I’ve generally been a natural light photographer. I understand natural light and love its variability. Normally it’s enough to get some beautiful photographs; many photographers stop here and go no further.
Constantly critical of my own photographs, I realized that I was at the mercy of natural light, searching and modifying, but rarely creating or directing. That’s why I chose to learn how to use flash those years ago. To get full control, it’s essential to put the flashes where you want them, and for this, you need to support them. This article will talk about the options available to you for holding your speedlights and off-camera flash.
Human Light Stands
Using a human light stand is one of the easiest ways to support an off-camera flash and is often overlooked. If you can get someone to hold your flash, you get what’s effectively a voice activated light stand (VAL). It’s easier to change lighting setups this way, especially if your subject is moving. There’s also less hassle on windy days. That said, most people won’t know how to position the lighting modifier and it will tend to drift as you’re shooting. Another photographer or an experienced photography assistant will be very useful.
Hand holding is quite simply, having either you, or an assistant hold the flash. It’s perfectly possible to do this yourself if you feel comfortable taking pictures with one hand, and it gives you a lot of control. Or hand the flash to someone else and let them know where to point it.
Again, you can do this yourself, and it helps if you have the monopod touching the ground because it means that your arm doesn’t feel as tired while holding a larger softbox or beauty dish. Or your photography assistant (or family member, friend, or passer-by) can boom, or hold the flash up, to light your subject from a higher angle. This gives you a lot of control and if you look at photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Joey L, you’ll see that their assistants are often using this approach.
It can be heavy so make sure you pause for breaks. I use a long aluminium Benro monopod that allows me to attach a flash to either end. It’s cheaper than the Gitzo alternative, but do bear in mind that there seems to be no after-sales support. Carbon-fibre is lighter, but not essential.
I’ve been using my tripods to support my off-camera flashes for a long time. First because I already have them, and secondly because they are perfect for uneven ground. Generally they don’t get the flash high enough, but they are stable, especially if you weight them down by hanging a heavy camera bag from the center column.
Small, Lightweight Tripod
This is my go-to option when I’m travelling light and won’t have an assistant. The idea is that the tripod is so small and light, that I can wear it on my belt and largely forget about it. Of course it doubles as a tripod, which I’d normally want to have with me anyway. It’s flimsy by itself and needs to be weighted down with a camera bag. It’s also far too small for most purposes, so it needs to be up on tables and so, to get more height. But you’re more likely to actually carry it, so that’s a good thing. I use a 1kg Sirui tripod that I’m pretty happy with, especially for the price, with an equally small and light ball-head.
Big, Heavy Tripod
As I began to use larger lighting modifiers, like huge octoboxes and parabolic umbrellas, I needed a heftier support for them. I happened to have an enormous old tripod which has been excellent. It weighs a lot by itself, and is definitely bulky, but is easily carried with its broad shoulder strap. It’s perfect for uneven ground, and can be made more stable by hanging the camera bag from it. I use one of Manfrotto’s largest tripods which gets the flash over my head (I’m 6’2″). It’s old, and very durable.
Proper Light Stands
And then there are dedicated light stands, designed for the purpose of supporting off-camera flashes. I started using these when I wanted to get the flashes higher above the subjects. Some are light and flimsy, and others heavy and stable. Some stack together, and others are designed precisely for travel. They seem to break regularly in transit, or just being used on set. They do get the flashes high off the ground, but they don’t seem particularly stable because they’re tricky to weight down with the camera bag, and as soon as the ground is uneven, they’re a pain to use and won’t work on a steep slope.
Supporting Larger Flash Modifiers
These come in several shapes and sizes. Generally all the legs open at the same angle so they only work on fairly flat ground. Smaller light stands meant for travelling are a good solution, though they can be flimsy. Larger light stands can get the flash very high off the camera. Balanced properly, they can be used with a boom pole to get the flash over your subject.
C (entury) Stand
My most recent acquisition, and now my go-to light stand unless I’m travelling light, is the C-Stand or Century Stand. It’s an old design from Hollywood film studios, and very well engineered. It weighs a lot which is inconvenient if you’re walking to your shooting location, but helpful because it means the stand is more stable in use. The legs are also made so that it’s very easy to weight them down using sand bags. I personally use a lead diving weight belt for ballast. Importantly, one of the legs can move along the central column, which means that you can use the stand on uneven ground and on stairs. It’s not quite as versatile on uneven ground as the huge tripod, but it’s much taller; up to 3 meters (9.8 feet). It’s cumbersome to pack because it’s an L-shape, but when it’s on location, it’s perfect. The included boom is very useful, and can handle hanging backdrops too. I use the C-Stand from Pixapro which is well made enough to outlast me. It’s designed to make it a pleasure to use. Though not a pleasure to carry!
You can see the various light modifiers in the video below, as well as see them used on location.