Understanding Photographic Lighting–Part II (Article Series)

Using an off-camera strobe cord for two-fingers bounce flash. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Using an off-camera strobe cord with two-fingers bounce flash. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

[Editor’s note: In Part I we looked at the essential role that light plays in all that we do as photographers. We examined available light, and began a study of the role  added light plays in photography in the form of portable strobe. Today we’ll explore more about portable strobe and how to use it creatively in your work.]

One of my goals with this post is to convince you that lighting does not have to be complicated or mysterious. Some lighting explanations get so complicated, with diagrams and lighting “setups” that most readers tend to throw their hands up in despair…don’t do that! To learn lighting, start with one light…learn how to use it…then add a second light. Learn how to light with two sources, then start to think: do I need anything else to make this photograph interesting or compelling? Always proceed one light at-a-time, keeping things simple.

Exercise 2: Bounce flash. Does your strobe have a “hinge” that allows you to rotate it up towards the ceiling? If it does, then you’re ready to work on bounce flash technique. There are several considerations with this approach that you’ll need to understand. First, if you have TTL (“through-the-lens”) settings working for you, then bouncing will not affect your camera/strobe’s ability to meter the light hitting the subject and make a decision about when to cut the strobe off for proper exposure. (You’ll have to judge whether the camera/strobe made the correct decision.)

Strobe hinged slightly forward of 90 degrees, using the built-in white bounce card. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Strobe hinged slightly forward of 90 degrees, using the built-in white bounce card. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Beyond this basic consideration, how/where you point the strobe for the bounce has a big impact upon your results. Generally for most shooting situations-say, you’re shooting a group of people lined up for you at a party-you’ll want the strobe pointed up but slightly forward of 90 degrees. Also, if your strobe has a built-in white “bounce card,” you’ll want to extend that out before you shoot, or try using my “two finger” bounce technique that I’ve described previously.

Fire away and check your results. How does it look? Is the light more flattering than the straight strobe version? Is the overall exposure correct? Do you need to make adjustments for this approach, either increasing the amount of strobe or slowing down the shutter speed? Understand that what you’re doing with a bounce shot is actually turning the ceiling into the light source, with just a bit of light bouncing off your bounce card or two fingers, to add some light into everyone’s eye sockets in the shot.

Exercise 3: Off-camera portable strobe.

Now we get to the “graduate school”  section of this article! For this you’ll need that off-camera strobe cord. Hook it up and connect it to both your strobe and your camera. With this in one hand and your camera in the other, you now have an infinite number of possible “light sources,” since anything you bounce it off of becomes your light source. So instead of just the ceiling, maybe a wall makes a better bounce surface….or does it? Remember that the light will take on the color of the wall, so only neutral colors work well here, unless you find the color cast that results to be pleasing.

Bounce strobe off 9-foot ceiling, white bounce card employed. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Bounce strobe off 9-foot ceiling, white bounce card employed. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

You will also discover that pleasing results can be had pointing the strobe right at your subject, but off camera axis and raised up…or if you want an Orson Wells, horror film lighting look, try putting the strobe down low, below your camera, pointed UP at the subject. Eerie, no?  The main idea here is to experiment! Try different stuff out. See what works, what you like!

Two-light portable strobe setup. Front light bounced the same as first example, but with second "slave" flash set up behind subject, pointing back at camera. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Two-light portable strobe setup. Front light bounced the same as first example, but with second "slave" flash set up behind subject, pointing back at camera. (Copyright 2009 / Andrew Boyd)

Exercise 4: Adding another light

Once you’re comfortable with using one strobe unit, consider buying a second one with a built-in slave capability. A “slave light” is any light that triggers automatically when it senses another strobe going off. You can get another unit made by the same brand as your main camera and strobe, or you can buy a different brand, it doesn’t matter in this application. There are also some really cool little auxiliary strobe units available. My favorite is the Morris Midi Slave Flash, which runs on two AA batteries and has a tripod socket built in. You can hide this little strobe light almost anywhere and get just the accent light you need in the back corner of your composition.

This is a lot of material to absorb. Get your camera and strobe unit out, and practice! Shoot some photos!

Part III:  Studio Strobes: What to consider, what to buy

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.

8 Comments on "Understanding Photographic Lighting–Part II (Article Series)"

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  1. lewis says:

    I am an photographer myself and i totally agree with you with my experience that one should always experiment with lights to get unusual results. There is no exact calculation or formula of a perfect shot or perfect lightening, its just a matter of correct moment and your choice of lightening…

  2. Hi Andrew.
    The last photo of the girl holding the dog looks really effective. Thanks I have learnt a few little tips here. At the moment I am trying to do a lot of sports photography, so lighting can be a little tricky. I am focusing on cycling so you often don’t have too many chance for a re-shoot as they fly past so quickly. I’ll test out some of your methods though for my portrait shoots as this is an area I am looking to move into. At the moment photography is purely a hobby for me, but perhaps one day I will have my own site giving others tips.
    Thanks again for the read.

    All the best
    Bill Jenkins
    Webmaster, BestLawnMowerReviews.net

  3. Jude Walter says:

    I had a photography class in college and I am not saying that I am an expert. But my piece during our college day was included in the best 10 pictures. It’s a one day life experience of your subject. I totally agree with you when you keep your lighting simple, as you said “Always proceed with one light at-a-time, keeping things simple”. I have read many articles about lighting and most of them do not really explain the basics, which I think you did. Your post will be a lot of help to beginners as it is presented in a clear, precise and simple manner.

  4. Jenny says:

    You have such smart and useful tips in your blog. Keep writing, Andrew. You’re a big help for newbies and professionals alike.

  5. Melissa Vivian says:

    I am an amateur photographer and this kind of tutorial really helps me to improve my techniques. I really love to capture emotions and I want to learn more about photography.

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