Where Umbrellas Dare Not Go :: Flying Silks

January 25, 2010 | • Gear & Gadgets

Do you ever need something larger than an umbrella or softbox? Not quite sure if you are wanting to deal with a massive Octabank? Try a 12×12′ silk! Tie it up to some stands like these Matthews Tall Boys and presto! Gorgeous light.

Did you click on the links? Expensive aren’t they? Not to rent!

PITA to carry around, set up, and use? Absolutely. Worth the pain in the ass it is to carry around, set up, and use? Absolutely. Want to do it on your own? Absolutely not. Bring a friend or two.

Silk’s are great because they cut ambient light, you can blow flash into them, you can use them as background material, they look cool blowing around in videos, etc, etc, etc.  Octa’s are cool because you can blow flash into them. (crickets) No etc, etc, etc. after talking about big octa’s. Don’t get me wrong, octabanks are amazing light modifiers.  LOVE them!  But if you need something that is just as much a pain in the a$$ to set up, sand bag, and move around as a large octa is, then consider using a silk.  I prefer the 12×12′ as it is really versatile at that size. I think we are paying about $25 a day to rent two silks.  That’s an affordable solution to a modifier that can do a number of things.

I can’t show the goods from today’s shoot but here is one that I really like from today showing the silk flying in the air like it just don’t care.

Cheers, Zack


  • zack said on January 25, 2010

    And yes, I know the light from a silk is different than an octa. Each has their place in a photographer’s tool kit but… You can’t beat a silk for the versatility you get out of it.


  • Darrell Harris said on January 26, 2010

    So, what are you lighting the silk with? Do you have to bounce the light first so it fills more of the silk or are you using a bare light right into the sheet? Zack, you teased me with that gorgeous light mod then left the party early….! 😉

  • Michael said on January 26, 2010

    The Mathews artificial silk is about $125 from B&H. The stands look a lot smaller on the B&H site.

    There is a certain photographer who claims that “borrowed” motel bed sheets work just as well. He also owns a 12′ silk.

  • Michael said on January 26, 2010

    The one nice thing about using panels is you can change the size of your light source without changing its fall off. Bring your light close and you get hard light, back it up and you get soft light, and your fall off is the same. Inverse square law from the panel surface. The light equivalent of Depth of field.

  • Henrik Bengtsson said on January 26, 2010

    I love a silk, you can use it in so many ways. Backlit like you have there, use it as an improvised diffuser, bounce material, clothing, sunscreen, etc.

    Every tool (including umbrellas 😉 have their place in your toolbox, but a sheet of silk cost very little (if you are lucky) and takes almost no space.

    And Darrell, you can do all of the above really. You can shoot straight through it (i tend to use two flashes behind it with wide reflectors to spread the light as even as possible). You could also use it as a standard white background and light it from the side.

  • Henrik Bengtsson said on January 26, 2010

    Oh. a quick tip to get your own silk.

    I found a material at a local textile supplier that is used for the inner curtains on showerdrapes. This was basically the perfect diffuser fabric, thin, pure white and extremely cheap. Cost me about $1 / feet of fabric. It was only about 5 feet wide though but still, its cheap 😀 So go have a look at the textile suppliers and see what they have. It may be a lot cheaper than renting it.

    And here is an example of a picture taken with that silk:

    (Zach: hope its ok to link that, if not just remove it)

  • Evan said on January 26, 2010

    This has DIY written all over it!

  • chi said on January 26, 2010


    yeah really, how do you light up a 12′ silk evenly? I’d bounce either a flash or continous light source off a wall, then have it come back and light the silk? I dunno man, i’m just bumping my gums.

  • Noah Shaye said on January 26, 2010

    Hi Henrik!

    Could you give us more details about where to buy that fabric?? Maybe a website? Thanks!

  • John C said on January 26, 2010

    My guess, one light really far back and full power…or two lights (one high and one low centered.)

  • Charlie said on January 26, 2010

    That sounds like a really versatile addition to every photographer’s camera bag, I’m suprised that I’ve not tried this yet, time to get motivated and go make some photographs.

  • uncle chris said on January 26, 2010

    love the hidden logo!

  • Glyn Dewis said on January 26, 2010

    Nice post Zack and the location looks awesome!


  • Josh R. said on January 26, 2010

    I have two piece of 3 yards each sports nylon that I bought from Jo-ann’s. Cheap and it works very well as a photographic silk. I just clamp it to stands and if it’s windy you can leave one side unclamped on the bottom so it won’t catch in the wind.

  • Steven said on January 26, 2010

    Nice shots. I kinda figured that when I saw that silk, something of epic proportions was about to be released. The lower photo is awesome. Great location too.

    I’ll help schlep gear around if you need me! Give me a call!

  • Antoine_fr said on January 26, 2010

    Ahah, just found your watermark 😉

  • Otto Rascon said on January 26, 2010

    I cannot wait to see what you shot. This shoot looks like all kinds of cool… I imagine plenty of movement and drama. Thanks Zack. Rock!

  • Henrik Bengtsson said on January 26, 2010

    Noah, it was from a textile supplier here in Sweden who had gotten a huge shipment. He buys & sells fabric shipments that the original buyer for some reason doesnt want anymore so its not always sure he has it in stock.

    But the fabric is a synthetic silk fabric so it should be possible to locate at a well stocked textile supplier. My suggestion would be to bring a softbox to a textile supplier and ask if they can help you locate this style of fabric. The things you need to look for is how much light is being let through and also that there is no colouring of the light.

    For the Swedes here it can be bought from http://www.skroten.se/ (site is in swedish, sorry ;D.

    And it really is a great tool to bring along. =) maybe not the 12×12 size but smaller versions for sure.

  • Tamara said on January 27, 2010

    The second image rocks. Fantastic. And thanks for sharing lighting details.

  • Steve B. said on January 28, 2010

    It is a cheaper more versatile option to the giant octabank – but the light from the octabank is so gorgeous. Would love to see a side by side comparison of light quality.

  • Mike Kang said on January 30, 2010

    Zack, you’re the man. I rent gear all the time, I didn’t even think to rent silks! Duh!

  • c.d.embrey said on February 2, 2010

    Why didn’t you rent a frame for the silk ? Makes it much more versatile. The ability to raise and tilt the silk gives you more options for getting the look you want. And it makes it easy to move.

    For bouncing, putting a 12×12 griff behind a 12×12 silk gives a nice soft light.

  • zack said on February 3, 2010

    CD- The frame put us over our rental budget and I knew I really didn’t need it for this job. Had I been flying it outdoors then I would have really needed the frame. I also wanted the ability to throw it up quickly and bring it down quickly. Tying it to two stands does the job and saves a bit of cash for this particular job.


  • Drew Lawrence said on February 6, 2010

    Nice ! Very ‘Dean Collins’….

  • anna said on February 25, 2010

    the silk just adds so much density and at the same time grandiosely graciousness

  • Asert said on March 22, 2010

    Amazing photo

  • Jass Foley said on April 19, 2010

    Can’t say enough about using silks. They do have a time and a place, but I’d take them over an octa when I want an ultra soft light. Found a great material supplier here (Ireland) that gives huge seamless synthetic at great price, so not gonna pass up the opportunity!

    Used a silk hanging from a lastolite backdrop frame last week, and worked a treat! http://jassfoley.com/mill/

  • Jannie Anderson said on July 8, 2010

    When I was a young camera assistant I worked mostly on television commercials that we shot on 35mm film.

    We were called to shoot a spot with Will Rogers Jr. sitting under an apple tree talking about apples. The director/ cameraman that I worked for, sent me to a local sailboat sail making shop and I had them make a 30’x40′ diffusion out of spinnaker material with grommets all around the outside. Then he got hold of some weather ballons and we raised it up in the air over the tree and anchored the corners to the ground by driving in old Ford axles. There was no wind, it gave the most beautiful light and in the end looked easy. Later when I became a director of photography I often used that same diffuser, once covering the gas pumps of a station in Californina and we tied it and another off to semi trailors set to block the wind behind the camera. It was pretty neat.

  • Alan Matthews said on August 17, 2010

    I want one of those contraptions. Silk? How can I buy one?

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