Putting Together a “Studio in a Backpack”

Portable Studio in a Backpack

Portable “studio in a backpack” set up and ready to go.

If I am visiting family and friends and traveling by car, I usually bring my “studio in a backpack”. I never know when I might be asked to do some portraits and having some studio gear along helps create better images (especially when natural light is not a very good option). If you want to do portraits on the road, these items might be useful for you too.

At home I have a full complement of studio flash units, stands, light modifiers, a full size back drop stand, and several backdrops. But all of that stuff is way to cumbersome to take along on a trip. So I have a minimal amount of alternate studio gear that I take on family trips and it all fits in one backpack.

Canon 550EX speedlite with umbrella and umbrella adapter.

Canon 550EX speedlite with umbrella and umbrella adapter.

Instead of full size studio flash units, I take two or three Canon 550EX speedlites. They have built in infrared communication with automatic flash exposure. You can put one on your camera and set the switch to “master” and set one or more off camera units to “slave” and the master flash will control the others. I like the convenience of the master/slave switch on the back of the flash which is quick and simple to use and doesn’t require digging through a menu system. You have automatic, through-the-lens flash exposure and you can change the power ratio between the flash units. More recent Canon speedlites would work just as well, but you have to dig through the menu system.

Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter.

Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter.

I also carry the Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter. With this infrared transmitter in the camera’s hotshoe I can control all of the off camera flash units and have through-the-lens automatic flash metering plus power ratio control..

Infrared does have some limitations. The communications distance is limited to about 25 feet (sometimes less), and all the units must have line of site communication. Infrared does not work well outside in bright sunlight. (See the radio control note at the end of this article.)

To soften the light I have two collapsible umbrellas. These 43 inch umbrellas (photo at the top) collapse down to a very small 2 inches in diameter by 14 1/2 inches long. I also have two umbrella adapters for mounting the umbrellas and flashes on tripods.

There is a very small, portable tripod with ball head in my studio backpack (Velbon Ultra Luxi SF). I could add one or two more of these to my backpack, but I usually have two normal size tripods with me. Two tripods hold the flash units and the third holds the camera. This is handy in case I need to use the camera’s self timer to be in a group photo.

Wein WP-HS Micro Slave

Wein WP-HS Micro Slave, optical

In situations where infrared communication is iffy, as a backup system I have two Wein optical slaves to fire the flash units. They work at a considerable distance but there is no automatic flash exposure. The flash units have to be used in manual exposure mode.

Sto-Fen Omni Bounce

Sto-Fen Omni Bounce Flash Diffuser

For the times I don’t need the softening power of an umbrella, I carry Sto-fen flash diffusers.

Honl Snoot Reflector as a reflector

Honl Snoot/Reflector used as a reflector

As another option to soften the light I carry a Honl Reflector with Speed Strap.

Honl Snoot Reflector as a snoot

Honl Snoot/Reflector used as a snoot

The Honl reflector can also be rolled up and used as a snoot to shoot a narrow beam of light. Another option to Honl is the Rogue line of FlashBenders.

Sekonic Digital Incident & Flash Meter

Sekonic L-358 Incident & Flash Meter

When working with manual flash, it is helpful to have an incident flash meter. I carry the Sekonic L-358 flash meter. This excellent meter is no longer in production (it can be purchased at Amazon on the aftermarket), but there are other excellent flash meters out there.

In my backpack I carry two dark pieces of cloth that I can use as a backdrop for individual portraits or small groups. For large groups I have to find some kind of natural  background.

If you get asked to do portraits when on the road visiting family and friends, a studio in a backpack may be just the ticket for you too. You may already have several of the items you need, like a tripod or flash.

Radio Note: I have recently acquired radio controlled speedlights and a radio transmitter, all made by Yongnuo. They are totally compatible with Canon gear. As of the date of this article (Dec. 1, 2015), the speedlites are $120 and the transmitter is $86.00. Radio controlled flashes and transmitters have a longer working range than infrared (about 100 feet), do not require line of sight between the units, and they work well in bright sunlight. It does mean digging around in a menu system (sigh). My review is here.

Article Links: Off-Camera Flash Series

“How To” Series: Off-Camera Flash – Series Introduction

Why Use Off Camera Flash?

Some of the Best Off-Camera Flash Equipment

Radio Controlled Speedlites: Yongnuo YN600EX-RT vs Canon 600EX-RT

Light Modifiers (Softeners) for Speedlites

Putting Together a “Studio in a Backpack”

How To Set Up a Halo Softbox or Umbrella with an Off Camera Speedlite

Photo Shoot: Using a Halo Softbox with a Yongnuo Radio Controlled Flash System

Environmental Portraits and Off-Camera Flash, Part 1

Environmental Portraits and Off-Camera Flash, Part 2

Environmental Portraits and Off-Camera Flash, Part 3

AlienBees: High Quality, Economical Studio Lights

Using the Histogram to Check Studio Flash Exposures

Purchase Links

Most of the items in my studio backpack can be found in my Amazon.com powered photography store. You get the same great Amazon prices, service, and guarantee. The items are linked above and below.

Canon 550EX speedlites

Current model Canon speedlites and transmitters.  Some of these are infrared units and some are radio controlled.

Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Infrared Transmitter

Westcott 43 inch Collapsible Umbrella

LumoPro LP633 Umbrella Adapter

Velbon Ultra Maxi SF Tripod with Ball Head. I would not leave a heavy DSLR and lens unattended on this tripod, or anything else that was very expensive. I wouldn’t use this outdoors if there was any chance of a wind blowing it over.¬† But it works just fine as my “hold a flash and umbrella” tripod when I am inside. It would work in a pinch to steady a not too heavy camera provided you never let go of the camera.

Wein WP-HS Optical Slave (940-030)

Sto-fen and Opteka Flash Diffusers are here and here. Be sure and get a diffuser made for your specific model of flash unit.

Snoots/Reflectors made by Honl and Rogue FlashBenders are here and here. Honl Snoot-Reflectors require an additional Speed Strap to attach to a flash. Rogue Flash/Benders have the strap built in.

Recommended Incident Light and Flash Meters. Note: Not all incident light meters can meter flash.

Sekonic L-358 Incident Light and Flash Meter

Radio speedlite and transmitter by Yongnuo.