I have been shooting pretty much exclusively with studio strobes for well over 10 years now; I'd like to think I've had a go with pretty much every lighting attachment out there but last weekend I got the chance to shoot with something new, the Bowens Universal Spot Attachment. The spot attachment has a few unique features but it's ability to “literally” focus the light is the main reason I particularly wanted to try it.
Focusing the light might not sound ground-breaking at first, but I’m not talking about channelling the light or simply controlling the light – the University Spot Attachment is actually built with a lens on the end that you can move in and out to focus the flash. So what does that mean? Well, it means you can actually get a very “hard” light source.
Whilst there are a million and one ways to “soften” the light, it’s actually quite difficult to get a very hard light source with strobes. Soft light is created by larger light sources like soft-boxes and umbrellas – the larger the light source in relation to the subject the softer the light. Conversely, hard light is typically created by smaller light sources – these are usually grids or snoots, lighting modifiers that funnel the light to one area thereby having a smaller effective light source. So what's different about this Universal Spot Attachment over other light sources like snoots and grids?
For starters, the flash tubes in strobes are actually relatively large, the light is distributed around a tube and is dispersed in all directions. No matter how much shaping and channelling your lighting modifiers do, all they are essentially doing is bouncing the light in a controlled way. However, more importantly, all light shaping affects the quality of the light: the flash will bounce around in a snoot and come out with pockets of light and dark (see inset image for the resulting light of a snoot on a white wall). Grids will also leave a honeycomb grid pattern, which is fine for hair lighting and where it’s not pointing directly onto the skin, but this can sometimes leave undesirable shadows if used as a key light on the model’s face.
All of the above issues are eliminated with the Universal Spot Attachment as its lens focuses the light and does not rely on channelling to control its size.
So now that we've established that it creates a very “hard” light source – what can we do with it? This incredibly hard and stark light is currently very popular as it almost gives the feeling of a “retro flash look”; the nostalgic old flashes were very small and as a result had a very hard lighting effect and this effect is currently seen a lot in fashion advertising. The hard light is synonymous with the brilliant sunlight of a cloudless sky and gives amazing contrast to black and white shots and brilliant saturation to colours; it’s also an incredibly clean light – look at the images here and the background is spotless, no weird shadows from channelled light.
I also experimented with the addition of a subtle fill light in the form of a small soft box at the model’s feet. In the image featured below you can see that it helps to lift the shadow’s density without breaking the strength of the shadow transition. I actually really like this effect and will certainly be playing with this further.
Now that we know what the Universal Spot Attachments niche is in the lighting modifier market, let’s have a look at the actual features. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the attachment has a lens situated right at the end of the modifier which can be moved in and out to focus the light further, and I'll go into why that’s important in a moment.
Secondly, another fundamental feature is that the Universal Spot Attachment has a “gobo” (go-between light and subject) holder: this is a metal disk that can slide in and out to allow for a variety of different patterns to be placed between the light and your subject.
Bowens does a specific pack that consists of a variety of patterns like venetian blinds, foliage and shapes; I didn't have this pack but I decided to have a play with my own “gobos” instead. This really is where the Universal Spot Attachment stands out in my opinion: the ability to shine a variety of shapes, images, gels and such onto your subject or background is pretty unique. Yes, you can do something similar with projectors but this involves a continuous light source – this is not only very dim in brightness and require a higher ISO to be used, but projectors also add another colour temperature if you want to mix it with flash. By having the Universal Spot Attachment shine the desired effect, you not only get the ability to control it via a far brighter flash power but you also no longer have to worry about mixing colour temperatures. As a result you can shine your gobo onto your background and light your subject independently, with the luxury of very quick shutter speeds, low ISO and your choice of aperture. Plus your setup will have a consistent colour temperature throughout, negating the need for a multitude of colour correcting gels.
With the ability to add a variety of gobos to the set-up I experimented with a few different things. First, I made my own basic gobo from simple 'Cinefoil' (essentially heat resistant black tinfoil): I punctured several holes in the small sheet and placed it into the gobo holder. You can get varying results with this technique by bringing the lens further or closer to the gobo, sharpening or blurring the effect. For my preference I went for a very blurry dappling effect on the model and the results are shown here.
Next, I tried graduated gels. I think this is something pretty unique and I struggle to see how else it could be achieved in-camera and using strobes; the idea came from looking at the old landscape photography lens filters, where they place graduated filters in front of their lenses to add colour to sunsets or seascapes and skies. I took one of these sunset filters and placed it into the gobo slot and thanks to the focusing aspect of the Universal Spot Attachment, the colour retained its graduation. Unfortunately I only picked up one colour filter as I was unsure if it would actually work, but now that I know it will maintain its colour gradient I will certainly be picking up a few more of these in a variety of colours. Additionally, because I'm not actually shooting through them I don't need to worry too much about the filter quality so I can get them overseas for literally only a few pounds.
Finally, I had a play with something a bit more artistic – I wanted to add something that would lend itself well to the hardness of the light but also benefit from the gobo being in-focus, and decided to play with idea of projecting slides onto the scene. I found some old slide mounts and proceeded to apply some Letracet letters (dry-transfer lettering) to the frame, placed the slides into the gobo holder and focused the letters onto the model. The results can be seen here and they give a very interesting look that works well when the Universal Spot Attachment lens is focused.
Some points to bear in mind whilst using the Universal Spot Attachment.
- Firstly this attachment will make your flash a very unforgiving light source and the hardness of the light will exaggerate all the subject’s features due to its strong contrasting light, but this can create some dramatic effects.
- Secondly the Universal Spot Attachment has a lens on the front, as a result of it focusing the light you tend to lose some light intensity and consequently you will probably need to increase the power output on the strobe. As a rough guide, these tests were measured on a 500w head that was positioned about 2 metres away from the subject at full power and metered at ISO 100 at f5.6.
- Thirdly, because of the focusing ability, the beam is concentrated into a circle of light. If I had zoomed my camera out any further you would start to see the “vignetting” of the attachment. As a rough guide, you would be able to shoot a 3/4 length shot of a model without the vignetting effect with the light, again, about 2 metres away.
- Finally and most importantly, this attachment is a closed unit to eliminate any light spill. As a result if you use it with the modelling bulb on, the metal casing will become extremely hot. As I was using non-approved gobos, I'm pretty confident they would have melted had I been using them with the modelling bulbs on.
Some of the benefits and features of the Universal Spot Attachment.
- One of the only ways to get a very hard light source: the ability to literally focus the light onto the scene means that the shadows are incredibly crisp, and as a result the contrast and saturation to the images is fantastic.
- The quality of light is incredibly clean due to the attachment’s lens, so this is perfect for creating clean stark backgrounds with a consistent exposure throughout the scene. Again there are very few attachments that would be able to achieve this look.
- The ability to play with gobos in a multitude of ways is not only a lot of fun, but also creates some unique looks that cannot be created in any other way. With the implementation of image slides and products like Cinefoil and lens filters, the creative possibilities are virtually endless.
- The ability to project any of these gobos through an attachment powered by a strobe is unique. Previously I've experimented with slide projectors and digital projectors but not only do they have a low power output, they are also not colour balanced to the same Kelvin as strobes, meaning you will struggle to maintain colour consistency within an image.
Personally, I love the Universal Spot Attachment and will definitely be keeping it as a regular accompaniment to my kit bag. I’m also looking forward to experimenting with its possibilities further and already have more graduated gels on order, so look out for that unique lighting effect in future shoots.
Be sure to check out the full article in the next issue of the Bowens Litebook
Special thanks to the model Sophie Roach and collar designer Patrick Ian Hartley.
For some further reading why not check out how some other lighting modifiers distort their light in this test I did Testing your Lighting Attachments for Light Fall-Off
Satisfy your curiosity as to Which is Better, Speedlights or Strobes?
If you are looking to experiment with gels and how the light falloff of certain modifiers effects their exposure why not check out Colour Gels Exposed