uLearn.Photography - part of FilmPhotoAcademy.com

Photographic Lighting


In this section you will learn how to use artificial lighting:
  • Your Speedlite
  • Studio Flash
  • Continuous Lighting
  • How easy it is
  • Why you want to use artificial light

Lighting and Flash


Photographic lighting falls into three types:  
  • Camera Flash: internal or external, often referred to by the name "Speedlight" or "Speedlite" (sic).
  • Studio Flash: larger mains powered units.
  • Continuous Light: either battery or mains powered.

From left to right:  Speedlight; Studio Flash; Continuous Light

The first two, as their names suggest, put out a strong flash of light.  Continuous lighting is always on.

On Camera Flash:


If your camera has a flash unit built in, use it when you have to, but whenever possible avoid it.  Why?  Because when the light is coming from very close to the lens it is a fairly horrible direct light onto the subject.  It tends to flatten the image out and is not normally very flattering.   But the best flash unit you have is the one you have with you.  Your on-camera flash might be the only one you have.

It is because this is not a very photographic light that many "professional" level cameras do not have built in flash units.



The next step up is an add-on flash unit.  Canon call them Speedlites, Nikon call them Speedlights.  These flash units can be fitted directly on top of your camera.  They are an improvement on your built in flash because they are little further away from the lens.  However, they give a lot more flexibility, particularly for "bounced" light.

The flash points upwards so it is reflected off the white ceiling creating a softer light.

Bounced Light


"Bounced light" is where you point the flash towards a white ceiling.  The ceiling reflects the light in a much broader and softer form and is a much more flattering look.  At weddings I will use this mode nearly all the time.  You can use any white surface, even a man's shirt or a white card.

You can also move the flash unit away from the camera.  This is where things really get going.  You can connect the flash either by a cable (not terribly convenient) or by some form of remote trigger.

Flash light is mounted on a light stand with an adaptor that also allows an umbrella to be fitted for softer lighting.

Flash Remote Control


Proprietary speedlights have built in mechanisms for communicating from camera to flash via infra-red. This requires either a flash unit or control unit to be fitted on top of the camera.

The small unit fits onto your camera hot-shoe, the receiver with cable attaches to your studio light or remote speedlight.
You can also use wireless radio triggers.  In this case a small radio transmitter is fitted to the top of the camera and a radio receiver is attached to each flash unit.  Cheaper units are completely dumb but very useful.  More expensive units are intelligent and will automatically set flash power.  Each unit can be set to different power settings.
In the last few years these kinds of speedlights have become very capable units.  They can put out a lot of light and use little battery power to do so.  With ease of remote control through command units they have become a very useful tool.

Studio Flash


Studio flash units are similar but much larger and more powerful. They can usually accommodate a much wider range of accessories for light modification. Although typically used on mains electrical supply they can also be used from large battery power packs on location.

Because of their size, weight and power needs you are less likely to use them for outdoor photography. In the studio (even a home studio) they are perfect. They provide a consistent, controlled light source that can be modified in so many different ways.

Continuous Lighting


Continuous light sources have been around for a long time - especially of course in movies and TV.  Traditionally these are big, powerful and very hot.  However technology moving ever onwards is bringing these units within reach of everybody.

Continuous light might come from a "hot" source such as photo flood bulbs - just bright traditional light bulbs. Called "hot" because they are! New "cold" lights are now available using LED bulbs which do not have the temperature problem.

To get the strength of light equivalent to a studio flash these units are very expensive, ten times or more the cost of a studio strobe.  But these prices are dropping all the time.  Also as cameras are getting increasingly better at shooting high ISO (more sensitive, needing less light) they are rapidly coming within reach of serious hobbyists.

Fill Flash


Fill flash is where you use your flash unit even in daylight.  This firstly just pushes some extra light into your subject (as long as they are reasonably close).  This can balance out contrast and reduce shadows in the same way a reflector does.
For shooting portraits it can also add a nice sparkle (catchlight) in the eyes as well.
If you are shooting in automatic mode then your camera will automatically balance the flash with the daylight for you, so it does not overpower the natural sunshine.

With the sun behind the horses they would have looked very dark - but fill flash has brought all the shine back into their coats.
© Wynand Basson

© Mark Sebastian

Day for Night


One step up from fill flash is where the flash is so powerful it is actually brighter than the sun.  Now you're not going to manage that in full noon sunlight, but it can be very effective near the end of the day.
Because you set your exposure for your powerful flash, any light in the background will be under-exposed.  This is often used for those shots of pretty girls on beaches.   The flash lights the girl and the sky appears deep, dark and rich in colour.  In reality that sky would have been much less interesting.

Night Mode


The trouble with flash light is that the power of the light falls off very quickly the further away the subject is. You will have seen many pictures of people indoors where their face is lit, but everything else is in darkness.

What happens is that normally your shutter speed will be around 1/60th of a second and your aperture is adjusted for flash on the subject. The shutter speed is fast enough for the flash to register, but not enough for the ambient light.

The flash has illuminated our subject but the light fall off has left the background in darkness

Slowing down the shutter speed allows the ambient light in the distance to register on the image as well.
Night mode keeps the aperture and flash constant, but slows down the shutter to capture the ambient light. So the shutter speed might drop down to 1/10th or even slower.

This does not affect the exposure from the flash, because the flash is almost instant, 1/1000th of a second. It doesn't matter for flash exposure whether the shutter is open for 1/60th of a second or 10 seconds. Aperture and ISO are the only things that effect flash exposure.

Leaving the shutter open for longer it increases the overall exposure and gives better night portraits.   This would give you a correctly exposed subject as well as a true sense of the scene in the background.

Daytime Indoor Shooting with Flash


When you shoot indoors you may need flash to give enough light.  In this case the flash will put lots of light out and the exposure will be adjusted accordingly.   However, this might mean that light seen through windows will appear dark.   Again you can use Night Portrait mode to compensate for this.

The flash light has overpowered the light outside the window, making it look like night.

Since you cannot adjust the flash power or the aperture or the ISO without affecting the strength of the light from the flash all you are left with is changing the shutter speed.
Reducing the shutter from 1/125th to 1/15th has been enough to allow the daylight outside to register.
We don't need to worry about camera shake or the subject moving because the flash will still effectively "freeze" them with a 1/1000th of a second flash.

Reducing the shutter speed allows the ambient light to register properly.

Modifying the Light


The first thing you want to do with any kind of photographic light source is soften it. The light source is a tiny point of light, so this is going to give you lots of contrast and hard transitions. A very strong, contrasty look - great for dramatic portraits of men, rubbish for flattering portraits of women.



A photographic umbrella is the first port of call.  You shoot through an umbrella that is made of a semi-opaque material.   This creates a light source that is much bigger than the original point source flash.  Of course you lose some flash power, but not too much.
The bigger the umbrella, the softer the light.   If you bring the light closer to the subject this also has the affect of softening the light.



The next step up is a softbox.  This does the same job as an umbrella but prevents light from spilling out the sides.  In this way it is a much more controlled light source.  Just as with umbrellas the larger the softbox, the softer the light.

Grid and Barn Doors


Other examples of modifiers are honeycomb grids and barn doors. There are used to block light or shape it to a tight beam. They both serve to stop light spreading over and only shining where required.

Colouring the Light


You can also place coloured gels in front of the light source to create different lighting effects.   Obviously if you are using any kind of hot light source then make sure the material cannot melt onto the light.  For a speedlight that won't be a problem.
You can use a coloured light on a background to provide a base wash of colour.
You can use the colour on your subject to add interest.
You can use a combination of both to create separation and contrast between the subject and background.

In this image of a dancer surrounded by smoke a blue gel light has been used to create this striking silhouette.

Renting Studio Space


You do not need to rush out and buy studio flash units.  Studio space is readily available for hire almost anywhere for low cost.   Studio rates in small, but entirely functional studios may be as low as £15-£20 an hour ($25-$35).   This is a great way to experiment and see if you like studio work.
Many studios will give you assistance in setting up the lights and getting you started (but don't expect a full tutorial for free).


I'm not suggesting you should rush out and build a studio, but this time lapse shows what was involved when I built my 3,500 square foot studio.

Why You Want to Use Artificial Light


Control is the key.  Lighting makes your image.  Being able to control the light means your image is entirely under your control.
You might need to use lighting just for practical purposes, lighting products, still-life and so on.
It might be that you shoot portraits where the weather is uncertain.
But principally it is about the artistic control it gives you over your final image.



Not everybody has access to photographic lighting equipment, so in this section you have three choices.  You can do all three if you want.
1) Get your lighting equipment out and experiment shooting indoors in daylight.
What effect does the daylight have on your pictures?
Can you get a picture with flash light and daylight properly exposed?
2) Setup a simple still-life subject, say a bowl of fruit and use your household lamps to take pictures
3) Use the web and search for photographic studios to rent.  
Find out what sort of facilities are available to you and how much they may cost.