Strobing In Seoul: A Beginner’s Guide
I went to my first strobist meeting without a clue as to what type of gear people would be showing off. Sure, I had worked my way through Lighting 101, but I had never seen any of this stuff put to work in the field. Pros make everything look easy – who knew how practical/simple/portable it was going to be?
In a word; very.
The great thing about off-camera lighting is you can make it as complex as you want it to be. David Hobby has made some of the most iconic photos in the genre with a single strobe while Joe McNally usually has enough gear strabbed to his back to light up the Parthenon. One strobe, ten strobes – it’s all about what you want to do. There are lighting guides all over the internet, but for the sake of those living and shooting in Seoul, I’ll tell you what we’ve been shooting with the Seoul Strobist Club, where you can find it and how much you can expect to be gouged paying for it.
Cameras: We should probably get this one out of the way, since having a camera is generally recommended if you intent to make photographs. The good news is you don’t need an expensive DSLR to make off-camera flash work for you. If your camera has a hotshoe and a manual mode you’re good to go. It’s as simple as that (even some point-and-shoot digital cameras come with a hotshoe, so if you’ve got a Canon G10 in your bag you’re golden). However, if you’re new to this stuff and looking for a camera to get started with, I suggest picking up a model with the fastest flash sync speed possible. Most of the DSLR models on the market today max out at a shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/250 when used with flash. Nothing wrong with that. There are, however, a few gems out there that will sync at 1/500 of a second or higher. The Nikon D40 is a great example – Nikon’s cheapest DSLR (less than 500,000 won, street) has a max sync speed of 1/500. Ditto for the old D70. That’s twice as fast as the “pro” and “prosumer” Nikons, like the D90, D700 and even the mighty D3. Even better, when using a flash trigger in the hotshoe, you can “trick” the D40 or D70 into shooting at ungodly shutter speeds of 1/1000 or higher. You’ll need a lot of POWER to use these speeds, but it opens up an entire world of possibilities.
This shot was synced at 1/200 on my D90. A faster shutter sync (1/500, for example) would have let me take the background to black with the sunset and the students steady at their current exposure
Why is this important? It allows you more control over your ambient light levels. That’s really important if you want to light someone on the beach at noon or if you’re on assignment in the Gobi and there’s no shade for 500 miles.
Strobes: These are not of the disco ball variety. Call them whatever you like – speedlights, flashes, flashguns – the terms are interchangeable. For our purposes, strobes are essentially any off-camera light with a hotshoe that we can sync with our camera (more on syncing in a moment).
What strobe should I buy? There are as many strobe brands on the market as there are cameras. Knowing which one to choose can seem a little daunting at first, but making the right call is actually very simple. What your strobe must have, though, is a full manual mode. If it can’t be moved out of auto or TTL/i-TTL/e-TTL you are SOL. You’re also going to want a strobe with at least a four stop power differentiation; this is quite important. Most strobes have power settings of 1/1, 1/2, 1/8 and 1/16. More advanced models will include 1/4 and everything from 1/32 to 1/256. In case you want to light a gnat from an inch away.
Shooting manual (camera and flash) gives you precise control over your light levels. This shot was made at 1/4 power with a shoot-through umbrella. The umbrella was inches away from the models face, just out of frame
The brand you buy, surprisingly, isn’t important. This might sound sacrilegious to the Canon fans, but your best bet for off-camera work is to pick up some used Nikon Speedlights at Namdaemun (or Yongsan, if you can barter through the BS). Any of the older models will work – SB-24, 25, 26 and 28 are all fantastic and can be had on the cheap, while the 600, 800 and 900 are going to burn holes through your wallet. The best bang for the buck comes in the form of the SB-80DX, but finding one for less than 200,000 won is now next to impossible, thanks to the Seoul Strobist Club.
At one time they were each at the top of the Nikon line, so you know you’re getting quality gear if it’s been looked after. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a Vivitar 285 or a Metz flashgun, it’s a good idea to purchase the highest quality product when dealing in the same price range. We’re talking “pro” versus “consumer” grade in the strobist world. The best part about the Nikon strobes? They work with virtually every trigger system on the market today. The same can’t be said for the Canon or Vivitar models. Even better? When used off-camera, the Nikon strobes will work with Canon (or Pentax, or Sigma…) cameras. Just remember, if you’re using an off brand flash, NEVER stick it onto your hotshoe. These things are for off-camera work only, unless you enjoy sending your camera for service on a regular basis.
What you should expect to pay: Older (used) Nikon models can be had for between 40,000 and 100,000 won each, though the price has been rising lately. That’s still a lot cheaper than you’ll find them on ebay or in North America. One of the interesting things about the Korean photography market is that everyone wants the biggest and best piece of equipment as soon as it drops – that means a lot of old, barely used strobes are being traded for newer, more expensive models that do the exact same thing. Advantage? Foreign Strobist.
Made with a 20+ year old Nikon SB-25 strobe purchased for 40,000 won in Namdaemun. That’s half the price of a new Cactus or Vivitar 285 for more features and better build quality
Don’t pay more than 50,000won for a SB-24, 25 or 26 and don’t pay more than 100,000 won for a SB-28 or a new Vivitar/Cactus 285. If If you can pick up an SB-80DX for less than 150,000, do it. Given your choice between the Nikon models, go for the SB-26 or 80DX. They feature wireless IR support and can be triggered via the flash from another strobe.*
* Sorry, but none of this applies if you shoot Sony out of the box. Sony cameras and flashes work on a proprietary system and are not compatible (in their base configuration) with “regular” strobes or syncing systems. Luckily, hotshoe adapters and PC cords can solve your problem on the cheap.
Triggers and receivers; syncing your camera and flash: If you want to make some light off-camera you need a way to send signals back and forth between camera and flash. Sure, you can use the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) for total wireless control, but the cheapest flash in this line costs 300,000 won and you need a Nikon camera to use it. There are cheaper, easier ways. David Hobby swears by the Pocket Wizard triggering system because it is, hands down, the best remote system on the planet. But David Hobby puts his flashes inside helicopters and fires them from 300 feet away. So, if your designs are a little more modest, you can save the 200,000 won you’d need to spend on each trigger or receiver and invest in a Poverty Wizard system. The market is full of triggering systems at different price points. The two most popular in Korea today seem to be the Flashwaves (I and II) and the Rembrandts. We use both at the SSC and have never had a problem with reliability (we haven’t shot Building 63 from World Cup Stadium yet, so we can’t say just how far these things reach). Triggers slide into the hotshoe of your camera (or connect via PC cord) and receivers slide into the hotshoe of your strobe (or connect via PC cord). Most receivers come with a female tripod mount, too – which means you can set them directly onto your support system.
What you should expect to pay: This one might surprise people. A set of flashwave IIs (1 receiver and 1 trigger) will run you roughly 140,000 won, while a set of Rembrandts will cost about 65,000. To sync my strobe set with Pocket Wizards would have cost me more than 800,000\. What can that extra 670,000\ get you at Namdaemun?***
***You can also consider syncing your flash with a PC cord directly to your camera, but you’re limiting yourself to the length of the cord and a single flash at a time, unless your other flashes have wireless support. Do yourself a favour and pick up the wireless system. It’s more fun.
Support and other gear: You’ve got a camera and a strobe and a way to make them talk to one another. Now you need somewhere to put that strobe, unless you’re into making light happen from your left hand for the rest of your life.
Enter light stands and monopods. 5- and 6- section light stands are great because they are light and portable. They are also cheap. 6-foot light stands sell for about 35,000\ while 8-foot stands can be had for around 60,000. You want some advice? Get the 8-foot stands. If you’re shooting people with a 6-foot stand you’re going to be all over your friends assistants to hold the thing in the air and get that light coming in from a better angle. If you wanted to do that you would have bought a monopod… …
Monopods are fantastic. Basically, they give you a light on a big pole that an assistant can work into a million different angles at a million different degrees. You can also wield the monopod on your own for those times you’re shooting strobist style without the aid of your trusty camera club.
Prices vary like crazy; Manfrotto and Gitzo are popular in Korea, but everything on the market can be had for the right price. One of the key features of light stands is that they can be dressed up with umbrella adapters. These adapters range from 20,000 -40,000 won. They have a slot for umbrella poles and rotate up to 90 degrees, making lighting at angles a snap.
Lit with a single gridded strobe on a light stand six feet in the air
Umbrellas, softboxes, snoots, grids, beauty dishes, ring flashes, gels and other toys help meld, model and modify your light. If you’re just starting out you can get by with a single shoot-through or reflective umbrella. A shoot-through is simply a white umbrella you point at your subject and strobe through for a soft, even light. A reflective is a silver umbrella (usually with a black cover) that you bounce into for even, harder light. Umbrellas range from 15,000 – 20,000 on the street. Or go to HomePlus, buy one for 2,500 and chop off the handle. Bob’s your uncle.
The great thing about light modifiers is that with the exception of umbrellas, you can make them yourself. You wouldn’t believe how many cereal boxes I’ve destroyed in my quest to build the perfect snoot. My grid spots, by far my favourite strobist tools (what you use to create your wonderfully graduated backgrounds) are made up of little more than cardboard, gaffers tape and black straws. Just remember to wear your running shoes when you’re “borrowing” black straws from Starbucks. They never believe you when you tell them you’ll bring them back.
Hopefully this quickie guide has answered a few questions for the would-be Seoul Strobist member. Though these are the basics, it doesn’t get much more complicated (unless you’re Lee Smathers and can’t find your car in the parking lot without your light meter).