in a very dark space. This has given me two problems. One is that aiming the snoot accurately is difficult even when I have used an assistant. The second problem is that I didn't have enough light to focus accurately. So I have been thinking again that having studio flash would be quite handy. I also would like to try some lighting techniques using the modelling light that you can't do with strobes.

Jessops have been selling some low powered 180WS flashguns under the portaflash brand for some time. I'd always been a bit dismissive of these because of the low power. After all 180WS is not really much more powerful than a speedlight, having learnt the strobist way, I am now far more comfortable with low powered flashes and so these small mains powered flashes were starting to look a lot more desirable. You can get a two light kit from Jessops that represents reasonable value for money, but being a cheapskate I found someone on ebay selling the BA Wang GY180 Flash Light with a 60x60cm softbox for £51 including delivery, which was a hell of a lot cheaper than buying from Jessops. In fact a portaflash on its own is nearly double that. So temptation became a purchase and just a few short days later I had a new flash.

The flash and softbox arrived in two packages delivered by DHL and were adequately packed. Inside the box with the flash was a fair length power lead, a long sync lead and a bulb for the modelling light. The softbox consists of a huge speedring, a inner and outer diffuser a black outer cover and four spokes.

DSC01349The flashgun looks quite neat all in black. It has a hinged foot for attaching securely to a light stand. It has an umbrella holder built in at the base of the flash. The controls at the back are pretty easy to figure out. There is a power switch, a switch to turn the modelling light on, and a potentiometer (knob) to allow stepless power adjustment from full power down to 1/8th power. A flash ready light and a test button. Synchronisation can be achieved either using the built in slave or using the sync port which is rather sensibly a 3.5mm jack socket. The bulb for the modelling light extends rather alarmingly beyond the edge of the built in reflector, which means that it has to be removed for storage. This I feel is a bit of a design fault because these bulbs get very hot and don't take kindly to being touched with greasy fingers. It also means that the modelling light is going to throw light wider than the flash tube so what you see is not what you are going to get. The flash is missing features that you get in more expensive strobes, such as adjustable modelling power and a flash ready beep but for the price you pay for it you are going to expect it to be cheap and cheerful. The strobe casing doesn't have any mount points for light modifiers. Its completely smooth which did make me wonder how you were supposed to attach things to it.

I did some tests of the output from the flash and I was a little surprised to say the least. I knew that it was difficult to directly compare this sort of flash with a speedlight, but I wasn't expecting the output I was seeing. I set up the flash a reasonable working distance away from a light meter, about 5.5 feet and triggered it in the dark. It gave me a meter reading of f9.0 at full power. I set up an SB28 at the same distance zoomed to 85mm and took a reading of f20. That ,second hand SB28 speedlight, kicks out over two stops more light than the mains powered flash, you would need 4 GY180s to give the same light level as an SB28. Ok, so thats not a fair comparison as the mains flash has a wider beam than an SB28 at full beam. So I set the SB28 to 24mm and got a reading of f18 thats still two stops more than the GY180. However, once I had attached the softbox, with the inner diffusion panel, boht the GY1800 and the SB28 (at 24mm) were throwing out the same output. So you don't want to go getting one of these flashes if you want more power, unless you are always going to use an umbrella or a softbox. If you want to use a snoot or a small grid you are simply going to lose too much power. To me this flash seems so underpowered that I would question the claims of a guide number of 48, though they don't specify whether the guide number is in feet or metres and the measured output is closer to 48 in feet than 48 in Metres

As I mentioned before, the softbox comes with an enormous speedring, which was too large to fit on the front of the strobe. It actually had to be fitted around the main body of the strobe and didn't feel very secure. There were no instructions with the softbox and I'll admit being a bit puzzled at first as its not very intuitive. To put the softbox together you need to put the four spokes into holes in the speedring, Then the front diffuser has pockets on each corner to fit the ends of the spokes in. But to fit the spokes into the holes you need to bend them. It wasn't easy to do and I was worried that I was going to damage the spokes. Next take the black cover and attach the inner diffuser to the velcro tabs. Then fit the cover over the speedring and spokes and it velcros together with the edge of the front diffuser. Attaching the speedring to the strobe with the softbox fully assembled is tricky, but I can't see any other way of doing it. The flash slave didn't work with the softbox on, so triggering via the cable or a radio slave would be desirable.

Overall for £51 including postage for the flash and softbox its dirt cheap but if you don't need a modelling light, a speedlight is way more versatile and powerful. You also need to consider a few other things. Because of the modelling light, you can't put your own cardboard and plastic light modifiers on it because they could catch fire or melt, so you are going to have to spend money on decent modifiers, or figure a way of constructing modifiers from heat resistant materials. You are tied to the mains with this flash and its not as compact as a flashgun, so its going to be ok for a home studio, but not so good on location. Once you start putting modifiers on it the power is going to drop drastically. Would I buy another? I don't know, I think its going to been fun to use in my kitchen for tabletop work. I'm going to have to put it through its paces in a real shoot to see how useful its going to be but considering the low power I cant imagine using it with a snoot as I originally intended.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Making a Christmas Card

Christmas Wine @ f2Last year I created one of the most popular photos on my Flickr stream. It was a simple photo of a wine glass with a christmas tree behind it. I adapted a lighting technique called dark field lighting from the excellent book Light: Science and Magic. The technique involves creating large light sources outside the frame of the shot to create specular highlights at the edges of the glass.

The head of my company liked the image and asked if I could create something similar, but somehow work in some aspect of the company into the shot. After a lot of procrastination on my part, the finance director put together a team to work on the shot and I found myself with two assistants Alix and Paul. Together we pre-visualised the shot we wanted and Alix and Paul arranged to bring in the props. We had decided to use a very similar shot to the original, with the wineglass and a tree in the background, but we would work in the company colours with Christmas tree decorations and a small pile of gifts.

Christmas Card Lighting DiagramThe key to lighting the glass was to have two large white light sources just outside of the frame. This would create specular highlights at the edges of the glass to give it definition. You can do this very carefully to achieve a subtle effect, but I didn't think subtlety was necessary in this instance and was happy to have large highlights. My assistants set up the tree in a corner of a meeting room and dressed it. While I set up two SB28 flashguns on 1/32 power 24mm zoom pointed at the walls. The low power was used because the aperture was going to be wide open at f2.8. The light from the flash bouncing around the room mixed with a small amount of ambient was enough to get a good exposure.

Work Christmas CardMost of the time spent on the project went into dressing the set, the lighting setup was pretty quick. We could have spent the whole day arranging baubles, faerie lights and bits of Holly, but ultimately we had to compromise because we only had a very short time to do it in.

In post processing I did a bit of cloning around the printed label and wine glass and adjusted the exposure to suit our finance director's taste and overall we were all pretty pleased with it. I would have liked to have done a bit more styling on the tree and perhaps used some different wrapping paper but we had to stop somewhere. I regretted leaving my gels and tripod at home, but I don't think it made a big difference to the final image.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Auto Exposure Lock

Most DLSRs have an AEL button and if you use it at all, chances are that you probably use it lock the auto exposure, so that it uses the same exposure values from shot to shot even if the scene changes. So for instance you are shooting a parade and you have a good exposure, then a bunch of cheerleeders show up all dressed in black and the camera wants to turn them 18% grey. But having locked the exposure, they will be properly exposed.

If your camera allows it, there is another thing you can do when you have locked the exposure. You may be able to use your control wheels to change the aperture or shutter speed. With the exposure locked any change in aperture will cause a corresponding change in shutter speed so that the overall exposure stays the same. So imagine you are working with flash, you could expose for the ambient using your fancy multi-segment matrix metering with the flash switched off. Then, with the ambient exposure sorted hit the AEL button and turn on the flash. You can now adjust the power of the flash using the aperture wheel without changing the ambient exposure. Neat?

If like me, you can never remember your f-stop tables, the AEL button can tell you. Put the camera in manual mode, set your shutter to something you can multiply or divide by two then hit the AEL button. If you halve the shutter speed the aperture will close down one full stop. If you double the shutter speed the aperture will open up one full stop.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Free Shows at the National Portrait Gallery

This is possibly the best time ever to visit the national portrait gallery. Not only is the great Annie Leibovitz show still running, including four free to view prints of the Queen, but there are also two free exhibitions on at the moment.

The Headline exhibition is the Taylor Wessing portrait prize. The entrance to the exhibition is dominated by the second prize winning "Bag" by Hendrik Kerstens. The print has got to be about 6 feet tall and is a simple portrait of a beautiful young woman wearing a plastic bag on her head. It almost looks like a Vermeer and is incredibly detailed. The light is absolutely beautiful, her skin is made to look pale and luminous without appearing blown out. Strobists will certainly have some fun working out how the look was achieved. There are lots of really lovely portraits its well worth a visit.

The other smaller exhibition is Champions by Anderson and Low. These are a series of portraits by Anderson and Low of sportsmen and women in black and white and in the nude. It was remeniscent of Annie Leibovitz's Olympic portraits only lighter and much more polished, Annies portraits tended to be a bit on the raw side. Some of the headshots tended to be a bit too formulaic for my taste but the there were some with fantastic angles and compositions and the figure studies were simply great.

Head down there while its all going on and don't forget to drop some money in the cashbox while you are down there.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Annie Leibovitz At Work

I couldn't resist it, I was at the National Portrait Gallery exploring Annie Leibovitz's exhibition and there was a copy of her book for sale, discounted by five pounds. Thats all I needed to know, five pounds off, I could claim to the wife that I had saved five pounds.

Please don't tell my wife that you can get it with £8.50 off at Amazon with free delivery

The book takes you on a journey from the time she was travelling with her parents through to pretty much the present day and explains the background to the photos that she took throughout her career. At the end of the book there are two chapters on equipment and the ten most frequently asked questions.

Don't expect too much detailed technical information, what this book is really about is the insight into Annie, the way she works and the wealth of photographic history that she carries with her to every shoot. If you have watched the recent documentary about her life you are likely to get a strong sense of deja vu reading this book, but it is a good read all the same.

My one complaint about the book is that there pictures are quite small. Considering that the retail price is £25 I would have liked to have seen bigger prints. But I did have a chance to flick though it before I bought it so I shouldn't really complain.

The exhibition itself is absolutely packed with photos, some of them very well known and many others very personal. Well worth a visit if you are about in London. And let not forget the discount you can get on her books.