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Lighting is Easy Blog

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

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

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

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!

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.

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

Overpowering Ambient Light

Chuck Vosburgh - Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Models: Jill and Michael Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh

Sometimes it’s desirable to completely overpower the ambient light in the scene so you can control all aspects of the lighting yourself. Here’s an example of a project where there is a good bit of ambient light, but maximum control is needed.

For this maternity shoot, the couple has a lovely home and I wanted to photograph them in their own environment. It was mid-morning and there was sufficient ambient light to do the shoot with ambient light plus a fill-flash, but I decided to use studio strobes instead. The reason was control. By using the more powerful studio strobes, I could easily control the ratio of light coming in the window and the light inside the room. More importantly, I could control the direction the light came through the window.

Here’s the setup:

The key light is a large soft box and the kicker is a bare bulb outside the window.

Why it works:

Here’s an image of the set without flash. As you can see, the exposure is so underexposed, the ambient light does nothing. 


But when the flash is added the set is exposed perfectly. The result is a scene where the lighting is completely done by the strobes and none of it supplied by the ambient light. The placement of the lights creates a natural light effect.


It doesn’t take as much power as you may think to do this. Each of the two light heads was set at only 200 watt-seconds each. You could do this with regular flashes as well. All the variables in this setup are ones completely controllable.

How do you take control of light in a situation like this?

Lighting Styles part 2: Broad Lighting

Chuck Vosburgh - Friday, November 12, 2010

Model: Francesca Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh

Broad lighting is a popular style of lighting for two good reasons; it’s simple to set up and it de-emphasizes flaws in the subject’s skin.

Here are the main characteristics of Broad Lighting:

- The main (key) light is close to camera axis
- Light falls mainly on the side of the face that is closest to the camera
- Good for subjects with a narrow face

The setup:

A large soft box is the best modifier to use for this style of lighting, although an umbrella works almost as well as long as it’s fairly large. 32” or larger for a head shot will work well. You can also use a window as a light source. You’ll also need a fairly large reflector, again around 32” is ideal. I prefer a gold/silver reflector, but use whatever looks best to you.

Broad lighting is also the basis for butterfly and loop lighting styles which will be covered in upcoming articles.

Give this simple lighting style a try and you can get beautiful results with just one light! Tell us about it and send some pics in the comments below.

Lighting styles part one: Rembrandt Lighting

Chuck Vosburgh - Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Model: Jake Castella Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh

Rembrandt lighting is named for the Dutch painter Rembrandt, who often used this type of lighting and is frequently used in studio portrait photography. It’s popular because it produces natural and dramatic lighting with minimal equipment. It can be done very easily using one light and a reflector, or two lights. Rembrandt lighting is characterized by an illuminated triangle under the eye of the subject, on the less illuminated side of the face. 

How to set it up

Put the key light high and to one side at the front, and the reflector half-height and on the other side at the front, or you can use a second light set to about half the power of the key light.

The key in Rembrandt lighting is creating the triangular shape of light underneath the eye on the shadow side of the face. One side of the face is lit well from the main light source while the other side of the face is darker except for the triangular shape of light cast by the key light.

The triangle should be no longer than the nose and no wider than the eye. This technique can be subtle or dramatic by altering the distance between subject and lights and relative strengths of key light and light from the reflector or fill light.

Here's a very subtle effect:

Model: Liz Calver Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh


The first use of the term “Rembrandt Lighting” is credited to the movie director Cecil B. DeMille.

DeMille said that in 1915, while shooting THE WARRENS OF VIRGINIA, he used portable spotlights “to make shadows where shadows would appear in nature.” When his business partner Sam Goldwyn saw the film with only half an actor’s face illuminated, he feared the exhibitors would pay only half the price for the picture. After DeMille told him it was Rembrandt lighting, “Sam’s reply was jubilant with relief: for Rembrandt lighting the exhibitors would pay double!”

Give Rembrandt Lighting a try on your next subject!

Have anything to add? Tell us in the comments: