Turns out that it's not very difficult to get big light from a small flash. You just need to have the right stuff to put in front of it.
How To Get Big Light From A Small Flash
By itself, a small flash seems to put out some very hard light. Nothing at all like the beautiful light we expect from studio strobes. Then again, the bulb on my Elinchrom is about the same size as the face of my Nikon SB-910. It's just as harsh as the small flash without a light modifier on it.
The magic comes from those big soft boxes we load on our studio strobes. Put your subject under the light from a 53″ Octa and you're going to get a flattering portrait. It's hard to screw it up, honestly.
Why not give yourself the same advantage when you're using small flash?
Part of the problem has been finding a large soft box that works with small flash. We're starting to see new products come out with larger areas of output, but most still seem limited to a 24″ x 24″ box. Still provides nice light, to be sure. It's just not big light.
That's why I was intrigued to try a portrait with a 3×3 foot diffusion panel while attending Joe McNally's small flash workshop in Saint Lucia. It seemed too simple, too good to be true.
Glad to find out that I was wrong. It's simple, but the results can be outstanding. The portrait of Claudette below used one Nikon SB-910 mounted on a bracket behind a 3×3 diffusion panel. I believe it was a Lastolite Skylite panel, but don't hold me to it.
It's a pretty simple device. Aluminum tubing to keep the diffusion panel stretched, but it breaks down easily for travel. Just mount it on a C-Stand, aim it toward your subject and clamp a small flash behind it. There you go. Big light from a small flash.
Very forgiving light with a gradual fall-off, just as you'd expect from your mid-sized Octa box. I've found them running close to $400 and a few folks I know were put off by that price. I'm not. Give me that quality of light from a small flash and I think it's slicker than unicorn snot.
What's the down-side? Mostly the same as you always have with small flash. It isn't as powerful as your studio strobe. You may have to bump up your ISO or put more than one flash behind the panel. That's the trade-off for convenience, but I think it's an acceptable deal.
I had a great time photographing Claudette. She's warm and gracious, but she also has all giddiness of a small child. Lots of bemused expressions came back at me as I fiddled with my gear and directed her. No problems, it was all fun for her. She just seemed mildly confused that we had so much fun shooting her portrait.