Voice Activated Lightstands

Ron and Dog - Voice Activated LightstandThere are times when setting up for a shot is not an option. Take the annual family gathering picnic for example. 8 adults, 6 kids and a dog. Everyone is food-focused and no one is photo-op oriented. Also (as you can see on the left) no one is willing to stand still, even for a second.

This is why setting up for a shot is nearly impossible. Well, not impossible – strobes can be tied up (or gaffertaped, or spiderred) to trees. However this solution will provide harsh light. I was looking for something softer.

The obvious option is to shoot with no – trust good old available light. This is a good option and many great moments can be captured using available light. Yet, there is another option, such that will allow you to use off camera flash even in the toughest situations.

Voice Activated Lightstand

To produce soft nice lights, I attached a translucent shoot through umbrella to a bracket and a portable light stand. I also connected the flash to a Gadget Infinity (AKA poverty wizard) remote. This is very similar to the way I’d setup a stand in any other setup. However, I do not place the stand on the floor.

Voice Activated LightstandThe voice activated light stand is simply one of your good pals who is willing to play lighting geek for a few minutes. He (or she – we are not discriminating anyone here) holds the lightstand as a boom and “moves the light” as directed. See the image on the left to get the general idea.

This provides 100% portability to help you get those moments. But this is trivial – you are also portable with no flash at all. The real bonus is your ability to shed beautiful soft wrapping light on your subjects, sitting, standing, barbecue-ing or jumping around.

Some Prep 

Just before going and shooting everyone, I did some prep. The first thing was to decide on exposure settings. I kinda went with the Strobist rule of ambient -2 only I did it -3. This put me around F/4.5 @ 1/125 on ISO 80 (ISO 80 is the “native ISO of my canon G9 – I shoot it whenever I can). 

I set my Nikon SB800 on 1/4. Those settings will allow me to play a bit and exercise control when needed, more about this in a bit.

I also aligned with my new boom-man. The general idea is to place the umbrella above and a bit to the side of the subject. To create kind of a 45/45 lighting angle.  I also asked him to place the umbrella as close as he can without going into the frame. This will give me a very soft wrapping lighting source.

Getting Maximum Reach

One of the things I like about the Manfrotto 001B is the way the “legs” are built. As I discussed in another stability post, the legs can spread till they are completely perpendicular to the lighting post. This allows gaffer taping them to the floor. 

The versatility of the 001B also allows the legs to be pulled away till they are almost aligned with the post – extending it with another foot or so. This was great since it made the boom longer.


So – boom man – check; boom – check; camera and flash setting – check; subjects – check. All that is left to do is shoot. 

Now the angle in which we take the image change, the light drops rapidly as we are getting into the sunset zone, and we had to keep making changes. There are five controls you can exercise to get better exposures.

(1) The simplest way to modify your pictures is to direct the boom man. The obvious thing is to make sure the boom and umbrella are out of the shot, 
but there is more you can do.

Getting the umbrella closer to the subject creates a relatively bigger light source, so it is softer. It is also more intense, so you can control the intensity of your flash exposure by directing the boom man to get closer or further from the subjects.

(2) Another way to control the flash exposure is by adjusting the flash settings. Obviously this setting will only affect the flash exposure and will not change the ambient While this is completely possible, I find it a bit disturbing to the flow. So I try to avoid it as much as I can. 

This is why I use three other controls to influence the exposure of the picture:

(3) Adjusting the shutter speed allows me to control the ambient lighting without influencing the flash exposure – this is good when you want more or less ambient, but want to keep the flash exposure constant. As the night came in, I slowly exposed for more time to allow more ambient in.

(4) Adjusting the aperture influences both the ambient and the flash exposures. However if you change aperture on one direction and shutter speed on the other – you get the same ambient exposure with a different flash exposure. (Say you open up one stop, but cut the shutter speed in half – this will give the same ambient, but double the flash).

(5) Lastly, you can change ISO. This will influence both flash and ambient.

You can read more about balancing strobes with ambient over at Strobist excellent lighting 102.

Benefits Of Using Voice Activated Lightstands

Here is why I absolutely love Voice Activated Lightstands. First and most important, you’re portable – you can move about and have your light move with you. As I said in the beginning of the post, this is great for places where there are very little constants.

Another great thing I love about this method it that it is not intrusive. Once everyone stops calling guys with white robes get the idea of a man with an umbrella on a stick walking around, you don’t need to direct anyone. You shot at their natural “habitat”.

My favorite pro is that you get to have another person involved. This is great cuz now you are not the only lunatic with a camera around.