If you are at all serious about photography and taking quality photos, you will have given some thought on altering the light illuminating your subject matter. When you unlock the secrets of light modification you will truly move to another level. By discovering the secret of light modification you are no longer a slave to nature’s time table. Light modification can be as simple as using a bounce reflector, or using a small speed strobe mounted on your hot shoe on the top of your camera. The use of artificial light can allow you to stop action and increase shutter speeds so that tripods are not necessary. Becasue your light source is now increased in intensity you can reduce your F-stop, so depth of field can be increased. You no longer have to spend a fortune on high speed lenses or use high ISO levels in order to capture the photo you want. You can also selectively paint with light when doing timed photos. The choices for not only buying equipment but in how you choose to use it are virtually unlimited.
In this chapter, I will discuss the various types of equipment that are available including everyday items that can be used. The uses of these items will be discussed in several of the following chapters including but not limited to Chapters 22, 25 and 26 respectively.
Before we start looking at different items that you can use to modify your light source, we have to first understand a little about light. Once we do, then it will be easier to decide on what equipment we will need to do the job.
1) NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
Let us start with something simple and Captain Obvious. There are 2 “main types of light” in this world.
Natural light – Mostly referring to the sun and all things that glow naturally. We usually have little or no control over natural light, that is, we can’t switch the sun off.
Artificial light – Refers to all the man-made lights, for example, light bulbs and glow sticks. This, we have more control over.
This is not quite a law nor a concept of light, but the point here being, light is still light regardless of whether it is natural or artificial. In the world of photography, natural light is not better than artificial light, nor does it work vice-versa.
They share certain traits, follow the same laws of physics and it works the same altogether. It is up to the photographer to make full use of whatever available light to the best advantage.
2) THE LAWS OF LIGHT
Moving on, this is something that every photographer should know – Every time light shines on an object (that is not reflective), the following things will happen:
Shadow: Self-explanatory… We already know what shadows are, a dark area that is cast by light being blocked by an opaque object.
Highlight: This is sort of the opposite of shadows, and is the bright area where the light hits.
Core: This is the transition between highlight and shadow.
The properties of the highlight and shadow will also change according to the intensity of the light source:
-An intense light source will cast a very defined (sharp) shadow and core.
-Vice-versa, a soft light source will cast a softer shadow and smooth transition core.
What is the big deal with all of these? It is vital to learn and experiment with the properties of light – Light at different colors, intensity, and direction will give you photos that look totally different.
3) HARD AND SOFT LIGHT
Following up with the above:
Hard Light: Created by a strong and bright light source. Harsh highlights, defined core, and strong shadows.
Soft Light: Created by a “gentle soft” light source. Gentle highlights, smooth core, and soft shadows.
What is the importance of this again? Hard light will usually cast hard shadows and defined lines – It is usually good for the “dramatic shots”. Vice-versa, soft light is cast smooth shadows and soft transition lines – It is usually good for the “beauty shots”.
4) INVERSE-SQUARE LAW
The Inverse-square law is also another one that photographers need to know, and the formula goes like this – Intensity of light = 1 / Distance². For example, the intensity of a light source will be 1/4 at a distance of 2, and 1/9 at a distance of 3. Nope, we don’t actually have to memorize and do crazy Math. What it means in human terms:
-The further you place a light, the softer and less intense it will be. It will also cover more area.
-If you place a light closer to the subject, it becomes more intense and covers less area.
5) DIRECTION OF LIGHT
Remember a few minutes ago when I mentioned the direction and distance of light are vital? Here’s how placing a few lights at a different position can change your photo drastically.
Front lighting: The most commonly used lighting position for beginners. Characteristically flat without shadows, and just overall well-lit.
Side lighting: One of my personal favorites. Lights a part of the subject, while adding some shadows and drama.
Backlighting: Lights the back of your subject, defining the edges and giving that rim light for added drama.
Catchlight refers to the reflection of light in the eyes of the subject. While some beginners probably ignore this tiny detail, catchlights can really bring attention to the eyes of your subject when done correctly. Which is why some photographers deliberately position the light in front of the subject.
7) MID-TONES, BLACKS & WHITES
For this final section, I shall address something that is not lighting but closely related. Mid-tones, blacks, and whites. You might have already come across these terms, or soon if you dabble with editing. What are they all about?
Mid-tones: As the name suggests, these are the spots in the photo that are neither highlights nor shadows – But somewhere in-between (the greys).
Blacks & whites: Generally refers to all the black/white of the entire image, often confused with shadows and highlights. Best way to explain – Shadows are cast light being blocked. Blacks refer to everything dark in the frame – dark hair, dark blue clothing, shadow areas, etc… Whites refers to everything bright – Yellow gloves, bright green clothing, all the highlight areas.
Lets start with the most basic form of light modification, reflectors.
Photography Reflector Basics
A reflector is often seen in the possession of many professional photographers. If asked, they would probably say that it was one of the basic must-haves for every serious photographer. Since light is a major aspect of any picture, it makes sense that the ability to manipulate that light, to make sure it does what you want, is important. That is where the reflectors come in. Think of it as an inexpensive option for a second light.
There are four different colors of reflectors that each have different functions and specialties.
This is the reflector that reflects the most light. These are the most often used reflector in studios because the silver doesn’t alter or change the color of the reflected light, and the light remains fairly neutral and balanced. This reflector works well at varying distances from your subject and it is ideal for photographing portraits.
More flexible between indoor and outdoor use. Since the white reflector doesn’t catch and bounce back as much light as the silver reflector it is the intermediary between indoor reflectors and outdoor reflectors. If you think you’ll be using it often both inside and out, this is your best option. Ideal for product photography.
The amount of light being bounced is lesser while using the white reflector. This effect also produces what would be considered a more soft, less intense look than the gold and silver options.
Best used outdoors where the gold of the reflector catches and amplifies the hue of the sun. If used indoors the same effect will happen as outdoors with one huge exception, the light being reflected will be very harsh yellow. It is best if restricted to outdoor use unless you are wanting that yellowish hue. Ideal for outdoor photography.
A gold reflector is mostly used in sunrise or sunset situations to pull that extra golden light. This reflector creates a tone that is used with intention. Although the added warmth can be visually appealing, it is best to use this sparingly as to avoid a harsh, unrealistic depiction of color and unbalancing of natural skin tone.
This is more the opposite of other reflectors. It is able to absorb rather than reflect the pre-existing light. This reflector is good for when you have too much light bouncing area in your chosen photography area, and you need to lessen the amount of light that appears on the subject. Such types of reflectors are often used in studio situations to create a blockage of light that frames the subject more proportionally. Ideal for reflective photography.
When positioning your reflector there isn’t a specific place that is correct. However, getting the reflected light to be where you want it requires it to be positioned. Simply move your reflector around, while you look for the light to reflect on your subject. Once you have found what position best suits you, either use an assistant or a reflector boom arm to hold the reflector in place.
All the possibilities these different reflectors provide ample opportunities to improve and enhance the lighting of your photography.
Why Use a Reflector?
The main purpose of a reflector is to bounce light as well as the option to diffuse it. More times than none, this act of bouncing allows the light to reach areas that would otherwise appear shadowed and dark. The most popular reflector is called a 5-in-1, which has has five different options based on the lighting you hope to achieve. The reflector is adjustable based on varying colors that make up the surface. There are many videos on the internet showing the benefits of reflectors. If you don’t have a specially designed reflector, you can even use the fold up shades used for cars and trucks that are placed in the front widshield. Some are white and others are silver. They are incredibly cheap and they can help to direct light where you need it. They can also be used to reduce the harsh glare of the sun. I have used them like an umbrella to keep the harsh glare of the light off the my front lense element, especially when using a wide angle lense. In these lenses the lens hood is next to useless to block out the sun.
7 Reasons Why Every Photographer Needs a Speedlight
Shooting indoors, in low light environments or against a strong contrast can be a real challenge for any photographer. You’ll likely encounter problems of not enough light – or the wrong kind of light falling on your subject – and issues of camera shake, excessive noise, loss of shadow detail and strong colour casts often restrict the impact of your image. Using a speedlight (aka a flashgun) will help you overcome these kind of problems, and learning how to master the light will be sure to transform you into a better photographer. And while most cameras come with a built-in pop-up flash, their effective use is pretty limited. So if you’re serious about creating superior images, here’s 7 reasons why you’ll need to invest in a speedlight.
1) More power
A key and immediate advantage of using a speedlight rather than built-in flash is a huge increase in power. A typical flashgun has a Guide Number (GN) of around 30 – and often it’s quite a bit higher – whereas a pop-up flash typically has a GN of 12. So at the exact same ISO and aperture settings, the speedlight is at least 3-4 times more powerful, allowing you to light subjects at increased distances and to use lower ISO settings for better image quality and narrower apertures for increased depth of field. And not only is a speedlight much more powerful in terms of its output, but it’s faster too. Using a camera’s built-in flash can be pretty sluggish, but a flashgun has much faster recycle times so you’re less likely to miss a moment. What’s more, the flashgun has its own power source – usually 4 AA batteries – so you won’t drain your camera’s battery, allowing you to shoot for longer.
2) Increased control
A speedlight comes with a number of controls that aren’t possible with a pop-up flash. Firstly you have the ability to zoom the light. This means that you can control the spread of the light from wide angle to telephoto, to match the focal length of your lens and to ensure there’s the correct spread and intensity of light in your image. Most speedlights also feature a built-in diffusion panel to help spread the light even wider for ultra wide angle images or to create a softer and more flattering light.
3) Bounce the flash
One of the biggest benefits of using a speedlight is the swivel head, which allows you to adjust the angle up or down by 90º or pivot by 360º. This lets you bounce the light from the flash, and this is an easy way to transform your indoor photography. By bouncing the light from another surface – such as a wall or ceiling – you can spread the light further around the room, reducing the amount of shadows and creating a softer more flattering flash. Bouncing the light also lets you adjust the angle of the light for more depth and control over shadows. For instance, by pointing the speedlight at a wall the light bounces from this surface making it a larger and softer light source, and the angle creates an interesting side-lit, 3D effect. This technique works best with white walls or ceilings as they reflect the light better without any unnatural colour cast that coloured surfaces produce.
4) Diffuse and modify the light
There’s a wide range of affordable accessories that you can pair with a speedlight to create a bucketload of stylish and captivating effects. Included in the box with most speedlights is a diffusion dome. These clip on to the flash head and help spread the light even further around a room, helping to wrap the light around your subject and reduce any distracting shadows.
To get even more creative you can modify the light even further with various attachments including coloured gels, mini softboxes, snoots, barn doors, beauty dishes, grids and other modifiers. Each affects and sculpts the light in different ways, allowing you to explore a host of lighting options and get super creative.
5) Using off-camera flash
Once you’ve got to grips with using your speedlight to overcome challenging lighting situations, the next step is to delve into the world of off-camera flash. This means the speedlight isn’t attached to the camera’s hot shoe when it’s fired, and instead the light is triggered remotely. Some DSLR camera systems have built-in controls to remotely use a flashgun, such as Nikon’s CLS in the camera flash menu that allows you to wirelessly pair your camera with your speedlight. If your camera doesn’t offer this feature or you’re using a third party speedlight, it’s still simple to use off-camera flash with a set of wireless triggers which can be purchased from as little as £20.
Using off-camera flash gives an enormous boost to your creative potential, as the ability to place the flashgun anywhere means you have total control over the light in your image, letting you decide where the shadows will fall, creating more depth and adding a more professional feel to your shots. Trust me, once you’ve discovered off-camera flash it’ll revolutionise your photography.
6) Ultra portable set up
Speedlights are extremely portable. They’re typically smaller than a lens, weight noticeably less and will easily slip into your kitbag, so you can use them anytime and anywhere and carrying one won’t slow you down. Even the accessories to transform your speedlight into a truly creative light source – such as a lightstand, pair of wireless triggers and a shoot-through umbrella – fit into a carry case smaller than a tripod bag. This can be easily slung over a shoulder or fastened onto your bag, so you effectively have an ultra portable studio style light that you can use anywhere. This means you can get stand out shots in the most challenging of locations and there’s no need to cart lots of heavy equipment or break the bank on gear.
7) Affordable accessory
Considering how transformative and beneficial speedlights are, they are a very affordable photographic accessory. You can purchase third party flashguns for under £100, and major brand versions start at around the £200 mark. When you take into account how much you’ve already invested in photography, from bodies and lenses to all the other additional accessories, a speedlight represents excellent value for money. It truly is an essential item for every enthusiast photographer who wants to take better images, so if you don’t have one already it needs to bumped to near the top of your wishlist!
The B&H Speedlight Buyer’s Guide
On-Camera Flash versus Off-Camera Flash versus In-Camera Flash
The term on-camera flash, or speedlight, simply refers to a type of strobe light (flash) that can connect directly to your camera. While it is generally referred to as “on-camera,” this does not require the flash to be physically mounted on your camera. On-camera flashes can, and often are, used off-camera. This differs from other strobe-light sources, such as studio pack strobes and monolights, in that these types of strobes are not meant to be physically connected to your camera (except under rare and unusual circumstances involving convoluted methods of adaptation). Additionally, speedlights usually have a self-contained power supply, although external power sources can sometimes be used to improve performance or extend battery life.
On-camera external flash also refers to the type of external flash that can be used on your camera, compared to a built-in flash that is integrated into many cameras. An on-camera external flash performs better than a built-in flash in almost every regard with the one exception that it is not built into your camera. The ability to take the flash off your camera results in a significantly greater number of lighting options; far more than simply providing a blast of flat light to the scene to facilitate an adequate exposure. It is often not desirable to have your flash pointed squarely at the scene you’re photographing; more often than not, you will want to bounce the flash light from other surfaces and point it in other directions to control the look and directionality of your light.
Most built-in flashes are also located near the camera lens, which can often result in the red-eye effect when photographing subjects in dimly lit conditions. Red-eye occurs because pupils dilate in dim light, the built-in flash is aligned with the lens’s optical axis, and its beam enters the eye and reflects back at the camera from the retina at the rear of the eye, which is quite red. Being able to use an on-camera flash source off-camera, from a different angle, will help to eliminate the red-eye effect in your photographs of people, especially when the ambient light is low.
Guide Numbers, Manual Usage, Controlling Flash Power, and Sync Speeds
Before delving into the automatic technology that is contained in most contemporary flashes, it is best to understand how to manually control and grasp a flash’s power. This is directly related to having an understanding of exposure ratios—how shutter speeds and apertures affect and balance each other—even though auto-exposure metering is available and often utilized for determining the best exposure settings.
Guide numbers are the standardized, numerical way of determining the power of a flash, with a higher guide number representing a more powerful flash. A guide number is the product of multiplying the f/stop of an exposure with a given distance, at ISO 100; or GN = f/number x distance. This calculation directly refers to the Inverse Square Law, which states that a specified physical intensity of light is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of the physical intensity. For example, a given intensity of light will be 1/4 the intensity at twice the distance from the source, 1/9 the intensity at three times the distance, 1/16 the intensity at four times the distance, and so on. Since f/numbers relate fractionally to the intensity of an exposure, they fit perfectly into the guide-number equation as a variable for determining flash exposure.
Simplifying this a bit, a realistic example would be if you have a flash with a guide number of 100—photographing a subject 25′ away will require the use of f/4 for proper exposure. Likewise, a subject 50′ away requires f/2 or a subject 5′ away requires approximately f/22. Since guide numbers are typically expressed at ISO 100, you can further determine your exposure if using a higher sensitivity, such as ISO 800, as a subject 50′ away would require an aperture of about f/5.6. Another variable to consider is that all of these values assume you are using your flash at full power; often, you can control the flash output of your strobe in increments to save on battery life, provide faster recycle times, or to control your exposure more when working in closer situations. This flash power variable can easily be compensated for in the guide number equation by reducing one of the other variables. For instance, if you’re using a flash with a guide number of 100 (at ISO 100) at 1/4 power and photographing a subject 25′ away, you will now require an aperture of f/2 (which is 1/4 the original example’s given aperture).
One thing to keep in mind when comparing guide numbers is that with zoom-capable flash heads manufacturers measure different flashes at different zoom positions. This affects the reading since, with a wider beam, let’s say at 35mm, it will read as less powerful than with a tight beam, such as at 105mm, even when the flash is set to the exact same power setting. Zoom heads can be found on a large percentage of on-camera flash units.
It should also be noted that, in most instances, controlling your exposure in-camera when working with flash should only be accomplished by modifying your aperture. This is because the precise duration of a flash is substantially less than most shutter speeds; if you compensate for your exposure by using a faster shutter speed, you will not see any change in exposure because the flash is essentially performing the role of the shutter. Additionally, unless you’re using a leaf shutter (a shutter contained within the lens, featured on many medium and large format lenses), it is likely your camera’s focal plane shutter will not be capable of producing a fully exposed image at shutter speeds shorter than about 1/250th of a second (depending on your camera).
The fastest recommended speed at which your camera can record an image when using flash is called the “sync speed.” If you make an exposure faster than the sync speed while using flash, the shutter will likely not have enough time to clear the image path of the sensor or film while the scene is fully illuminated by the flash. This will result in blocked or blacked-out areas of the image (the part of the shutter that couldn’t clear the path in time). Conversely, you can make exposures longer than the maximum sync speed and still produce a fully-exposed image; however, depending on this length, other consequences or benefits may ensue.
High-speed synchronization is available on certain flashes and camera systems to bypass the usual sync-speed limitations. These modes require communication between the flash and camera and work by rapidly flashing in sync with the movement of the shutter, allowing for faster shutter speeds to be used. This feature is useful when shooting in bright scenarios, such as outside on a sunny day, where you want to keep your aperture wide open for creative effect, as opposed to being forced to stop down to maintain a proper exposure with the ambient light. This setting does limit the power of your flash and you may find that the highest settings, such as 1/1 and 1/2, are unavailable.
Fill-Flash and “Dragging the Shutter”
While flash is often used to illuminate a scene entirely, either because of low-light conditions or because you are using a small aperture to gain additional depth of field, flash can also be used in combination with ambient exposure to provide additional creative benefits. Relating back to sync speed, if you’re using a shutter speed that is similar to what would be required of an ambient, regular exposure, in conjunction with flash, you will be mixing both ambient and flash light. This technique is called dragging the shutter and can be utilized to highlight specific objects or subjects in a scene. An example would be photographing a field or bush at dusk; while the foreground and surrounding areas are very dark, there is more light available in the sky regions of the scene. A way of rendering this type of scene would be to use your flash to illuminate the nearer regions, and then let your shutter stay open longer to capture the ambient light of the sky. This will provide exposure to adequately render both the darker and brighter portions of the image within a single frame. Additionally, this technique works well for freezing movement in darker light; by using the flash to freeze and illuminate the moving subject, and then keeping your shutter open to properly expose the background.
Similar in concept, but using the opposite protocol, is fill flash. Fill flash is a technique in which you use your strobe to fill in areas of the scene, either because they are darker than surrounding areas or to intentionally darken the background to better illuminate a nearer subject. This technique can be used during daylight or in well-lit situations, even if the ambient exposure is appropriate for handheld use, where there is a discrepancy between the exposure values of the foreground and background (i.e. backlit or silhouetted subjects).
To properly use fill flash, first meter your subject and then meter the background. This difference in exposure values is what is to be made up by use of flash exposure. Once you have determined the difference, you set your camera to properly expose the background values (knowing you will be underexposing your subject) then you set your flash to account for the difference in stops between the two regions. This will render both areas of the image properly, giving you a more balanced, evenly lit exposure. This tool can be further manipulated to intentionally render your nearer subject brighter than the background, to give it more prominence. In order to accomplish this, you follow the same steps as outlined before but simply set your camera’s exposure settings to purposefully underexpose the ambient regions and have the flash properly illuminate your main subject; thus producing an image with a well-lit subject and darkened background.
TTL Flash Metering
By using a flash in manual mode, or a flash that does not possess automatic exposure capabilities, you are in full control of determining both your flash’s power and your camera’s exposure settings. This is ideal for creative use, and becomes easier the more familiar you are with certain working situations; however, it sometimes cannot be the most practical or fastest method, considering the availability of automatic flash metering. Automatic in-camera calculation of flash metering is usually done using a TTL, or through-the-lens method. This method of determining proper flash exposure is very similar to the way a camera’s exposure meter works, but it takes into account more variables, such as flash power and even subject distance, if used in conjunction with a compatible lens.
TTL flash metering initiates when the camera’s shutter button is pressed, which then instantly triggers the connected flash. This flash then sends out a burst of light, a pre-flash, which will strike the subject and reflect back through the lens. This returning light is directed to an exposure meter, which will determine how long the true exposure should be to properly expose the subject. Modern TTL systems are able to control both a camera’s and a flash’s exposure settings to provide well-exposed results, taking much of the guesswork and experimentation out of flash photography.
This method of determining proper exposure when using flash is also codependent on the type of flash and camera you are using, with both variables needing to “speak the same TTL language.” Different camera types all have proprietary TTL systems, such as Canon’s E-TTL II or Nikon’s i-TTL, and then TTL-enabled flashes will specify which TTL system they support. Additionally, modern TTL systems will also work in conjunction with certain lenses, which further benefit TTL accuracy by being able to factor in your camera-to-subject distance. Depending on where your focus point is set, the flash will deliver enough power to properly expose a subject at that distance.
For intentional over- or under-exposure when working with TTL flash metering, most flashes incorporate an exposure compensation system similar to that of a camera, allowing you to vary the “correct” amount of light output by a certain number of stops. Exposure compensation, as well as dedicated settings, also allows you to control fill-flash amounts when working with TTL, further enabling more controlled and consistent flash shooting. Today, many third-party brands produce dedicated flashes with complete TTL functionality for numerous brands, which allows them to work automatically just as well as original-brand flash units and speedlights.
Bouncing Your Flash and Using it Off-Camera
On-camera flashes can be divided roughly into two classes: those that feature moving (rotating or tilting) flash heads and those that do not. The strobes that do not have a moving flash head have the benefit of being more compact but, outside of that, their flexibility is significantly less than that of a strobe featuring a flash head that can tilt—and even better—one that can rotate. A flash with no movements is similar to an in-camera flash you might already have, and when mounted on your camera, it will always output light in the same square, front-facing direction. These flashes do often have more power and manual controls than your in-camera flash, though.
However, once you add the ability to move your flash head, you can suddenly gain much greater control and a variety of options regarding how to direct the light falling on the subject. Light that is pointed directly at your subject is typically very harsh light, producing deep shadows and having a quick light fall-off from your subject to the background (Inverse Square Law). To render a similar scene with softer light, you can tilt your flash head to bounce your light from a nearby wall or the ceiling to broaden its directional quality. Once the flash light strikes a wall or a ceiling, that surface is being converted into a much larger light source than your flash itself. This omnidirectionality helps to lessen the effects of the Inverse Square Law, since the light source is larger, and will produce fewer harsh shadows with more even lighting.
Even better than the ability to point your camera-mounted flash away from your subject is the ability to remove your flash from the camera entirely and point it in any direction and at any angle you wish. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways; either by way of a wired connection or a wireless connection. A wired connection simply requires running a sync cord between your flash and your camera. Make sure to have a cable with compatible connections to your camera and your flash. Flashes often have a kind of proprietary connection, or sometimes also support more standardized connections, such as a household plug or a miniphone, photo, or sub-mini jack. These cables usually feature a PC connection at the other end to provide a connection to your camera. If your camera does not have a PC sync socket, there are also adapters available that slip into your hot shoe and provide a PC connection from there. Cables that connect your flash to your camera are available in lengths from 6″ up to 33′, in either coiled or straight designs. It is best to assess how you plan to use your flash off-camera before deciding upon length; if it is too short you won’t be able to get far away from the camera, if too long the cable will become cumbersome to handle.
If you’re not handholding the speedlight, you can easily remove the flash from your camera and mount it on either a stand or a flash bracket. A flash bracket enables you to place your flash off to the side or above the camera, and usually gives you a bit more freedom as to the orientation in which you can place your flash and the direction you point it. Brackets typically attach to your camera from the tripod socket and provide you with an additional method of holding your camera/flash system. While on this topic, some manufacturers produce handle-mount flash units, which are flashes that mount on the side of a camera via a dedicated bracket. These flashes are generally larger and more powerful than shoe-mounted units and can run on larger power supplies without making your camera extremely unwieldy.
The other method of tethering a flash to your camera is to use a wireless receiver/transmitter system or a slave, which employs radio, infrared, or optical triggering methods to communicate between your camera and your flash. A wireless system affords you the most creative control, as the boundaries of how far away your flash and camera can be are practically limitless, and you can also work with multiple flashes for more creative lighting setups.
Wireless Flash Control
Wireless flash is a complete entity unto itself, but by way of briefing, there are essentially three types of wireless triggers: infrared, radio, and optical. Beginning with the most basic, optical triggers (commonly referred to as slaves or optical slaves) are a small addition to your flash that enables wireless triggering once the slave detects a flash of light. These slaves come in an assortment of connections, typically household plug, 3.5mm or 1/4″ jack, PC connection or via a hot shoe. Determine which connection type is compatible with your specific flash before considering anything else when using an optical slave.
Once properly paired, you simply connect the slave to your flash and utilize another flash in order to trigger it. These are ideally used in a situation with multiple light sources, since optical slaves require one burst of light to trigger them; however, you can use them effectively in single-light situations by programming your in-camera flash to fire at a very low power (1/64th or less if possible) and assume that the flash with the optical slave will completely overpower this small amount of light. It should also be noted that many modern flashes contain a built-in optical slave, which eliminates the need to add an optical slave; they are mostly for use with older flashes or in circumstances where you might need an especially highly sensitized slave.
One other note regarding optical slaves is to account for the pre-flash that will occur when using TTL flash metering. Often, the slave will react to this pre-flash, as opposed to the intended “main flash,” and your lighting sync will be off. Some optical slaves have a function to automatically ignore this pre-flash, while on others you must manually disable the pre-flash, either through your camera or the master flash you are using to trigger the optical slaves.
The other method of wireless triggering is through the use of an infrared or radio system. One of the main advantages of these is that you do not require a hard-wired flash in order to trigger a group of flashes or even a single flash wirelessly; your entire lighting setup can be controlled from a transmitter connected to your camera. When working with a wireless transmitter and receiver system, you will connect one unit to each flash needed and one to your camera; this provides a remote method of communication between your camera and flashes to trigger flashes, and sometimes a means to even control the power output of individual flashes. This method can also function well if you’re using a single unit on your camera and main flash, then utilizing optical triggering to set off subsequent flashes. Another benefit to these triggering systems is that some flashes contain a built-in infrared receiver, saving you the need to attach an auxiliary one. When working with radio transmitters, it is less common for flashes to have built-in receivers, unless working with proprietary transmitters and higher-end flashes.
An infrared triggering system is similar to an optical method, but as the name implies, it utilizes infrared wavelengths to transmit the flash signal. This has a benefit over an optical trigger, as you do not need an on-camera or directly tethered flash to trigger your exposure, which can affect your exposure and limit the means of how you light your image. An infrared transmitter is essentially a low-powered flash with an IR filter over the front of it; when it emits a burst of light, the IR filter attenuates most of this light and converts it to an infrared signal. Infrared remotes work best in indoor situations when there isn’t an abundance of ambient light to disrupt the infrared transmission, and they also usually require your infrared receiver to be in direct line of sight of the infrared transmitter. With these drawbacks in mind, IR systems do have the advantage of being able to handle extremely fast sync speeds, due to the lack of time needed to compensate for a radio transmission.
The last, and most sophisticated method of wirelessly triggering flashes, is through the use of a radio transmitter and receiver system. Radio remotes have the advantage of being completely non-reliant on optics and do not require a line of sight or certain lighting conditions to function properly. They can operate across numerous channels, which greatly enhances photographing with wireless flash in situations where multiple photographers are working. Their other main benefit is that some radio systems integrate full TTL compatibility, which gives direct connection between the flash and your camera for controlling flash exposure. Many radio slaves also have dual functionality, deeming them transceivers, which allows the same units to be placed on either cameras or flashes. Transceivers can usually be set to transmit or receive, which helps to further dial-in the specific purpose of them under certain circumstances.
Additional Power Options
As previously mentioned, one of the defining characteristics of an on-camera flash is a self-contained power source. This power source, often comprising AA batteries, is stored inside the flash and can be replaced easily during the course of a photo session. This convenience is certainly appealing when compared to portable strobe packs featuring batteries that alone can weigh more than 20 lb; however, AA batteries are also not that powerful. Flash is a power-craving tool that requires battery power and quantity in excess of typical camera batteries. Rather than favoring a dependency on numerous AA batteries, it is beneficial to use an external battery pack if you use flash on a regular basis.
Auxiliary battery packs are often compact in size, for carrying in a pocket or attaching to a belt, and connect to your flash via a dedicated cable. Packs contain an internal, rechargeable battery; a removable, rechargeable battery; or in some instances, are simply a means to bundle several AA or other common battery type together to provide longer battery life more efficiently, versus changing out batteries from the flash itself. In addition to longer battery life, battery packs also often allow for faster recycle times—meaning you can fire your flash more rapidly with less time between bursts. Often only higher-end flashes will support the use of an external battery pack, since they are more typically subjected to longer shooting times and more strenuous conditions. Additionally, some companies produce dedicated accessories that will take advantage of the battery ports on some flash units. These accessories include small rechargeable batteries that, when plugged into the socket, can halve the recycle time of the flash at full power.
Other Features to Look for When Purchasing a Flash
As it would when looking for any other camera equipment, purchasing a flash should be heavily dependent on your needs to ensure it has the features you will use and will best suit the applications for which you intend to use it. Additionally, it is usually preferable to work with a flash best suited to the specific camera type you use, either by way of using the same brand or a third-party manufacturer with camera-compatible accessories and connections. This is especially prevalent in regard to TTL systems, with not all TTL-compatible devices being TTL-compatible with your specific camera or flash. Like cameras, too, flash choice should also take into account the build quality and how it will withstand the conditions in which you typically work. Certain flashes feature full weather sealing, which could be necessary for working in adverse conditions.
Flash Accessories and Light Modifiers
As mentioned previously—when talking about bouncing flash and getting the flash off your camera—a flash’s artificial light and straightforward angle does not make for the most flattering or aesthetic source. In addition to directing your light source at something other than your subject, you can also use numerous other tools to affect the way the light strikes your subject. These on-camera light modifiers come in a wide array of shapes and sizes, all serving to alter your light in various ways.
The most common type of add-on light modifier for your flash is a diffuser, in either bounce, flat, dome, or wide-angle styles. These diffusers work by placing a translucent box or substrate in front of your flash, helping to soften and spread the light a bit more evenly than an undiffused flash head. You will likely lose at least one stop of power from your flash, but your light will have less directionality and a softer, less high-key appearance.
Mini Softboxes and Dome Diffusers
A mini softbox, as the name suggests, is a smaller version of a softbox that is designed especially for use with an on-camera flash. A softbox converts your flash into a larger, softer light source to help lessen the intensity of shadows and produce a more wrapped-light quality. The differently shaped softboxes will produce differently shaped catch lights in subjects’ eyes; otherwise the different shapes will function similarly based on corresponding dimensions or surface area of the softbox. Dome diffusers function in a very similar way, but simply slip onto the flash head to create a larger, softer light source.
Speedlight speed rings are available and have the same function as their off-camera flash counterparts: to allow you to attach full-size softboxes to your light. Shoe-mount flash dedicated speed rings usually have the ability to accept multiple speedlights for use in a single softbox, effectively doubling or quadrupling the possible power output of the softbox.
For a distinct light, beauty dishes create a soft, yet contrasty light that falls between direct lighting and a softbox. They produce a wraparound look that can provide a more dramatic effect. Also, they usually have an opaque, though sometimes tinted or translucent cover directly in front of the light, which bounces light back into the reflector and prevents direct light from hitting the subject.
Many flashes feature a built-in bounce card that slides out over the flash head, but if not, or for more control and adaptability, auxiliary bounce cards are available. In terms of light quality, a bounce card is something between a diffuser and a soft box. It produces light akin to bouncing your flash off the ceiling or a wall. These reflector cards extend from the top of your flash head and block light from spilling in all directions, and subsequently create a larger, softer light source. Additionally, these cards can be used to create catch lights in your subject’s eyes when bouncing the flash toward a wall or ceiling.
Grids and Honeycombs
Grids afford more control and a tighter light output from your flash. The honeycomb pattern helps to limit the overall spread of light and concentrate it into a more organized beam. Grids are often available in an assortment of sizes or degrees, with the smaller measurements referring to a tighter, more refined light spread.
Snoots and Barndoors
For an even narrower beam of light than a grid, a snoot can be used to create a small circle of light. The longer the snoot, the smaller the circle of light will be. Additionally, snoots often feature an attached grid spot at the end for an even narrower beam angle. Both grids and snoots, and a combination of the two, will produce a harder light quality, greater contrast, and more dramatic shadows due to their limiting of the light spread. In addition to snoots, barndoors are available for speedlights, which allow you to control the spread of light and limit where the light will fall on the scene, without directly affecting the quality of light.
A flash extender is essentially a Fresnel lens that concentrates the flash light into a tighter beam to be thrown at greater distances. It is similar to the idea of a telephoto lens for your flash, and some flashes even have telephoto/Fresnel lenses built into them to serve this purpose. An extender is different than a snoot in that it does not merely restrict the light from spilling; instead, it focuses the light into a tighter area to simulate the angle of view of longer lenses.
Color Filters and Gels
Color filters and gels are used over your flash head to alter the color of light being produced. Most flashes emit light that is daylight balanced (between 5000 and 6000K), which is fine for general purposes. When working under mixed-lighting conditions, however, such as fluorescent or tungsten-lit rooms, the difference in the color temperature of light between your flash and the ambient lighting will be much more apparent. By covering your flash with a colored gel, you can more closely approximate the surrounding color temperature for more balanced lighting. These filters, often sold in kits or packs, can contain a range of colors that typically include CTB (color temperature blue) and CTO (color temperature orange) filters.
These specific filters, and more often the CTO, are frequently used to balance your strobe’s light accordingly; a full CTO will convert your flash light to approximately 3200K for tungsten lighting, and a full CTB will convert it to approximately 5600K for daylight use (if you’re using a flash that is not already balanced for daylight). Additionally, many of these kits include many other colors to choose from, for more creative applications where you want to use a colored light source as opposed to one appearing “white.” These filters and gels can be affixed to your flash in a large variety of ways, ranging from dedicated filter holders for your specific flash to simply taping the gel over the flash head.
Ringlights and Macro Lighting
One other specialized type of lighting is an on-camera ring light, and other types of on-camera lighting well suited to macro applications. While all ring lights are technically “on-camera,” these refer to the type that feature self-contained power and other features, as noted earlier. A ring light is a unique lighting tool that is doughnut-shaped and goes directly around your lens. This circular light is perfectly aligned with the axis of your lens and helps to provide nearly shadowless lighting, since the light is coming from all angles directly surrounding the lens. When used with more powerful studio-strobe battery packs, a ring light is a popular tool for fashion and portraiture work, but when confined to an on-camera source, the light output is typically fairly limited and best suited to macro and close-up applications.
The other, and even more important, reason that ring lights are best suited to macro work is that they constitute an effective solution that provides even lighting to subjects, in situations where your own or your camera’s shadow would be in the way if you were using off-camera lighting. Since the light is positioned on the same plane as your lens, you are able to light anything on which your lens can focus. These ring lights come with either standard flashtubes or with an array of LED lights (and sometimes the flashtube models also have LEDs for use as a modeling light). The flashtube versions function in the same manner as a shoe-mounted flash unit while the LED versions have a couple of distinct differences. LED models usually have a constant-on setting that allows for use during video, as well as simply being a modeling light, and sometimes will have a “flash” mode that will trigger it when the shutter is pressed.
In addition to ring lights, there are also twin-light setups that position two separate flash heads off to either side of your lens, but still on a similar plane as your lens. These dual heads can be positioned to induce a more physical, 3D quality than a ring flash, since they can be tilted or moved slightly to create more dimensionality with objects. Finally, there are also twin-light setups that are attached to a ring light to provide the benefits of both systems, including the flat, even lighting of a ring light but with the available dimensionality of a twin-light configuration.
So, consider flash an entire co-existent realm to available-light photography—it can be utilized to better highlight or give a more interesting visual appearance to subjects. Flash can provide additional dimensionality and texture to subjects in a way that cannot be achieved with natural light. An on-camera flash is a practical and lightweight option for using additional light when making photographs, and serves to be much more expansive than a flash that is simply confined to be atop your camera. When used in conjunction with controlling the power output, light direction, placement, shape, and color of the light output, an on-camera flash is undeniably an important tool to have for many, if not all, photographers.
The next section will cover studio lights. There are all levels of studio lights out there from cheap and highly portable to extremely expensive and pretty much limited to a permanent studio. Since I am no longer a professional photographer and I shoot for the sheer enjoyment of it, I can’t justify a large and expensive studio. As it is, I have dedicated two rooms in my house to photgraphy. I have so much gear that I have to move some of the equipment into the living room while I am doing a photo session in my studio. Would I like to have a large and high ceiling studio, of course, I would. But not everyone has unlimited funds or the need for those things. Since I shoot just a couple of studio sessions a year, I am OK with the inconveniences that my arrangement creates. Most of my lighting equipment is portable and I have actually brought it on location. I also have a portable generator so I can take my studio lighting to areas where there is no electricity. Last year, I did a night shoot in the ghost town of Rhyolite near Death Valley. I am also into camping, so the generator does double duty for my other outdoor adventures.
Below is a photo from a jewelry photoshoot at a Hooka Lounge. I had two models, two make-up artists (one was in training) and an assistant. This was by far my most labor intensive shoot to date.
If you look at the photo closely you will see that I even have a monitor so that the models can see the results of each shot. I was working with new models, so the visual aid provided by the monitor really helped. I use umbrellas on location mainly because they are more portable.
Photography Lighting Equipment: The Essential Guide
When you first dive into photography lighting equipment, you’re bound to feel massively overwhelmed. Studio lighting seems complex, it’s full of confusing jargon, and it certainly isn’t designed for the beginner. While photography lighting might seem complicated, it’s actually pretty easy to get started – assuming you have the right teacher, or in my case the right reference materials and videos. Thank God for YouTube videos.
Types of light
A studio strobe, sometimes referred to as a monobloc or monolight, is a dedicated flash unit. Strobes generally use cords, though more battery-powered offerings are brought to the market every day. Power output between models can vary greatly; cheaper strobes offer about as much power as cheap, third-party flashguns, while class-leading strobes are some of the strongest lights in the business. For this reason, strobes are the most common studio light used by professionals.
Continuous lights serve the same function as strobes, but they don’t flash. Instead, they are high-powered, constant lamps that can (usually) be fitted with modifiers. While associated with video, continuous lights still have their place in stills photography. LED lights are currently flooding the continuous light market, and many of them are viable options for stills shooters.
Note that continuous lights are sometimes referred to as hotlights – because they tend to get very hot. Be careful with modifiers that sit close to the bulb, as they present a fire hazard. (This does not apply to LED lights.)
Flashguns are small lights that mount on top of your camera. They are highly portable, and some come with reasonably high power outputs. Although flashgun versatility is ultimately limited by size and power output, they are still an extremely useful tool for any photographer interested in off-camera lighting. They’re also less expensive than dedicated studio strobes.
In this section, I discuss lighting roles. In other words, what do different studio lights actually do? How many studio lights do you need? And where do you point them?
The key light is a main light; you use it to create the overall lighting effect. Generally, the key light is the brightest and most prominent light in your scene.
A fill light is positioned in reaction to the key light. It reduces the intensity of shadows created by the key light, thereby decreasing the overall contrast in your scene.
Rim light illuminates your subject from behind, generally with the goal of separating the subject from the background. Often, rim lights are positioned so that only a sliver of light is visible on the sides of your subject.
Background lights point away from the subject to light the background. Not all studio lighting includes background lights, but like rim light, it’s a nice way to create subject-background separation.
Hair lights are used in portrait photography to add emphasis to your subject’s hair. They can also be used to help bring up the exposure of your subject’s head if it is blending into the background.
Ambient light refers to any light present before the addition of your studio lighting. It comes from lights in the room, daylight from a window, cracks above the door, etc.
Modifiers go between the light source and your subject, with the goal of changing the quality or intensity of the light. A modifier might harden the light, it might soften the light, it might reduce the light, or it might create unique lighting patterns.
Umbrellas look like, well, umbrellas, except they’re not designed for rainy-day use. Instead, photography umbrellas come in silver or white and are attached to your light via a mount. By pointing a studio light into the umbrella (which reflects the light back to your subject, as displayed in the photo below), you create a much larger, softer light source. Umbrellas are technically directional, but they can have a lot of spill, and they certainly aren’t the easiest modifier to control.
Translucent umbrellas/shoot-through umbrellas
Translucent umbrellas don’t reflect light like the umbrellas discussed above; instead, they’re made of a diffusion material that softens the light. Simply point your light into the a translucent umbrella to get a beautiful, even result (though with practically zero directionality).
Softboxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Once mounted, a softbox shapes and softens the light to become more flattering. Softboxes also tend to be quite directional, they are easy to control, and they can even be adjusted with additional modifiers (such as grids). Softboxes are highly versatile, so they’re an ultra-popular studio accessory.
Strip boxes are a special type of long, rectangular softbox. They produce a narrow beam of light, which is great for lighting a subject from behind for a rim lit effect.
Octaboxes are special octagonal softboxes; the rounder result is useful for shaping portrait lighting. Octaboxes tend to be quite large, creating especially soft, flattering light that’s perfect for portrait photography.
Not to be confused with handheld reflectors (discussed below), reflective modifiers mount directly to a studio strobe. They channel the light in a specific angle for very directional light. Reflector light is very hard, and most reflectors are designed to take a variety of grids.
Snoots are modifiers designed to focus your light in a very narrow beam. They make great hair and background lights.
Barn doors are fitted with two to four flaps; these allow you to block and shape the light to create different effects. For instance, barn door flaps can help you focus your light on a specific aspect of your subject (such as the hair), or they can be used to prevent (flag) the light from hitting a certain spot.
Beauty dishes are directional modifiers that sit somewhere between soft and hard light. They are great for beauty photography, fashion photography, and portraiture. They often come with grids and diffusion socks to give you extra options.
Grids are modifiers for your modifiers. You place them on a reflector, softbox, or beauty dish to further narrow the beam of light – to ensure the light is only falling on your subject (or on some other, desired location).
A gobo goes in front of a light source and changes the shape of the light. A gobo might simply narrow the beam, or it might create complex patterns.
(Confused? Imagine a Venetian blind with light streaming through. Now imagine the pattern on the wall. The blind is acting as an effective gobo and shaping the light!)
Gels are colorful, translucent sheets that fit over your light. Thanks to gels, your lights can produce just about any color imaginable (for all sorts of creative effects!).
These are color correction gels, used when you need to correct the color temperature of a given light. For example, if you have a gridded beauty dish that is on the warmer side and you want to use a second, cooler light as a hair light, you’d place a CTO gel over your hair light. That way, you can match and balance the color output of both lights.
Not to be confused with reflective modifiers (above), reflectors allow you to reflect light back onto your subject. They are a way to create fill light without a second dedicated light source. Reflectors come in many shapes and sizes, from the ubiquitous 5-in-1 reflectors to fancy tri-flectors sometimes used in beauty portraits.
A diffuser is a piece of translucent material that you place in front of a light source to alter the quality of the light or to reduce its intensity. Some diffusers do both.
Flags are used to block (or flag) light from falling on certain parts of the scene. You can use a flag to stop excess light falling on your background, or you can use a flag to reduce the exposure on specific parts of your subject. For example, I sometimes use flags to underexpose everything from the neck down in close portraits. This helps ensure that the face is the main focus of the image.
In this section, I discuss accessories that can make for easy, efficient photo shoots.
Light stands are designed to hold your light sources. Make sure your light stands can handle the weight of your heaviest light (note that a high-powered, dedicated strobe requires a lot more support than a speedlight!).
Dollies are highly useful; they’re light stands, but equipped with wheels!
A boom arm is a light stand that you can position at any angle, from completely vertical to completely horizontal. Boom arms are a great way to get your lights up high and to place your lights at angles a traditional light stand can’t manage. You can mount different varieties of boom arms to other light stands, as well as permanent fixtures like walls.
These are dedicated stands designed to hold a reflector in place (e.g., under your subject’s chin).
A backdrop is the surface behind your subject. Backdrops can range from paper and vinyl rolls to bare or decorated walls to pieces of painted canvas.
Background stands are support systems designed to hold a backdrop in place. They can be free standing or wall mounted.
Clamps and other fastening devices come in all shapes and sizes. You can (and should) use clamps liberally; backgrounds, flags, reflectors, gels, and many, many other things need to be held in place during photo shoots. For example, bulldog clips are indispensable for holding up canvas backdrops, while double-headed clamps can attach to a table and hold a flag or reflector (as pictured below):
In bigger studios, you might see lights fixed to fittings on the walls and ceiling. These rails allow you to move your lights around a space without the hassle of a light stand. They also keep cords out of the way of you and your subjects.
Here are a few miscellaneous items of studio lighting equipment that it pays to own, along with a couple of key vocabulary terms:
Quality of light
Light quality refers to the physical characteristics of light (generally the shape, intensity, hardness, and color).
A lighting pattern refers to a particular lighting position designed for predictable and established results. Examples of lighting patterns include butterfly lighting, Rembrandt lighting, and split lighting.
PC sync socket/cable
The PC sync lets you connect your camera to a flash. You can use this in lieu of triggers.
Triggers allow a camera to communicate with lights and ensure that flashes fire while the shutter is open. They range from very basic models with just one function to complex devices that allow for full control over the settings of multiple lights.
In slave mode, a flash will detect the light from another flash via a sensor, then fire off a burst. It’s perfect for situations when you have multiple lights but only one basic trigger.
Modifiers attach to a strobe via a mount. A lot of lighting manufacturers have their own proprietary mounts associated with their systems (Bowens, Profoto, Elinchrom, etc.), so you will need to ensure that any modifier you buy will fit the system that you own.
Many strobes come fitted with two bulbs: a powerful flashbulb, from which you get the strobe light, and a weaker modeling bulb, which is on whenever the strobe is not flashing. The modeling light helps you see what the light quality and direction are doing to your subject. As a bonus, if you’ve cut out all ambient light (as you should in a studio environment), modeling lights allow you to see!
Studio lighting equipment: final words
Well, there you go:
An introduction to studio lighting equipment, complete with plenty of vocabulary. Now that you’ve finished this article, you can confidently step into a studio and know exactly what is going on – and you can get started with some studio lighting of your own!
I have already mentioned auto shades that can be used for reflectors, other items can be used as well, many of which can be purchased at your local hardware store and arts and craft store. Foam board can make great reflectors as well as the silverboard styrofoam insulation sheets can be used in a pinch. Your hardware store also will have all kinds of spring loaded clamps that can be used to hold your reflectors in place. I have even used some shop lights and stands when studio lights were not available. Since most digital cameras have various settings for color correction, you can get by with these lights. While fixed lights are cheaper than strobes, they are more versatile because they can stop action and allow for faster shutter speeds. I will devote an entire chapter (8) on various props and household items that you can use to jazz up your photos.
red-dot-geek.com, “7 Basic Rules & Concepts of Lighting in Photography.” By W.S. Toh; photographycourse.net, “Reflector Basics.” By Katie; digitalrev.com, “7 Reasons Why Every Photographer Needs a Speedlight.” By Digitalrev; bhphotovideo.com, “The B&H Speedlight Buyer’s Guide.” By Shawn C. Steiner; digital-photography-school.com, “Photography Lighting Equipment: The Essential Guide.” By: John McIntire;