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Small Flash into Big Flash: Cheap and Easy

Aug 23

In Lighting at 4:19am

First off, to be square, I swiped this technique from Gilles Bensimon, the legendary fashion shooter. I was invited onto his set in Paris years ago, when I was shooting my first cover for National Geographic. It was an amazing adventure, a story on sight. Can you imagine? It was like being given a grant to simply go be a photographer. It took a year of my life, and I shot about 1500 rolls of Kodachrome.


I was all over the place, from the hi-tech halls of Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Clinic to the tribal villages of Africa, documenting eyesight, how it works, what can happen when things go wrong and how to fix it.




So what was I doing on a fashion set in Paris? Eye makeup. The beauty of the eye. Gilles was enormously gracious and totally easy about my presence on his set. He said, “You, you have ze best job, ze shooter for ze National Geographeec!” I looked over at him, easy in a director’s chair, sipping espresso and looking over portfolios, just generally awash in impossibly tall, angular fashion models, and I thought, “You, you have ze pretty nice job yourself!”

My pictures from that day never got published, but a much more important thing has stuck with me, as I observed him. He was working a cove type of studio. (Think of an egg, and then cut it in half. You’ve got a cove.) Most photogs place the subject in the cove. But he used the cove as his light source. First, he washed his lights off of V-flats. Their shape collected the flash and bounced it backwards into the continuous white curves of the cove, which then pushed it forward and deposited it on his model like a giant wave of light. Ping pong with light! Over the years, I’ve occasionally adapted a version of this for small flash lighting, with fairly happy results.




Here’s the thing–you, the shooter, are standing right in the path of all this light, but there is so much of it freight training towards your subject, it doesn’t notice you standing there at all. You don’t throw a shadow, or interrupt the light pattern. But you’re there, right in the middle of your subject’s eye.


It’s really nice light, done easily, either manually or TTL. The key is the foam core boards. Black on one side, white on the other.  You need 4 of ‘em, to make 2 V-flats. Strip the vertical edges of the boards together, and voila, you’ve got V-flats. They are incredibly versatile around the studio as cutters, flags, bounce boards, background lights, and, as light sources.

To do this type of light, you don’t need a cove, thankfully, ’cause I sure ain’t got one. All you need is a white wall. Here’s what the set looks like.


And another view.


I’ve got two small flashes into each V. (You can easily do it with one apiece.) Keep the flashes above your subject’s eye line. The light will look and feel more natural. Cool thing? See my commander flash hot-shoed to the camera? This is one of those rare instances I use the hot shoe master as both a master and a flash. It is pointing directly back at the wall with the others, commanding them, but also adding a bit of pop. (It tends to be a little punchier than the feel of the units in the v-flats, because it is only bounced once.) The other fillip you can introduce is what you see Mike Cali doing in both of the above production pix. He is holding another light (in another group) and bouncing it off the white seamless paper on the floor. This gives another, sort of fashion-y dimension to the light scheme. A little low fill. Just a spark.

Other things to look for? Don’t get your subject too far away from you. If the light has to travel a real long ways, it will get harder by the time it hits them. You can also do this with big flash. Same deal. In fact, at the recent workshops we interchanged this approach back and forth a fair amount, so I really lost track of what face was photographed with big light or small light, the quality is so similar.

So, to recap. The V-flats are oriented vertically, taped together at the edges. The V opens back onto a white wall, or seamless. Put one or two small flashes into the V. (And I mean into it. Not outside of it, you’ll get hard spill jumping around the set.) Run these as a main light source, for instance, Group A. On camera speed light is Group M, active as a flash, and a commander. The low floor bounce becomes Group B, if you choose to use it. You can dial the groups up or down as you see fit, depending on the feel of the light.

It works. It looks and feels like daylight, and a lot of it. The ricochet aspect of this light pattern allow the small flash to get big off the v-flat, and then get even bigger off the white wall. The multiple units create possibilities for healthy f-stop, though, as I said, you don’t need lots of speed lights to try this. It works well with minimal gear, and minimal f-stop. Below is Numnuts at work.


More tk…..

68 Responses to “Small Flash into Big Flash: Cheap and Easy”

Michae Scott Vincent says:

on August 26, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I have been doing something like this for a few years. Just using a portable white back drop on location to just bounce off of but the v-flats add a whole new demension of soft. Thank you.

Bob Womack says:

on August 27, 2010 at 4:01 am

We did this setup tonight at our meetup.com photography get-together. It was awesome soft light! It’s my new favorite setup! Thanks Joe!

George Zocchi says:

on August 27, 2010 at 9:41 am

WOW, is all I can say. Tried this in the studio last night. Just AWESOME. Thanks Joe.

jason harry says:

on August 27, 2010 at 11:20 pm

this is a very good post as usual, loving the continued lighting diagrams, they are really useful.

hope all of godo and busy with mcnally and crew


Brad Barr says:

on August 29, 2010 at 10:00 am

interesting…but noticing the great wall of real natural light being ignored was a bit ironic. Also, the shot of the girl in red….imo is way to flat…it NEEDS directional light. Flat light is boring. Upon closer inspection, the shot of the black guy with the glasses, really works more due to the slight shadows cast on his face by the 2 big v-twin things….and thus creates some directionality to the otherwise flat lighting scheme you have created. All the truly great people photographs you can think of illustrate using light not as omnipresent, but as used in a more directional fashion. In the wide shot showing the entire set up…there is incredible, directional light already on the model from the huge bank of windows…..to the SIDE. Its the partial shadowing that really makes great lighting for people.

You’ve created a great way to eliminate most of the directionality of the light……now you just need to determine if you prefer that method, or if it would actually be better with a bit more “direction” to it. Thus the whole lighting ratio idea.


Max Archer says:

on August 29, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I saw the V-Flats in action during one of the location lighting seminars a few months back, was stunned. I’m about as location as it gets (if it doesn’t fit the RJ overhead, I probably don’t get it), so I haven’t had the chance to try ‘em myself, but I keep toying with trying to make a mini version to use for location portraits or something.

Joe McNally says:

on August 30, 2010 at 7:31 am

Hi Brad….good input. I’m also a big fan of directional light. Actually, I’m a big fan of nice light anyplace you find it. We aren’t ignoring the windows. From the production pix, you can see it’s a workshop–a flash workshop. So we are working on flash skills in this instance. Best, Joe

Guess the Lighting says:

on September 1, 2010 at 9:58 am

Thanks for the tip. And love your lighting diagram.


Jamison Gaudin says:

on January 10, 2011 at 3:52 am

Actually fantastic post, are googling somewhat for this recently so truly wonderful to hear some info on this. I like the layout on the website also, looking swell.

Lighting Enthusiast says:

on February 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Beautiful shots as per usual. Numnuts seems to be having a delicious breakfast!

Zachariah Veness says:

on October 26, 2011 at 7:25 am

Its great as your other articles : D, appreciate it for posting .

Mia Mikulski says:

on January 8, 2012 at 11:19 am

Good day there admin, I basically desired to actually make a swift mention to actually say that I preferred your piece of writing. Thanks!

Bill Nichosl says:

on February 20, 2013 at 1:29 am

Joe -

This article was awesome, just what I needed for a shoot I have coming up – thanks for putting this up and explaining this so well.



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