Friday, February 8, 2013

The good and not-so-good about
Graslon flash unit light diffusers

When photographers have the time to set up lighting to take pictures using artificial light (i.e., flash and strobes), such as they do in portraits, it usually leads to pro-quality images. Photographers have great control of lighting in such situations.

But when artificial light is needed and the subject is not able to sit still (pretty much all other circumstances besides portraiture), photographers ordinarily have to attach their flash to the camera for convenience, but they usually struggle to find the right modifiers to deliver the illumination they want without introducing harsh shadows and that bright, "headlight-in-face" look that comes with unmodified on-camera or built-in flash.

I've tried a bevy of options to deal with that. A good one is bouncing the flash, but that's effective only if you're someplace where you can bounce the light off a light-colored wall or low ceiling. There also are on-flash modifiers -- a small softbox, translucent flash-head caps (e.g., Omni Bounce) and even metal brackets to get the flash unit off and above the camera. In the case of a camera's built-in flash, there's the Gary Fong Puffer. Each of those has helped get me close to what I've wanted to achieve, but each also has its limitations, and almost every one -- on occasion -- still will allow a little too much harsh, direct light on the subject.

So I was immediately intrigued by the technology used for the Graslon Prodigy, Insight and Spark flash diffusers when I read about them about a year and a half ago. From the images I studied with the stories and reviews about the Graslon products, I liked how they helped soften light, reduce the likelihood of red-eye and still gave subjects the flattering illumination I sought. I was getting a bit of that already with a small softbox attachment, but there were still instances when even that wasn't cutting it.

Two things contributed to me holding off on a decision to buy any of these -- price and the mechanism used to affix the diffusers to the flash heads. I relented early on and bought the Spark, which was designed for the pop-up flash. The price -- $35 -- was the least expensive of the three, and its attachment mechanism looked relatively safe; it slides on to the camera's hot shoe. Indeed, it has been safe, and pretty effective. I've like what it's done, but I have no control over the light intensity, and that's an issue with pop-up, with or without diffusers.

So in pursuit of the same kind of result with the two Graslon diffusers designed for flash units, the Prodigy and Insight, I continued to study reviews. The technology is commendable; the diffusers are built with a mirror system consisting of strong plastic that help bounce much of the light throughout the device then out through the top, bottom and sides, while the exterior facade allows a very small amount of direct light to escape through tiny holes.

The Prodigy is larger (8x5x3") than the Insight (6x4x3"); both are made with two interchangeable attachments, although the $90 and $63 price tags, respectively, get you only the base unit and one attachment. If you pay for one unit and an attachment, you can purchase the second attachment for about a third of the price of the full unit. One attachment is a rounded dome for use where bounce opportunities exist. The other, flat surface attachment is for when there are no walls or low ceilings to bounce light off -- outdoors, in a huge hall or where there are tall ceilings.

So you can understand the cost issue. (I found it odd that two reviewers thought the price for these was nominal and quite reasonable; another reviewer felt as I did, that they are pricey).

What bothered me more was the other issue -- the less than enthusiastic responses from buyers who bought one or the other and were not pleased with the device's ability to remain firmly attached to the flash head. (Although two reviewers claim to have had no trouble with that.)

Despite both concerns, I did take the plunge finally, and bought the Prodigy -- both the dome and flat attachments -- and discovered immediately what those users were talking about. The device uses a circular bracket through which you insert the head of your flash unit so it fits snug against the hardware. Once snug, you're supposed to be able to tighten the bracket with the plastic thumb nuts around the bracket then further secure it by tightening a Velcro cinch that surrounds the bracket. I had to try the process four or five times on my maiden use before I felt the snugness I needed to ensure the diffuser would not fall off without warning.

And I didn't get it as secure as I wanted on the first try the next time I went to use it, either. Personally, I think Graslon shortchanged customers on the quality or design concept for the mechanism to secure diffuser to flash, and for $90 and $63, that shouldn't have happened. And yes, the unit did separate from the flash head on its own once on my first use. Fortunately, it came as I was placing the camera and flash on a cushioned chair -- gravity apparently pulled on it -- so no harm done. Reviewers claim that the dominant plastic used in the mechanism is so strong that the Graslons wouldn't damage if they are dropped. I hope not.

One other note, as some of the other reviewers have noted, the larger, heavier Prodigy unit tends to be more likely to loosen or fall then the lighter Insight. But the reason I went with the larger Prodigy is because the larger and closer the light source, the softer your light will be, and that's what I wanted. Currently, Graslon offers no bag or other portable carrier to tote the modifiers, although reviewers I read say Graslon is working on such an accessory. The Prodigy, especially, is too large to fit in most camera bags without taking up most of the space. So finding storage is an issue for this (I simply kept mine on the camera to and from the shoot Thursday).

That being said ... when the diffuser is on the flash and you're using it, the light is very nice. I would even go so far to say that it has given me the best lighting on my subjects of any modifier I've used on a flash attached to the camera. I used it to take the photographs you see in this post, which was from a shoot last week during a practice of the Garfield Shakespeare Company's spring play, Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker."

Leading off the post is a shot featuring actresses Laura Kelley (left) and Katie Schneider, an image in which I was impressed by the quality of even light striking both cast members. That's Katie again in the first picture below, with Monica Verdouw in the background.

I used manual settings on the camera (Canon 7D) and 580EX II Speedlite. For the camera, I had my settings at f/3.2, 1/100, ISO-800; the higher ISO setting allowed me to get some decent ambient light onto objects in the backgrounds, something I wasn't getting with test shots at ISO-100. The Speedlite was set at 24mm zoom, Manual mode and a light intensity of 1/32.

Above: The light was just enough to amply illuminate Justin Monts, who is looking at a park bench in the distance during this scene of the play. 

Above and next two below: These costumed, non-book shots were taken to use for the selections to pick formal publicity photos for the show. They feature Laura Kelley, in the role of professional matchmaker Dolly Levi, and Jonathan Kratzner, in the role of wealthy merchant and widower Horace Vandergelder.  

Above: Kelley again; this time I'm testing the distribution of light from low angle. I think it did well.

Above and below: I wanted some shots without flash -- at available light -- to contrast what I would get with flash, so I took these. I looked for opportunities when cast members were in direct lights from the overhead beams illuminating wall art in the gallery hall. I pushed the ISO to 3200 for these two shots and used no noise filter in post-processing. The 7D's noise suppression at such high ISOs is something I really like about the camera.

Above: Katie's hair is tended to by the theater company's head costumer Bradley Jones. Seated next to Katie is cast member Mike Merrick. 

Above: Assistant director Chris Burton also is playing the role of Malachi Stack, a con man with a heart. 

Above: Light amply reaches director Joe Cook (seated) and cast members (from left) Jean Long, Jonathan Kratzner, Chris Burton and Mike Merrick.

Above: Verdouw and Kratzner in an Act I scene. Verdouw was standing in for an absent cast member in this scene. 

Above: Monts, Merrick and Kratzner.

Above: Laura Madden plays Ermengarde, niece of Vandergelder. 

 Above: Even in this closeup, light remains soft on Merrick's face. 

Above: Madden (right) in a scene with Robert Routier, who plays an artist in love with Ermengarde, a romance her uncle Horace dislikes. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the "flash" information/lesson...and also these great photos...tantalizing us to see the play when it gets here!!!!