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Lighting is Easy Blog

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

Soft Light With No Modifiers

Chuck Vosburgh - Thursday, December 06, 2012
Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: Pat McGlinchey

Look around, you could be bouncing off the wall

For this image, the first thought would be to set up a couple of soft-boxes. A couple of soft-boxes would do the job just fine, but in this case there were two considerations; there were light colored walls on both sides of the subject close enough to act as giant reflectors, and there really wasn't enough room to set up large soft-boxes anyway. The solution was to bounce the light off the walls. 

Here's the setup:

We set a strobe with a 12" parabolic reflector to bounce off the right wall and used a second strobe with a snoot to bounce off the left wall for fill light. For this shot, we wanted a ratio of about 3:1 between the main light and the fill light. Putting the fill light farther away from the wall makes the light less bright by the time it gets to the subject. To get the ratio, we first metered the main light, then adjusted the fill light to be about 1-1/2 f-stops less. That can be accomplished by either changing the power on the fill light or moving it. The snoot only serves to keep that light off the subject and the ceiling. 

You may ask "why didn't you just use another 12" parabolic reflector on the left at less power"? Good question. We found that it made the light a bit too soft because both sides were bouncing off the ceiling a bit making the light  a little flat. It was easier to just direct the light with a snoot. Another way to do it would be to block the fill light from hitting the ceiling with a piece of cinefoil, a barn door or anything else that can block light. There's no right or wrong, it's just two different ways to get the same result. The truth is the snoot was right there and something to use to flag the light off the ceiling would have required a walk to the storage room, so the snoot was the obvious choice. One thing that is not shown in the illustration below is that the actual shot was taken from a ladder.

This same look can be created using any kind of lights, clamp-on work lights, flashes or strobes. Also, consider using some large pieces of white foam board if walls aren't available. There's always a way.

Equipment used:

  • Norman 800ws Power Pack
  • 2 Norman strobe heads
  • 1 12" Parabolic reflector
  • 1 Snoot
  • Canon 5D
  • 8' ladder
Links to these pieces of equipment can be found on the Resources page

Classic Female Pose and Lighting

Chuck Vosburgh - Monday, October 08, 2012

Here's a classic way to photograph females

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh. Model: Natalie Budde

In this example, we used the standard female pose, which is the subject looking over her shoulder at the camera. It's a flattering pose and one that will always get a positive reaction. Combine it with the classic Rembrandt lighting pattern and you'll have a beautiful portrait that will stand the test of time. When you use this pose, have your subject keep their arms at their sides and try not to have them hold this pose for too long. It can be an uncomfortable pose and if you make your subject uncomfortable it will show in your photographs.

For the lighting, we set the lights in the Rembrandt pattern which is characterized by the triangular shape of light on the subject's cheek. There's an article about Rembrandt lighting on this site. 

Here's the setup:

Give this classic look a try. It's simple, elegant and timeless.

Controlling contour in portraits

Chuck Vosburgh - Friday, June 29, 2012

Photographer, Chuck Vosburgh. Model: JoAnn Jensen

In studio lighting, it's often a temptation to use the largest soft-box you can to get maximum softness in a portrait. The down side to that is that the portrait can look flat, lacking contour and dimension. There are two ways to control contour and dimension in a photograph; angle and size of the light. The more you move the light to the side of the subject the more contour shows, and the smaller the light source is, the more contour shows. Like everything else in photography, it's a trade-off. Too much contour shows every flaw in the subject's skin and too little makes them look too flat. Taking your time and experiencing will help you decide what's best for your subject and your preferences. Take the time to adjust the angle of the light for each subject. The same angle won't be the best on everybody. Even though it looks good, careful evaluation and experimentation will make it the best it can be.

The good news is that it's very simple and easy

For this example, a large parabolic (bowl) reflector was used on the light as a main (key) light and the shadows are being controlled by a large soft-gold reflector. Start with the main light at 45° up and 45° to the side and about six feet away with no reflector to fill the shadows. Adjust the angle of the light to get a nice Rembrandt or Loop style lighting pattern on the face, along with a nice catch-light in the eyes. Shoot and adjust to suit you. Add a reflector to fill the shadows, moving it in closer to lighten the shadows, farther away to darken the shadows. Add a hair light to separate the subject from the background and a light on the background and you have a very nice portrait setup.

Here's the setup:

You can use any lights to make this setup: Strobes like in the example or flashes with an umbrella for the main light and a flash for the hair and background. You can also use clamp-on lights from the hardware store. Give it a try, it's easy. Let me know how you make out.

Portrait of the week

Chuck Vosburgh - Monday, June 18, 2012

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: Michelle Knapp

Here's a simple portrait set-up that differs from my usual set-up slightly. This one uses a strip light for the hair light instead of a snoot or grid. The strip light offers a bit more flexibility for positioning the model without having to reposition the light and also puts more rim-light on the shoulders and arms than a snoot or grid.

Here's the setup:

Main: Large soft-box

Fill: Large soft-gold reflector

Hair Light: Medium Photoflex half dome with grid (strip light)

A very effective portrait lighting setup

Chuck Vosburgh - Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Last week I attended a workshop at the Tampa Area Professional Photographers Association by well-known portrait photographer Michael J. In his workshop he demonstrated his techniques photographing pets and he used a complex but very effective lighting setup that is frequently used by in-studio portrait photographers. It typically uses between five and seven lights, and once you get it set up once, you'll be able to replicate it again.

Here's the setup:

Notice how the main light is feathered away from the background so it doesn't spill over onto the background. This allows total control of the background using the background lights. The rim lights provide plenty of light on the sides of the subject to allow this kind of feathering of the main light. Grids are used extensively to give precise control to the background, rim and hair lights and also prevent the possibility of lens glare. If you have access to several lights and modifiers, give this setup a try. You'll love the results!

Broad Lighting and Narrow Lighting

Chuck Vosburgh - Monday, April 16, 2012

Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh. Model: Emma the Mannequin at Studio 3

You've heard the saying that the camera adds ten pounds. What if you could take off ten pounds by just changing your lighting?

Broad Lighting and Narrow Lighting, also known as Wide Lighting and Short Lighting is a technique you can use to control how wide the subject looks to the viewer. In the example above, both photographs are of the same subject, but one appears considerably narrower than the other even though both are the same size. It's an optical illusion and it's easy to take advantage of.

Here's how it works:

It's all about which side of the subject the light is coming from, specifically which side of the nose is lit. If the side of the nose that is closer to the camera is lit, the subject appears wider. If the side of the nose closest to the camera is in shadow, the subject appears narrower. Another way of describing it would be if the light side of the nose faces that camera, the subject appears wider. If the light side of the nose faces away from the camera, the subject appears narrower.

It's easy.

Portrait of a Belly Dancer

Chuck Vosburgh - Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Photographer: Chuck Vosburgh, Model: Omaris.

For this portrait, it was important to show the texture of the costume and make the drape and subject look very three-dimensional. Flat lighting with large soft-boxes would flatten the appearance of the image. Keep in mind that the angle of incidence, or the the angle that the light strikes the subject controls how much the texture and form of the subject are defined. If the light is straight toward the subject relative to the camera, the texture and form will be flattened and texture will be diminished. If the light is from the side, texture and form will be emphasized. You can control how much the texture and form are shown by the angle of the light anywhere between straight-on and side-lit.

For this image, a simple 12" parabolic reflector (bowl) was used as a key light. The key light was set at 45° camera right, and about 45° above eye level of the subject. That's the standard starting position for Rembrandt-style lighting and a good way to show texture and form without looking overly dramatic. To open up the shadows on the left side of the subject, a large soft-gold reflector was placed close to the subject, just outside the frame. The distance of the reflector to the subject controls the tone of the shadows. The shaft of light on the background was added by a snoot set to the right of the background at a shallow angle.

Here's the set-up:

It's easy.

Highlights of the Chiaroscuro Workshop in St. Petersburg

Chuck Vosburgh - Wednesday, November 09, 2011

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