I’m not usually a fan of making my own lighting modifiers because they tend to be not as durable as a commercial product. A few years ago I made a speedlight grid out of some cardboard and black straws but I then destroyed it when I dumped a heavy bag on it in the boot of my car. Some time ago I saw an online photography article about modifying a humble Pringles can into a short strip light and this seemed simple enough that I figured it was worth trying.
Turning a Pringles can into a snoot is pretty easy: just cut a speedlight-shaped hole in the bottom and you’re done. Turning it into a strip light is slightly more complex in that you need to cut a rectangular hole down the side of it in addition to a speedlight-hole in the lid. You then just cover over the hole with some diffuser material. In my case, I just used some tracing paper I had lying around and attached it with some sticky tape. As the lid is transparent, I then applied plenty of gaffer tape to that to make it “lightproof”. I decided to make 4 of them which took me about 30min per can.
A Pringles can is pretty much perfect for this little strip light idea. The inside is already lined silver/grey so you get reasonable reflection inside. The lid is just the right size to be cut to suit the shape of a speedlight head and the can is lightweight enough that you don’t have to worry about the can falling off the flash. Where you might expect that the lid-end would be brightest (as it’s close to the speedlight head), the flash tends to bounce back off the bottom so it seems to even out along the cutout nicely.
One tip I learned the hard way: don’t tape the lid to the can. If you do, you won’t be able to swivel the can to aim the cutout panel in your preferred direction.
I guess you could use a cardboard Postpak tube to do this but that’s just coarse cardboard inside, has a red base and is more likely to fall off the speedlight because it’s heavier. Some of those problems might be fixable with some tape/paint and aluminium foil but that sort of effort makes this hack seem a little less elegant.
With 4 of these, they can be used in a multitude of ways. I started by arranging them left/right/up/down like a segmented ring light. You can position them tightly together to get reasonably uniform ring or you can move them further apart to create a larger hole to shoot through. As each side is a different speedlight, you can adjust the power on each side separately so that you might have the top light brightest with the other 3 acting as fill lights. You can also try turning one or more flashes off completely.
I’ve used a pair of them horizontally (above and below camera) and managed to get a lighting effect that looks like old-style Hollywood lighting. You have to be careful when working with striplights like this because they create different lighting effects depending on the direction. If used horizontally, they will create soft, wrapping light along the length of the tube but vertically that light will be harder because the cutout panel is not very tall. For example, if used horizontally above a face, positioning one a little too high will cause shadows in the top of the eye socket.
If you want to try this yourself, you may be in trouble. Until recently, Pringles sold in Australia were imported from the USA but they’re now made in Malaysia. The problem with this change is that the can size has changed: the USA cans were 150g while the Malaysia cans are 134g. This means the cans are about the same height but they have a thinner diameter. I haven’t tried using the smaller cans myself but given that the 150g cans are just big enough to fit a speedlight head, I suspect the thinner 134g cans with smaller lids may not work. You could get onto ebay and find someone selling larger cans from the USA but that desperate move might make this hack seem even sillier than it already does. (Update: look out for Coles or Woolworths own-brand versions of Pringles which sell in the larger 150-160g tins that are perfect for this).
I usually get an astonished reaction when I tell people I’ve lit a portrait with some speedlights and some Pringles cans but to me that just illustrates one of my favourite things about photography and lighting: it doesn’t matter what gear you’ve got if you know how to use it effectively.
If you’ve found the above rant useful, you may like to sign up to one of my regular outdoor lighting workshops that I run in the Melbourne CBD. I run those through my meetup.com group Melbourne Photography Education.