A common question from workshops is “What do you use to support the multiple flashes that you use in your setups?”. Indeed, many students note down the names of the clamps, stands, tripods, heads and arms that I incorporate into the workshop setups. This is a (very) long post, and includes images of a selection of my bits and pieces. It may take some time to load, but you may find it worth reading…..
Most folks are surprised to learn that I use just about anything to support my flashes - whatever is on hand, and whatever does the job. While it might be important to use the best camera gear and lenses that you can afford to maximize image quality and perhaps indulge in a high-end tripod and head for ultra stability, supporting flashes can and should be done in the most convenient, cost-effective manner possible.
Think about it – when a flash goes off, it is a split-second event – the slowest flash duration is probably 1/1000th of a second, so even if the flash stand is shaking, you aren’t going to see any blur as a result. So flash supports don’t necessarily need to be anywhere near as sturdy as a camera support.
There is an adage – a photographer can never have enough clamps and supports. So, so true for a wildlife, flash and/or studio photographer. They make great birthday and Christmas presents, and provide great flexibility as to where you can mount your remote flashes.
So, what do I use? Well, it depends on the setup, where I am, and what needs to be supported. If I am using remote hot-shoe flashes, or even hammerhead flashes (such as Metz 45 or 60CT series, or Sunpak 544, 555, 622 series), I am liberty to exploit many lightweight and cheap solutions. If I am using studio flashes and/or big, heavy monolights, the options are fewer, but can still be very cheap. I have listed an array of gear that I use below, but not in any order of preference or priority:
1) Duct or gaffer tape. If you are one of those photographers who likes to keep his gear pristine, then duct tape probably isn’t a good thing for you. If however you are a wildlife photographer who regards your photo gear as working tools rather than icons of worship, then duct tape will hold your flash to a tree branch, a rock, a sign, gatepost or whatever. Oh yes, it can leave sticky gobs of yuk on your flash when you remove it, but you will cover it all up again with the next setup. And it holds rock solid when applied correctly, even in the rain. A roll of duct tape is a whole lot smaller and lighter than a bunch of dedicated flash supports…. Resale value of your flash will be reduced, but I don’t tend to resell my flashes – I stockpile them. Flashes are flashes, and I use nearly all of them in manual mode, so they are kept and used (and abused) until they fail. It should be noted that I have only ever had 3 commercial flash units fail – 2 x Canon 580EX’s and a Sunpak 555. The latter just had a tube wear out, and Sunpak replaced it, reconditioned the entire unit and returned it in a very timely manner for minimal cost. I haven’t bothered to approach Canon…..
2) Ultra-cheap, flimsy tripods. You know, the ones that sometimes come for free with a camera kit, or a camcorder. They don’t last forever, but then they usually cost less than $20 too. Many is the time I have been to the tropics with several of these, and having served their purpose, I have either trashed them or donated them to locals. The beauty is that they have some form of tripod head, enabling rotational adjustment of the flash (pitch, yaw and roll for the aviation-minded folk), as well as adjustable height. They are always light, and usually small. Most don’t reach heights of more than 4 feet, so if you need more, duct-tape it to something else….
3) Broom handles or 1.5″ dowel with 1/4-20 tripod thread. I have probably produced over a hundred of these in the last 30 years. So simple, so cheap, and so effective. Cut the dowel (or an old broom handle is perfect) into various lengths – from 10 inches to 5 or 6 feet. Whittle, carve or turn one end of the dowel into a point or blade, so it can be easily stuck into the ground. At the other end, drill a 1/4″ hole, and insert a length of 1/4-20 threaded stud into it, leaving about 3/8″ protruding. You now have a supremely portable, light and cheap flash stand. Jam it into the ground either vertically or at whatever angle is suitable, screw on the remote flash (or flash shoe) and voilà – you are set. An alternative is to attach a small ballhead (See further below) for extended flexibility. Can be made up for a trip, and left onsite to minimize weight on the way back home. Biodegradable, too…..
4) Cheap studio lightstands. These can be found just about anywhere, usually for $30 to $50 each. They are telescopic, light, and have 3 foldable legs that spread out. Used mainly in the studio, however can be used outside on reasonably flat surfaces. They will get dirty and grubby, which can be an issue if you are subsequently bringing them into the studio (or house!). Typically, they have a studio flash mounting stud, with either a 1/4-20 thread or 3/8 (Euro) thread. This gives the added flexibility of mounting a studio flash as well as hotshoe or hammerhead flashes. The three spread legs at the base are a magnet for clumsy photographers to trip over.
5) Expensive studio lightstands. These are much more heavy-duty, and can take a lot more weight. More importantly, they can take a lot more punishment. They are usually a lot larger/taller than the cheap stands, so can reach greater heights for overhead flash. As a result of all this, they are also less portable and convenient. Heavier lightstands also enable the use of boom arms – these give you overhead horizontal positioning flexibility.
6) Camera tripods. No reason not to use them if you have them! Fully adjustable, they can be placed on rough terrain and offer total positioning flexibility. Of course a tripod has 3 legs which can (and do) get in the way – either in the frame of view, or just being a nuisance when wandering around a setup. Yes, I have broken flashes as a result of tripping on a tripod leg. If you haven’t had this misfortune, it is very likely that you will sometime. I really like my Benbo and Uniloc tripods for both camera and flash support. Their strange design lends itself beautifully to creating a boom arm to support flashes across the top of a set. There are some Manfrotto tripods that have a similar scheme – the vertical column can be positioned horizontally. But I wouldn’t go out purchasing expensive tripods just to hold flash heads…..
7) Bogen or Manfrotto Magic Arms. These are great. Simply great. They are a little expensive (and a tad heavy), but can support a lot of weight and are supremely flexible in terms of positioning. There are two flavors of Magic Arm – a lever controlled version and a friction knob controlled version. I definitely prefer the latter. The Magic Arm is a pair of articulated arms that have ball/stud joints at either end. They are remarkably adaptable and easy to use. You can attach a Super Clamp at one end, and a camera platform, hotshoe mount, or whatever you like at the other end. The Super Clamp will attach the Arm to just about anything, but for me it is usually a branch, post, tripod leg, lightstand upright or boom arm. The lever action version has the entire arm totally loose and flexible until the lever is ‘locked’, whereupon the arm is held rigid in whatever position it was at the time of locking. The Friction version is proportionally stiffer or looser, dependent upon the rotation of the friction locking knob. The lever style is much quicker to assemble and dismantle, however you need to be supporting the entire flash and arm when unlocking, else it will just collapse in a big heap. (Yep, been there and done that…). I prefer to have the control knob – albeit somewhat bulkier.
8) Clamps, ballheads, hotshoes, coldshoes….Well here, anything goes. I have a large tub full of extraneous bits and pieces collected over the years, from mini tripods to mini ballheads and various clamps. Then there are the hotshoes, coldshoes and hotshoe adapters. It would be so nice if every flash could be triggered in the same fashion, but alas, they cannot. Nor can they all be mounted in the same fashion. Some have tripod thread inserts, some do not. Some only have hotshoes. This poses problems when you are using different types of flash, so I have lots and lots of bits and pieces. Super clamps, spring clamps, Justin clamps, Plamps (though these are not flash supports – more for foliage and small gobos), Ultrapods, mini tripods of various types.
I also have many, many types of flash, many types of associated chargers, and auxiliary batteries, and corresponding connecting cables. I use Quantum batteries a lot, but will save the flash and battery discussions for other posts. Then of course, comes the discussion of slave flash triggers. Oh, and then remote camera triggers. And I have some pretty strong opinions about tripods too. And flash brackets. Whatever you do, don’t get me started about macro gear…..
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