NOTE: I decided to pull this post back up for another run after a conversation last week with a young photographer. Lighting is one of the things which, if you master it, can truly distinguish your work from the general crowd. And it really doesn’t have to be mysterious…
Lighting Does Not Have to Be Hard.
Brian Auer over at Epic Edits asked about lighting tutorials in a post the other day. He’s got his first big studio shoot coming up and wanted to know where to turn for good advice. This got me thinking about how I first learned my way around strobes, so here goes!
This may be the most important post I ever write about lighting. If you follow these instructions, you’ll never again be mystified by strobe light in your photography.
What follows is my basic approach to strobe lighting. I don’t claim any of this to be original: I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks at the Maine Photo Workshops back in the mid-1980s in a Master Class with Michael O’Neil, who really taught me everything I know about studio lighting.
At the time, O’Neil was transitioning from being the premier tabletop and still life photographer in all of New York to being a large format portrait shooter. He had just gotten bored with shooting all of the high-end jewelry and watch ads and wanted a new challenge. A small group of us (about 12, as I recall) were lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in the attic at the Maine Workshops with him, learning how he approached light, and shooting in the studio with light. It was all large format 8×10, big transparencies and lots of really, really expensive 8×10 Polaroid film.
The most fundamental message we all had to learn was very, very simple: start with one light. Take it off the light stand, hold it in your hands. Move it around your subject (whatever that might be), and really, really watch the light on your subject. O’Neil liked to tell us to try and look at the light naively–leave all of your assumptions at the door and really try and see the light, what it was doing as it hit your subject. It might be a hard light, a softbox, whatever, it doesn’t matter. When you like the way the light looks on your subject, grab a light stand and position that light in that spot, where you liked the way it looked. Shoot a frame with your camera. Chimp! Study the result! (This is harder to do without modeling lights, but not impossible. You’ll just have to shoot and chimp even more, experimenting.)
What else does the photo need? Where else would light be interesting? Where else would you like to see light coming from? Now, with the answer to one of these questions in your mind, grab a second light! Position it in the spot you think it might be a nice addition….now shoot another frame! Chimp the shot! Do you like the result? Is it too much light? Not enough? Incorrectly positioned? If it’s too much light, adjust the intensity of your lights, either by dialing down the light (if your strobes allow this adjustment) or by using a piece of gray neutral density gel (which comes in ½ stop, full stop, 2-stop gradations). Once you’ve made the adjustment, shoot another frame! Now chimp the result. What do you think? Are you done? OR DO YOU SEE THE NEED FOR ANOTHER LIGHT? If so, add the third light in….and so on.
This is the key. IT’S VERY, VERY SIMPLE. You shoot, chimp. Shoot, chimp. START WITH ONLY ONE LIGHT. ADJUST THAT ONE LIGHT AS NECESSARY. Now add another light, if needed….and so on till you’ve created the perfect, perfect photo!
This is how to build a big, complicated photograph, in the studio, one light at a time.It doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting cars in Detroit, Rolex watches in New York, whatever. It’s intuitive, because you’re always only using the light that you see, that you know is needed. In the end, you may have a big, complicated, complex arrangement of light, but only if that’s what the chimping and the lights and your own creative imagination deem to be the correct solution.
One light at a time. Set up the one light. Shoot. Chimp. Add the next light (if needed). And so on.
This is the way to light. It’s never any more complicated than this. One light at a time!
Simple, but really, really profound! Try this approach and you’ll be amazed at your results. I promise.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog
Related articles on the web:
Getting Started with Flash Photography at Camera Dojo
Flashing at High Noon at Pixsylated
Lighting Techniques: Lighting Equipment at YourPhotoTips