High-Tech Studio: Nontraditional Photography Lighting

Mastering softboxes, beauty dishes, reflectors, gobos and spots is all part of the job of the commercial photographer. Having the ability to dig into a bag of lighting tricks and come up with a “solution” to a challenging shoot is all in a day’s work.

A masterful photographer, though, keeps looking for new solutions to problems, even before they exist, and steps outside the realm of conventional lighting. Many photographers hold onto these as trade secrets (and I have those, as well), but some are too good to keep secret. When you’re ready to go beyond conventional softboxes, beauty dishes and grid spots, give some of these nontraditional lighting tools a try.

Photography Lighting
Elinchrom Rotalux Indirect 150cm


Configure it one way and it’s a conventional octagonal softbox, but with a special configuration, it’s a much different creature—an indirect softbox similar to its well-known forbearer, the Elinchrom 190 Indirect Octa (recently updated as the Litemotiv 190, part of a series of four Indirect Litemotiv softboxes).

Remove the front diffuser, and you have a collapsible silver-lined, 59-inch reflector in both direct and indirect modes. In other words, it’s four lighting tools in one.

In its standard configuration as an octagonal light, evenif you don’t use Elinchrom-mount lights, Elinchrom wisely makes adapter Speedrings in a wide variety of flavors—Balcar/Paul C. Buff; Bowens-S; Broncolor; Comet; Hensel; Photona; and Profoto. The Balcar/Buff Rotalux Speedring fits the Einstein E640 monolight better than any other make of non-Buff-made Speedring that I’ve used. An optional rigid deflector is included to better disperse the light when you use it with the light facing forward, so that gives you another light quality option. As standard octagonal softboxes go, this one is deeper than others, which is fine if you have the space, but might make it hard to work with in small areas. Also, it’s heavier than standard-sized softboxes, and your flash head’s stand mount is the fulcrum for the imbalanced load.

Using it as an indirect softbox is when the light really gets interesting. With all of the photons bouncing around inside the softbox before they exit through the diffuser, the quality of the light is similar to that from a large window on a cloudy day, creating the flattering light high-end fashion and editorial portrait photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and others have exploited for years.

In indirect mode, the flash head mounts to the modifier and faces toward the back, so all of the light bounces around inside the silver walls before reaching the diffusion scrim. Unlike a simple umbrella with a diffusion scrim, with no umbrella shaft poking out the front, this modifier can be as close to your subject as you like. Also, because you’re putting the light in the “sweet spot” for the shape of the box, it’s a bit more efficient.

As an indirect modifier, there are two potential catches. I recommend replacing Elinchrom’s stand attachment with a C-stand grip head from Matthews Studio Equipment, Avenger or Kupo. These grip heads have greater strength and sit down fully on a 5/8” pin, something the original mount doesn’t do. For use with non-Elinchrom lights, you’ll also have to replace the Elinchrom mount with an adapter for your chosen brand of flash. You can do this with any flat-faced insert for a softbox or have a machine shop make you one. Price: $619.99.

Photography Lighting
K5600 Big Eye


During Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1930s and ’40s, photographer George Hurrell was renowned for his portraits of the era’s stars. One of his secrets was his key light: a large-diameter Fresnel spot located in the balcony of the old theater he converted to a studio. The face of a Fresnel lens is a general convex shape combined with a complex series of concentric rings and a more pronounced convex center, which results in a different light quality than what you get from either ellipsoidal-type spots or grid spots: The light produced is focused and intense, but because the lens diameter is larger, the light isn’t as hard.

The 24-inch Fresnel lights of the type used for motion picture and television production can be adapted for use with flash, but they all share a common problem: size and weight. Compared to these, the K5600 Big Eye Fresnel spot is neither especially big nor heavy, at least not for a 24-inch Fresnel. The Big Eye was designed primarily for use with K5600’s 200-, 400- and 800-watt Joker HMI instruments, but it’s also easily used with bare tube-design flash heads and monolights, and what’s really sweet, with hot-shoe-mount flashes.

At 20 pounds, just one person can carry and set up the Big Eye. This is far lighter than other 24-inch Fresnel spots that have an all-metal body (which acts as a heat sink) built around very high-wattage (up to 20K) HMI or Tungsten lamps, and use heavy-duty yoke mounts. When set up, the Big Eye measures 26×15 inches deep, but it folds nearly flat for traveling and storage.

The 24-inch-diameter molded resin lens is sandwiched between two circular steel hoops, a C-shaped frame and two thick neoprene covers that stretch over the flexible metal wands that are permanently attached to the back of the C-frame.

To set it up, the ends of the frame lock into sockets in the frame around the lens; the lighting instrument mounts on a 5/8” (aka “baby”) pin that mounts on the bottom arm of the frame. To focus the beam, slide the pin along the arm and the whole thing mounts to a grip head on whatever heavy-duty stand you use. The entire thing assembles quite easily: Connect the ends of the C-frame to the frame around the lens and then connect the ends of the wands into the frame, and stretch the neoprene covers over the wands. Price: $2,141.


Do you need or want to create an intense beam of light, with the light at a good distance from the subject, or do you need to simulate hard sunlight? The Paul C. Buff Retro Laser Reflector will do both tasks, easily. Designed to work with the company’s AlienBees and Einstein monolights, it quickly can be adapted for use with other brands of lights, and at $54.95, it’s a steal.

The Retro Laser Reflector is an inverse design, with the flash facing backward into the reflector. Measuring 22 inches wide by 9 inches deep, the unit is the size of most beauty dish reflectors, but the highly polished aluminum bowl creates a hard-edged column of focused light similar to, but different than, what you get from the deep, high-intensity, narrow-angle reflectors made by Broncolor, Dynalite, Elinchrom, Profoto and Speedotron. The reflector mounts on a shaft connected to a three-fingered mount. Sliding the reflector on the shaft focuses the light over a 30º to 11º range, but it’s at the 11º setting where the unit really shines. Note: Paul C. Buff is currently in the process of discontinuing the Retro Laser, but there’s still stock available. Price: $54.95.

Photography Lighting
Bowens 75˚ Softlite Reflector


I really like this modifier for the moody, yet glamorous look it creates. Without the optional Grid Diffuser, it works like a standard beauty dish, both with and without the removable internal deflector. The Grid Diffuser is what makes it unique: A ring of translucent Plexiglas surrounds an opening designed to hold standard 7-inch-diameter grid spots. This produces a circle of crisp light edging into a softer diffused light, with a nice gradual fall-off. Price: $161.99 (Softlite Reflector); $238.99 (with optional Grid Diffuser).

Photography Lighting
Plume Grid Spot Chimney fit to a Paul C. Buff Einstein E640


If you use grid spots in your lighting arsenal, the Grid Spot Chimney from Plume Ltd., is an unheralded, nearly secret weapon. The concept is dead-simple: A six-inch-deep, black anodized aluminum cone-shaped reflector holds any 7-inch grid at the business end. The combination of having the grid a bit further, with the less reflective black interior, creates a more defined edge to the light. Price: Depends on which adapter you purchase with it.


Once upon a time, there was a famous French electronic flash manufacturer named Balcar. They’re now sadly long out of business, but they made some of the most unusual, yet truly useful flash heads and light modifiers ever invented. Ring light? Balcar made the first one, which was an adaptation of their Pencil light flash head that was essentially a simple flash tube on the end of a cable. Metallic umbrellas were another Balcar first—they even made a Zebra model umbrella with alternating white and silver panels. Pioneers in the area of monolights, the most powerful version, the bi-voltage 1600 w-s Monobloc 2, could also power a standalone standard flash head, as well. If someone, someday, happens to catalog all the different makes and models of electronic flash gear and light modifiers, the chapter on Balcar will be pretty interesting reading.

The most humble of their offerings was a flat aluminum modifier, the Umbrella reflector/Angle reducer. Essentially, it was a 7-inch-diameter aluminum disk with a 3-inch-diameter hole in the center. Sandwiched with any 7-inch grid spot, it acted as a Waterhouse aperture, collimating and radically reducing the width of the light beam, perfect when you wanted to precisely control where the light was going without having to set up a separate gobo.

LightwareDirect’s FourSquare store sells an updated version of the Balcar model called Hi-Light Discs. Where the original Balcar only had a 3” aperture, the three discs have different-sized apertures: 2”, 3” and 4”. The Hi-Light Disc sets can be bought directly from the manufacturer through their online store, lightwaredirect.com/foursquare, for $49.95 per three-disk set.

Photography Lighting

Ellis Vener is a commercial photographer based in Atlanta. Visit ellisvener.com.

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