An Easy Clean and Inexpensive Soft Light Setup for Shooting On Location

An Easy Clean and Inexpensive Soft Light Setup for Shooting On Location

Today, I thought I’d take you through the sometimes agonizing process of figuring out the best way to light on location and some of the tools and techniques I use to get around the obstacles.

Lighting on location is always a challenge. There’s the ever-present question of where you’re going to source your power. And of trying to fit lighting fixtures into cramped spaces and/or having wide open spaces but not enough light to fill them. And then there’s the somewhat logistical problem of how to get the light you want on location without throwing out your back in the process of transporting it there. Sure, that’s what assistants are for. But sometimes, it’s just you, a subject, and a camera, and the only hands available to schlep your equipment up that hill are your own.

In cases like this, packing light is not just desirable but necessary. Recently, I purchased a Profoto B10 (just before the B10 Plus was released) to add a bit of portability to my lighting kit.  I already own two portable Profoto kits, the Acute B and the Pro 7B 1200. They get the job done and provide plenty of power. They only downside is that both are pack-and-head systems and (the Pro 7B especially) can be a bit heavy when carried in tandem with my other gear and a C-stand.

I like that the B10, on the other hand, is literally small enough to slide into my camera bag, and I can even toss it into my carry-on at the airport for shorter trips without needing to check a larger Pelican case — real location-ready light I can take with me. Problem solved. Well, sort of.

For one, there’s the obvious difference in power. The 250 Ws generated by the B10 are significantly more than that of a speedlight. But, I’m used to working with 1,200-2,400ws. So, the drop-off in power can be prominent, especially when considering most times I would need a battery pack would also coincide with times that I would need to overpower the sun.

Because the packs have High Speed Sync, you can use your shutter speed to drop down ambient light, but, naturally, this also reduces the power of the pack itself significantly. Not a problem if you’re shooting close in, but as I like to shoot wider shots of my subjects in environments, this can lead to some challenges when getting sufficient light to reach the subject.

B10 was in frame originaly before being removed in post. Image from my Amazon of the North series.

I work around this usually by simply placing the light itself in frame and close enough to hit my subject right, but (hopefully) in a position that is easy to clone out using Photoshop. Of course, this may or may not be an option given your circumstances.

Also, there is the option of adding my Magnum reflector to the B10, which increases output by roughly two stops. This would allow me to essentially get 1,000 Ws out of the 250 Ws pack (prior to any HSS-related power reduction). Problem solved. Well, again, sort of.

Photography is all about creating problems for yourself, solving them, then having the solutions cause more problems. Gotta love the process.

My own self-imposed problem is that nine times out of ten, I prefer softer light versus harder light. I would say a solid 90 percent of my images include a large softbox or octabox somewhere on the set. My favorites are the 4 ft by 6 ft Softbox and the 5 ft Octa Softbox. Each of them has paired perfectly with my D4 lamp heads over the years and are among the best investments I’ve made (even considering their $560 and $425 price tags respectively plus $150 each for the required speed rings).

But, as I didn’t learn until after my purchase of the B10, neither is particularly well suited to team up with the smaller battery-powered monolight. For one, the B10 casts a slightly narrower ray of light than my D4s (with the domed heads), meaning they don’t fill up the entire softbox quite as efficiently and thus cast a slightly different type of light. Also, the larger softbox gobbles up light. Not a problem when you start with 2,400 watts, but it can be a problem when you start with 250 watts. Also, as I learned from watching a recent Profoto product video, the sheer size of the larger softboxes mounted to the smaller B10 head is apparently frowned upon due to the weight that would need to be handled by the B10’s removable mount.  

The B10 and these smaller lights are designed for smaller and lighter modifiers. I actually bought the Profoto OCF 2ft Octa Softbox to go with it, and it works like a charm. Added benefit: the 2 ft octa is small enough to slide into my carry-on without any trouble.

Downside, because of course there’s a downside, is that the 2 ft octabox is only, well, 2 ft. Softbox or no softbox, a smaller source is still a smaller source. And a smaller source equals harder light. That is fine or possibly even desired in a number of situations. But how do I get the most of the B10 when I want to use it on location as a larger and softer source?

Turns out, the answer was in my garage the whole time. A few years ago, I had been assisting another photographer and noticed that he never left home without a Photek SoftLighter. For those of you don’t know, a Photek is essentially a reflective umbrella with a sock (diffusion material over the opening). It serves a triple threat and can be used in its complete form with the sock attached, or you can remove the sock and shoot it in the same manner you would a traditional reflective umbrella, or you can remove the outer black covering and use it as a shoo- through umbrella. It’s very versatile and, most importantly, very cheap, coming in at between $100 to $150 depending on the size you desire. With the lower price tag and seeing the results the other photographer was getting, I purchased one.  

Then, I promptly forgot I had it and reverted to my trusty softboxes, and it sat in the garage until my recent acquisition of the B10. But my illogical tendency to buy things I haven’t yet decided how I’ll use is a topic for another essay.

Photeks come in multiple sizes. Wanting to get as large and soft a source as possible, I opted for the 60-inch version. Unlike a softbox that requires some, albeit minimal, assembly, using a Photek is as simple as opening an umbrella and putting a sock on the front. It mounts to your light through the standard umbrella slot present in most fixtures and can be added or removed quickly. 

To give you an example of the type of light it produces, I conducted the following experiment. All the following images were shot using a Fuji X-T3 and the Profoto B10. The light was placed in the same place in each shot, to camera right at about a 45-degree angle to the subject. The power of the light was adjusted to compensate for the diffusion or lack of diffusion used to maintain proper exposure.

Image with bare B10 head and no modifier.

Here I am using the 2 ft Octabox.

I have now replaced the 2 ft Octabox with the Photek being used as a shoot-through umbrella. Notice the lighter background due to the wider spray of light in this configuration.

I have now added the black backing onto the umbrella and am using the Photek as a reflective umbrella.

Here, I have assembled the entire system using the Photek as it is intended. The lamp head is pointed away from the subject. The light bounces into the reflective umbrella, then comes back out through a diffused front panel to provide one large source 60 inches in diameter.

Here, you see the whole setup. Apologies for the messy office in the background.

And, for good measure, this is the same lighting setup shot outside in midday sun.

All else being equal, I do still prefer my large and heavy softboxes. Umbrella-based modifiers, even diffused ones, cast a wider spray of light and can be more difficult to control. But, the Photek introduces a number of benefits over a traditional softbox, including ease and speed of setup, value for the money, and easy portability.

What type of lighting system and modifier is right for you will depend on your subjects and shooting style. But I can say traveling up the hill with only a Fuji X-T3, Profoto B10, a collapsed Photek, and a C-stand is one of the more enjoyable ways to go.

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11 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

All good information, thanks for posting it. That being said. "Inexpensive" and Profoto is an oxymoron.

One can purchase umbrella 'shower caps' in varying sizes - in fact the elastic edges are much quicker to put on an umbrella than the Photek Softlighter system. Simple/quick/portable option for great soft light! (For example- https://www.amazon.com/Selens-Professional-Photography-Parabolic-Reflect...)

Andres Cifuentes's picture

Great tip there Robert, now that is truly affordable.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Thanks for the link. I have the umbrella and was thinking of buying a diffuser but could not find it. Cheers.

Jason Pietroski's picture

Funny enough I just purchased the B10 yesterday and was testing it with a Photek Umbrella in my office! Its my go to modifier and pairing it with the B10 is something I'm looking forward to. I'm interested to see how the setup handles in the wind. Keep up the great work!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Definitely have a few sandbags on standby for exteriors shots :-)

William Howell's picture

Excellent article, location shooting is the hardest to do goodly, when it’s just you. I like to take pictures of my grandkids, but I want to do more than just snapshots. So I made up my own little location rig, I’ll post a picture of it.
Now
I had a chance to play with B10, over at ProCam.com’s store, in Aurora IL, and I must say that it is a well put together light. Super high quality build... But the price, it is “unsane,” there aint no way, not at my budget. Nice light though.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thanks for the informative article. I've also used the Photek umbrella for some time. It really does produce a nice light.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Sorry, one more. Meant to add that I appreciated seeing your examples taken with different modifiers.

Nice light, but I wish these particular umbrellas were sturdier! The Photeks with diffuser panels was my go-to-solutions for location work for years, until I got tired of replacing them due to broken stretcher ribs. I know, just take better care of them, and they work fine. But these things are the most fragile umbrellas I've ever used. My last purchase was 4-5 years ago, anyone know if they have been improved since then?

I'm using Profoto umbrellas now – way better quality, but also way more expensive, unfortunately.