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|| News Item: Posted 2011-06-14

Speedlight Mania

By Michael McNamara

Photo by Michael McNamara

Photo by Michael McNamara

My Think Tank Airport Security roller. Sorry for the holes...had to use a camera and lens to take the photo.
When Bert Hanashiro asked me to write an In The Bag piece for this issue of the Sports Shooter Newsletter, I was really excited. I’m not the gear head I used to be, but still have an element of it. This would let me geek out for a little bit.

Then I saw that Gerry McCarthy wrote last month’s piece, so I would have to follow him. A wave of disappointment hit. This is like having The Rolling Stones open for Hall and Oates. So here goes nothing.

For a quick background, I’m a features photographer at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. It means that I do most of my work for our features sections (food, fashion, lifestyle) and our monthly glossy magazine AZ Magazine. It’s a very atypical newspaper job, but I really enjoy it. This also means that I’m lighting more often than not. Because it’s Phoenix, and usually very hot, most of my assignments are indoors, so there’s not always the need for the big monoblock strobes. Yes, they still sit in my car, but I’m not using them twice a day anymore…more like once a week.

This piece isn’t more about my lighting gear than my cameras, so let’s just get this out of the way. I use a Think Tank Photo Airport Security roller. I use a Canon 5D mk2 and a 1D mk2N for my bodies. I have the standard 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200 zooms, and also have a 50 macro, 100 macro (both for food), 50 1.4 and an 85 1.8 (mainly for portraits). I have a 580EXII and five 550EX strobes.

About a year ago, I was getting tired of lugging my big White Lightning kit around, and was tempted to take the Strobist plunge. I’d been reading for a long time on how to make speedlights act like bigger strobes, and I’d tried doing things here and there with my small strobes, but I always reverted to using my White Lightnings with my Plume Wafer 140 Softbox. I knew that if I wanted to be serious about learning the speedlights, I was going to have to go cold turkey on the White Lightnings.

Photo by Michael McNamara

Photo by Michael McNamara

PocketWizards are on the left, tools are on the right. Sorted sync cords are in the envelopes, and clamps and mini tripods are in the middle.
When I first started getting serious about lighting, the first thing I did was read an article by Darren Carroll about a kit that photo assistants should carry (

I didn’t follow it to a tee, but it was a great framework, and ended up being the bag that I like the most. We don’t have the luxury of assistants on our shoots so I needed something that was in a wearable bag, and I settled on a Think Tank Multimedia Wired Up 20 bag, a Wireless Mic holder and a Lightning Fast pouch.

The Wired Up holds A-clamps, Justin Clamps, mini tripods, a light meter, a sensor duster, a Leatherman, an umbrella adapter, some small screwdrivers, an outlet tester and all my sync cords. The sync cords are separated by type into little zippered envelopes that I found at The Container Store. The Wireless Mic holder perfectly fits five PocketWizards, but I cram in seven. And the Lightning Fast pouch, designed for a speedlight, holds an assortment of tools, including an Allen wrench set, generic ChannelLock pliers, needle nose pliers, an all-in- one screwdriver and an all-in-one Torx screwdriver. I used to also keep a box cutter, but the knife on the Leatherman made it redundant.

I love that I can get three Bogen Justin Clamps into the main compartment of the Multimedia 20, and I get a ton of use from the clamps. But here’s their big downfall: The cold shoe that they come with…the one that Bogen puts on them sucks.

Because I use older Canon 550 strobes, I have to trigger them with hot shoe cords, and I like the ones Paramount makes. But the shoe that comes on the Justin Clamp is too small to fit the Paramount mount. Yes, the cord will mount on the cold shoe, but good luck getting it off. So I replaced the cold shoe on all three Justin Clamps with the Frio Cold Shoe. Just use a ½” Allen screw. Problem solved.

Photo by Michael McNamara

Photo by Michael McNamara

Ultra Strap, left, and the Honl Speed Strap; A-Clamps have tons of uses (and they're cheap too); A Bogen Justin Clamp with a Frio Cold Shoe as the flash mount
I attended the Phoenix stop of The Flash Bus tour and ended up buying a few things. I got two Lumiquest LTP softboxes (the ones the size of a laptop) and a six-inch “beauty dish” from a company called Viewfinder Photography. I’m still getting my feet wet with them, but so far, I like the Lumiquest LTP’s as a faux strip bank for portraits. I just try to keep them close to the subject. I wasn’t expecting actual beauty dish results out of the mini beauty dish, but one thing it does well is turn the square light output from a speedlight into a circle, which I like when I’m putting it on a wall behind a subject.

After The Flash Bus tour, I asked Rob Schumacher, our gear guy, if we had any extra strobes sitting around in our gear pool, and could I have them. He came through with three more, giving me a total of six, plus PocketWizards.

I will be the first to admit that this is a resource not available to a lot of people, but you’d be amazed at what you can do with just one light. Check out Zack Arias’ One Light Workshop DVD if you don’t believe me.

I also attended the Sports Shooter Lighting Luau (definitely worth your money) this year, and got to use the 14-inch Lumodi Beauty Dish that Bert raved about in a previous newsletter ( I ended up buying one when I got home, and like it a lot. I’ve found that the light directly from the dish is a little harsh for my liking, so I diffuse it through a four-foot diffuser that I normally use for food photography.

If you order the Lumodi, you’ll be surprised at how lightweight the plastic is. This isn’t a bad thing, but leaves it vulnerable to melting if you leave it in a hot car. So spend the extra money for the insulated case.

Honl Photo was a sponsor of the Lighting Luau, and I picked up one of their 1/8 grids, which I like. It’s been great when I’ve just needed a small hint of light in an area.

Photo by MIchael McNamara

Photo by MIchael McNamara

This is what the Lumodi through the diffuser looks like.
Both Lumiquest and Honl require you to buy a Velcro strap that goes around the head of your speedlight to hold their modifiers, and I like the Honl strap a lot more than the Lumiquest. It feels like it’s better built and heavier duty, which means it will probably last longer than the Lumiquest. And since they’re about the same price, it makes more sense to get the Honl straps, even if you’re using them with a Lumiquest modifier.

I have a Think Tank Bazooka tripod case that I stuff four light stands and an umbrella into. The light stands were just cheap ones I found at my local camera store, but they extend to about six feet, and since I’m only putting a speedlight on them, their load capacity doesn’t matter. I also don’t need to worry about them being able to hold a sandbag, because I’m not using them out in the wind. I think I’ve used the umbrella about three times. I’ve never really embraced me they’re like the kit lens of light modifiers. But it doesn’t take up too much space, and you never know when you’ll need one in a pinch.

The thing I miss about using my White Lightnings is my softbox. My Plume Wafer 140 has always been my favorite light modifier in my kit, and I don’t have a speed ring that lets me mount a speedlight to it. So I’m going to have to put one together. The Lumodi through the diffuser puts out a quality of light that is close to the softbox, but it’s not the softbox.

Now, for some of the extras I carry. I shoot lots of food, and Gerry mentioned last month keeping pieces of foam core to use as reflectors. I do the same, and keep them cut down so they fit in an old laptop sleeve. Those Lumiquest LTP softboxes I mentioned before also fit into a laptop sleeve, so when I’m going to a food assignment, the foam core goes into the front compartment of my Think Tank rolling case…if I’m going to a portrait, the Lumiquests go into the front compartment.

Before I started using speedlights, I spent about three years with my White Lightnings and my Plume softbox, getting really familiar with what I could do with one light. Now I’m using more lights with less power, and slowly getting more comfortable with it. But it will probably be awhile before I go buy any more toys. My wife will kill me if I do.

Michael McNamara is on staff at the Arizona Republic. Examples of his work can be viewed on his Sports Shooter member page: and at his personal website: .

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