Lighting tips and tricks

A little bonus to follow on from the previous five part series* on lighting.

*A primer on lighting equipment is here. Part one on single sources can be found here; part two on multiple sources, here; part three on balancing ambient, here; part four on continuous sources, here.

There are a few things worth bearing in mind when creating your own lighting:

There should always be a top.
This usually means lighting in such a way that the orientation of the subject is obvious; it doesn’t always mean that it has to be shot in this orientation. Often, this is physically impossible with some subjects. But what you can do is rotate camera, place your stronger light sources at the perceptual ‘top’ of the subject, then rotate the image afterwards. I frequently do this with watches – they don’t stand up by themselves!

Not all lighting equipment has to be bought. Some can be made at home – a rolled cardboard cone makes a fine snoot; you can cut gobos out of mount board with a hobby knife, and even softboxes can be made from wire and mount board with a little forethought. The most critical bit of equipment in my own arsenal – the watch diffuser – I made myself.

Start simple
Beginners often make the mistake of buying too many lights, stands, umbrellas etc. and then trying to deploy them all at once – you often don’t need to. The most effective, dramatic lighting setups usually only require one, or at most two, sources. Only increase the complexity of your setup if you absolutely have to – remember the number of variables for each light in the first article on single sources?

Use what you’ve got
Building on starting simple, often ambient light is both difficult to replicate and offers invaluable context. Don’t overlook it in your quest for control of light: it can be very helpful indeed. This is where the next tip comes in:

Master manual metering
Controlling all of the exposure parameters manually gives you perfect control over the relationship between ambient and made light; if you’re particularly masochistic or have a difficult subject (reflective objects for instance) you might even go manual for the flash output, too. Learn to visualize what various exposures look like, and you can both work a lot faster, and create better results, too.

Imperfection is perfection
Natural light is never perfectly even, or diffuse, or directional; it’s the little variations and imperfections caused by shoddy internal baffling in your home-made softbox that gives an image character. Embrace the imperfection, and let it work for you.

Watch your color termperatures
You can use a difference in color temperature between sources (differently gelled flashes, or ambient vs flash etc.) to isolate a subject or different zones in your image. You can also overdo it and land up with very strange color in some parts of your image; as with everything, just enough is the difference between something different and something overcooked.

There is such a thing as too much diffusion
Very large, flat sources are great when shooting a large object, but remember that the only thing that defines the shape of an object – any object, be it a car or person or watch – is the way the shadows and highlights fall. If you have very flat, even light, then you might find there is very little distinction between shadow and highlight; this is great for maximizing dynamic range, but it’s also going to make your subject look incredibly flat, too. What does work with such sources is to use the big soft light as the secondary source, dialled in a a stop or two below your primary source – something harder, and more directional, to maintain texture and shape in your subjects.

Zoom head settings don’t have to match lens position
Flashes have internal mechanisms to move the tube and/or reflectors and fresnel grids around so that the angle of coverage of the beam matches the angle of view of the lens used; this doesn’t always have to be the case. If you use a narrow beam with a wide lens, you create a spotlight effect; this can be useful to highlight a particular subject. Just don’t make the difference in exposure too great, or it’ll look unnatural.

High sync speed and lots of power are your friends
Higher sync speeds enable you to do many things: freeze motion, fill in very bright sunlight, and use less power while doing so. It isn’t so much a special trick on its own per se, but more of a means of extending your shooting envelope so you have more control and more options when ambient light is extremely bright. And more power means more control over apertures, more ability to use diffusers and modifiers (they all eat light – at least a stop, sometimes as much as two or three) without compromising range or depth of field. MT


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