I call San Francisco State photographer professor Ken Kobre Friday morning.
He’s just back from spending three months in France.
We talk about his lightscoop tool.
Luke: “I use an external flash for my Nikon D200, the Nikon SB 800 speedlight.”
Ken: “If you have that, you know you can point it towards the ceiling and get much nicer light than if you use the direct flash. But you had to go out and buy that and that cost you at least $350.”
Luke: “And about $400 for the Lumedyne battery. And the speedlight burns out all the time and to get it repaired costs about $200.”
Ken: “Add to that cost, when you went to the party last night, some people bring their SB800 but it’s a heavy piece of equipment to carry around. A lot of professionals, when they’re not on the dime, prefer to travel lighter.
“There are two clear things going on here. One is the cost of that piece of equipment. And the second is the convenience of not having to have it all the time with you. The lightscoop is a $30 item and under some circumstance, you get just as good a picture.
“I’m not telling you to sell your $400 SB800. But the $30 lightscoop and you might find you are using it as frequently, especially for doing parties in home, particularly in areas where the ceiling is not too high. That’s the key to the lightscoop and to any bounce light. You’re taking the light and reflecting it off a ceiling. That sends the light up and makes a much larger pattern and comes back down and it turns you little tiny flash, which is only two inches wide, and when the light goes to the ceiling, it becomes a huge soft box, maybe four feet by four feet or bigger. You’ve taken a small light source and by sending it up to the ceiling, you’ve created a big soft light source. That’s the secret.
“You’re probably aware that most professional photographers when they’re working in a studio or taking portraits of anybody use a soft box or an umbrella. That’s taking the little strobe and making it into a larger light source. The secret of all good lighting is to make the light source larger rather than smaller.
“It’s hard to carry around one of those big soft boxes or even an umbrella, so the secret is to bounce the light off the ceiling. You can either do that with the 800 pound gorilla, the SB 800 speedlight strobe or you can use my little light scoop.
“I’m able to use the little flash that flips up on a camera and turn it into a beautiful light source.”
Luke: “How high can the ceiling be and this still work?”
Ken: “The ceiling generally has to be a light color, and it shouldn’t be more than about 12 feet tall. After that, it simply doesn’t work anymore. Not enough light comes back to make a well exposed picture. You’re SB 800 speedlight won’t work in a gymnasium. It won’t work in a church with a high ceiling. And it won’t work outdoors.”
Luke: “But it will work if I shoot it forward instead of up?”
Ken: “Correct. So will the pop up flash. But then you get the bad light. But you can’t bounce either one when the ceiling is too tall.
“Why is the soft box so much nicer? When you use flash directly and put it on top of your camera, that light is coming from a strange place, right above the camera or the middle of your forehead. There’s no light in the world that comes from that position. Only if you were a miner wearing a miner’s hat or the light from Buddha’s head emanates from the middle eye or a dentist… If you are not one of those three, it’s an unnatural place for light to come from. Light normally comes from the ceiling or from lights or from the window, never directly from you. By bouncing the light off a ceiling or off a wall, we’re recreating the natural light that is in a room.
“When you hit a subject directly with light, the farther they are away, the less light they get. I’m sure you’ve noticed in your pictures that the person near the camera gets all the light, sometimes they are even over-exposed, almost nuclear-light, while somebody ten feet behind them is always too dark. It looks like the pictures are shot in some sort of cave. Or the pictures have that police line-up look. There’s a physics reason for it. The technical term is the inverse square law. Light, as it spreads out and gets farther away from the camera, there’s less light coming back.
“To counteract that, to bounce the light off the ceiling, you’re bringing the light down evenly with the person near the camera and the person farther away. They’re now getting even light because the light’s coming off the ceiling and it’s the same distance from the near person and the far person.”
Luke: “So how come we didn’t have this ten years ago?”
Ken: “When I went to teach my advance lighting class, I always teach them how to use an external strobe, but because so many students today have the camera with the pop-up flash, I thought it would be clever to show them how to take the light from the pop-up flash and make it into a beautiful light. I used a tin pie tray and by angling it right and adjusting the camera right, I was able to create this bounced light effect. Then it took me three years to develop the product and bring it to market (summer of 2007).
“I worked with a design student at San Francisco State to create the shape of it and the attachment of it and the right angle of it and the size of it. It took quite a while. We made a bunch of balsa wood models to get all the factors exactly right. Then we sourced it out to a place that makes plastic items in Connecticut.
“We were selling a few every day. Then David Pogue, two weeks before Christmas, decided to feature it in his television show. He’s the tech reviewer for the New York Times. He featured it in the New York Times. The next day, we sold out of every one made. It took a month to catch up with all the orders.
“I never even dreamed it would take off. I wanted a patent. I’ve written a lot of books but I’ve always wanted a patent. I never thought of it turning into a great financial success. We had no money for advertising. We didn’t have a business plan. We just made it and put it out there.”
Luke: “How does this reduce red eye? I don’t even know what causes red eye.”
Ken: “The light from your strobe goes out and hit somebody in the eye and it goes to the back of the eye, where there are a lot of veins filled with red blood. The light bounces off the back of the eye and comes straight back into the lens. The path of the light is into the eye and back out. What comes back out is red where the pupil is. My device angles the light off the ceiling so instead of the light coming directly from the source and back to the lens, it’s coming in at a different angle.”
Luke: “Why do people look so ugly in direct sun?”
Ken: “The sun is a long ways away. Therefore, it makes a sharp shadow. That harsh shadow light makes you look unattractive in the middle of the day. That’s exactly the same effect as the direct flash. It makes sharp shadows. The soft box wraps the light around the subject. The shadows become softer.
“If we lived on a planet nearer the sun, the sun would be a larger light source and you wouldn’t have this problem. Of course you’d burn up.
“The bigger the light source, the softer the light. The sun is so far away, it’s a tiny light source and makes a harsh shadow.”
Luke: “I’ve noticed that women over 30 complain about harsh light when they go out socially. They know they don’t look good in a harsh fluorescent glow. Their every skin flaw shows.”
Ken: “We’re talking about wrinkles. The reason you’re seeing a wrinkle is that you are seeing a shadow in the light part of it. The harsher the light, the more shadows it brings out. The softer the light, the less the winkles come out. That’s why people of a certain age don’t appreciate the harsh light that makes for harsh shadows. Hollywood has lots of techniques around that problem but you as an individual photographer, the simplest way is to create that soft light. With my device, for portraits, you can bounce it off a wall, if your subject is within ten feet of a wall, and that gives you that soft window light.”
Luke: “How do you bounce the light off a wall? I’m looking at a picture of the lightscoop and it shoots the light up to the ceiling.”
Ken: “So you turn the camera to the side and shoot it vertically. The face is normally shot vertically anyhow.”
Ken Kobre has a new website devoted to analyzing the web’s best multi-media journalism — KobreGuide.com.
Ken: "We’re looking at all these amazing documentaries. I’ve found the most amazing multi-media documentaries and I’ve hired people to go do it and on each one, they’re doing a write-up. We’re curating this. Instead of YouTube where you win because you are the most popular (which is usually stuff like the cat falling over backwards into the john), this is for more sophisticated taste. Think of this as The New Yorker but visual. We are going to pick the finest stuff out there and then feature several we think you should see this week. You’ll be able to search by topic or awards…"
Luke: "How long has this been up?"
Ken: "It’s not up. You’re the first person to know about it — outside the group that’s developing it."