Here are a few headshots from a Vancouver session I recently did for Money Coaches Canada, who are independent financial advisors who are located in major cities across Canada. They were in town for a conference and invited me to do headshots for use in online profiles, marketing materials, and sites like LinkedIn. All shots were done on location at their office in Vancouver.
I have been a PocketWizard user for years. In my collection of wireless studio flash triggers are the PocketWizard Plus, PocketWizard Plus II, PocketWizard Flex TT5, and PocketWizard Mini TT1. About 8 years ago, I tried the cheaper eBay triggers that came out of China and had such a horrible experience with them that I refused to look at any trigger designed by a Chinese company. There was a long period of time when PocketWizard was the only brand I trusted when it came to wireless flash triggers, but how times have changed.
I am now in a transition period, where I am beginning to phase out my PocketWizard collection and adopting some Chinese brand triggers with complete confidence. Why the change? – Because these new triggers come from China are reliable (so far), and they offer coveted features for the fraction of the price of more expensive PocketWizard remote triggers.
My move away from PocketWizard began with the PocketWizard (PW) Flex and Mini versions of the triggers. I was an early adopter of those triggers when they first arrived in the marketplace. I was excited by the promise of wireless ETTL and PocketWizard’s Hypersync features, but in reality, these new flash triggers gave me nothing but grief and a lighter wallet.
The first PW Flex I purchased fried my Canon 580EX II flash. I emailed LPA Design to make them aware of the situation, only to have them point to my Canon Speedlite for the failure. There were many stories from other people about the risks of the PW Flex with Canon’s 580EX II flashes, which I ignored, but when it came my turn to lose an expensive flash unit, I couldn’t just chalk it up to coincidence that my flash happened to fail when paired with the PW Flex TT5.
Since I own a couple of Canon 430 EXIIs, I decided to try the PWs with them, and they fired fine at close range. At longer ranges during real world events, the PW Mini TT1 and Flex TT5s were completely unreliable, so I lost all confidence in the PW Flex and Mini system.
When an event photographer loses all confidence in a wireless system, it basically means it’s time to get rid of that system. But what was I going to replace that system with? Enter the Phottix Strato II.
There was a time when I was a brand snob. I wouldn’t use any equipment that the top photographers wouldn’t consider, but after a lot of researching, I discovered all the positive reviews of the Phottix Strato and Odin systems, so I had to give it a try.
Having used the Phottix Strato II for about four weeks now, I can say with full confidence that they work!
Phottix Strato II – Yes, they simply work.
The PocketWizard Plus IIs I own also work well, but they don’t have the ETTL pass through functionality I so desperately need for my event work. The PW Plus IIs also don’t have a hotshoe connector for the receiver, so I was always reliant on caddies and cables to connect my PW Plus IIs to my speedlites. For light use, this isn’t a problem, but every once in a while, a loose cable meant lots of wasted time and money trying to get my speedlite flash to fire.
ETTL pass-through: Why is ETTL pass-through so important? With the Phottix Strato II, I could now manually trigger speedlites from across the room, but also have a speedlite connected to my camera via the Strato II. This enabled me to use the on camera flash for fill or bounce light (either in manual or ETTL mode), while using the off-camera flash as a back light, rim light, or also for fill. This configuration worked wonders during events such as weddings.
Focusing in dark environments: Here’s another benefit. Because I could attach my 580EX II speedlite to my camera, I could use the speedlite’s IR focus assist for autofocusing in very dark environments, which still having access to my off camera speedlites across the room. This feature has been extremely useful during dances at event receptions and other times when the lights went dim.
Manual trigger: The Phottix Strato II triggers are easy to use because they are mainly a manual trigger (i.e. there’s not wireless TTL functionality). In many ways, this is a major benefit to me because I never really needed the ETTL functionality for my off camera flashes, and this extra feature added to the higher price tag of the PW Flex and Mini triggers, not to mention very unpredictable flash output on the few occasions when off camera TTL worked for me.
AAA batteries: This many seem to be a minor benefit, but for me, it’s actually a big one. The PocketWizard Mini-TT1 remotes used button cell batteries, which were relatively expensive and sometimes difficult to find. I ended up buying a button cell battery recharger to help keep long term costs down, but now I really appreciate that the Phottix Strato II triggers use standard AAA batteries, which I can buy just about anywhere.
Build quality: This is one point that worried me about the Phottix Strato II units, but having used them for a few weeks, I can confidently say that the build quality almost as good as the PW triggers. I say “almost” because the PWs do feel a little more solid, and the Plus IIs have lasted for years. Nonetheless, I’m satisfied with the build quality of the Strato IIs for now.
Need ETTL? Get the Phottix Odin: Yes, Phottix has a line of triggers for those who need remote ETTL and remote flash control – it’s called the Phottix Odin. With the Odin, you get the ETTL and the ability to control both ETTL ratios and manual power on your remote speedlites. I haven’t purchased any Odins yet because I don’t use ETTL for off camera speedlites and because the Odin doesn’t have a ETTL hotshoe pass-through on the remote. When Phottix decides to offer the features of the Odin with an ETTL pass-through, I’ll be all over it like pigs in mud. In the meantime, you can also check out the Yongnuo Y-622C triggers if you are interested in wireless ETTL and a transceiver with a hotshoe ETTL pass-through.
PocketWizards: I still like much of what PocketWizard is doing. They’re continuing to release firmware updates that may make the Flex and Mini triggers a workable system, but for me, I need remotes that work now, not months or years down the road. A few of my fellow photographer friends have Flex-TT5 and Mini-TT1 units that work reliably, while others don’t. When it comes to professional work, I need something that works 100% of the time, so for now the Phottix Strato II speedlite triggers are my go-to remotes.
There are several other pros and cons for both systems as well, but instead of rambling on, here’s an abridged list: PocketWizard Flex-TT5 and Mini-TT1
(I’ve only used the Canon version, so this list applies to the units I’ve owned and used)
Has HyperSync capabilities (if you can get it to work properly, which I never did)
Control TL for off camera auto flash exposure (if you can get it to work properly, which I rarely did)
Able to control Einstein strobes (PCB) with optional PowerMC2 receiver
Able to control Elinchrom RX and Ranger strobes with optional power ST4 receiver
Flex-TT5 units are transceivers (you can use them to receive or transmit)
Mini-TT1 units are small and lightweight
Backwards compatible with Plus II and Plus triggers (manual mode only)
20 ControlTL channels and 32 standard channels (great when there are a lot of other photographers around using PWs)
Many people have complained about remote reliability issues (including myself)
May need to use an RF shield (AC5 or AC7 shields) if using with a Canon 580 EXII speedlite
Canon 430 EXII are recommended for long range use
One of the more expensive trigger systems
Difficult to use firmware settings configuration system
Comes with Energizer batteries and varies sync cables right out of the box
Very reliable at far distances (2.4Ghz frequency)
Manual trigger only
Wireless shutter release
Uses 2 AAA batteries
Relatively small form factor
Hotshoe ETTL pass-through
Metal foot on the receiver unit
1/8″ socket on the receiver unit
Compatible with Odin and other Strato triggers (manual mode only)
4 channels and 4 groups
Build quality is good, but just a tiny step behind the PocketWizard Flex-TT5 system
No ETTL remote functionality (if you need that sort of thing)
Separate receiver/transmitter units instead of each one being a transceiver
Plastic foot on the transmitter unit
No high-speed sync capabilities
Conclusion: When it comes to remote triggers, reliability has to be the most important feature. No headshot photographer (like me) wants to have to walk across a room multiple times to check on why a speedlite isn’t firing, and for an event photographer, an unreliable remote trigger is like having no remote trigger at all. When I used only PocketWizard Plus II transceivers, triggering speedlites and strobes was a happy experience, but when I adopted the Flex-TT5 and Mini-TT1 units, that all changed – Off camera flash photography became unreliable, even when I was only using the manual trigger option set in firmware. The came the Phottix Strato II system and I was a happy photographer again. The Strato II are a less expensive system with none of the ETTL or PW HyperSync (or high-speed sync) capabilities so desired by many photographers, but at least they are well built, easy to use and maintain, and very reliable. For now, the Phottix Strato II are my flash remotes of choice and whatever PocketWizards I have left have been designated to the sell on Craigslist box in the closet of my office.
Here are a couple of professional headshots I did recently in Vancouver. The organization that contacted me wanted to have photos done for an upcoming conference and for the web, but I only had about 4 days to get the shots done and ready to go. We decided on an outdoor location in the courtyard right downstairs from their offices. There are a couple of cafe’s there and lots of people, which made finding a clear background a little tricky. Moreover, there was a strong breeze that day coming in from the harbour, and the narrow courtyard funnelled the breeze through like a wind tunnel. Fortunately for me, there was one corner of the courtyard where things were a little calmer, so that’s where I set up for the shots.
For these headshots, I used one Elinchrom Quadra RX light inside a Westcott Apollo Orb softbox. I had originally planned to use a two-light setup, but I found one wall with some reflected sunlight that added depth and texture to the shot, so a second light wasn’t necessary. I tried to match the output of my Elinchrom Quadra head to make sure the natural light reflecting off the brick wall behind the subject was at the proper levels (i.e. not too over or under exposed) and used a Singh-Ray 77mm Vari-ND filter to allow me to open up the camera’s aperture, thereby throwing the brick slightly out of focus – which helped to give dimensionality to the overall image.
Windy locations are never a good place for headshots, so this session took a lot longer than expected. One of the subjects kept blinking in sync with the flash, thereby making it very difficult to get a good shot with eyes open. The wind also made it uncomfortable for the subject to keep eyes open, not to mention hair blowing all over the place. I eventually got the shot I wanted above, which were edited in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop CS5, and cropped.
This is a series of corporate headshots I did for a Vancouver corporate recruiting firm. The photos were all done on location at their office using our professional equipment. When lighting is set up right, each headshot takes only 5 to 10 minutes per person, which our clients love because there’s minimal impact on their time.
Often times, there’s little room in offices in downtown Vancouver, but we are always able to find sufficient room. Business headshots sometimes take place in boardrooms, and other times it’s in a lunch room, or even an office. We always find a location because the equipment we bring along is compact and can fit into almost any space.
For example, here are a few headshots we did in the office lobby.
I was invited to do more corporate headshots for a business recruiting firm in downtown Vancouver last week. For these photos, I used 3/4 lighting in these photos with a hair light behind the subject and a reflector to the subject’s left for fill. I used an Elinchrom Quadra shot through a Westcott Apollo Orb 43″ octa softbox as the main light and the second light was shot through a standard Elinchrom diffuser cap. Some skin retouching was done in Photoshop to improve skin complexion in these head shots. These are a few of the finished photos.
Headshot Photographers, here’s how you travel light!
Last year, we decided to close up our bricks and mortar photography studio in New Westminster and go completely mobile. We discovered through working with our clients that they often prefer to have a professional photographer visit their office to do head shots. In many cases, it means more business for you as a photographer because they will often book you to photograph a longer list of people.
After doing this a few times with my studio gear, I really started to hate lugging around all that extra gear that is actually meant for a studio and not mobile use in rainy Vancouver. I’d had my share of lugging around heavy lighting stand bags and cases for my monolights, not to mention my camera bag, which was always on the heavier side.
So recently, I said goodbye to my studio equipment and started to build a kit for mobile use. Here’s what I came up with base on extensive research and months of actual in-field use: “The Ultimate Vancouver Headshot Photographer‘s Mobile Toolkit”.
This list is ordered by the level of highest benefit for mobile on-location portrait work. Items near the top are things I can’t live without and things at the bottom are nice-to-haves, but not as critical.
This is bag I really can’t live without. It’s a smaller roller bag, but it carries just about everything I need for a headshot session on location. It won’t carry all my lighting gear, just my Canon flashes (aka. speedlights), but it will take 2 bodies and all the lenses I need. I chose this bag because it can be easily converted to a backpack in case both my hands are busy with other gear. On a recent business trip to Calgary, Alberta I had no problems bringing this on board WestJet. I stuffed it pretty well and my only warning is that it will fit very snug in the overhead compartment. Had I got the x450 version, I’m not so sure it would have passed a carry-on luggage. As a Vancouver headshot photographer, going downtown to do corporate headshots is a real pain the neck from carrying all that heavy equipment from parking lot to corporate office. Having a roller-bag is a real life saver and it just looks more impressive to walk into an office with all your gear stuffed neatly into a small bag, rather than crash in with five camera bags hanging off your shoulder.
I can’t believe that I used to haul a full background system around just for a headshot. What was I thinking? After years of filling my car with background stands, poles, clamps, and of course a long roll of background paper, I had enough and picked up a Lastolite Collapsible Background. I have the 5×6′ version in White and Mid-Gray. There is also a White and Black version, but I rarely ever shoot against a black background nowadays. Folded, the background is about 1/3 of it’s size and relatively easy to carry around. It’s still big, but no where near as big and heavy as a full background system.
If you do decide to get this background, I also recommend getting the Bracketed Stand. It’s light and collapses to a small enough size to fit into any lighting bag. It will save you time and headaches trying to hang the background.
This lightstand and umbrella carry bag will carry almost everything a headshot photographer needs. I’ve stuffed up to 4 lightstands, and smaller Manfrotto tripod, a reflector arm, the Lastolite Bracketed stand, Photoflex umbrellas, the Westcott Apollo 28″, and several other small items in this bag (and checked it in at the airport too!). It’s not padded, so you need to add some padding or make sure it’s checked in with the fragile luggage, but man, does this think hold a lot of stuff. In future, however, I will be looking into a bag with wheels, but for now, this one bag takes care of all my on location lightstands and grip needs.
These are the 6.75″ stands I often use for rim and fill lighting. They work great with my Canon 580EX II flash units and lightweight strobes such as the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra or even Alien Bees or Einstein E640 monolights from Paul C. Buff. I even used it with my bulkier PCB White Lightning monolights before with no problems – although be warned that you can’t use oversized modifiers (e.g. 53″ Elinchrom Octa Light Bank) with these light stands, they are simply too lightweight for that sort of thing. I love these stands because they are small and they click together, make it very easy to carry around three lightstands. If you are going to buy these lightstands, buy them in the 3-pack, you’ll be glad you did.
These are the bees knees (if you know what that means, you rock!). I love Elinchrom lighting equipment. They are one of the top lighting companies out there. The only other ones that are better are Profoto and Broncolor, but those are the Lamborghini’s and Bugattis of the studio lighting world. Elinchrom is up there with their Ranger series as well, but a little less expensive overall. The Elinchrom Quadras give off beautiful consistent light and have been around for a few years now. People who own them love them for their portability, and at 400ws max, the power output is good enough for most portrait situations, but it’s the overall convenience that draws me to these lights. They are battery powered as well, meaning you don’t need to worry about bringing along a long extension cable – and thus one less thing to worry about! They may seem expensive, but how many speedlights would you need to output 400ws? Maybe four or five? And do speedlights have modelling lights? Nope, they don’t and you need modelling lighting in some low light portrait situations. You simply can’t function without modelling lighting in some office spaces or homes, so the Elinchrom Quadras help solve a huge problem for me on location. And why the Elinchrom S head vs. the Quadra A head? Because for most portraits, you don’t need the extra flash speed.
I love these softboxes, especially my 50″ Apollo, and the only reason they aren’t listed higher is that there are so many good light modifiers out there. Some I’ve tried and others that have excellent reviews, such as the Photek Softlighter II and the Elinchrom Rotalux series of modifiers. I love these modifiers because they help create even lighting and they work with just about any strobe out there (for the Quadra, an umbrella bracket is needed). The Softlighter II does a similar thing, and perhaps even gives off slightly softer light. I’m looking to purchase the Apollo Orb too, so perhaps that will find a spot on a future list.
If you’re a Canon shooter with a 5D MKII or other camera with fine-tune calibration options, the Reikan FoCal may help you. I say “may” because there are few minor bugs with the system, but in theory, it should help you get better focusing results. I’ve used it and for most of my lenses, it appears to have helped improve autofocus, which saves me a lot of time and frustration. The one major downside is that it only works on Windows computers, so if you don’t have a PC, get a Windows emulator or get something like the SpyderLensCal Focus Calibration Tool or LensAlign MKII Focus Calibration System.
The Westcott Apollo 28″ softbox is a good size for travel and it’s quick to set up thanks to it’s umbrella-like folding design. It will fit on almost any strobe and the light it emits is soft and beautiful.
The Westcott Apollo 28″ Softbox – Build and Quality: B+
I‘m going to begin my series of product reviews with the Westcott Apollo 28″ Softbox. There are plenty of other in-depth reviews of this softbox, but like most of my upcoming product reviews, I’m going to review it from the point of view of a Canadian photographer who works predominately on location (e.g. weddings and on-location headshots) and travels with his gear.
So what’s unique about being a Canadian photographer that warrants a special type of review? First off, it’s expensive to buy photo gear in Canada. Us Canucks drool at the low prices our friendly neighbors to the south enjoy, and those tasty store rebates that we almost never get to have. What this means for Canadians is that we have to be super careful about into what type of gear we invest our hard earned dollars. We pay an arm and a leg for shipping, duties, taxes, and it’s not so easy to ask for a refund for items that don’t work for us. Second, there a lot of gear out there that isn’t warrantied in Canada. Some of the gear we buy in the US (often because it’s not available here or too expensive) have USA-only warranties. So any such gear has got to be top-notch. Third, like the warranty issue, some gear isn’t serviced in Canada, or if it is, you’ll need to pawn a limb to pay for the service. For these reasons, and many others, I’ll be looking at camera gear from a Canadian perspective and will provide info about durability and the real costs of ownership.
Ok, on to the Westcott Apollo review.
I purchased my Westcott Apollo from B&H last spring (2011). I bought it after doing some extensive online research, looking at YouTube videos and watching the photo guys from Lighten Up and Shoot – they seem to be big advocates of the Apollo soft boxes, and the type of shooting I do is a lot like what they do – I decided to take the plunge and invest in a portable soft box for my Canon 580EX II units and my White Lightning strobes.
In addition to the 28″ softbox, I also bought the 50″ one at the same time. Since receiving them, I’ve been very happy with these softboxes. Here’s why:
They’re portable and somewhat durable enough for travel. I just did a trip to Calgary where I had to check in my 28″ Apollo in an un-padded lighting bag along with my Manfrotto light stands at YVR and YYC . I made sure the bag went with the fragile luggage and was pleased to find out that the Apollo made it there and back with no problems. The rest of the time, I transport them in the back of my SUV without a bag and sometimes even under some heavy bags, and they hold up fine. Now if you want to “beef up” the ribs of the Apollo, you can check out Mike’s video on how to do that with zip ties.
It gives off good light. Apollos are no Elinchrom Lightbank Octa or Mola Beauty dishes, but they do give off good light for a portable softbox. Much of that has to do with the fact that the strobe is bouncing light off the back of the softbox, thereby diffusing the light before it even leaves the front baffle. Most of the headshot photos on my site were shot with the 28″ or 50″ Apollo soft boxes. I especially like the recessed front, which helps to minimize light spill. Without it, I would need to add a flag in some cases, which means more gear to bring and more time setting up and less time actually shooting.
It’s compatible with almost any flash strobe.I started with Hensel and Elinchrom units and had to buy two identical softboxes for use with these units. Then when I moved to White Lightning, I had to buy modifiers or get rid of those softboxes because they wouldn’t fit on the Paul C. Buff units. As a Canadian who is tired of paying expensive shipping and duty on everything, I want to keep my purchasing costs down and the Apollos are a good option to help me do that. Because they are umbrella mounts, the 28″ unit will fit almost any strobe unit. Even the newer Elinchrom units. If it has an umbrella slot, it will likely fit. This means that I can go from my White Lightnings to Elinchroms to Canon speedlights with no compatibility issues.
They’re price right. Who wants to spend a lot on portable soft boxes anyway? Especially since I don’t know of anyone in Vancouver who fixes broken photo umbrellas or softboxes. Once they do, I say they’re trash – if you know of anyone who can fix these for a good price, do let me know. For about $129 USD, you get a very good portable umbrella style softbox. If you look on Ebay, there are some Chinese knock-offs that resemble Apollos, but you get what you pay for – really. I’ve had my share of poorly-made Chinese knock-off photo equipment and I’m not going back there any time soon. You’ll just have to believe me on this. Westcott is an excellent brand and they make good stuff; pay a little more and you’ll have fewer panic attacks when you’re working.
You’ve likely heard that the biggest complaint is the tilt issue with the Apollos. I must admit that it’s a big issue. There are many home-made solutions online to solve this, as well as adapters you can buy from Westcott and Alien Bees, etc. as a work-around, but my solution has been to use a swivel umbrella adapter and a light stand with a boom arm. I use a Manfrotto 420B Combi Boom Stand and an Impact umbrella bracket, but there are many types out there and just about any swivel-types will work just fine. This solution adds a bit of bulk to my travel bag, but it’s not so much that I’m complaining.
The overall build and quality is a B+. I can’t give it an A or A+ because of the few loose threads I see on the velcro of the front diffuser and because of the fact that you’ll want to take Mike’s advice and “beef up” the softbox with zip ties. This softbox feels like an umbrella. Perhaps a litter stiffer than a typical umbrella, but it’s nowhere as rigid as a professional studio softbox, nor is the outer material rugged in any way (in fact, the Wescott lettering on mine is already beginning to rub off and one fall on a windy day and I think the ribs are toast). But for this type of softbox, you can’t expect it to be heavy or too bulky. The point of this softbox is to be a light and portable unit you can take almost anywhere.
The real problem with the Apollo is the fact that you can’t reach the controls once you’ve velcro’d the front diffuser. Each an every time you want to make a setting change (presuming you’re on manual mode) you need to open up that front diffuser to reach the controls. This is a real headache.
There are workarounds for this problem too, but I haven’t tried any of them, so I won’t comment here. If you’re looking for an excuse not to buy this soft box, not being able to reach your controls easily would be it.
Over the past year, I’ve used the Apollo 28″ softbox for just about every type of portrait shoot I can think of. I’ve used it at weddings, indoors, outdoors in poor weather, I’ve checked them in at the airport, and I’ve piled things on top of it in the back of my SUV. So far, it’s stood up to all the abuse, minus a loose thread here or there. For a $129 USD (+ local taxes, shipping, exchange, and duty, it’s closer to $160 CAD), it’s a good investment if you do a lot of on-location shooting like I do. The Westcott Apollo 28″ softbox is a good size for travel and it’s quick to set up thanks to it’s umbrella-like folding design. It will fit on almost any strobe and the light it emits is soft and beautiful. There aren’t many other competitors out there that make a similar square soft box for this price point, so if you want some to help you make up your mind, I say GO FOR IT!