Studio-style flash lighting with Speedlites

Speedlite flashes enable you to take studio-style photos in various locations. Find out about the great features that make this easy, and learn how to make your own modifiers for your Speedlites.

Some Canon EOS cameras, such as the EOS-1D X Mark III and EOS 5D Mark IV, are equipped with a PC socket (also known as a PC sync port or PC terminal), enabling them to wire up to professional studio flash lighting equipment. However, you don't need to rely on this older standard – studio-style photographs can be taken with all EOS cameras using Canon Speedlites off-camera.

To do this, you can use either a Canon Off-Camera Shoe Cord OC-E3, which fits into your camera's hot-shoe and connects your flash with a cable, or the Canon wireless flash system, which has greater range and greater versatility, with the option to use multiple flash units. The range and the number of flash units depend on which control system you use. If your Speedlites support the Canon Radio Transmission (RT) wireless sytem, the range is up to around 30 metres, and you can use up to five groups of remote flash units, with up to three flash guns in each group. The Canon optical wireless system can control two or three groups but with any number of flash guns in each group, and it has a smaller range of up to around 15 metres indoors, but this will be ample for a studio set-up. As at the end of 2020, all current Speedlites will work with the optical wireless system (although a couple of macro ring light models work only as transmitters, not as remote receivers).

The Canon wireless flash system is not only convenient and versatile, but also very portable. This means you can set up a studio in almost any suitable space.

The Speedlite range are powerful for their size – the flagship Speedlite EL-1, for example, has a guide number of 60 (metres, ISO 100) but weighs less than 690g complete with its rechargeable Lithium-ion battery – and many are ideal for use with large light modifiers, such as umbrellas or big softboxes, to soften and diffuse the light when required to create truly professional results. In contrast to many artificial light sources, diffused illumination better emulates natural lighting, such as the light through a window. What's more, you don't necessarily need to invest in pro studio equipment – with just a little time and ingenuity, it's easy to make your own light modifiers and accessories to use with your Speedlites.

The home studio

When you're shooting headshots for a portfolio, or photographing family and friends, the setting and background are not usually important. These photos were taken in a dining room after moving the table and chairs to one side.

A photographer takes pictures of a model in a domestic dining room with a flash unit behind a white umbrella to one side.

A Speedlite was positioned on a tripod to one side. To give the soft lighting required, it was fired through a white umbrella, softening the shadows and spreading the light more evenly.

A Speedlite on a tripod with a white umbrella mounted in front of it, plus another Speedlite aimed up the wall behind, and a Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT.

Positioning a second Speedlite behind the subject and aimed up at the wall illuminates the background for a lighter, more high-key look. A Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT was used to control both Speedlites wirelessly while still providing full E-TTL exposure metering. This allowed the photographer to concentrate on composing and capturing the image rather than worrying about the lighting and exposure. It also kept the limited space free of cables, allowing complete freedom of movement to shoot from a variety of different viewpoints.

A blonde woman lit from the side by a gentle, diffused light.

With the model standing about a metre away from the wall behind her and the Speedlite positioned to her side, angled so that it hits her face but not the wall, the wall remains dark. The model's face is lit on one side, but the umbrella diffuses the light and makes the edges between the highlights and shadows soft, so there's a nice gradation in tone rather than a sharp edge. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/200 sec, f/4.5, ISO100. © Marcus Hawkins

A blonde woman lit from the side by a diffused light, with a lighter background and lighter shadow on her unlit side.

For this shot, the main light (the Speedlite with the umbrella) was moved a little further from the model to illuminate more of her face, and a second Speedlite was used to lighten more of the wall behind. In addtion, a reflector was used to bounce some of the light back onto the model's darker side. There are many reflectors available to purchase, or you can use white card, a bedsheet or something similar. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/100 sec, f/4.5, ISO100. © Marcus Hawkins

Making your own softbox

A softbox produces a very similar result to an umbrella, and again there is a broad range available to buy, but you can also make one yourself very cheaply. All you need is a fairly large cardboard box, some aluminium foil, adhesive tape, and tracing paper or white baking parchment.

Basically, it's just a case of making a hole in the bottom of the box, and securing your Speedlite in this with some tape and extra cardboard for reinforcement. Line the box with the aluminium foil, then cover the open side of the box opposite the flashgun with the tracing paper to create a diffuser. You can follow our step-by-step guide for more information.

A man's hands securing a cardboard sheath or funnel with tape to a hole cut in the bottom of a large cardboard box.

We made a sturdy cardboard sheath to hold our Speedlite securely, and fixed this to the bottom of our box with plenty of reinforcement. The Speedlite slides into this snugly and is held in place with several strong rubber bands.

A Speedlite on a tripod with a cardboard box mounted in front of it, throwing gentle light on a boy.

The Speedlite and homemade softbox make a very effective studio-style environment. We draped some black fabric behind to control the ambient light, but you can choose any backdrop that suits your needs.

A man photographs a boy in front of a Speedlite on a tripod with a cardboard box mounted in front of it.

We mounted the Speedlite and softbox on a tripod, which can be adjusted in height and angle as required. Speedlites are sturdy, but for stability it's best to ensure that the tripod is bearing at least some of the weight of the box.

A boy lit from one side with a  gentle, diffused light.

A sample shot of our model, lit from the side with a gentle, diffused light. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.8, ISO100.

Snoots and grids

In a photographic studio or a professional portrait photographer's kitbag, not all the lights use large reflectors or diffusers. Quite often other accessories are used to modify the light for specific situations and creative effect. Grids and snoots are two of the most common, used to direct and concentrate the lighting. With a little imagination, you can easily make similar accessories to use for your Speedlite.

A snoot acts like a funnel for the light. Instead of the light spreading over a wide area, it is narrowed down to a beam of light a bit like a spotlight. It is often used to highlight areas within the scene or to add a rim light or hairlight to the back of a head when shooting portraits. A snoot is usually circular and produces a very hard-edged light, where the difference between lit areas and shadow is very apparent.

Grids are a lot like snoots, but the light they produce has a softer edge. In the studio they come in a range of strengths to produce different size spots, but for most Speedlite applications you'll need only one. They are used like snoots, but the softer edges avoid heavy shadows and allow you to feather the light across the subject to provide a smooth transition from lit to unlit areas.

Although you could use a home-made grid or snoot on a flash mounted on the camera, you really need to be able to position and direct the flashgun quite accurately. If it is on the camera, the range of movement is not enough to create the lighting effects you can produce with the flash off-camera.

Making a snoot or a grid

The simplest way to make a snoot is to reach for one of those foil-lined snack food tubes or just some thin cardboard. Making sure the tube is completely clean, simply pop out (or cut off) both ends of the tube and ease one end over your Speedlite. Alternatively, take a piece of cardboard, and fold it around the head of your Speedlite to create an open rectangle. You can use tape or a couple of strong rubber bands to keep it in shape and in position.

You can modify the size of the exit hole by squashing that end of the snoot tighter – you may need some more tape to maintain the size you want.

You can make a grid for your Speedlite in a similar way, but you'll need some black drinking straws. Make your snoot as above, but this time fill the tube with the straws. If you pack the straws in nice and tight you might get them to stay in place by themselves, but alternatively, use some glue along their length – this is easier to do with a rectangular piece of cardboard that you then fold around the straws.

The longer the straws, the tighter the spot will be. A length of around 5cm provides a useful-sized spot with a soft edge for feathering, but you might want to start a bit longer and cut down to size as you require.

A man holds a snack food tube in one hand and cuts the end off with a craft knife.

To make our own snoot or hotspot, we started by carefully cutting the ends off a snack food tube of roughly the right diameter to fit on a Speedlite.

A man photographs a dog illuminated by a Speedlite on a tripod on the opposite side, with the light narrowed by a homemade snoot.

A view of our studio setup with our homemade snoot on a Speedlite mounted on a tripod to one side.

A man slides the snack food tube over a Speedlite.

Affix the tube to your Speedlite, securing it by wrapping tape or rubber bands around the neck if necessary.

A portrait of a dog lit from one side by a narrow beam of light.

A pet portrait showing how the tight lighting from a snoot helps pick out hair and other details, particularly if you're shooting against a dark or contrasting backdrop. Taken on a Canon EOS 250D with Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/7, ISO100.

Modelling pre-flash

With snoots and grids, you are dealing with a narrow beam of light, so it's important to make sure it is hitting the right point. The depth-of-field preview button on your camera hides a little known function when used in conjunction with a compatible flashgun. With a flashgun attached to the camera or connected wirelessly, pressing the depth-of-field preview button will cause the flash to emit a short burst of rapid flashes. This will show you exactly where the light will fall in the image.

Flash metering

EOS cameras have through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering. Any modifications you make to the Speedlite flash output will be detected by the metering system and you should continue to obtain well-exposed flash images. However, as with all photo techniques, the results you get might not always be the results you want. Don't be disappointed if your first set of pictures is less than perfect. Experiment with your homemade Speedlite accessories, examine the results, and decide if a little flash exposure compensation would improve the photographs.

Angela Nicholson

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