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Lighting is Easy Blog

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

One Light, Great Results

Chuck Vosburgh - Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: Gina Marie

1/80 second at f-4.5, 100 ISO, 160mm, Canon 550EX at 1/4 power with a Photoflex XS Octo-Box camera left.

You can get great results with just one light, especially if the amount of light being added from your flash is close to the ambient light. Here's how it works: In this case, the ambient light metered out to 1/40 second at f-4.5. I wanted the background just a little darker, so I decided to under-expose at 1/80 second. Remember, the shutter speed controls the ambient light. The flash was added to illuminate the subject sufficiently, which for this example amounted to 1/4 power at about 6' away. You can set this up easily with a light meter or you can use your histogram to evaluate your exposure.

Here's the setup:

Just to review

Set your ambient light at equal to or less than your camera's sync speed. I typically use 1/125 second because it's always safe for any camera I have. Adjust to make it lighter or darker to suit you. Next, add just enough flash to light your subject. Easy!

Portrait of a Belly Dancer

Chuck Vosburgh - Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: Karen Sun-Ray

This image was photographed in my studio lighting class at the MoreanArts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. The idea was to have nice soft light, but also show the contours of the model's muscle structure and features. The solution was a large soft box placed at more of a side-angle than usual. Keep in mind that the more the object is side-lit, the more it shows texture and contour. A little experimentation was required to find the perfect angle, then a reflector was added to open up the shadows. A hair light from up high behind also adds to the three dimensional look of the image.

Here's the setup:

Single large soft-box, large soft-gold reflector and a snoot. Simple.
On your next shoot, try making your model look as three dimensional as you can. It's a fun way to light and you may find a new favorite style of lighting.

How to make your light hard or soft

Chuck Vosburgh - Tuesday, July 05, 2011

What makes light hard or soft?

The softness of the light on your subject is controlled by just one thing - the size of the light source. You can evaluate the hardness or softness of the light by taking a look at the shadows. Hard lighting has a well defined edge to the shadows and soft light either has a feathered or no discernible line at the edges of the shadows.

The kind of light you choose is a creative decision and being able to control the softness of the light will will make it easy for you to make the image look the way you want. Hard light shows texture, has a lot of contrast and is dramatic. Soft light flattens texture, has less contrast and is well, softer.

Hard Light

Here's an example of hard light. You can see there's a lot of contrast, and the edges of the shadows are well defined. With a direct light source, the background goes black and the shadows of the subject blend into the background.

Here's the setup:

Single light source.

Softening a hard light

You can easily soften the effects of hard light by using a reflector to bounce some light back into the shadows. Using a reflector softens the overall look and separates the subject from the dark background. You can see the difference on the left side of the subject. The shadows are opened up, the subject looks more three-dimensional and the subject is separated from the background by the visible edges of the subject.

Here's the setup:

Single light source, one small reflector.

Softer Light

To soften the key light, a larger light source is needed. Here we used a small soft box. A small umbrella would produce similar results. One side effect of a larger light source is that it has a tendency to spill light onto the background unless the background is far away from the subject.

Here's the setup:

One small soft box


Even softer with a reflector

In this example, we kept the small soft box as the key light and added a reflector on the left to open up the shadows. Again, the subject looks more three-dimensional and is better separated from the background.

 Here's the setup:

Small soft box and a reflector.

Even softer

Here we used a large soft box. As you can see, the shadow transitions are very soft and there is a lot of light spilling onto the background.

Here's the setup:

Single large soft box.

 Softest of all

In this example, we kept the large soft box and added the reflector on the left. You can see it has very soft light and the softness of the light tends to flatten the appearance of the subject.

 Here's the setup:

Single large soft box and a reflector.


Overall view of our test subject. The reflector was a simple piece of 8-1/2 x 11 paper. 

The softness of the light you choose is a creative decision. For example, if your subject were a man with dramatic, weathered skin, you may choose a hard light setup to highlight the textures in his face. Likewise, if you were photographing a subject who wanted their skin to look soft and smooth, hard light would not be a good choice.

Hard light shows texture and soft light flattens texture. A reflector usually makes the subject look more three-dimensional and can help separate it from the background.

Experiment with different lighting configurations and you'll be able to use them to show your subject better and have more creative control. Have fun!

Mixing ambient light with strobes

Chuck Vosburgh - Saturday, May 21, 2011

Model: JoAnn Jensen Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh

Today's example was photographed in the atrium of the Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Florida. The museum has beautiful sunlight coming in and I noticed some interesting patterns of light on the wall and floor that would look nice incorporated into our photographs somehow. Normally, I would choose to overpower the ambient light with the strobes so the only light in the finished image is light I control. In this case, taking advantage of the ambient light made good sense.

Step 1

I chose an exposure that would use a little bit of the ambient light, which left the subject underexposed. 1/80 second at f-5.6, 100 ISO. 

Step 2

Add enough light to expose the subject correctly. The camera settings stayed the same. By adding enough light to the scene the subject is exposed correctly and some of the light spills over to add to the ambient light in the final image.

Step 3

Experiment with different settings. Shutter speed controls the exposure of the ambient light and aperture (f-stop) controls the exposure of the subject.

Here's the setup:

The background light was set to skim light across the background to accentuate the texture of the stone. The two soft-box and reflector is the standard window-light configuration. There's an article on the window-light setup on this blog.

Practice blending ambient and flash and you'll have nearly complete control over any lighting situation. Have any tips, techniques or questions? Write 'em in the comments below.

Equipment used:

  • 2 Norman light heads with Large soft-boxes, one with grid attached
  • 1 Norman light heads with small parabolic reflector
  • Norman 800ws power pack
  • Large soft gold reflector
  • Various stands
  • Canon 5D
  • Canon 70-200mm f-2.8L IS
  • Microsync Radio Triggers

Lighting a Sunset Portrait

Chuck Vosburgh - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One of the most popular types of portraits for families and couples is the sunset portrait. On the west coast of Florida where I live, on a good evening you can see photographers up and down the beach photographing beach sunset photos with wedding couples, families and pets. Lighting a sunset portrait is easy.

There are two main challenges to this kind of shot; the ambient light will be changing fast, so you'll need to adjust as you go, and the ambient light will be fairly bright, so you'll need a lot of fill-flash.

Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Determine your ambient exposure. Put your camera on Manual and adjust the exposure to how you want the background to look. In this example, it was 2 stops under-exposed. You'll also need to make sure your shutter speed is below your camera's sync speed. The sync speed will depend on your camera and flash, but 1/125 second or less is almost always safe. This example was shot at 1/125 at f-5.6 100 ISO. This setting made the background perfect, but left the subjects badly under-exposed. 

Step 2: Add light to expose the subjects. The next step is to light up the subjects. In this example, a Canon 550EX flash was used with a small soft box on a stand. The power on the flash was set to half power which made the exposure pretty close then the aperture was adjusted to get the correct exposure for the subjects.

Keep in mind:

The shutter speed controls the ambient (background) exposure

The power setting on your flash and the aperture control the exposure of your subject.

Here's the setup:

Equipment used:

Canon 550EX flash

Photoflex light stand

Photoflex OctoDome nxt kit for shoe mount flash

Microsync digital flash trigger

Canon 50mm lens

Canon 5D

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

Inverse Square Law Made Easy

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, February 17, 2011

Whenever I mention the Inverse Square Law people start avoiding eye contact and looking for the door. I don’t blame them. The Inverse Square Law is math and most photographers dislike math. But it’s something important for us to understand. It can even save you money and I’ll prove it.

Pretend you’ve never heard of the Inverse Square Law

Let’s just call it “Light is brighter when it’s closer” or maybe “Light is less bright from far away” 

The interesting thing is that we can know how much the light changes with distance and the good news is that it’s really simple! Take a look at this example and you’ll see why:

The light spreads out to cover a larger distance as it gets farther away from the light source.

Here's the concept:

If you double the distance between the light and the subject,  you need four times as much light to get the same exposure.

If you reduce the distance between the light and the subject by half, you only need one quarter as much light to have the same exposure. Here’s another example:

The line at f-5.6 is twice the distance from the light as the line marked f-11. The line at f-2.8 is twice the distance from the light as the line at 5.6.

Remember, full f-stops are either twice or half the next f-stop. Full stops are f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, and f22. Most cameras also show in-between stops as well which can make it a bit confusing. 

Putting it into practice

In this example, the key light is just a little too bright on the subject. The amount of light can be changed easily by simply moving it back a few inches. See the difference in the second image? The only change was the light was moved a little bit. Easy!

How to save money with the inverse square law

Now you know how to control the intensity of light by changing the distance of the light from the subject. You know those super-expensive high-tech lights you want that can adjust in 1/10 f-stops? You don’t need that kind of adjustability when you can just move the light a couple of inches and get the same result. In fact, it's easier to just move the light. You also won't need to buy expensive TTL equipment because you can control the light yourself.

Spend a little time experimenting with moving your light source closer and farther away from the subject and you'll have it down in no time!