There are some pieces of gear that get me all hot and bothered when I start talking about them. Things like my Fuji x100s or my Really Right Stuff pano head or this new 34″ 21:9 LG monitor I’m staring at right now. Cool gear. Fun gear. Things I pace the floor while waiting for them to show up from UPS or FedEx. Then there are the utility pieces of gear that get thrown around, walked on, left in a parking lot overnight, and pretty much abused, yet they are indispensable to me as a photographer.
I think the #1 item that falls into this realm is my 40×60″ 5-in-1 reflector. This thing has been around the block more times than I can count and I find more and more uses for it all the time and yet, I never get excited about it. I have literally left it in a parking lot overnight. I put it on the roof of my car as I was packing up from a job and just drove off. I checked to make sure my camera bag was in the car no fewer than five times but my 5-in-1? Pffffftttt. Whatever.
It ends up as a background a lot of the time as seen in this recent behind the scenes photo shoot. Sometimes it’s there to diffuse a lightsource. Sometimes, as seen above, it’s pulling double duty as a background and a diffuser. The image above was shot while working on location for Land Rover. Let me break down that job and illustrate one specific use of this 5-in-1:
I was hired by Land Rover to photograph a series of portraits of previous Camel Trophy participants. A large number of Camel Trophy alumni were going to be at the Overland Expo outside of Flagstaff, Arizona where they would be teaching off road driving techniques for Land Rover on a special course that they built at Mormon Lake. I would have to make these portraits whenever I could grab one of the subjects during the two days that I’d be there. I’d get five minutes here, two minutes there, ten minutes here, etc. Shooting conditions were less than optimal. We were at 7,100 feet in elevation, had the sun beating down all day, and the wind would kick up and make a mess of things. Sun. Wind. Dust. Heat. High elevation. The shooting conditions sucked and I had to shoot a consistent series of portraits through all of this. Suck it up and make it happen right? Right. That’s the job of a photographer.
The initial series of portraits I envisioned looked something like this:
Camera :: Phase One IQ140 back on a Phase One DF camera.
Lens :: 80mm Schneider leaf shutter lens.
Light :: Elinchrom Quadra at full power with a Cheetah Stand 24″ Q-Box fired by a Wein infrared trigger.
Exposure :: ISO 50 @ f8 @ 500th to 1000th of a second.
Light Stand :: Chris Eversole
The resulting portraits were fine but I wasn’t over the moon happy with them. They were not saying what I was seeing. These are rugged and bold and kind and amazing and adventurous people. I wanted a more intimate portrait of them. I had researched all of the drivers and I wanted to capture that rugged sense of adventure that drove them to compete in Camel Trophy to begin with. I also had to do this in the middle of the day in bad light with far less oxygen than I’m used to having.
Take Daphne Greene for instance. Daphne was the first female competitor to make the US Camel Trophy team. She’s been around the world and has done so much with her life and she has the kindest eyes you’ve ever seen. She loves what she does. She loves sharing it with other people. This photo of her doesn’t quite communicate that…
Doesn’t completely suck. Isn’t making me happy, though. Client was happy. Everyone was happy. I was not. Photographing Daphne in action is better than the portrait.
Why was I writing this post again? Oh yeah. That forgettable 5-in-1. I continued to photograph each of the drivers in an editorial fashion but decided what I really wanted was a simple background, get in close, and create something more personal. In comes the 5-in-1. I placed each person so the sun would be at their back and then Chris held the 5-in-1 against their back and would keep it positioned in such a way that it shaded each subject from the sun when it was directly overhead.
The resulting portraits looked like this:
That… IMHO… is better. Yeah, yeah, yeah… Avedon in the American West. As my grandfather would say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I was happy now. My client was really happy. Everyone was happy.
(There was a lot of sitting around and waiting on this job. Chris Eversole, pictured above, is one of the finest assistants I’ve ever worked with. The guy is a deep well. The 5-in-1 can also be folded and used as a smaller fill / bounce if needed.)
You may be asking, “Why is it called a 5-in-1?” Good question. It does at least five things. First, it can act like the front of a softbox and diffuse a light source (see below). You can then slip the black / reflective white reversible cover on and it can be a quick black background or that can be used as a solid to completely shade someone, or something, from a light source. The white side of that cover is more reflective than just using the white diffusion material and that makes for a more efficient fill / bounce. Then there is the gold and silver cover that slips and zips on for a big bright specular fill in a neutral silver or a warm gold. You’ll find some of these 5-in-1 kits that also include a chromakey green and blue cover as well. That’s 7-in-1 if you’re counting.
You have light coming through a window you need to diffuse? Pop the diffuser in the window, or clamp it to a light stand, and place it between the light source and the subject. Want to completely kill the light coming in from a window? Slip and zip the black cover on and put it up against that window. Need to lay down on some dirt or damp grass? Lay on the black cover and wipe it off when you’re done. Need a pop of light in your subject’s eyes on a cloudy day? Try the silver or gold reflector to get the job done. Need to make a small softbox look like a larger softbox? Put your softbox on a stand and then place the diffuser between the softbox and the subject. You’ll get a beautiful double diffused light that is larger on your subject than just the small box you started with. Here’s Caleb sporting the 5-in-1 gear.
Next topic :: Notice how much I had to deal with squinting subjects because it was so bright, windy, and dusty?
It sucked asking everyone to take their sunglasses off in such bad conditions. I was not going to take portraits with people wearing sunglasses. You connect with the eyes of a subject and that is lost with sunglasses and you would also see yours truly in all of the photos.
I dealt with the squinting eyes in a few different ways. The first way was to have my subject close their eyes and then open and close them very quickly and I would capture them in that split second when their eyes were open. The second thing I did that was sometimes helpful was taking the black cover of the 5-in-1 and having someone hold it behind my head. Sometimes giving your subject something dark to focus on helps with the squinting issue. The next option was cracking jokes and getting them to smile and laugh. Eyes will naturally squint when someone is smiling which looks better than the usual “I-smell-something-horrible” squint that bad light tends to do to people. Lastly, I said to hell with it and shot the squint when it looked good on them. It helped bring out that rugged look I was wanting in the first place. Squinch like Peter Hurley! I know someone is going to ask… but what if I was photographing executive portraits or high school seniors? Well — that’s where you’d want a tent / canopy. If I were to do this job over I would have shipped a 10 x 10 canopy to the location and set up shop inside of that. Or — you find shade. There was zero shade to be found where I was. Zero. No shade in the middle of a dry lake bed.
I loved working on this job so much. Why? Because Land Rover. See that picture above? I got to do THAT kind of stuff, too. It’s incredible what Land Rovers can do.
So. The 5-in-1 reflector. At $99 it’s sort of a no brainer to own one. You’ll find it to be a 12-in-1 accessory as you use it more and more. Any questions? Hit me up in the comments below.