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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

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!

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!

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!

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.