Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Take Better Photos with Off-Camera Flash! PLUS--Transistor Radio Skirt

I ordered my first hotshoe flash, and today it arrived in the mail.  I'm so excited, guys!  So, for those of you wondering what I'm talking about, DSLRs usually come with a built-in flash, like this:
What I got is a flash that can sit in the hotshoe on top of the camera.  It's larger and more powerful than the built-in flash, can be rotated to point in any direction, and has a set of manual controls which allow you to adjust the power and spread of the light.  And, if you have a way to sync the flash with the camera, you can take the flash out of the hotshoe and position it wherever you want.  Obviously, this opens a ton of creative possibilities. 
(The hotshoe is the bracket with the silver dots on top of the camera.  It mates with the bracket and gold-colored pegs on the bottom of the flash.)

Of course, I had to take some outfit photos to play around with the flash and test how much better it really is.  I'll talk about the skirt at the end, but I had to nerd out about my new camera gear first!  If you're not interested in this, just skip down to the words Now, The Sewing Part!

First, I set up the flash off-camera.  There are several different ways to sync the flash with the camera when the flash isn't in the hotshoe, such as flash cables and radio triggers, but I used optical synchronization.  This sounds a lot more complicated than it really is-- I set the built-in flash on my camera to fire, and set the other flash to fire whenever it saw another flash fire.  I set up the camera on a tripod maybe 10 feet in front of me, and I set the flash on another tripod about five feet away and slighly above head height, forty-five degrees to my right.  And...tada!
I like it.  The light falls from above, highlighting my face and the waistline of the skirt.  My legs and feet are in the shadow and don't draw attention away from the skirt. The raking light gives three-dimensionality to my face and highlights the pleating of the skirt.  The shadow adds drama.

That approach gave me relatively harsh light, so for soft light, I took a different approach-- I put the flash in the hotshoe and rotated it so that the light would bounce off the ceiling.  
This also turned out well-- there are still shadows in all of the expected places for three-dimensionality, but the shadows are soft and I'm evenly lit.

Now, for comparison, here are some shots that don't use the new hotshoe flash.  First, here's a shot using the on-camera flash:
Honestly, this is terrible.  The light is harsh and comes straight on, which leads to very harsh and unnatural-looking shadows right behind me.  Personally, I hate, HATE on-camera flash, and I never use it for exactly this reason.  Blegh.  If you're wondering how I didn't get this effect when I was using the on-camera flash to trigger the other flash, it's because I cranked the power on the on-camera flash as low as it would go, and so it was simply drowned out by the power of the other flash.

Next, here's a shot that uses no flash at all, just the ambient light from the overhead lights in the room.
This gives more or less the same effect as bouncing the hotshoe flash off the ceiling-- even light, soft shadows-- but other objects in the room cast shadows, and the picture looks mushy because the amount of ambient light was so low.

Now, for comparison, here are some crops of the above images to show close-ups of the skirt.  Remember, 1 = off-camera flash, 2 = hotshoe flash bounced off the ceiling, 3 = built-in flash, and 4 = ambient light.
The top two photos, the ones which use the new flash, still look good.  In the photo taken using the on-camera flash, the shadows look increasingly odd.  In the photo taken using ambient light, the detail looks mushy and the colors look sickly.

Here are some even tighter crops.
So, the first three crops are all out of focus to some degree-- sorry about that!  There are still two take-home points.  The first is that the raking light in the first picture really brings out the texture in the fabric. 

The second take-home point comes from the effect of the low light levels in the fourth picture.  To compensate for low light, the camera adjusts the sensitivity of the sensor, which is measured by the ISO (or ASA).  Low ISO, or lower sensitivity, gives more detail.  Higher ISO, or higher sensitivity, gives less detail and a grainier image, but it allows the sensor to capture more light.  The first three photos were taken at ISO 100; the fourth was taken at ISO 6400.  The fourth image only came out looking as good as it did because I used a DSLR which is well-regarded for its low-light performance; if I had used my point-and-shoot, this image would have been completely unusable. 

In conclusion, even if you have a DSLR, a hotshoe flash will help you tremendously if you want to take good outfit photos.  You can still use an off-camera flash even if you don't have a DSLR, as the portrait and editorial photographer Zack Arrias so aptly demonstrates in this episode of Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera.  (If you're not familiar with the premise, the host takes professional photographers and makes them do photoshoots using decidedly non-professional equipment.  In this episode, Zach got a dinky point-and-shoot and a flash, and was instructed to shoot portraits on the streets of Hong Kong.)

If you're interested in learning more about off-camera flash, I highly recommend The Strobist.  It's a fantastic resource.  I can't wait to learn more!

Now, The Sewing Part!
This is another one of those projects I completed years ago and only just now got around to posting.  It's a skirt made out of a transistor radio print cotton-linen blend.  I love this fabric.  Tiny vintage radios!
I didn't want to disrupt the lines of the print, so I drafted my own pattern.  Actually, "drafted a pattern" is really overstating the matter-- I folded the fabric over so that the top of one row of radios was the top of the skirt, and used the print to make box pleats at the waistline.  Every other transistor radio in the top row is folded out of sight into the box pleats.
I stitched the box pleats down about an inch, and stitched grosgrain ribbon along the inside of the waistband to hold everything in place.
I inserted the side zipper by hand, and added a hook-and-eye closure for the grosgrain ribbon.  Actually, is that really a hook-and-eye closure, or is there a different name for the big ones?
For the hem, I turned the edge of the fabric under and stitched it.  I then turned the fabric under again so that the bottom of one row of radios was the edge of the hem, and stitched the hem by hand.  As I've worn it over the years, a crease has formed in the hem, and no amount of pressing will get it out.  Does anyone know how to fix this, and how to prevent it from forming in the first place?
Anyway, the skirt went together quickly and easily, and it's become one of my favorite skirts.  Fun to wear, and matches a lot of my wardrobe.
If you've made it to the end of this excessively long post, I'm impressed!  I hope you found it useful!


  1. Horsehair or similar in the hem can help stabilize that area, but to get out the crease try one of these methods:

    The difference in lighting is amazing--thanks for sharing in detail.

    1. Awesome, thanks! I'll give that a try!