Archive for the ‘Studio’ Category

D&D Dice Stop Motion

I had an idea for an image I wanted to use for the header of the online Awesome Dice store. Rather than just a standard macro picture of dice sitting up at the top of the page, I wanted something more interesting, but still dice-related. I had the idea of an action shot — a picture of a 20-sided die splashing into water, captured at just the moment of dice impact.

Dice Splash

For this kind of shot, shutter speed is never fast enough. Instead I needed a fast flash to stop the motion of the water as the die splashed into the surface. For this kind of shot I had a dark room so I could set the shutter to bulb, open it up, and let the flash fire at the right time. But even a flash isn’t enough — I need something faster than human reflexes (and more reliable than luck) to get the flash to trigger just at the right moment.

This was the perfect time to test out the flash trigger. This is a device my father made, with a tiny microphone with adjustable sensitivity and an adjustable delay. The moment any kind of sound is picked up, it triggers the flash. In this case, the sound of dice hitting the water.

While the flash trigger worked admirably to pick up the sound of awesome D&D dice splashing, there were some complications. The sound of the camera shutter triggering was also enough to set of the flash. The workaround for that — for me anyway — was just to snap my fingers, set off the flash, then open the shutter while the flash recharged.

D&D Dice Splash

The other, less anticipated problem was the difficulty of standing in a pitch black room holding dice several feet above the water pan (a cake pan with a black t-shirt in it) and trying to get it to land within just the right four inch area. For that one anyway, I relied on luck.

But happily, I got some pretty cool shots out of it.

Anime Ninja Shoot

When my friend and model Patrice Laren asked me if I’d do a shoot with her to get photos of  a new costume she was working on, I of course jumped at the chance. She also had a couple other friends who wanted to come to see how I set up shoots — a very odd experience I have to say, but the fun part was to come next.

Patrice also wanted to have some gun props, so she asked a mutual friend of ours if he could lend her some guns for the shoot — we’re talking real guns here, the kind that shoot things dead. Come shoot time we meet up and it’s like some kind of post-apocalyptic dinner party. Her two observing friends are there asking me questions about cameras and lighting, sitting around the dining room table which is absolutely covered with over a dozen different kinds of firearms. Handguns, rifles, shotguns, and then various combat knives sprinkled here and there like some kind of garnish.

Our gun friend is there enthusiastically explaining each weapon to the group, its history, when it was created and by whom, what its advantages and disadvantages are. Patrice, meanwhile, is spending over an hour in and out of the bathroom doing all manner of complicated make-up things, flitting out from time to time to debate over which guns she wants to use.

Incidentally I should point out that as a photographer, I understand — in some vague ill-defined way — that all that make-up and hair stuff makes for some kind of difference in the end. But as a guy, I don’t understand the process at all. She looked about the same to me a half hour into the process as an hour in.

1/80th at f4.2 on ISO 400 with 35mm focal length

I finally attempted to conclude at least the firearm discussion:

WoodJr: Don’t worry about what they’re used for. Just pick the one you think looks cool. That’s all that matters.

Patrice: Well, I like this one. And these are awesome. And this is huge. Maybe we should just bring them all.

WoodJr: No, no, no, we are not bringing all of these. There is no way we’re doing these shots with every single one of these guns.

Patrice: Well… I don’t know. Which of these looks better?

WoodJr: Okay, you know what, let’s just go with two handguns. These two look fine, that’s all we need.

Patrice: I like this one better, it’s shiny.

WoodJr: Fair enough. Those two then.

Patrice: And one of these big ones.

WoodJr: Okay, fine, and one rifle. But that’s it! Are we ready now? Let’s get started.

Patrice: No, I have to finish my make-up obviously.

When everything was finally decided, the party trooped downstairs to the studio where I had the lights set up. This was before I had strobes, so these were continuous lights. A 750 watt Tota and a pair of Impact 500 watt floodlights. The temperature in the room was reminiscent of the surface of the sun. I saw the dessicated husks of spiders falling dead from the ceiling, killed and shriveled by the heat, the telltale shimmer of heat waves blasting out the windows and setting a neighborhood cat ablaze.

It was a shoot we’d have to do quickly or all that vinyl Patrice was wearing was going to melt and suffocate her.

1/160th at f4.2 on ISO 800 with 35mm focal length

There are a handful of important safety tips to keep in mind when shooting with actual firearms: First off, the owner — the one with an actual license for them — should be present. Obviously and most importantly they must not be loaded. Every single time you pick one up, you should check to make sure it’s not loaded, including checking the chamber, and then make sure the safety is on. If you set a gun down for 10 seconds to stamp out a small fire the heat of your lights just created in the carpet, when you pick that gun up again you check it all over again. Every single time you pick it up. And finally, even with these precautions, you never, ever, actually point the gun at anyone.

This last bit was the part that Patrice had some troubles getting used to.

As we were switching between setups she’d inevitably be pointing the gun at someone — one of her observers, quietly melting behind the lights, the owner of the guns, or at me. When she talked she’d gesticulate with a gun, pointing it wildly every which way. There was a lot of ducking out of the line of fire with “Hey, don’t point that at me!”

In the end we got several good shots. I added a sword to the getup, which seemed appropriate (and let’s admit here, is far cooler than a gun anyway) and despite the hours of setup and wading through cases of guns, and the sweltering heat of the lights, it was a good shoot, and great fun.

I think it was during this shoot, in fact, that I finally decided that I had to have some strobes. I could not go on with those hot lights and crummy shutter speeds.

1/100 at f3.5 on ISO 800 -- background just manufactured in Photoshop since the ugly floor was in the shot.

Flashpoint Monolight 1220a & 1820a Strobe Review

This is a review of the Flashpoint Monolight 1220a strobe, and the Flashpoint Monolight 1820a strobe, available from Adorama. Strobes were tested under a variety of conditions.


The Flashpoint Monolight 1220a and 1820a Strobes are well-made, powerful, and generally excellent strobes for an exceedingly low cost (under $300). One strobe outputs enough light to light a full subject, head to toe. Downsides include lack of umbrella fastener and relatively slow flash duration.

Highly recommended for all studio photographers. The price cannot be beat.

Flashpoint Monolight 1220a & 1820a Overview

I have to say, I am a huge fan of these strobes, and I own two of them. They are not without their downsides, but their incredible price, under $300, coupled with stellar, reliable performance makes them a no-brainer in my book.

Flashpoint is the in-house brand of Adorama, an online photography supplier. Both these strobes are essentially an identical design, with different watt/second output. The fan-cooled strobes are sturdily built with every feature you could want, including built-in modeling light, optical slave, audible recycle alert (that can be turned off), and continuous power adjustment from full to 1/16th (or 1/32) power.

The flash can be triggered either via a sync cord or through the built-in optical slave (sensor mode can be turned off), and in testing the optical slave trigger seems very responsive, working in almost all conditions. From certain angles in very bright conditions however, the optical sensor failed to pick up the camera-mounted flash used in testing.


Flashpoint 1220a Flashpoint 1820a
Power (in Watt Seconds)
600 900
Flash Duration
1/600 to 1/1,000 1/600 to 1/1,000
Power Control
Full to 1/32 Full to 1/16
Recycling Time
1 to 3 seconds 3 seconds
Fan Cooled
Yes Yes
Modeling Lamp
250 Watt 250 Watt
Voltage 110 volt A/C 110 volts A/C
Built-In Slave
Yes Yes
Weight 5.25 lbs 6 lbs
Color Temperature
5800 K 5800K
Synch Voltage
6 volts 5.6 volts

Color Temperature Consistency

I tested the color temperature consistency by mounting the camera on a tripod and taking a series of identical shots under identical conditions — changing nothing in between. I then reviewed the histogram from shot to shot to determine whether there were any fluctuations in color temperature.

The color temperature was very consistent from shot to shot, with virtually no shift between shots.

Users should note, however, that like all strobes, new bulbs have a breaking in period. A fresh strobe bulb will commonly have color temperature variation for the first several dozen (or more) fires until it settles down to deliver consistent temperatures from flash to flash. Always break in a new bulb, regardless of what strobe you’re using.

Flash Duration

The listed flash duration for these strobes is 1/600 to 1/1000, with 1/1000 as the duration of the flash at full power (strobe flash durations get longer as you decrease the power). This is, however, the T.5 value of the flash, not the T.1. For a full discussion of the quirks of strobe flash duration, see our Strobe Flash Duration Guide.

The T.1 duration at full power tests closer to 1/300th of a second, significantly limiting the strobes motion stopping power. It should be noted that for truly fast flash durations you will need to use flash heads and not strobes.

A 1/600 to 1/1000 T.5 flash duration is on the slow end for monolight strobes, and this appears to be one of the sacrifices made for the extremely low cost of the Flashpoint strobes. You can get full power T.5 flash durations of 1/2000 or 1/3000 fairly commonly, though you should expect to pay twice to three times as much for it.

Ease of Use

The Flashpoint strobes are about at easy to use as you could ask for. All you need to do is set them up, turn on your optical slave switch on the back, and start taking pictures. Personally, I was particularly fond of the audible alert to let you know when the flash was recycled and ready to fire again, and equally pleased that you could flip a switch to turn the option off (last thing I want is every light chirping a second after each shot).

The listed recycling time for the 1820a is 3 seconds; however, I found that most of the time it was closer to 1-2 seconds and only reached 3 seconds at full power. At full power the strobes are easily bright enough to illuminate a full subject from head to toe at f8 – f16.

Both the strobe bulb and the modeling bulb are easily replaceable, and happily the flash bulb does not cost the outrageous amount that is often seen on the most expensive strobes.

The Flashpoint strobes are well built and sturdy. So long as care is taken with the bulbs, these strobes should travel well and safely.

The Umbrella Problem

The only real downside of the Flashpoint strobes that I found was the vexing issue of the umbrella. The strobe shield has a hole for inserting the umbrella, but there is nothing else on the strobe housing to secure the umbrella pole in place. This is an odd oversight in an otherwise stellar design.

Flashpoint 1820a umbrella problem

The solution for the umbrella issue is simple enough: by attaching a one dollar hand clamp to the strobe mount the umbrella pole could easily be kept in place and adjusted as needed. Personally I’m happy to shell out a couple bucks for some clamps rather than several hundred more for a strobe with a built-in umbrella pole mount; however, it’s a truly bizarre thing to leave out of the light. It’s sort of like building a car with no cup holders, and I certainly hope this is something that is corrected in the next generation of Flashpoint strobes.

Flashpoint 1820a umbrella solution

1220a vs 1820a

One of the interesting things about these two Flashpoint strobes is that they are priced identically. Since the 1820a has a significantly higher power output and the same flash duration, I would recommend the 1820a without hesitation.

That said, the 1220a has a slightly faster recycle time at lower power outputs, and has the ability to stop the power down further. So if you want the ability to use your strobe as a very low fill light, the 1220a probably serves that need better.

Flashpoint Monolight Review Summary


The Flashpoint 122a and 1820a monolight strobes are an incredible bargain, and I highly recommend them to any photographer for most studio applications. The lights are built well, produce consistent light output, are easy to use, powerful and are just about anything you would want in a strobe at any price.

The downsides of the Flashpoint strobes is a slower flash duration that limits motion-stopping ability and makes it a bit risky to shoot handheld at very long focal lengths (though it’s unlikely you’d be using such a long lens in a studio). The recycle time of 1-3 seconds is not terribly fast. And finally, there is no convenient fastener for the umbrella pole, requiring a hand clamp or other handmade solution. Of these, the first two downsides you will likely never notice in the vast majority of studio lighting situations, and the final one is annoying as heck but also very easily remedied.

At under $300 for a 900 Watt Second light, it’s hard to go wrong with the Flashpoint series.

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Strobe Misadventures, Part 3: Strobe Flash Duration Answers

In part 1 I got some new monolight strobes and saw some strange results suggesting the flash duration was much longer than the 1/600th – 1/1,000th that was listed. In part 2 we did some crude testing of the strobe flash duration and verified that yes, it was indeed the flash duration and not something else that was off.

After the strobe testing I finally did some research and discovered the answer: yes the strobe flash duration was much shorter than it seemed it should have been, and the reason has to do with the way that manufacturers measure the flash duration.

Flash Duration – T.5 vs T.1

When a flash goes off, it gets up to 100% brightness really fast, then trails off mush more slowly. Because you can never say for certain exactly where the point is that you’re back to ambient light, flash durations are measured in terms of how long they are over a certain percentage of their brightness.

Most manufactures measure flash duration as T.5, or the duration that the flash is over 50% of its brightness — the amount of time from half brightness to full brightness and back to half brightness again. The problem with this is that the flash curve gets really long on the tail end, and even though it’s less than 50% of maximum brightness, that’s still plenty of light to expose.

The more accurate measurement in terms of establishing the stop motion capabilities of the flash is T.1 — the duration of time that the flash is 10% brightness or greater. This is about three times as long as the T.5 measurement.

Monolight Flash Duration, T.1 vs T.5 measurements.

Thus that 1/600th flash duration, as reported my the manufacturer, is suddenly only a 1/200th or so duration. Plenty slow enough for motion blur, especially if you’re using a longer focal length.

Furthermore, for most monolight strobes — like my lovely Flashpoint 1820a — when you turn the power down (as I was) you actually get a longer duration, not a shorter one like you might think.

The Monolight Strobe Solution

There are basically three solutions here. Firstly you can just get yet faster strobes. Be sure to check the T.1 rating on them so you know how fast they’ll really be. Of course faster strobes tend to be far more expensive. If you want really, really fastness, you’ll want to use flash heads (but that’s a whole series of stuff for another day).

If getting much more expensive strobes isn’t a great solution (which it is not for me) then solution #2 is just to put the camera on a tripod, which you should really be in the habit of doing anyway, even if that’s a habit that I’ve never developed.

Finally we have the WoodJr solution, which is to go to the max sync speed of my camera. I had been shooting with the default flash shutter speed, which for some reason my D200 thought should be 1/30th of a second. However, the maximum sync speed of the D200 is actually 1/250th of a second. While this isn’t blindingly fast, it’s plenty fast to avoid any hand-shake blur. In effect it’s just cutting off the tail end of the strobe (and I had to turn the strobes up / open the aperture to compensate) but I still got great, even, consistent lighting every shot.

Once I popped my camera to 1/250th I went back into the studio and had no more hand shake blur issues at all, and I’m back to loving my strobes to death.

1/250th at f10 on ISO 100 with 38mm focal length

1/250th at f9 on ISO 100 with 26mm focal length

Strobe Misadventures, Part 2

Having established in Strobe Misadventures Part 1 that something was amiss with my focus, I promptly set out to do some testing to find out what it was. The focus could be off on my camera. I could be blitheringly unable to use the auto-focus. The flash duration of the strobes could be insanely slower than reported. Or I could be so hyped up from years of over-imbibing caffeine that my hands shake violently in a way my shell-shocked brain refuses to acknowledge.

It seemed to me the easiest thing to cross of the list was the flash duration of the strobes. Admittedly, this also gave me the chance to play with them some more, which may have influenced the decision.

I grabbed some paper from the printer and jotted down a handful of crude tests then grabbed a friend to hold them for me and be blinded by a series of flashes. My concept here was simple: take a control shot with the camera on the tripod. Then, with the camera still mounted on the tripod, have the model move her hand around and different speeds, to verify that we’re getting no blur there. Then take the camera off the tripod and take some shots with spastic, over-exaggerated shaky hands.

This isn’t the most scientific experiment here: my definitions of speed include “fast, medium, slow.” But the point is a 1/600 – 1/1,000 of a second flash duration should easily stop anything but the speediest of hand motions.

Here are the test shots, all taken at 44mm, f11, ISO 100.

The control test. Focus is good here, which also suggests there's nothing wrong with the camera's auto-focus.

Here the model is moving her hand up and down furiously. Clearly that's a lot of motion blur.

Here the model is moving her hand at a moderate rate, as though lazily fanning herself. We *still* have motion blur! Oh noes!

And here in the spastic shaky cam, with the model standing still, we still do not have a sharp image.

Without question we are seeing that the flash duration is apparently much, much slower than thought. The room was very dark, so there was no chance of ambient light affecting things. No, we’re seeing something that I’d normally attribute to something like a 1/125th shutter speed.

But… that’s not possible, is it?

The shocking answers next time in part 3: WoodJr just looks it up on the internet like he should have done in the first place!

Strobe Misadventures, Part 1

It was with great excitement that I unpacked my first monolight strobes, a pair of Flashpoint 1820a 900 watt/second strobes. Up until just recently I had always made due with continuous lighting — the lights that also doubled as video lights for video projects.

But of course I had all the problems that everyone has with continuous studio lights. With 1,750 watts of lights (requiring 2 circuits) I was still struggling to get better than 1/60th of a second at 24mm and ISO 400 on full shots. I just needed so much light. And of course they were hot.

The temperature in the room was easily 10 degrees higher within minutes of turning on the lights — and another 10 degrees in front of the lights. My models didn’t just have sweating problems — after a while they simply burst into flame, and as you can imagine this made cleanup a chore.

But model combustion aside, the bigger issue was brightness and what it did to my shutter speed. You can pretty safely guess that any studio shot I take that I showed to my father, the conversation will go pretty much like this:

WoodJr: Hey, here’s some recent shots I took.

WoodSr: They’re out of focus.

WoodJr: No… no they’re okay.

WoodSr: They aren’t tack sharp. Did you use a tripod?

WoodJr: … No. I couldn’t. I was suspended above the model from cables… in a 300 mph wind… underwater. I couldn‘t use a tripod.

WoodSr: Well that’s why they aren’t sharp. Camera blur.

But no longer! With these strobes I no longer have to care about shutter speed! They fire at the speed of light, c, 186,000 miles per second. Well, more importantly the flash duration is — optimistically, but I’m of an optimistic mindset with these strobes — 1/1000th of a second. Unless I’m using a crazy long lens, which I’m not, the studio room isn’t that big, there is no way I’ll get camera blur ever again.

I can finally show shots to my father and have him exclaim “Dear boy! These are as sharp as your very clever mind!”

So I quickly badgered a friend into posing as I tested out the lights. The weather was against us with a nasty and humid 92 degrees — so much for no more sweat — but I’m happy to report the model never once burst into flame.

And I was delighted with the strobes. They were bright. Stopped down to 1/4 power I was still getting f8 at ISO 100. It was fantastic! I had flexibility I’ve never had before. The lights didn’t have to be just on the outside of the frame. I could move them across the room if I wanted. And as they weren’t within a few degrees of the surface of the sun, I could toss whatever kind of filters or material I wanted over them.

Then I got back to the computer, to look through the shots, and saw several shots like this one:

This shot is… not sharp. In fact, it looks very much like blur caused by camera movement. Suspiciously so. But at 1/1000th of a second, that shouldn’t be happening. Okay, optimism aside, the low end of the flash duration is 1/600th of a second. Still plenty fast to stop any incidental motion.

Was it possible that I was legitimately out of focus? Does the auto-focus of my camera require adjustment? Are my strobes somehow insanely slower than they should be?

The only way to find out is to run some tests!

Part 2 of Strobe Misadventures: the disturbing results of some crude testing!

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Photo Bug is the home of Brian's very occasionally updated photography journal. Posts are sporadic, and I keep swearing that some day I'll dig through the archives and start filling things up. Some day...