In yesterday’s post I promised to show you my field studio for creating Meet Your Neighbours images on an expedition to Borneo. You can see it in action in the photo above. To learn what you need to put together your own field studio, continue reading.
There is actually an excellent write-up of the white-background technique on the Meet Your Neighbours website. If you’re interested in making these white-background images yourself, I suggest you start there to familiarize yourself with the lighting technique. The various setups described there work like a charm, but because they rely on Benbo Trekker tripods for supporting the lights, diffusers, and backgrounds, they are a bit heavy. The Trekkers are two more bulky items to be carrying around and weigh in at a hefty 3.4 kg a piece. So I’ve been looking to replicate this setup in a more light-weight and modular way.
Thanks to my new partner Redged, I have a solution now that I think will work well on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu. When I’m working from the comfort of a field station, I can set up the whole studio. On other days I can compromise and leave some items behind. Instead of bringing dedicated Benbo Trekkers or light stands to hold the lights, diffusers, and backgrounds, I’m using Redged carbon fiber tripods with some accessories. I’ll need a tripod anyway, and this way I don’t need to carry the weight of additional tripods or light stands just for the field studio.
So here it is, my setup for the Meet Your Neighbours field studio. What follows is a list of the equipment I’m bringing, along with some practical notes.
- Super clamp – Manfrotto 035
This attaches to things like tripod legs and tree branches. It is very versatile and can carry a lot of weight. You can use it to hold the flexible arm (E), or a camera using a standard stud with a 1/4″ screw mount. The downside is it’s heavy, so I’ll probably leave this behind most days and instead use the lateral arm (see G) to support the background.
Update: I just found out there is also a much lighter Nano clamp (Manfrotto 386BC).
- Umbrella swivel adapter with flash shoe mount – LumoPro LP633
An umbrella swivel adapter can be used to mount a hot shoe flash onto anything with a spigot. Most models come with female 1/4″ and 3/8″ adapter spigots that allow you to mount them on your tripod’s screw mount. This version made by LumoPro is compact yet can take a fair amount of weight thanks to a ratcheted lock. I always bring one for every flash, and in the image above there is also one attached to the lateral arm (see G).
- Spring clamp – Manfrotto 175
The spring clamp is for holding the white acrylic background (K) and is also suitable for things like reflectors and gobos.
- Foldable soft box 20 × 30 cm – Falcon Eyes FGA-SB2030W, Falcon Eyes CA7 Adapter
A soft box is used to soften the light that comes from your flash. For small to medium-sized subjects such as flowers, amphibians and insects this model is big enough. The key is to move it in close—the closer the light source, the larger its relative size and therefore the softer the light. The brands available differ from country to country. In the U.S., a very similar model (the same, perhaps?) is on the market under the brand name Interfit. This one in particular leaks some light and the diffusion material could be better, but when working at these distances this is really a non-issue. What is more important is that it weighs next to nothing and takes up virtually no space. I also own a similar model made by Lumiquest, but that hasn’t held up very well in the field. I’m hoping these will do better.
- Flexible arm – Manfrotto 237HD
The flexible arm comes with a stud to attach to the super clamp (A) on one end. The other end is perfect for attaching flashes using a swivel adapter (B) or to support the background using the spring clamp (C). Manfrotto makes two versions of this, the standard 237 and the heavy duty 237HD. The one pictured is the heavy duty version, which can handle up to 0.5 kg in weight. The regular version can handle 0.3 kg.
- Large tripod – Redged RTC-428
A good tripod is indispensable to me. The RTC-428 is a carbon fiber tripod. It provides good stability yet it weighs only 1.5 kg. Fully extended it stands 163 cm tall. At its lowest setting it reaches only 15 cm above the ground, which allows for very low angles. For the field studio, the tripod turns into a light stand. With the help of a female 3/8″ spigot you can attach a swivel adapter (B) and flash in place of the tripod head.
- Compact tripod with lateral arm and swivel adapter attached – Redged TSC-424 Elite, Redged RLA-28 Lateral Arm, LumoPro LP633 (see B)
When there is nobody available to assist, I’ll need a second light stand for the field studio. The TSC-424 Elite is super compact and weighs just one kilo—less than a compact light stand. Again, with a female 3/8″ spigot you can attach a swivel adapter (B) and flash. The added benefit is that I’ll have a choice of tripods to bring on hikes for the non-studio work.
The lateral arm essentially transforms any tripod into a modest version of the Benbo Trekker. It gives you the functionality of the Trekker without having to carry most of the extra weight. The RLA-28 comes with a mounting plate that I’ve swapped out for a spigot in order to attach the swivel adapter (B). This is useful for extending the flash over shrubs where there is no room for the tripod itself. It can also easily hold the background (K) on one end and a swivel adapter (B) with a flash on the other end.
- The Plamp – Wimberley PP-100
The Plamp is simply a light flexible arm. One end clamps on to your tripod and the other has a small, delicate clamp that is useful for holding a flower in a certain position, or keeping an obstructing twig out of view.
- Remote flash radio triggers – 2 × PocketWizard FlexTT5, PocketWizard MiniTT1, PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController
A good set of radio triggers is a must-have for any kind of work that involves flash. They allow you to take the flash off the camera, which gives you control over the direction of the light. There are other brands and many are cheaper than the PocketWizards. Why go for the more expensive PocketWizards? The advantage of this particular set is that it allows you to control your flash output manually from the camera. That is a huge time saver. The MiniTT1 is a small transmitter that slides into the camera’s hot shoe. The FlexTT5 is a transceiver—you connect one of these to every flash. You can also use it as a transmitter in place of the smaller MiniTT1 if you like. Other than the MiniTT1 it takes regular AA batteries, which may be a consideration when traveling to remote places. Add the AC3 ZoneController to the mix and you get manual control over up to three (groups of) compatible flashes. You can also use TTL if you wish.
Update: Piotr Naskrecki adds some valuable info on this in the comments.
- Flashes – 2 × Canon Speedlite 580EX II
If you don’t have the budget for the PocketWizards (see I), there is no use for getting expensive flashes like the 580EX II’s. You can go for much cheaper manual flashes instead, such as those made by LumoPro or Godox. They typically have a built-in optical trigger (a little sensor that makes the flash go off when it picks up the light from another flash unit), so you need only one receiver to trigger a number of flashes. It’s not quite as reliable and it means you’ll have to run back and forth between the camera and the flashes to adjust their output, but it’ll get the job done. Until very recently I used a simple setup like that myself.
- Frosted white acrylic, 3 mm, 40 × 60 cm
Perhaps the most essential part in the setup is the white background. This is the same material used in light boxes. It can be a little tricky to get a hold of. In the Netherlands I have good experience with Agulon in Voorschoten and Oosterveld in Groningen (ask for “opaal acrylaat”). You can also order it with most glaziers, but they usually don’t have it in stock. The one pictured is 40 × 60 cm, but I had one cut down to 30 × 50 cm in order to travel with it. I also had some spare material that I cut down to about 5 × 10 cm and glued to the base of the background. Adding some thickness here gives the spring clamp (C) a better grip.
There you have it, my Meet Your Neighbours field studio.
Again, a big thank you to Redged for providing me with vital equipment for the expedition!
Please let me know if you’d like to see more technical posts like this one—I’ll consider doing more in the future.