How to Light without Looking Lit

Making your light look natural

There are two ways you can use flash: in an inconspicuous way or in a way that clearly says “this was lit”. To me, as with just about anything else in photography, there is no right or wrong. It’s a matter of personal taste, preference and also a matter of what you want your photo to say. While I’ve done my fair share of images that clearly looked “lit” (and I still love doing this kind of work), I sometimes also try to use my flashes in a more subtle way. The great Gregory Heisler, whose fantastic book 50 Portraits shows you some great examples of flash photography, calls this “motivating the practical”: you have to motivate your light, make it look authentic, believable. The use of colour gels will also help a lot to make your (fake) flash light look real.

An interesting scene… lit by boring light.

An interesting scene… lit by boring light.

I was traveling through Swedish Lapland when this nice scene caught my eye. I liked the patina on the wall and the old bike with the reindeer skin on it. The only problem was again that the available light was too nice, too soft. It did not bring out the patina the way I wanted it to. So I added an orange filter to my flash and put it parallel to the wall, outside of the frame on a tripod (I use my tripods more as light stands than I do as camera stands), aiming slightly down. The result is a picture that looks like it was made with the setting sun. The orange filter helps to motivate that.

The same photo with an orange-gelled flash lined up parallel to the wall, simulating golden evening light. The light brings out the texture in the wall and adds some interesting shadows.

The same photo with an orange-gelled flash lined up parallel to the wall, simulating golden evening light. The light brings out the texture in the wall and adds some interesting shadows.

Combining both approaches

In this picture below I took of model Cato, I combine both approaches. To the left of the boiler room we were photographing in was a window. I placed a bare strobe outside, and aimed it through the window as to simulate sunlight falling in.

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 20 mm | 1/30 sec @ f/9 | ISO 1000

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 20 mm | 1/30 sec @ f/9 | ISO 1000

The opening in the wall motivates the light. However, I also put a flash way back in the room to add some rim light to the boiler tanks to prevent that part of the picture from going totally black. There’s nothing really there to motivate that there would be a light over there, other than my artistic choice to put one there.

The lighting setup to the image above. Taken from my latest eBook 'Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Lighting

The lighting setup to the image above. Taken from my latest eBook 'Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic Off-Camera Lighting

Want to improve your flash skills?

The image I discussed above is also the cover of my just-released eBook: Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic Lighting. This eBook teaches you everything you need to know. Everything explained in plain English with lots of behind the scene shots or lighting diagrams. For those who already have some flash experience under their belt, there are also more advanced chapters on gear and light setups. The book also contains plenty of buyer's advice (did you know that some brand flashes cost up to three times as much as third party alternatives, while not offering more power or features - sometimes even less).

Finally, it comes with two cool bonuses: a set of three fifteen minute videos and a sample set of Lightroom presets.

Light It Up! (including bonuses) retails for $30 + applicable taxes but until May 29, you can save 25 percent. No discount code needed. Get it here.

P.S. If you speak Dutch, this book is also available in Dutch (both as a print book and an eBook). I also have a Dutch video course on off camera flash over at my Dutch online photo training website www.photofactsacademy.nl.

 

Using Flash to Improve your Photographs

People often ask me why I take a flash to destinations like India or Indonesia. After all, isn’t there enough sun over there? The problem is they mistake quantity with quality. Sure enough, there’s plenty of sun in Varanasi or in Borobudur. In fact, there’s often too much of it, especially on those cloudless days these countries seem to have some sort of patent on. From early in the morning to right before sunset, there is often so much sun that, unless you’re photographing in the shade, the contrast is too much to handle. Bringing a flash will let you soften that contrast, by opening up the harsh shadows the sun creates. The more powerful the flash, the more options you have: a small speedlight will let you fill in the shadows, whereas a big strobe will even let you overpower that sun, allowing you to turn midday into evening. By using modifiers such as softboxes and umbrellas, you can create soft light where ever you want, even if the available light is unpleasing.

FUJIFILM X-E1 | XF14mmF2.8 R @ 14 mm | 1/200 sec @ f/8 | ISO 200 A small flash with an umbrella, put camera left was used to fill in the shadows caused by the late afternoon sun.

FUJIFILM X-E1 | XF14mmF2.8 R @ 14 mm | 1/200 sec @ f/8 | ISO 200

A small flash with an umbrella, put camera left was used to fill in the shadows caused by the late afternoon sun.

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 10 mm | 1/180 sec @ f/5 | ISO 200

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 10 mm | 1/180 sec @ f/5 | ISO 200

This picture of a Rajasthani couple in Jodhpur looks like it was made in the evening, but it was actually photographed around noon. I underexposed the available light heavily by choosing a narrow aperture, a relatively fast shutter speed and a low ISO. I then directed the flash so it looked like late setting sunlight.

The Jodphur example brings us to a second advantage of bringing a flash: you have control over the direction of your light. The position of the sun (and many other available light sources …) is out of our control. You cannot move a street lamp to a position that would better suit the composition of the photo you have in mind. But you can put a flash upside down on a light stand or hang it from a house with a clamp, cover its head with an orange gel and simulate a light bulb anywhere, as the image below shows.

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 10 mm | 1/3 sec @ f/4 | ISO 800 There was no street light where I wanted to photograph the pilgrims going to do their morning bathing rituals in Pushkar lake. So I created my own street light with an orange gelled speedlight I hung off a canopy just outside of the frame.

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 10 mm | 1/3 sec @ f/4 | ISO 800

There was no street light where I wanted to photograph the pilgrims going to do their morning bathing rituals in Pushkar lake. So I created my own street light with an orange gelled speedlight I hung off a canopy just outside of the frame.

At the start of this article, I talked about quality of light. When we talk about quality of light, we should not so much think of it in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather in terms of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. Hard light isn’t necessarily bad light. It all depends on what you want your photograph to say. When I set out to photograph the war cemetery in Langemark, Belgium, I wanted the picture of the tombstone to reflect the atrocities of war. However, on that particular day, it was very cloudy. There was almost no contrast at all. Ideal light to shoot just about anything, but not for what I had in mind. Contrary to the example I started this blog post with, the available light was too soft, too pleasing, too… flattering. So I put up a flash on a tripod, zoomed the flash head all the way to the maximum and added a grid to get a tight beam of light. The result is a much more dramatic light, one that helps to convey the atmosphere of the place much better than an available light picture.

The available light was very soft... In fact, it was too soft for what I wanted the photo to say.

The available light was very soft... In fact, it was too soft for what I wanted the photo to say.

A strategically placed flash with a grid makes concentrated light beam...

A strategically placed flash with a grid makes concentrated light beam...

... that matches the subject a lot better.

... that matches the subject a lot better.

Want to improve your flash skills?

My just released eBook, Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic lighting teaches you everything you need to know. Everything explained in plain English with lots of behind the scene shots or lighting diagrams. For those who already have some flash experience under their belt, there are also more advanced chapters on gear and light setups. The book also contains plenty of buyer's advice (did you know that some brand flashes cost up to three times as much as third party alternatives, while not offering more power or features - sometimes even less).

Finally, it comes with two cool bonuses: a set of three fifteen minute videos and a sample set of Lightroom presets.

Light It Up! (including bonuses) retails for $30 + applicable taxes but until May 29, you can save 25 percent. No discount code needed. Get it here.

P.S. If you speak Dutch, this book is also available in Dutch (both as a print book and an eBook). I also have a Dutch video course on off camera flash over at my Dutch online photo training website www.photofactsacademy.nl.

Five tips for succes with off-camera flash

If off-camera flash sounds intimidating to you, it shouldn’t. Things have changed a lot since ten years ago, when you had to be some kind of gear wizard to find out how to remotely trigger a flash. Currently, technology has evolved to the point where using off-camera flash is as easy as baking an egg. Or, if you’re the kind of kitchen hero I am, probably even easier than that! With the technology issues (mostly) out of the way, this means that you can now focus on getting the shot you want. The following three tips will help you be successful with your first ventures into off-camera flash.

1. Start indoors

When you’re starting out, start indoors. No wind to knock over your precious, new-bought gear. No sun popping in and out of the sky to mess up your ambient exposure (more on that later), no people to run off with your stuff… Once you feel confident with your gear and you have gotten some good results inside, then take your gear (and your model) for a walk outside!

2. Always determine your ambient exposure first

As I explain in more detail in my eBook Light it Up!, when you use flash, you’re basically mixing two light sources: flash and ambient light and you can determine how much (if any) of both light sources you let into your final picture.

The total brightness of this image (left) is the sum of the available light that was let into the camera (middle) and the flash light that was let into the camera (right).

The total brightness of this image (left) is the sum of the available light that was let into the camera (middle) and the flash light that was let into the camera (right).

Because the background is generally not (or less) influenced by your flash light (unless your model is close to it, see the next tip), you should always set your background exposure first. Especially when you’re working with a model outside, it’s a good idea to slightly underexpose that background compared to how you would expose it if you were photographing it without a subject. That makes sense: the background isn’t the subject, therefore it shouldn’t be too bright or otherwise it will detract from your actual subject. For example, when I have a sky in my background, I will generally set my exposure so that I still have detail in the sky.

This is an example of a shot where I set my ambient exposure for the background. It is slightly underexposed so that I maintain detail in the sky…

This is an example of a shot where I set my ambient exposure for the background. It is slightly underexposed so that I maintain detail in the sky…

This is the same image after having added a flash through an umbrella (and some creative postprocessing using one of my Lightroom presets.

This is the same image after having added a flash through an umbrella (and some creative postprocessing using one of my Lightroom presets.

As a result, your model will generally be underexposed, but that’s not a problem… After all, that’s what you have the flash for, right? After having successfully determined your background exposure, fire up your flash and your trigger and adjust the flash power until your subject is correctly exposed.

3. Want more control over your background exposure? Move your subject farther away from it.

If your model is close to a wall, the flash light that lights her will also light that wall, so it will be hard to control the exposure of both independently. If you want that wall to be darker, just move your model (and your flash) further away from that wall. As light loses a lot of power quickly, the bigger the distance between the model and the wall, the less flash light will light that wall. If you don’t have enough space, you can add a grid to your light source to direct the light more to the subject and less ot the surroundings.

Same camera and light settings, but in this image the model was much closer to the background...

Same camera and light settings, but in this image the model was much closer to the background...

... than in this image.

... than in this image.

This photo was shot in a white studio. Yet the ambient light was completely eliminated by a judicious choice of aperture, ISO and shutter speed. I kept the power on the softbox the same. In the picture on the left, the model was standing fairly at 9 feet from the background, so there’s still some flash light illuminating that background. In the picture on the right, the distance between the model and the white background was twice the original distance. The distance between flash and model (and hence the flash power) was kept the same as in the first shot. As a result, a lot less light reaches the background and it turns darker.

4. Use the sun as a free rim light

In a studio, I love working with at least two light sources: one as a main light and one as a rim light, coming from the back. This rim light will create a nice highlight on the back of your subject, separating it from the background and adding a nice 3D feel to the image.

On location, I don’t always have 2 lights with me and even if I do, I don’t always have the time to set up a second light. Nor do I have to. I’ll often use the biggest light source of them all, the sun, to my advantage. I put the subject with his back to the sun. This kills two birds with one stone. Not only does my subject not have to squint, but I also get a free rim light. Then it’s just a matter of using the flash to bring my subject up to the desired brightness.

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/6.4 | ISO 100

FUJIFILM GFX 50S | GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro @ 120 mm | 1/125 sec @ f/6.4 | ISO 100

In the image above, I placed a strip light behind Michelle to separate the leather jacket from the grey background (which was actually a white background, but by placing her far enough away from it and underexposing the ambient light, I could turn it into grey).

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF56mmF1.2 R @ 56 mm | 1/180 sec @ f/2.8 | ISO 200

FUJIFILM X-T1 | XF56mmF1.2 R @ 56 mm | 1/180 sec @ f/2.8 | ISO 200

In this case, I placed the motorcycle man against the sun. The result is a nice highlight around his outline, which nicely separates him from the background, along with the wide open aperture I chose for this shot.

Thet setup shot for the motorcycle image: a relatively cheap ($500) but very powerful 600 Ws portable studio flash (the Jinbei HD600) and a $25 flash umbrella.

Thet setup shot for the motorcycle image: a relatively cheap ($500) but very powerful 600 Ws portable studio flash (the Jinbei HD600) and a $25 flash umbrella.

5. Experiment with the placement triangle of light - subject - camera

When you start out with off-camera flash, you’ll probably put your light at a 45 degree angle to your subject, with your subject facing the camera. It’s a great starting position but don’t leave it at that. Experiment with the angle of your subject’s face towards the camera and with the angle of the light source towards the camera and the subject…

A couple of sample pages from my just released eBook Light it Up! The relative positioning of your light, camera and subject towards each other can greatly influence the atmosphere of your image.

A couple of sample pages from my just released eBook Light it Up! The relative positioning of your light, camera and subject towards each other can greatly influence the atmosphere of your image.

One of my favourite lighting schemes is pretty straightforward. It is called ‘Short Lighting’ and it lights the side of the face that is turned away from the camera. This results in a more threedimensional portrait and works great with character faces, of which there are many along the shore of the Ganges in Varanasi, where this image was taken.

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 45.5 mm | 1-250 sec @ f / 2.8 | ISO 200

FUJIFILM X-Pro2 | XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR @ 45.5 mm | 1-250 sec @ f / 2.8 | ISO 200

Short lighting with a free bonus rim light from the bright Indian sun. Two great lights for the price of one!

Short lighting with a free bonus rim light from the bright Indian sun. Two great lights for the price of one!

Don’t let the softbox fool you into thinking you need a big budget to pull of a shot like this. I could have achieved 90 percent of this look with a $25 umbrella. The reason I prefer a softbox is that it gives me more control over my light, especially in confined spaces, where I can add a grid to it.

Want to get improve your flash skills?

My just released eBook, Light it Up! Techniques for Dramatic lighting teaches you everything you need to know. Everything explained in plain English with lots of behind the scene shots or lighting diagrams. For those who already have some flash experience under their belt, there are also more advanced chapters on gear and light setups. The book also contains plenty of buyer's advice (did you know that some brand flashes cost up to three times as much as third party alternatives, while not offering more power or features - sometimes even less).

Finally, it comes with two cool bonuses: a set of three fifteen minute videos and a sample set of Lightroom presets.

Light It Up! (including bonuses) retails for $30 + applicable taxes but until May 29, you can save 25 percent. No discount code needed. Get it here

P.S. If you speak Dutch, this book is also available in Dutch (both as a print book and an eBook). I also have a Dutch video course on off camera flash over at my Dutch online photo training website www.photofactsacademy.nl.