One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow.
Before we do that, it’s important to establish a baseline: if you don’t know what it is you’re using, then it’s going to be both time consuming to explain, and difficult to understand. Thus, we’re going to begin with an explanation – a quick 101, really – of common lighting sources, tools and modifiers – and an explanation of what they’re useful for, and how one would deploy them. Please excuse the crude line drawings; I don’t have a lot of these objects myself, hence a lack of source images. We’ll go down the list in alphabetical order.
Moving plates fixed to a light to control spill off. Useful for creating strongly directional light and preventing too much from reaching the background behind the subject.
A set of nestled reflectors fitted to the end of a studio strobe to create a ringlight effect for portraits/ faces – soft, without shadows, but still with some definition.
A clip on bit of translucent plastic that goes over the end of a flash to soften its output. Usually makes almost no difference but eats a lot of power.
Any sheet of semi-translucent material that goes in front of a light source to soften the directionality of its output; varies in thickness and opacity.
Small, portable, self-powered light source. Usually mounted to the camera, and communicates with the camera’s meter using electronic contacts to control output power. More sophisticated models are capable of wireless operations, triggered optically by another flash and with metering taken care of by the camera. The flash head itself has some modifiers built in – usually zoom, which controls beam spread, in addition to being aimable.
A piece of transparent, colored plastic that filters the output of any light to balance it with ambient sources; usually yellow/orange or green to balance tungsten and fluorescent sources respectively.
An opaque piece of material with a cutout to permit light to pass through; usually with a shape or design. Used more frequently for productions than photography. The best example of a gobo is perhaps the Batman sign…
Exactly what it sounds like – a grid of panels placed at right angles to the light source. Acts like an array of 90 degree barn doors; controls light spillage and ensures that most of the light goes in one direction, but without the hard edges that barn doors produce.
Very bright incandescent source in the form of a studio strobe – used for video production. Compatible with all normal accessories, e.g. softboxes/ gobos/ diffusers etc.
Continuous, low-temperature light source. Nowhere near as bright as HMI lights, but also nowhere near as hot. Useful on location when you have to operate off batteries, or when you have to photograph temperature-sensative objects – ice cream, for example.
Any self-contained studio light that doesn’t require a separate power source or transformer. Plugs directly into the wall.
Wireless trigger for flashes or strobes that isn’t restricted by line of sight. Requires one controller on-camera, and one for each flash unit.
A piece of material – usually white/ silver or gold (warm) – held below a or to one side of a subject to provide fill light on the shadow side by reflecting the primary light source. Softens out the shadows. Usually requires an assistant, as in, ‘Tilt the reflector down a bit more, thanks.’
A flash with a circular tube, or a light shaper in the form of a ring that simulates the effect of a circular tube. Once again, useful for portraits.
A tent of sorts – usually fabric – which the light source fires into at one end, with a semi-translucent window at the other end. The insides are usually reflective to minimize light loss. Creates a large, soft, diffuse light source; comes in many sizes. Useful for anything and everything. Can be used in conjunction with grids, barn doors, etc.
A cone-shaped object, open at both ends that goes over the end of a light source to create a very tight, intense beam of light – effectively a spotlight.
Anything used to hold your lights or accessories.
Large studio flashes – much more powerful than portable flashes/ speedlights, but require mains power or large lead-acid battery packs to run.
Umbrellas come in two varieties: shoot through and reflective. The former act as diffusers; the latter produce a slightly harsher, more directional (but still diffuse) light. Usually deployed in conjunction with flashes or smaller studio strobes. More light loss than a softbox because the sides are open; not always a bad thing because sometimes a little ambient illumination is required.
The part of a flash that allows control of the beam spread – it’s called a zoom head because it allows the photographer to match the angle of coverage with the field of view of the lens, with minimal power wastage.
Stay tuned for subsequent parts – we’ll cover reverse engineering setups, and some more advanced techniques and tricks. MT
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