Understanding Photographic Lighting–Part I

Available light photography is most of the photography most of us do. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Available light photography is most of the photography most of us do. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

[Editor’s Note]

Light is the essence of all we do as photographers. Everything begins with this most basic of all things photographic: without light, we take no photographs! So thinking seriously about light and the essential role it plays in our lives as photographers is time well spent.In this series of articles, we’ll look at the different types of light you’ll encounter as a shooter and teach you what you need to know to use and control that light.-DiscerningPhotog

AVAILABLE LIGHT

Available light-as in “available light photography.” This is most of the photography that most of us do. It’s pointing your camera at a subject that interests you and snapping a photo, no light added.  It’s how we all started shooting, aiming our cameras and firing away.

Pretty soon you looked at those photographs and you weren’t completely satisfied. The colors were maybe not as intense as you recalled them to be, or the exposure was off, or there was blur in the shot that you hadn’t intended. You knew you could do better. Part of getting better involved learning more about how your camera operated so that you could better control that available light. You got better at controlling over and underexposure. You learned how to change depth of field, or use shutter speed selectively to keep action crisp. All of these adjustments involved the available light in front of you. You started to notice how much nicer photos came out that were shot early and late in the day, when the light was warmer. You noticed how different your images came out when you shot on cloudy days. You began to control available light.

ADDITIONAL LIGHT

This is where things begin to get interesting, and maybe more challenging. Once you start adding additional light to a given situation, everything changes. Now the light you add becomes an integral part of the photograph, and your photo’s esthetic success frequently depends upon how well you add this additional light. If you’re interested in portraiture or want to learn how to shoot product (tabletop) photography, you’ll find you need to learn how to add this light in interesting and creative ways.

Portable strobe

This is the first additional light that most of us acquire and use. On-camera flash is where we start with extra lighting and ironically, it’s one of the hardest light sources to use well!

Straight strobe is frequently harsh, ugly, and jarring. Unless that’s the effect you’re looking for, straight strobe may scare you off from learning more about lighting. DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN. I know professional photographers, talented artists, who are scared to death of strobe because they never mastered the basics of portable strobe.

First of all, read and understand the instructions that came with your strobe unit. Is it made by the same manufacturer as your camera? While not required, buying a unit made by the same company assures you of better compatibility between these pieces of equipment. The TTL (through-the-lens) metering between camera and strobe is an important function that you want to have working properly for you. And when you start trying to drag your shutter during strobe exposure, use rear-curtain sync, etc., you’ll be glad these pieces of gear are truly designed to go together. So I recommend buying a strobe made by your camera maker.

While you’re buying this strobe unit, go ahead and buy an off-camera strobe cord for it.  You’ll need it when you get to the exercises listed below.

Exercise 1: Straight strobe.

Straight strobe. 1/250th @ f16, ISO 400. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Straight strobe. 1/250th @ f16, ISO 400. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)



Hook your strobe and camera together and put it on full automatic, TTL mode. Your strobe unit will most likely list camera aperture and shutter speed on its display readout, so you’ll know this is all “talking nice” together. (If your unit does not have a TTL capability, that’s okay, just put it on Auto mode.)  Now aim your camera at a willing subject. This works best in an interior setting, preferably with an 8 or 9 foot ceiling. Fire away! Check your LCD display to see the results. Does the shot look natural? Is the strobe light too hot? It detail blown out of the subject? How about the background? Is it now too dark, relative to the subject?

Second photo with the shutter slowed down, aperture opened up, to better illuminate the background. 1/13th @f2.5, ISO 400. The strobe provides a crisp foreground even at the slow shutter speed. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Second photo with the shutter slowed down, aperture opened up, to better illuminate the background. 1/13th @f2.5, ISO 400. The strobe provides a crisp foreground even at the slow shutter speed. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Now we get into adjustments, and how you decide to proceed. The most frequent problem with this lighting setup will be results that are overlit but properly exposed for the subject with the background going much too dark. To solve this problem, you can try a couple of things. You can slow  the shutter speed down (say from 1/250th/sec to 1/30th/sec, or even slower, gaining at least 2 stops of exposure for your background). Or you can dial the strobe back while you slow the shutter down some, playing with both of these variables. You have to experiment some and see how this all works with your equipment to come up with the best solution. Your aim is to make your strobe lighting less noticeable as additional lighting, while still providing your photos with the needed illumination. You may be surprised at how much you are able to improve upon your first result while still using straight strobe. Give it a try!

Next:  Bounce flash, off-camera strobe and adding extra lights

selfport1aHi, 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

Posted in: How To, Lighting

About the Author:

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

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