DIY Sync Cables

I will admit, sync cables are not the sexiest piece of kit and is perhaps one of the least contemplated gear purchases one can make. In most cases the cables that came with your triggers are probably all you need and there is not really a reason to give the subject more thought until  you inevitably replace them as the junctions with the connectors break. There are plenty of options on the market, Pocket Wizard and Paramount both make a large selection of suitable cables to suit nearly every configuration possible. Most of these cables are pretty reliable, but also cost about $15-20 a pop. Another option would be to use the cheaper, standard 3.5mm patch audio patch cords commonly used to connect music players to their various accessories. If you choose this option, make sure you buy at least a few spares because the cheaper cables don't seam to last very long.  The third option, and the one that I chose, was to make my own cables using ultra high quality, but very affordable components. There are a few reasons why I chose to make my own cables. After reading this you may decide that it's just not worth the effort to make your own, but that is up to you to decide.   O.K. The biggest reason that I decided to build my own sync cords is illustrated above. On the left is my home made cable and on the right is a PW branded cable that cost around $15. Obviously the left cable is a little more durable in design, but it's best feature is that is cost less than half of what the commercial cable did. The conductors in each wire are about the same gauge, but the jacket on my cable is much thicker and of a bit softer material. Basically, you are getting a much longer wearing cable that costs less and can be repaired if necessary. You can also see how I re-enforced the plugs with an extra layer of shrink wrap. There is a layer that covers the solder points under the housing and a layer that goes over the housing to reduce the chance of kinking and breaking of the wires.Under normal circumstances, this would probably be a little overkill but I found last winter that in the cold it doesn't take that much strain on the joint to crack the stiffened outer jacket and once it is cracked the cable is soon broken. To fix this problem I ended up using a pro audio cable with a more flexible jacket that was more resistant to cold weather.So, a cable that is both cheaper and more durable then a standard cable, win-win right? well, there are a few little rubs. One is that because of the increased size of the connector there may be some compatibility issues with some models of triggers. As shown above, you cannot use both the pass-through and output on the Phottix Atlas at the same time (Pocket Wizards don't have this problem). The other issue is that because the cable is now beefed up, the weak link is now the probably the connector on the radio trigger. Breaking a $175 trigger will negate any money that you saved with these cables, just sayin. There is the potential for more leverage to be applied to the jack do to the increased size of the plug, just be careful. I would say that the biggest advantage to these cables is their durability in cold weather. If you don't often work in the cold, then I would think hard about whether these are something that you need. If you rarely break cables then I would advise against DIY cables simply because of the increased risk of damaging a flash or trigger. If it ain't broke, don't fix it -or whatever. That being said, I can never seem to have enough on hand, so I build a dozen or so at once, and swap them out if they become damaged. The connectors are reusable so repairing a damaged cable only costs as much as a new piece of cable.

DIY Century Stand (Nearly Finished Version)

It's been a little while since I have written a DIY post for this site, so today I have a pretty easy and useful one. In the interest of full disclosure, this is a slight adaption of an existing design that can be found on several sites and forums. I was really excited to find the original articles but there were a few features lacking from those designs that kept me from building one of these stands until just recently. I will  give a rundown of the specific changes that I made a little further down the page. Those who have spend any time with me know that I tend to look for a DIY solution for something before a turn to a commercial option. Over the last few years I have built up a nice little collection of tools that has made many of these projects cost effective and efficient. Very often these projects fall into two distinct categories: advanced designs created by an engineer who has a photography hobby and access to tools and knowledge that most folks don't, and so called "duct tape DIY's", projects that sort of get the job done, but are ugly or unreliable or both.

For me, it is only useful to build something if it will perform as well as a commercially available product and have a cost savings that justifies the time spent building it. I have actually built a lot of gear that you will never hear about on this site, either because I don't feel that it is worthwhile for you to build, or because I greedily want to keep it for my self. If you do want to see some of this other stuff, give me a call and I'd be happy to give you a look in person.

Ok, to the project. Since I am not completely done with this, there is no parts list yet, I will update this post as soon as I feel comfortable with the finished product. As for tools, I used the following:

Suitably sized pipe wrench: (maybe $10, you can get the cheapest you can find here) Drill press OR hand drill and vice: I used a hand drill on some of the holes just to try it and it works pretty well if you take your time. Decent bit set: If you plan on doing DIYs with any sort of frequency, get a set with fractions, numbered and lettered bits, you will need all three for taping threaded holes. Menards used to have a set for about $40, they were cheap, but worked well if you keep them sharp. Cheap bits kept sharp will last longer and cut faster then an expensive bit that is left dull. Also, if you drill into stainless with any regularity, you will break bits, even the expensive ones. Tap Set: Here is where you will want quality, you don't have to buy a whole set, you will probably only use a handful of sizes. Buy a handle and add taps as you need them. Hack saw, sawzall, cutoff saw, etc.: Technically you don't need to cut any metal for this project, however I plan on cutting the threads on the first extension off, and you will need some sort of saw that can cut metal for that, just sayin'.

Ok, like I said, the goal here was to create a stand that was both cost effective and useful. I spent around $80 on the parts. Before you get upset, I realize that you can buy a commercial c stand for under $100, but the fact is those stands suck. They are probably less stable than the $40 aluminum ebay light stands, so if you want to go cheap, please go that route rather than the bottom level c stands. Another factor is that those cheap stands only go to 6.5/7 feet. This stand goes to 8ft currently (2 sections) and could go to 11ft (3 sections) with almost no added cost. Above you can see the leg assembly, the legs are made of standard 3/4" pipe, you can find all of the parts at your local home building center. The only tool you will need here is a pipe wrench to turn the pieces together. As you can see in the photo, the second segment in the middle leg is a little too long, causing the feet to bump into each other, this doesn't matter when the stand is in use, and I plan on replacing the too-long segment with a shorter piece soon. The legs connect to the base of the stand with a standard "T", I taped a hole in each T to allow for a set screw and knob to be added. Since the T's fit over a 1/2" pipe and there is some play, the set screw can be tightened to keep the legs in the proper position while moving the stand during use. The stand is still functional without them, just a little tricky to move.

You can see how the leg sections fit over the base in the picture above, there is about an inch of extra space on the base column, the next shorter size of pipe is to short. This is really not an issue and could be fixed with a clamp collar.

The other weak point in the original design was the clamp and extension portion of the stand. The second segment was made of EMT conduit and the clamp was simply a set screw taped into the first segment. EMT conduit is not a terribly stiff tubing and actually has quite a bit flex to it. Unfortunately there are not a lot of commonly available substitutes for it. I used a 4' section of 1" galv. pipe for the first segment. All pipe is measured by its inner diameter (i.d.) where as tubing is measure by it's outer diameter (o.d.). Basically, I needed a section of pipe for the first segment and a length of tubing for the second segment. Some home stores sell a small selection of metal tubing, but it is mostly overpriced and of mediocre quality. Fastenal is the place you want to go for this, unless you have access to a cheaper source at least, there is likely a Fastenal within a 30min drive from where you live.

The rest is just a matter of turning the pieces together.

Next: 5/8" stud and the parts list.

Testing Gadgets

Earlier this summer I started putting together a waterproof housing for an off camera flash. My design was an adaption of THIS device that was posted on STROBIST a long while ago. I had a bunch of ideas for things to do with it, mostly involving wake/surf but this summer has been difficult in regards to shooting that kind of stuff. So, I've been itching to use this thing and I finally had a perfect opportunity a couple weeks ago. Every year my family has a family reunion weekend  in northern Wisconsin and there is a famous rope swing that affords some sweet action shot opportunities. This would be perfect to test out this new housing. I actually tried to do the same thing last year with some plastic bags, but that didn't work out very well. #deadflash. The actual construction of the unit was fairly simple, the supplies cost around $25, and took less than an hour to build. I used 3" pipe and fittings, a 12" section of pipe fits a flash and pocket wizard with ease.  The goal was to make a rugged, waterproof unit that was affordable, and not too bulky.  Because I used 3" pipe, some larger flashes will not fit (vivitar 283/285 some canons, sb-900. If you plan on using any of these flashes then you should be using 4" pipe and pack it with some foam chunks for a snug fit. It is also important to note that this device is intended for surface use and not for underwater photography. If you plan on using it under the surface you will need to devise some fitting so you can use a hard sync, as radio triggers are useless under water. You also want to make sure you use solid pvc, as most of the large diameter pipe sold at home centers is cell core and won't handle the pressure.

I improved on the original design by adding removable/interchangeable pistol grip/ (1/4-20) mount for increased adaptability. The handle is made out of 3/4" pvc sheet. I drew a pattern for the grip freehand, cut it out with a jig saw and finished the edges with a spindle sander and router. I mounted a section of the same pvc used for the body of the housing to my drill press covered with medium sand paper to contour the mounting surface of the grip fit tightly with the body of the housing. The handle is held on with a pair of 1/4-20 bolts, sealed with neoprene washers and some silicone grease. I rough cut the window from a sheet of 1/4" lexan and temporarily attached it the the end of the tube with carpet tape (diy essential) I then finished the edge using a router with a copy bit, using the tube as a guide. This ensured that the window is the exact diameter as the tube. I hope all of this makes sense, I was planing on putting together a step by step how-to on this project but I was in a rush to get it done. I will be building several more of these in the near future, so look for more detailed photos and maybe a video soon.

To load the unit you remove the LDPE cap in the rear and slide the flash in head first. Do to the tight fit, I use a hot shoe adapter to attach the sync cord to the flash, depending on where the sync port is on your flash you may be able to omit this part. Then the pocket wizard is loaded and foam disks are inserted to take up any remaining space. The treads are cleaned and have silicone grease applied (available from dive shops) to ensure a tight seal. The shots below speak to the possible results.

Vivitar 283 Variable Power Mod

Over this passed winter I made a transition from my prized collection of SB-28s to the Lumedyne system 244. Winter is a slow season as far as cashing checks is concerned for me, and at the time I was really in need of more w/s so the Nikon flashes went on ebay. Fast forward another couple of months and I was jonesing to update my studio lights, so out went the Lumedynes. So come the summer months and I was starting to miss the ease and portability of the small lights. Don't get me wrong, I love busting out that 7' octa any chance I can get, but there is certainly a place for the shoe mount flashes when speed and portability is key.

The first time around, I acquired my flashes one at a time, adding one or two when I had the cash or found a particularity good deal on ebay. This time however, I was looking at buying a whole kit all at once and even at $100 a pop, those Nikon flashes can add up fast.

I started to look around for alternatives and I found the Vivitar 283. I had a few of these when I first started out but I sold them because they lack a real manual power control. The Main advantage of these flashes is that they are plentiful used, and they are cheap, so putting them in harms way is not a big deal. By any ones standards the 283 is very outdated and unlike it's big brother the 285, there has been little resurgence in demand with the recent popularity of off camera flash. The reason for this of course, is that pesky lack of power control.


Now, vivitar did make a little plug in unit to replace the auto one, but it was overpriced at $20 and is now discontinued meaning that the used price today is now even higher. The good news here is that there are quite a few good articles on the web about how to diy your own manual power control. They range from "duct tape and tin foil" type hacks to fairly intricate self contained solutions that will blend in seamlessly with the rest of your kit.

Most of these mods use a potentiometer (think volume knob) to do the job. The problem with these is that there are no hard stops for specific power settings, and depending of which type of pot you used it became very difficult to repeat your settings especially when you are dialing the power way down.

I came across what, in my mind, is the perfect solution to this problem a while ago before I had even seriously thinking about modifying the 283. I searched high and low to find the original site to link to, but as of right now I cannot find it. The idea came from a guy who was into microphotography and had built a control unit for a 283 to use for that purpose. The unit was simply a multi-position switch housed in plastic box. Each position of the switch connected a path with a specific resistance value that coincides with a specific light output. Basically, its a discrete variable  resistor, the perfect solution for a manual power control. I found the resistance values by trial and error using a light meter and a big bag of resistors, I will post the numbers at some point for those who are interested. I do remember that the numbers were in the original article that I found, those numbers are probably more accurate then mine if you can find them.

The unit that I ended up with is 1"x2"x3" and offers a 5.5 stop range in half stop increments. This is based off of a 12 position, single pole switch. This is the largest switch that I could find. This offers a range from 1/1 all the way to half a stop past 1/32. The 283 can actually be tuned down past 1/128, but I wanted the half stops so mine has lightly less range.

The unit plugs into the port where the thyristor usually goes. I actually took apart the original thyristor module to steal the plug from it. The rest of the construction was fairly simple soldering and drilling a couple of holes. I printed a little colored power value dial on my inkjet and glued it on the front for now. I ordered a few sheets of water slide decals for a more finished look.

In the photos you will notice that the unit is not attached directly to the flash but is mounted on the light stand via an extension cord. This cord has several versions (sc-1, sc-2, sc-3) and can be purchased online for $10-20 depending on availability. I got one of these cords along with one of the flashes that I got on ebay, and I promptly ordered several more. There are several advantages to having the power control mounted remotely, first several modifiers (the Westcott Apollo softboxes come to mind) require you to mount the flash inside where it is not easily accessible, using the cord allows for easy power adjustments. The other reason has to do with sync. The 283 comes with the standard vivitar sync port, to utilize this would require carrying another species of cord and probably a few spares as well. The other option would be one of those little hot shoe translators, but that adds another inch of stack height and another flimsy junction between the stand and the strobe. The sc-1/2/3 solves this problem by adding another hot shoe at the control end of the cord where a Pocket Wizard or other trigger can easily be attached and adjusted along with the power control.  You can see a close up of the whole control in the photo below. I have attached it to the light stand with a super clamp and an umbrella swivel but I have a much smaller and simpler solution in the works, stay tuned.

V flats

Ok, I actually started this post about 3 weeks ago, but I have been super busy with with finishing up school so a had to put things on hold for a little bit. There has been a whole lot of talk on the internet about solutions for correcting light spill and flairs in the studio. This is the sort of thing that you never really worry about when you are using speedlights, and the solution there is a quick piece of cinefoil or cardboard taped to the flash it self, no big deal. The real problem is when you start using big lights or halogen video lights, tape and cardboard is not only no longer effective, it's not safe. On the video side of things there are a multitude of different light control products available, but the tend to be SPENDY when you start adding them up. The photographer's solution has long been something called V flats or foam core cutters. Scott Kelby's blog has a nice little post about them HERE. The only problem with constructing them out of the standard foam core is that it is cost prohibitive to have shipped, so if you can't pick it up locally you are out of luck.

My solution was to use bi fold closet doors that I picked up second had at a used building material store, cheap, sturdy and very effective. They are super easy to build and you only need a few basic tools. I wound do a step by step here, because you probably can figure it out fairly easily, but I tried to include a lot of pictures for you visual learners.

A lot of the stuff that I have build/converted in the past was only economical if you already had the tools. This is not one of those projects, technically you only need a paintbrush and some paint. I took the hinges off before painting so I used a drill but a screwdriver would work just fine. The doors that I bought had metal pins in the ends to mount on a track, so I used a pliers as well. I already had the necessary paint leftover from a previous project, but I bought the cheapest interior that I could find, about $10 per  gallon if I remember correctly. You probably won't find a color chip for black paint but just ask and any place that sells paint should be able to mix some up for you. The white is easy, just go with a "high hide" pure white. Some landfills even safe old paint that people dump and give it away free, worth checking out.

Toolbox: Clamps

This week I thought I would share a couple of cheap and really useful pieces of gear. To please everyone, there are three options here: an off the shelf/industry standard solution, an inexpensive and easy DIY option, and a piece that you can either make or buy. First up is the Bogan Super Clamp.

An in depth post about this guy is available at the STROBIST site. These things are awesome! Basically, there are a ton of uses for 'em. They let you mount and join things together and are generally the best solution for makeshift light mounts. They can clamp to anything up to 2" wide, pipes, doors, whatever you can think of. The back side accepts a standard 5/8" stud, meaning that they are compatible with a wide range of the other pieces of grip gear like camera and hotshoe flash  mounts. Chase Jarvis uses these things to put remote cameras on all sorts of things. I have used them to mount lights on boat towers, bikes, and even cars. The original super clamp is manufactured by Manfrotto but there are a bunch of other places that sell them under various brands, including this Impact clamp sold by B+H Photo and this Flashpoint one by Adorama. I have heard mixed reviews on the budget model clamps with some raving about them and some complaining of failure. My feeling is that the Manfrotto clamps are pretty cheap already and I would rather spend the extra few buck then drop and camera or light. All my clamps are marked Manfrotto and I have not had one fail yet (knock on wood).

Option 2: A-clamp

The alternative to the store bought clamp is this lighter-duty DIY version. Now, there is no way that this clamp will hold a dSLR with any sort of security, but it will hold a hotshoe flash to a railing with little trouble. I explained how to build one of your own in THIS post but you should be able to tell how it was made just by looking at it. I took an inexpensive A-clamp from HOME DEPOT and drilled a 3/8" hole in the handle to allow a MINI BALL HEAD to be attached. You could go as cheap or as pricy as you want with either of these parts, my clamps cost about $11 each with the parts shown and work pretty well.

Even if you don't build a few of these for your self you should definitely pick up a few of those green clamps to put in your bag, infinitely useful.

The last piece is an accessory for the other two. This is something that most people don't think about until disaster strikes. The safety wire is really a no brainer, and is so cheap that there is no reason not to use 'em. Basically a safety wire is a length of cable with a small carabiner on each end. I allow a essentially unbreakable connection between the flash or camera and the solid object that it is clamped to. This is important  if the clamp slips or is bumped, especially if clamped up high were it may drop and injure someone. In some cases the location or production that you are working at may require them for safety/liability reason.

The good news its that they are extremely cheap and don't take up much space in your bag. You can buy them HERE or HERE or you can make your own like I did and save a few bucks.

If you care to make your own I would use 1/16" or 1/8" wire rope and a carabiner that is rated at least 5X the max load that the cable with support. The cable and the connectors are cheap so don't skimp the the weight rating. I cut 30" lengths of cable and crimped loops on the ends for the carabiners, then I slipped a short length of shrink tubing over the ends of the cable to keep it from fraying.

So now we have a few alternative ways of mounting gear to fixed (or moving) objects, and a way to add a little security to the operation.

Next up? Who knows, I'll think about it and get back to you.

Big Light Modifiers Part 1: Beauty Dish

UPDATE: Although the purpose of this post was not a step-by-step tutorial, I have added a few more pictures that detail the construction and the various parts of the finished dish.  

Last time, I talked about making the jump from speedlights to A/C powered strobes. In addition to the new lights, I also got a pile of new modifiers.  I really spend a lot of time researching the types of modifiers that fit my style of lighting, and more importantly, which ones are cost effective on a limited budget. I think everyone would like to have a full closet of Profoto/Broncolor/Chimera softboxes/paras/striplights/reflectors but when you break it down, the amount that you use any of those pieces of gear has to be enough to justify the cost.

Frugality was the very reason I was so excited to find this DIY beauty dish project by Todd Owyoung of I actually found this DIY a long time ago, but I didn't really have an opportunity to build it until now.

The original plans were for designed for a speedlight, but it was really easy to modify it to work with a standard speed ring adapter. Those who know me know that I am a sucker for DIY and I have quite a few pieces of home built gear in my kit. I am, however, not a fan of so called "duct tape DIY", if I'm going to build something it has to perform as good or better then an off-the-shelf option and has to look somewhat respectable too. Todd's design is beautiful in it's simplicity and in the quality of light that it produces. I got the chance to test a dish made by Norman, and I really can't tell the difference between the light made by that and the dish that I made.

All of the parts for this dish are available off of the shelf. Todd says on his site that he found everything for the project locally at a restaurant supply store for under $20. I would definitely check around locally first, as that will probably be cheaper, otherwise you can do what I did and order what you need from Amazon. I used a 20qt stainless mixing bowl and 8" aluminum pizza dish. You could go a little smaller with a 16qt or you could go as big as you can find. I would say that if you are planning to use it with a speedlight then use the 16qt bowl, with big lights-use the big bowl.

The construction was pretty simple, I just followed the instructions HERE and the video tutorial HERE. My design eliminated the flash bracket and replaced it with the speed ring adapter. The whole unit is held together by three 1/4-20 bolts and the reflector is adjustable along the length of the bolts.

The same bolts that hold the reflector to the main dish hold the speed ring adapter to the back side. The spacing of the holes here are very important, washers could be added to allow a more secure hold on the adapter. I've been using this a bit so there are already a few bumps and bruises, but overall the unit is holding up great.

A set of jam nuts on the inside of the dish allow the adapter to be tightened independently of the reflector, washers are not needed here but you can add some if you are worried about chipping the paint or are planning on swapping out the adapter for different brands of lights.

Another set of jam nuts are used to hold the reflector in the correct position. The reflector is held on from the front by cap nuts, here again you can use washers, paint the nuts white, etc. If you will be swapping mounts for different lights, you can use wing nuts to ease the process of setting the reflector to correctly focus the output of the different lights.

The beauty dish is finished with an enamel paint, satin black on the outside and flat white on the inside and on the reflector. A variation would be to paint the interior silver for a little more specular look. I like the evenness of the white, so that is what I used. The whole project only took a few hours+paint drying and the result is a very nice looking light source.

In part 2 we will talk about some of the other modifiers that I have been using recently and what I would purchase on a few different budgets.