10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Lighting

This post deals with the light you create. You can’t always find what you need, so it’s important to know the dos and don’ts of off camera lighting. My tips apply to speedlight users; I’ve never been a huge fan of monoblocks, nor have I used them very much since Nikon launched their CLS system. Sure, sometimes you wish for more power, but then again you remember that you can go for hundreds, if not nearly thousands, of shots on a set or two of AAs – instead of carrying a 50kg lead acid lump around. Read on.

Disclaimer: As with every other article in this series, I’m assuming you know the basics already.

_7056032bw copy My current array of lighting: three SB900s, one SB700, two 120-LED daylight balanced continuous panels.

10: Always shoot in manual mode. Otherwise, there’s no way you can balance your flash and ambient exposure; if you want all flash, then you can dial in the highest sync speed possible – this will help you avoid camera shake. If you let the camera decide, it will usually only get it right for the center portion of the frame when the flash exposure is much greater than the ambient exposure. This is to say, most camera systems are useless at daylight fill, especially under very bright conditions.

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Inspector. Note how inside/ outside luminance is balanced. Nikon D3, 24-70, one SB900 in a soft box.

9: Imperfect diffusers and softboxes add character to portraits, but not product shots. Uneven lighting for most product shots just makes the object look odd. For people, it can be strangely flattering. Consider making some shoddy homemade internal baffles for your portrait soft boxes.

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Shoddy baffling adds character! D200, 17-55/2.8, 2xSB600s in homemade soft boxes.

8: If you’re controlling lighting, you shouldn’t have blown highlights or blocked up shadows – unless you want them. Self-explanatory. Your lighting isn’t balanced properly. Try again.

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Intentional outline. Nikon D3, 105VR, one SB900 off camera.

7: Those clip on diffusers are pointless. A small light source can never replicate a big light source unless you expand (and diffuse) it – be it bouncing off the ceiling, or a softbox. A little clip on diffuser is just going to make a small, diffuse source – which at any distance, looks like a small intense source except weaker. You’ll get the same reflections and general lighting feel. All you’ll have done is a) look stupid b) wasted your money and c) lost at least two stops of light. I’ve never even used the diffuser domes supplied with any of my flashes; they’re still in the plastic bags they came in.

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Unrelated shot. Speake-Marin perpetual calendar. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G, one SB900 and diffuser.

6: Duct tape is your friend. Use it to tape flashes in odd positions to whatever supports might be handy; sometimes you just can’t erect a flash stand in the place you want it. But you could tape the flash to the ceiling. I’ve done it before.

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The Hollywood shot. Flashes duct taped to curtain poles. Seriously. D3, 24-70/2.8 and three SB900s

5: More flashes are better. I’ve got four; two primary units, one spare, and one more unit to use as a commander on cameras without a built in (Leica M9-P, I’m looking at you). Legend has it that Joe McNally travels with an entire suitcase of SB800s. I dread to think how many batteries he goes through every year.

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Alfabeti. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G 2xSB900s

4: If you’re short of lights, consider a reflector. Positioning one light directly opposite the reflector gives you another pseudo-light – depending on the reflector, it could be as little as 1 stop light loss – think of a mirror, for instance. A more diffuse reflector can provide gentle fill.

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Leaf shutter benefits. Leica X1, SB900, 1/2000s.

3: Higher sync speeds are better. Pro DSLRs top out at 1/250s for full power, or less power and faster – but these are not true ‘flash speeds’, because the flash has to fire for longer but at reduced power – note how the flash no longer freezes motion at 1/8000s as much as it did at 1/250s. Leaf shutter compacts like the Ricoh GRDIII and Leica X1 both sync to 1/2000s; they’re great for capturing motion or providing balanced daylight fill, where your ambient shutter speed might be very high. You won’t lose the highlights, and you also won’t lose the shadows – thanks to your high sync speed.

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Dessert. Balanced with ambient daylight in restaurant. Nikon D700, Zeiss 2/28 Distagon, 2xSB900

2: Remember the eyes. For living subjects, a little catch light reflected in the eye can make all the difference between a flat, boring shot and a portrait that looks alive. Use a reflector, or if you’re using Nikon CLS, the trigger flash on your camera works fine too.

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Note the eyes. Leica X1, SB900.

1: Spare batteries are important. Never get caught short. I avoid NiMH as they tend to exhibit the memory effect, especially if not used frequently – as would be typical for your second or third spare set. The Sanyo Eneloop batteries are fantastic – they really do hold charge like alkalines, but have the reuseability and current draw properties of NiMH. I’ve got eight sets of these for my flashes, and only charge them when depleted. MT

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Macro lighting is quite a different game entirely. There isn’t a lot of working distance, and you need a lot of diffusion to create the same apparent perceived light source size.

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