Phil Steele’s GREAT video course on shooting portraits with small flashes

Over the weekend, I had the chance to follow Phil Steele’s “How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes” video course. Quite a title, I know; perhaps he’s a fan of Lina Wertmüller’s films, or something like that.
You may know Phil from YouTube, he’s somewhat of a celebrity in the world of photography tutorials (and definitely one of my favorites, together with The Slanted Lens, Phillip McCordall and others. When I saw that he had a full-length video course about studio portraits with small flashed, I jumped in. Read below for more.

Let me go back in time a little: as many of you probably know, I’m an amateur photographer and in 2012 I started photographing people in what I like to call my studio, which is really my laboratory, which is really a room in my house where I work and hack things. I have had 7 models so far: Valeria (who posed for me twice), Francesca, Federica, Maila, Daniel, and Ylenia.
Lack of cash couples with a passion for tinkering led me to research ways to get things done without spending too much. Over the course of the years I managed to get extreme closeups (here is a self-portrait in a drop of water, and here is how I did it) without a dedicated macro lens, images of eclipses including sun spots without dedicated equipment (other than a few filters) and of course, I’m part of the strobist movement using off-camera flashes, and sometimes I just mix it all in.
When photographing models, I used what I had and applied what I knew: I have two flash units (a Sigma EF-500 DG Super and an ancient Agfatronic CS222) and a Cactus wireless kit with one transmitter and two receivers. Life’s beautiful. However it doesn’t quite work when taking photos of people: shadows get in the way, the light is harsh, and so on.
In late 2012 I purchased a softbox kit. I was actually undecided between whether I wanted softboxes or umbrellas, but I knew I wanted continous light. It would have made it easier to set things up, I thought, so I got that kit: three light stands (one with an extesion arm) with three 40×40 cm soft boxes, each containing a huuuuge CFL rated at 100 W, with a common E27 connector. Is it better than flashes? Eh. Not so much. The light it gives is definitely softer, and very nice to work with. However even when using two of them (or all three of them), the light is still not so powerful. With my new Canon 60D I can push the ISO up to 1000 or more without much of a problem, especially compared to my old 350D, but it’s still not optimal. I also got a small 60 cm silver/gold reflector, which isn’t getting much use so far.

In the light of all of this, and yes that was a very crafty pun, I jumped in. The price tag for the course isn’t hefty at all: a mere $47, which at the time of writing is €36 for us in Europe (and £31 for you Brits.) Subscription is painless and activation is immediate. Logging in is a breeze and you get a list of the “episodes”, allowing you to jump into any one of them and possibly resume whence you left off. In reality, the course is very engaging — Phil’s a good teacher — and you will discover you spent two hours watching it only when you’re done.

If you are a complete beginner, you will appreciate the fact that he lists his equipment and shows you how he uses it (including very detailed explanations of how to set up flash units, which may or may not apply to what you have), and talks you through the end results. I wish I had seen this before starting out, and before purchasing the softboxes: while I still retain the light stands out of the kit (here in Italy they are hard to find on their own for less than €50 each), I would have definitely gone with umbrellas and flash brackets.
Phil actually goes beyond showing what he uses: the first few episodes of the course, that is the ones dedicated to the equipment, are accompanied by lists of alternative items you could get, and even links to the actual stores where you can buy each single item.
Unfortunately, for those of us living in the Province of the Empire, and with that I mean outside the US, things are a little more complicated because we need to check what we can buy locally or not, and possibly factor in extra costs for importing items from abroad. In any case, these lists are a great starting point for your own research.

The videos are well done and the atmosphere is cozy, including during the shoots. It gives a good idea of what a photo shoot should be like, especially if you’re starting out. Too many of us think of high-end sets and a bunch of people working together for hours to get six pictures out of a model (ever watched America’s Next Top Model?), but in his course Phil shows that you can take great photos in your living room. Sure, living on the 18th floor of a building and having floor-to-ceiling windows helps a little bit, but that’s not strictly necessary at all. Many people have turned garages into complete studios, after all.
Phil’s also very clear in his speech and reiterates the main concepts, making sure you get the point across.

So, are you buying a “high-end” course? It depends on what you mean. Are there special effects? No, unless you mean the models’ eyes. But is the course effective in teaching you stuff? Most definitely and absolutely.

Personally, I knew a lot of this stuff and as I said I had most of the equipment already; I mostly wanted to see how a pro gets it done, yet not only I learned what I’d better buy if I want to improve my studio portraits, but I was made aware of a few things that I had never really thought about, such as how shutter speed and aperture take on different roles when using off-camera flashes.

I had encountered this behavior before in my tests, but it had never occurred to me to think about it (and I admit that a bit shamefully, being the nerd I am); when Phil pointed it out in one episode of the course and elaborated on it in the next one, a huge light bulb went off in my head (umbrella and reflector included; that’s another crafty pun for you) and it suddenly all my failed tests made sense.

One thing I particularly appreciated is that every time a shot is shown in the video, the main EXIF data are listed beside it, such as lens, focal length, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc.. This is great for newbies and pros alike. The only minor issue is that sometimes the photo don’t stay on screen long enough to hunt for that one value you’re curious about, but it’s not a big deal as the videos can be paused, rewound, fast forwarded and replied at will.

Speaking of which: someone may be not-so-thrilled about the videos being streaming only. There’s no option for downloading them, and as an IT guy I understand the reasoning: what if the site goes down? what if he decides to revoke my access to it? Well, that makes sense, but it’s very unlikely to happen. On the other hand, streaming videos allow Phil to expand the course over time, and he did indeed add one extra episode to explain how he sets the flash power. You’ll also find the freshest links to get the equipment, possibly saving you money if you buy stuff a piece at a time over a longer period, in addition to the money you save by buying the right things in the first place (anyone wants three virtually unused softboxes…?)

There are also two extra bonus episodes included at no extra cost: one about using reflectors as the sole source of light outdoors, and one about the “glamour blur” editing technique in Photoshop.

To sum up, “How to Shoot Professional-Looking Headshots and Portraits on a Budget with Small Flashes” is very well worth the (low) price tag of $47, I can personally vouch for it. The course is well thought out and well made, touching on the theory but getting you deep into practice. It makes you want to get some basic equipment and ask someone to pose for you. And if you can’t find anyone, Phil gives a suggestion that will make you laugh out loud, but like anything else in the course, it makes perfect sense.

Want to jump in? Here’s a handy link to the course, where you’ll find screenshots and more information and, of course, the “purchase” button if you’re interested:

(One question remains: where are the trained moose?)