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Lighting is Easy Blog

Free resource for learning how to use off-camera flash and studio lighting.

Quick, accurate exposure estimates

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, March 24, 2011

If you're like me, it's difficult to remember how each modifier changes the exposure, which makes guessing the correct exposure a matter of luck. Here's an easy way to get a quick, accurate estimate.
In this example, I have a small soft box that I sometimes use with my off-camera flash. I used my light meter to establish a base exposure, in this case my Canon 550EX set at full power at six feet away from the subject will give me an exposure of f-5.6 at 100 ISO. Knowing that, I can quickly estimate the exposure I'll need for different distances, apertures and ISO settings.
This does require a basic understanding of apertures and the inverse square law, but it's easy to learn and there are articles on both on this blog. For example, if I change the power to one half power, my aperture would change to f-4. If I changed the ISO to 200, the aperture would be f-8. If I moved the light to nine feet away, the aperture would be f-2.8. Easy.
When you're out shooting strobist-style, this can help you get the right exposure fast. Do you have any tricks you use? Tell us in the comments!

High-Key Lighting

Chuck Vosburgh - Monday, March 21, 2011

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: JoAnn Davis

High-key lighting is lighting that results in more light areas than shadows; subjects are seen in mostly middle grays and highlights, with little contrast. This style of lighting can communicate an upbeat, light, etherial or beautiful mood. 

High-key lighting requires a minimum of three lights, but the setup is very easy.

Here’s how to do it:

The whole idea is to minimize shadows. Start with two large soft-boxes, one on either side of the camera. Next, set one or two lights to light the background. The trick is to set up the background lights so that they make the background pure white without creating lens flare. For this shot, the same power was used for all the lights. The soft boxes used up enough light to make the background about two stops brighter than the subject, which worked perfectly.

Here’s the setup:

Equipment used:

2 Norman light heads with 12” parabolic reflectors (dishes)

2 Norman light heads with Large Photoflex soft-boxes

Norman 800ws power pack

Savage Super-White seamless background

Various stands

Canon 5D

Canon 70-200mm f-2.8L IS

Microsync Radio Triggers

Do you have any high-key images you’re proud of? tell us about them in the comments.

Lighting in limited spaces

Chuck Vosburgh - Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh Model: Kristen Joyner

f-16 at 1/125 second, 100 ISO

Most clients prefer to have executive portraits done on location at their place of business. The problem is there usually isn’t as much room as you’d normally have in a studio. In this example, I’ll explain the process from walking through the door to photographing the subject.

If you can, go to the location before the shoot to assess the situation. Knowing what you’re dealing with in advance avoids a lot of stress. In this case it wasn’t possible so I arrived an hour earlier than I needed to so I would have time to figure out what to do. The last thing I want to do on a shoot is rush. Rushing causes mistakes and the subjects will sense your stress and it will be reflected in your images. When I arrived I looked over the area and decided on the best place to set up. It offered an unused cubicle to give me a little more distance to shoot from, which was great since I prefer to shoot portraits at 100mm to de-emphasize perspective. There are three considerations: 

Room between the subject and the background to avoid shadows
Room between the subject and the key light to allow a little movement without changing the exposure too much. 
Enough room to use a  lens somewhere between 70-100mm

I chose a loop-lighting style of light for two reasons; it works well for multiple subjects (in this case there were nine people to shoot) and it uses less room than most other styles of lighting. It’s also a standard style that always works. There’s a nice article on how to set up loop-lighting on this blog.

Here’s the setup:

Equipment used:

Norman light head with a 12” snoot

Norman light head with background light attachment

Norman light head with a Large Photoflex soft-box

Norman 800 power pack

36” Photoflex Gold/Silver reflector

Studio Grey seamless background

Various stands

Canon 5D

Canon 70-200mm f-2.8L IS

Microsync Radio Triggers

Working with One Light

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, March 03, 2011

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh Model: JoAnn Davis Hair and Makeup: Crystal Lockinour

I have to admit, I’m a little spoiled from working in the studio with nearly infinite resources. On this shoot I had just the opposite; one flash, a stand and a small umbrella, nothing more. You can get good results with just a one light. Here’s how:

The first step is to decide on the exposure for ambient light. I wanted my background a little darker than it really was, so I set the shutter speed to underexpose a little bit using the screen on the camera as a guide. Next, I chose a flash power of 1/4 and an aperture of f-4 and shot a test. The resulting image was a little dark, so I increased the power of the flash to 1/2 and shot another test. Perfect. Usually, opening the aperture is preferable and I could have changed the aperture to f-2.8 instead, but I knew that f-2.8 would cause a very shallow depth of field making focusing critical so I chose more power instead. 

As the sun went down, I decreased the shutter speed to keep the background from going too dark. I also experimented with different shutter speeds as I shot. Remember that shutter speed controls the ambient (background) light and aperture and power setting controls the flash.

Here’s the setup:

It’s easy to get obsessed with what you don’t have available. Don’t fall victim to that way of thinking. Get the best you can with what you have. You need a lot less than you think. Nothing is ideal – even if you have a truck load of equipment. Do your best and have fun with it!

Equipment Used:

Canon 550EX flash

Small shoot-through umbrella

Norman aluminum stand

Canon 5D

Microsync radio triggers

Fast Portrait Setup

Chuck Vosburgh - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Photo: Chuck Vosburgh Model: Brian
For this assignment, we needed a fast way to set up for simple portraits. It's an easy two light setup for the subject  and in this case a light was used to illuminate the background as well. Here's the setup:

The key light was a large soft-box, the kicker (the light in the back to the left) was another large soft-box with a grid to prevent lens flare. A reflector was used to open up the shadows on the shadow side of the subject and a light was used to lighten the background. This shot could have been done without the kicker, but having the light coming from behind the subject helps to add a nice rim-light to separate him from the background and give a nice highlight to his hair. Simple, fast and effective.
What's your go-to setup for fast portrait lighting? Share in the comments!

F-Stops Explained

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, February 10, 2011

If f-stops are a little confusing to you, you’re normal. Most photographers have difficulty with this and modern cameras make it more difficult. Read this and you’ll understand how. This may not be an exciting subject, but read all the way through and you’ll see why this is important to your success. 

The concept

The idea is that if you open the aperture one f-stop, it allows twice as much light through. Likewise, if you close the aperture one f-stop it allows half as much light through. F-stops are designed to work with shutter speeds, which also use the same half or double concept.

Optional scientific explanation

In case you’re interested, the f-number system is not arbitrary. The f-number is the focal length divided by the diameter of the pupil (aperture). For example, a 100mm lens with a f-stop of f-4 will have a pupil (aperture) diameter of 25mm. A 135mm lens with a setting of f-4 will have a pupil diameter of about 33.8. Both of these examples will produce the same illuminance on the focal plane.

f-number = focal length / pupil diameter

How it works

There are full stops and fractional stops. Here’s the range of Full Stops you’re likely to see:

These full-stops are standard and common to all lenses. Some lenses have a smaller range, but the numbers are always the same. The reason this is important is that they each allow either half or double the amount of light as the next full f-stop. For example, f-8 allows twice as much light as f-11, but only half as much as f-5.6. The reason this is good to know is that they correspond to shutter speeds which are also half or double the next shutter speed. For example 1/125 second is half as long as 1/500 second, and 1/60 second is twice as long as 1/125 second. When you use studio lights or flashes, everything is divisible by 2 so you can do the math in your head quickly while you’re working. I know, you’re probably thinking “yeah right”. Read on.

Why it’s confusing

One thing that makes f-stops confusing is that almost all camera manufacturers show fractional stops. In other words, f-4 and one third is shown as f-4.5 instead of f-4 1/3. There’s no indication which are full stops and which are fractional stops. Confusing. Here’s a chart  to help illustrate this:

Fractional stops are of little use in learning lighting. You need to know which ones are full stops. Why? Just about everything you need to know about lighting is based on full stops. Print the charts above and put them in your camera bag or better yet memorize the full stops.

Learning your f-stops is by far the least fun part of photography, but it will open the door to a whole new world once you do. I think it’s time well spent.

Review: Photoflex 60” Convertible Umbrella

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, February 03, 2011

One of my colleagues swears by the Photoflex 60” Convertible Umbrella, so I decided to buy one and give it a try. I’ve always been more of a soft-box person myself, but the convenience of an umbrella is very appealing for strobist-style off-camera flash photography.

Model: Mavis Gibson, Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh

For my test, I set up a simple environmental portrait. I used both the reflective and shoot-through modes and found that the shoot-through mode provided a bit softer light and was a bit more efficient transmitting light.

Here’s the setup:

I used a Canon 550EX behind the model to provide rim-light which helps separate the model from the background and a create nice highlight on her hair. For the key light, I used another Canon 550EX with the Photoflex 60” umbrella. The exposure for the background was 1/10 second at f5.6. The back flash was set to 1/32 power and the main flash was set to 1/8 power. The flashes were triggered by MicroSync radio triggers. 

The bottom line

I’ve always found Photoflex products to be of high quality and very durable and this is no exception. The only issue I found was the center part of the removable cover looked like a few stitches were coming loose after a few uses. It’s very minor and the only issue I could find. If it looks like it’s getting any worse I know Photoflex will correct it. In use, the umbrella is easy to open and close and the removable cover is easy to remove and re-attach. One thing I especially like about this umbrella is that the ribs are made of fiberglass instead of steel which will keep the umbrella from getting those ugly rust marks along the ribs. I’ll be using this umbrella on a few projects in the upcoming days and expect it will become one of my favorites for on-location work.

This umbrella performs well and appears to be one that will outlast many of my other umbrellas. At $37.50 at B&H it’s a great way to get nice soft light without spending much. Add a reflector to your kit and you have a versatile set of modifiers. Also, if you plan on using this outdoors, get a sandbag to weight down your stand. It doesn’t take much of a breeze to turn this size umbrella into a kite.

Flash vs. Portable Strobe for Off-Camera Flash

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, January 20, 2011

Recently I saw a crazy flash rig that holds twelve speedlights!  It got me thinking...

Obviously, the rig is designed to increase the output, but just the flashes alone cost well over $5000. It was impressive, but do we all need twelve flashes? If light output is the issue,  consider a portable strobe. Portable strobes have been ubiquitous among wedding photographers for years and they can be used alone or along with flashes for multiple-light setups.

Putting it to the test

For my test, I used a Canon 550EX and a Norman 200. Both are not the newest models, but they’re perfect for comparison. I set up both lights on stands at one end of my testing facility (my garage) and a light meter about 15 feet away. At full power, the Canon flash registered f4 and the Norman portable strobe registered f8. As expected, the Norman produced more light. 4x as much light as the Canon to be exact.

In Dollars

Canon 550EX flash full power (1/1) = f4

Norman 200B portable strobe at full power (200 watt-seconds) = f8

Portable strobe=4x the light

Canon 550EX flash has a Guide Number of 180, and costs $329 used at Adorama. Four of them would cost $1316   (Canon 580 flash has Guide Number of 190 and costs $435 at Adorama. Four of them would cost $1740)

The Norman 200 portable strobe costs $1194 at B&H.

The newest models compared

Here’s a quick comparison of the latest from Canon and Norman:

Canon 580, $435 would produce just a tad over f4

Norman 400, $1398 would produce f16

Update: Guide numbers are accurate between manufacturers. In fact one of the reasons guide numbers were invented was to be able to compare flash bulbs from different manufacturers. ONCE YOU ADJUST FOR THE ISO DIFFERENCE, THE GUIDE NUMBERS WILL BE ACCURATE AND USEFUL. Manufacturers often raise the ISO in a guide number test to make it seem as though their flash is stronger than it really is. "guide number of 190 at ISO XXX" is the fair description. Thanks to Jeffrey Luhn for the additional information. 

Buying Used

Canon 550EX used=$200 x4=$800

Norman 200C used=$350

So, should you buy a portable strobe instead of more flashes? It depends on your budget and needs. For me, one portable strobe and two flashes pretty much covers everything I do on location. For bigger jobs, I use studio strobes powered by a long extension cord or a generator.

There are several good brands of flashes and portable strobes. I chose the ones for testing just because that’s what I have.

What are you using and how does it work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

photos: bhphotovideo.com, whereisben.com

Loop Lighting Style

Chuck Vosburgh - Friday, December 31, 2010

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: Gina

Loop lighting is a variation of short lighting where a small loop-shaped shadow appears under the subject’s nose. It’s a popular classic lighting pattern and one that is easy to set up with just one light. For this example, the light was set to the left about 10” above the model’s head. A reflector was added on the right to illuminate the shadow side of the face. When you do this style of lighting, just move the light until you get the right shape shadow under the nose.

Here's the setup:


Equipment used:
  • Norman power pack and light head
  • 32" Umbrella
  • 32" Silver/Gold reflector
  • Canon 5D
  • Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L lens
Lens was set at at 150mm and the aperture was f11

Freezing the action with a flash

Chuck Vosburgh - Friday, December 10, 2010

I had an opportunity to photograph some fire-dancers on the beach. They do it at night and it’s very dramatic and beautiful. I wanted to show the beauty and motion in my images, and that gave me two main objectives for the images:

  1. Show the flowing motion of the flames.
  2. Make sure the dancer’s face and body are sharp.

To accomplish that we need a slow shutter speed to show the motion of the flames. That presents a problem; slow shutter speed always induces blur, and if I use a fast shutter speed to stop the action the flames won’t look dramatic. As the saying goes, you can’t have it both ways. Yes you can.

Here’s how it was done

First, a shutter speed needed to be established to get a nice motion blur for the flames. I started at 1/2 second and finally settled on 1 second at ISO200 for the exposure. That takes care of the flames, but the moving subject doesn’t show because she’s not illuminated enough by the flames to be visible.

Next, to illuminate the subject and freeze her in the exposure a flash is needed. The flash doesn’t affect the flames’ exposure because they aren’t reflective. The flash doesn’t affect the background because it’s too far away to be lit. The flash only exposes the subject. Keep in mind that the shutter speed controls the exposure of the background (ambient light), and the aperture (f-stop) and flash power control the exposure of the subject. So with that in mind, I chose a medium setting on the flash and adjusted the aperture accordingly. In this case, the right aperture to expose the subject correctly was 5.6.

To summarize:

Shutter speed of 1 second set the exposure of the ambient light, which in this case is the background and flames.

The aperture set the exposure of the subject and also, since the duration of the flash is so fast, stopped the motion of the subject.

This is easier than it sounds. Just get the ambient light exposed correctly first, then add flash using flash power and aperture to light up the subject.

  • Equipment used:
  • Canon 5D
  • Canon 70-200mm 2.8 L IS
  • Norman 200B Flash

Comment below and send your examples!