How to Light Absolutely Anything

Champagne in the studio. Two lights: an overhead softbox, and a second fill light, lower right. Surface was a sheet of silver foil board, another light surface. (Copyright 2010 / The Times-Picayune, Andrew Boyd

Champagne in the studio. Two lights: an overhead softbox, and a second fill light, lower right. Surface was a sheet of silver foil board, another light surface. (Copyright 2010 / The Times-Picayune, Andrew Boyd

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.

One light at a time is the key to successful studio lighting setups. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

One light at a time is the key to successful studio lighting setups. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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.)

Broken eggs in the studio. One overhead softbox light, gold foil board surface, which acts here as a second light source. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Broken eggs in the studio. One overhead softbox light, gold foil board surface, which acts here as a second light source. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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!

Two lights: one big softbox at the front/left;  white foamcore fill card at the right, acting as a secondary light source. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Two lights: one big softbox at the front/left; white foamcore fill card at the right, acting as a secondary light source. The key was getting the ‘NOLA’ on the cuff link to illuminate.  (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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


Posted in: Lighting

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

18 Comments on "How to Light Absolutely Anything"

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  1. Will says:

    If there is one man who knows about lighting it’s you. I am taking a trip for Easter to a National Park and was wondering if you could do a few quick tips on the different types of photography one can experiment with while on a vacation, whether it is the grandiose landscape shot, to the macro nature shot, to people in nature, etc.

    Also, what would you consider to be the essential equipment that one bring with them on a day hike..like would I want to bring a UV filter, or a polarizing, or a tripod, etc.

    Keep up the good tips. I shared your site with my brother who is a new DSLR owner. He just had a baby and was wondering how to create the boke effect, so I sent him a link to your aperture lesson.

    Cheers.

    _
    Will

  2. Polarizer would be great to have with you. The tripod is essential for any long exposure stuff, whether flowing streams or a great night sky…but you could get by with a little one (http://joby.com/gorillapod). Have some kind of bag to keep all this stuff together, too. Nothing worse than getting it spread out amongst the car, luggage, etc.

  3. Hello Andrew, I just came across your photo web page and I want to thank you very much for this article. I have been taken photos for a long time, as a hobby, and I have always struggled to take good photos in my home studio. This article has shed a lot of light (pun definitely intended) into the subject and now I’m going to try the technique.
    Thank you again!

  4. Glad you liked it! This approach really, really works, and takes a lot of the mystery out of the process. Good luck!

  5. Dianne Madden says:

    Andrew,
    I have added your link to my photo journalism class at Episcopal and have assigned them “readings” and reflections based on your posts. This is a great site. I really enjoy looking at your work. One studetn’s response to the work and your writing was very touching. …”Being a photographer or just taking photos can be a Hobby or form of expression, but it can also be a way of life and remembrance. It can teach moral lessons, open boundaries, and change the way a person thinks or feels. This article made me think on a deeper level than I expected too.” K.B.

    Thanks and hello,
    Dianne

  6. Wow, Diane.
    You have TOTALLY made my day!

  7. Chris A says:

    Nice job. Glad to see I’m not the only advocate of minimizing the tools to do the job.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Chris. I think lighting is the most misunderstood aspect of photography.

  9. Being merely an amateur photographer, I’m lost on some of the terms you “pro’s” use, one being the term “chimp”. By following a link here I now see exactly what is meant:-

    “Chimping” refers to the habit of checking your photos right after exposure using the LCD screen on the back of your digital camera.

    Thanks for the education!

    ~Bruce

  10. Jenny says:

    Thanks, Andrew! It all sounds too good to be true … but, yeah — it makes absolute sense! Thanks for the tip. One light at a time it is! Will try this as soon as I can.

  11. kelli says:

    Oh Andrew, it’s so beautiful specially the champagne. Can even see the bubbles surfacing…

  12. Sandra says:

    Now that’s probably the freshest egg I’ll ever see. :) Your talent never ceases to amaze and inspire me!

  13. Nicest thing anyone’s said in a while, Sandra. Thanks!

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