18 Apr DIY: Adapt Strobe Light Modifiers for Speedlites
I don’t want to get too McGyver-ie on you guys, ’cause I’m sure we’ve all seen the countless disasters of DIY (Do It Yourself) projects, especially in the photography field. People making soft boxes out of cardboard and tinfoil, for example. Some of these contraptions make sense, some don’t come close, some require just as much money making your own crappy version of the original item (not to mention a week’s worth of hours constructing it), and even in the end, if the duct taped frankenstein of a project actually does what it’s supposed to, it will never scream “professional” and you would have to be an idiot use it on a professional photo shoot in front of a paying client. However, every once in a while, a little savvy with mods to existing and legitimate photo gear can workout in your favor, save some money, and produce great results.
My off-camera lighting journey started in overdrive. It was go big or go home when it came to integrating lights in my shoots, meaning I started out and exclusively used larger studio strobes for my work (as opposed to using speedlites, also called hot shoes). Not that it was a regrettable choice, I love the big lights and I still use them for 75% of my work, but I invested heavily and exclusively into those lights and light modifiers. When it came to that other 25% of the time, when I’m not shooting commercial work or I don’t need the horsepower from big lights, I wanted to use the way more convenient, smaller, and lighter speedlites. So I bought a handful of speedlites a couple years back for just those occasions. Aside from the initial expense of the speedlites, I also had to take into account all of the light modifiers. If I wanted the same type of control that I have with my strobe lighting set, would I have to go all out and purchase the speedlite variation of all the strobe medication gear to accomplish this? I owned like… 12+ light modifiers specifically to fit my studio strobes. I initially had no problem shelling out money for the strobe light modifiers, as big lights and big modifiers gave me awesome light, and I was willing to pay for it. Once I started researching speedlite specific light modifiers, my jaw dropped to find they cost just as much, if not more, money for them! I couldn’t believe it. I knew that speedlites were very popular, but man, the photo market is all to wise to that fact, and all of us photogs are paying for it. Markup on small light gear for those tiny little speedlites is out of control.
I decided to invest a bit into the speedlite modifiers market, but knowing they are only 25% of my shoots, it wasn’t nearly as drastic of an investment as my strobe gear. I also bought more universal gear, like the Westcott Apollo soft boxes, which use a standard umbrella mount for lighting, rather than a proprietary speed ring that all of the strobe market uses. The umbrella mount allows me to use either speedlites or strobes in them. That means less gear buying but almost as importantly, less gear that I need to pack to each shoot. Some times I may not know exactly how I’m going to light something, or I have to troubleshoot a concept, and I’ve often interchanged strobes and speedlites in mid-shoot. Universal modifiers are awesome. So I have a lot of gear at this point, two different lighting systems that don’t particularly like to share modifiers. But you can better believe that I’m going to interchange modifiers between the two systems whenever I can. Now, for my DIY light modifier…
The Alien Bee reflector (with grid), mod’d to fit a speedlite. There isn’t a lot of “modification” going on, which is why I like it and still falls within my acceptable boundaries for using it with a client present. Simply put, it doesn’t look ghetto, and I don’t look like a cheap ass. The only modification is the addition of a foam ring with some tape. As you can see via the photos, this basic reflector dish has 100% intention of fitting the specific mount of the Alien Bee lighting system. Knowing that simple grid spots specifically made for speedlites cost $30 per grid, I took a closer look at the Alien Bee dish. If I could get the dish to quickly and securely mount to my speedlite I could use my Alien Bee grids (I use 10, 20, 30, and 40 degree grids, and I have two sets). I held together a dish and a speedlite, it wasn’t a bad fit. A little extra room on the top and bottom, obviously due to different shapes, but not a huge hurdle to overcome. The dish is super light, so the adapter needed to marry the dish and speedlite didn’t need to be anything beefy, in fact, it just needed to be more of a secured padding that was snug enough to fill the remain gaps in the dish once the light was in it and keep it from falling off. It also needed to be a rig that is reliable, had easy repeat usage, and didn’t take a hour to mount and unmount.
This is where the fun begins, right? Toggle on the McGyver switch and hunt the house for viable options. Just about any foam would do, just as long as it wasn’t too forgiving. The foam I actually ended up using was from the inside top of my MacBook Pro box. I ripped that off (it’s glued to the top of the box) and cut it into 1-inch wide strips (cutting down the longer side of the foam). The single piece of foam is enough to make at least 3 of these foam adapter rings. Given the thickness of the foam, it was going to require more than one strip. I took two strips of the foam, wrapped them tightly around the head of the speedlite (one over top of the other) to get a proper fit for the adapter foam ring, and duct taped it. Most of the ring is reinforced with tape, leaving a couple spots of foam to grip the dish a little better. That’s it! I made two of them in 15 minutes and I can now mount Alien Bee dishes and grids to my speedlites for further control.
Below is a photo of the finished foam ring. That is two strips of the foam, each strip wrapped twice around the head of the flash unit, making it essentially 4 layers of foam.
This mod is not the most logical, I’ll have to admit. Typically we are using hot shoe lighting because it quick, easy, and it all fits in a rather small bag. The plus to shelling out for the dedicated speedlite grids would be to retain that mobility and size. More often than not though, I’m usually packing both strobe and speedlite lighting gear in my car, so it makes sense for me to be packing around the dishes and grids anyways. Chances are if you shoot Alien Bees too, you’re probably in the same boat, so it might be worth a try. I’m sure this same technique will work for most strobe lighting dishes, as they are usually about the same size. The size of our foam ring might need to change to accommodate any differences in dish sizes.
As you can see by the photos below, there is no light leaking out of the back of the reflector, and with even a modest 30 degree grid, you can see the light control and nice gradient light falloff. The only reason I’d use a dish without a grid on my speedlite would be to use the dish a flag (or gobo), to prevent stray light from the speedlite going directly into my lens. The speedlite has internal zooming capabilities that can focus the light beam even tighter than what this dish allows, so again, the dish is just making sure that light spill is minimized to the 80 degree spread of the dish, rather than 180 degrees of the speedlite head which has no lip.
Photo left, reflector dish with 30 degree grid. Photo right, reflector dish, no grid.