Using Incognito Flash Lamps to Illuminate Partygoers at a Table

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Faced with another birthday party at Chuck E Cheese, a place my daughter loves but low ISOs do not, I decided to get creative. I shot a collection of photos with a set of three Yongnuo YN-560 and YN-560 II flashes with a diffuser cap/”omni bounce” inside of small lampshades placed along the table.

I wanted to go for a look like dinner around a table with candles/lamps sort of low key, pleasant ambiance kind of thing. I also wanted to shoot at lower ISOs to get some real nice images of my kid as keepsakes.

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I don’t know if something like this would be viable/useful outside of a family event where I don’t care that I can see the bottoms of the lamps are actually flash bodies, but, I had thought that perhaps I could push the idea further in the future and hide the flashes in something that actually looks like a lamp. This was a prototype test run where at least I cared to get some decent shots.

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Anyway, the flashes were all set at 1/64th power, zoomed out to 24mm, diffuser down, gelled 1/4 CTO, with Meike omnibounce-alike cap inside simple small white lampshades that I bought at Wal-mart for $3.50 each. The bounce caps (for bare-bulb-like effect) cost $5 each so the modifier cost was very low per flash.

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Camera was a Nikon D800 + Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 set to 100 ISO most of the time, occasionally up to 200 ISO, 1/60-1/100s shutter, f/1.4-2 all varied depending on my whim. Just one image from this album is not lit with the lights, it’ll probably be obvious which one.

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Keep in mind that this was merely my own kid’s birthday party and not some event I shot for pay. I figured it might be interesting to the strobists anyway due to the unusual approach I took to dealing with a low/mixed light setting where the ceilings were too high and unpredictably colored to bounce (and I don’t really like the eye-shadow effect of bounced flash anyway.)

About the author: Zachery Jensen is a photography enthusiast and software engineer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Visit his website here, his Facebook page here, and his Flickr here. This article originally appeared here.

  • Emil Chalhoub

    Were the children given light beer then?

  • Paul Parkinson

    That is genius. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jim Campbell

    That a) is pretty darn clever and surely it wouldn’t be difficult to go the extra step and disguise the speedlight bodies as well; and b) would surprise the heck out of the other customers!

  • Norman Hayward

    I think it’s a very creative solution to an issue anyone trying photograph a kids party has had. I’d love to see some shots of what’s under the lampshade. I know you said what it is, but I have never seen one of those!

  • Craig Burton

    this is next level cool.

  • Shlomi Cohen

    Very creative idea, Zachery :-) Might even try that out myself sometime.

  • Flugie

    Cool! Two thumbs up.

  • harumph

    OK, but you really don’t need to be locked in to 100 ISO on a D800. Especially if you’re shooting with a 35mm ƒ/1.4. No offense, but I think bumping the ISO would get you shots that looked more natural. All I’m noticing in most of these shots is the lights. If I didn’t know what the gimmick was here, I would just be thinking, Wow, that Chuck E. Cheese sure has some bizarre lighting.

  • Kathy Davis

    Beautiful pictures-I never saw Chuck E look so handsome, and the birthday girl looks stunning!

  • Zachery Jensen

    Here’s a couple bad snapshots of the flash head, cap and lampshade setup.

  • lidocaineus

    Natural light in a CEC? You honestly think flat, low keyed light, with no discernible contrast it going to look better? More natural looking? Sure. Better? Well, maybe if you like skewed ceiling lights and randomly flashing LEDs with odd shadows and mixed light temperatures, not to mention all the white balancing gymnastics that’ll have to take place in post.

    Not that these photos are perfect by any means, but they’re a hell of a lot more interesting to look at versus what is typically the case when someone uses available light with pumped up ISOs in an environment like this – flat, no contrast, boring shots that will be flat no matter how much you try and manipulate a curves tool.

  • Adrian

    Great ideea. the flash-lamps are not that obvious. Does anyone know what flash triggers he used?

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  • chubbs

    Bloody spam.

  • Jeff

    Beer for children.

  • Mick Orlosky

    My hat is off to you for such a creative solution! Tell me, did you have any issue with the flashes going to sleep after a time? How do the YN’s perform in this regard? Thanks again for sharing.

  • Bruck Assefa

    I don’t think that only using the natural Chuck E Cheese lighting would look good but if he did bump up the ISO a bit to get more ambient light along with the speedlights he has setup the photos would look much better.

  • Vince Tang

    Brillant idea. I am definitely going to try this.

  • john

    looks like it’s just the optical triggering. slave2 mode?

  • harumph

    While it’s difficult for me to make a realistic comparison with the horrible photos that you’ve conjured up in your head, yes, I definitely think that a better look could have been achieved using the existing light. Have you never shot in a low light restaurant with a 1.4 or 1.8 lens before? The results can be quite beautiful. These shots look like a horror movie during the scene where the power goes out and the monster rat comes in to eat the children, not a little kid’s birthday party.

  • lidocaineus

    Yes. 1.8 and 1.4 is old hat – I’ve shot with a .95 and regularly shoot with a 1 and 1.2. I know how those look, and that’s not the issue. The issue is that the lighting in a CEC is only slightly better than a completely evenly lit fluorescent office by the nature of it having some slightly darker corners.

    Shooting flat light is still flat. Existing light still has to look good to get decent results.

  • Frank McKenna

    pretty creative and cool idea. I’m going to keep this one in mind next time I am taking photos at a table.. photos look great.

  • harumph

    1.4 is “old hat”? Now you’re just being silly. These are tools. One isn’t any cooler or hipper than another. You simply pick the right one for the job. Instead of taking advantage of the powerful tools he had in his hand (D800 with a 35mm 1.4), the photog threw some extra gear at the perceived problem, and ended up with a set of unattractive photos.

  • lidocaineus

    I’m simply using the same tone you used with me to insinuate my lack of experience with fast lenses, not commenting on “hip” factor, whatever that is in regards to lenses.

    If you look at the album and spot the the image without the added light, you’ll realize it would’ve been much worse without the strobe(s), regardless of lens speed or ISO because again, the light is completely flat at CEC. Are the photos perfect? Nope – I even said that originally. What I did say was they’re better than just relying on the available light.

  • Mansgame

    I’ve been to Chuck E Cheese a dozens times for photography and most have fluorescent lights mixed with outside window light (during the day). There is no ambiance to try to capture so I just bounce away from the ceiling and a bounce card. ISO 400 gets very good results too so I don’t kill my flashes and balance out the light in there. It’s gotten much better results than these. These pictures have the old “deer in the headlights” look to them which should be hard to achieve with 3 flashes.

  • ninpou_kobanashi

    Just to be fair, if you want more than one subject in focus, 1.4 ain’t gonna work that well. I do think he could have pushed the ISO a little bit, to get a little more ambient in, but the author did say he wanted to “…go for a look like dinner around a table with candles/lamps sort of low key…”

  • harumph

    He says he shot everything at f1.4 – f2.

  • guest

    Thumbs Up Zach for thinking outside the box.

    You’ll always get that person that will tell you that you should have done this, should have done that. You said it yourself, these were for your daughter’s birthday party at CEC.

    Yeah you could have bumped the ISO up, You could have done this, but you were trying to be creative and that is a key element in photography.
    You think half of the gadgets out there on the market would be there, if there were not people that “tried” something new, just ask Gary Fong?
    When you look at the types of photos that came from within CEC, they are usually direct pop-up flash and really harsh, but these not bad.
    If they were for pay or for a client, then that would be a different story, but hey not every shot I take with my camera is for clients.

    To be honest, I have used a Canon T3i for assignments and used a Canon 1DX for yard sale items. Having the right tools helps but if not improvise.

    I give you a big thumbs up, Zach!

  • NameFR

    no hurt for kids eyes ?