NOTE: For those following The Traveling Photographer, the New York City episode has just posted.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Lighting 101: It's Not (All) About Flash

Guess what? You made it all the way through Lighting 101. This is the last lesson.

And you are probably a little stoked about your new-found skills. You might even already be playing with your starter kit. (If not, you are totally ready to.)

So I am going to suggest something to you that may sound a little strange:

It's not about flash.

Photo-graphy is, literally, writing with light. That's what we do. And you have just enough flash and lighting knowledge right now to be pretty dangerous. Because your photos are going to look better, more polished, more professional, etc.

But don't make your your photography all about off-camera flash — or even all about light. It's also about content and moment and emotion and gesture and setting and, yes, light, But the point is that it is not all about light. And certainly, it's not all about flash.

I say this because since starting Strobist in 2006 I have seen literally thousands of talented (and otherwise perfectly normal) photographers become infatuated with their newfound lighting skills to the point where all they thought about was the light.

So off-camera flash is all they are paying attention to. Which is not good.

Lighting is a tool. And you are learning how to use it. At this point, you already have more education and training than the average photographer. And that's great.

But it is important to make your lighting knowledge light additive to your previous existence as a photographer and not a substitute for all of those other cool skills you used to bring to the table.

In other words, use your new and growing skills to nurture your own existing skills as a photographer. Don't let lighting take over and subsume your creative vision.

The very last thing I want to do is to kill that individuality you had before you got here. Just let lighting make it better.

Also, take time to just look at light. I mean real, ambient light. Daylight. Industrial light. Blue hour light. Golden hour light. All kinds of light. Discover it. Study it. Wallow in it. And make sure you keep shooting with natural light, too.

The photo at the top of this page, taken on my first night in Havana, is natural light. But I saw (and continue to see) it differently because I am a lighting photographer. There's a base-fill of blue-hour evening light, a couple of stops down. And the unseen hidden street light (at upper back right if that wall wasn't there) is very warm. And it's dominant over the blue — as far as it reaches anyway.

The the fluorescents coming from inside the building at left are just as rich and green as you'd expect fluorescents to be. And if you were creating this light (which you'll soon be able to do with a little practice) hopefully you'd have the sense and good grace not to "fix" those fluorescent lights. The green is beautiful in this context.

The palette in this picture works because it could literally be a painter's palette — some blue paint, some yellow, and a section of the two mixed together to make a goopy green.

And that's the point of observing and respecting and discovering beautiful light. Because any light you can see, or imagine, or remember can be created (or re-created) with flash. And that's freakin' awesome.

One Last Thing...

Only one in ten people who start Lighting 101 actually finishes it. So good for you for sticking with it. And your persistence earns a little-known perk.

In 2011 I produced a 6(+1) DVD set entitled Lighting in Layers, currently in its 6th printing:

It's an immersive ride-along on several shoots of varying levels of difficulty and all lit with small flash. The DVDs are not for total beginners. But you are not a total beginner. Having completed L101, you know enough to dive into these if you want some more detailed and visual training.

They sell for $159.99, and you can get much more info (and a preview video) here. And as an L101 grad you can purchase the hard-copy DVD set, shipped free anywhere in the world, for USD $100 instead of the regular $159.99. Just order them from Midwest Photo and use the code "L101GRAD" (no quotes, please) at checkout.

And please, don't post this discount code. It's an "attaboy" (or -girl) just for the people who made it all the way through L101.

UPDATE: August 2013: If you are a member at, you already have access to the videos, here!

Thank You for Reading Lighting 101

I hope you enjoyed it, and learned a lot. If you would like to keep it locally on your computer or mobile device we have made it available as a PDF, here.

You have the basics that you need to be a lighting photographer now. And I also hope you'll join us regularly now to follow and participate in the ongoing conversation we are having about light. We're nearly 2,000 posts in now, and counting. And you certainly understand enough to follow along and learn more.

New posts go up once or twice a week. You can just show up (always welcome) or subscribe via email (we'll never spam you) or follow via RSS to keep up automatically.

Thanks for reading,
David Hobby


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Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Charles C Stirk Jr said...

Once again another well done ...

April 29, 2006 9:59 PM  
Anonymous Pete Millson said...

Well said. If anyone is anything like me, I get very excited being in possession of a new lighting technique and am always itching to try it out on the next job but for me the most exciting thing is being safe in the knowledge that you have tons of ideas at your disposal. Walking into your job and talking to your subject(s) in a relaxed manner and winning their confidence is my number one priority. Once they're on your side you can hit them with any lighting set-up you fancy (not literally obviously).

April 30, 2006 4:43 AM  
Anonymous tommyleong said...

thanks for the reminder, and a very timely one too.

Indeed, the whole purpose is to get great pics regardless of equipment or technique.

So often, we get caught up with all these new technologies and upgrading craze that we forgotten the basics.

Thanks again

August 14, 2007 9:24 AM  
Anonymous john beebe said...

Again, I truly appreciate your combination of competence and honest humility. It is a very rare combination in this digital world.



November 12, 2007 6:22 AM  
Blogger Dude Crush said...

Fantastic read; I agree on all points as well. And thank you for all the enthusiasm you put into this website; as a beginner I have learned so much. And for free too! Hehe.

November 25, 2007 11:38 AM  
Blogger Therese said...

Strobist is the best thing since I discovered an obsession for photography...thanks a stack David! Starting out as a mature journalism student, in a changing media industry, I can't even say how much your casual wisdom helps me.

Thank you thank you. Here in South Africa, I hope to try out these techniques soon in the field. Already having great fun experimenting at home with your ideas.


June 19, 2008 4:21 AM  
Blogger said...

It's fun to find an almost anti-strobist lighting post on strobist. It reminds me of when I was restricted to only on-camera flash and had to use a reflectors for non-ambient lit shots. Budget certainly turns every photographer into a lighting ninja :-)

July 16, 2008 2:59 AM  
Anonymous pleonasmaticul said...

Nicely put! And very very true! I'm just starting to take my flash off-camera and your articles are exactly what I needed.
PS: If you are still looking for that romanian word, it's "droguri" :)

September 01, 2008 12:14 PM  
Anonymous la said...

but digital cameras have changed everything, from film to the way light moves through a lens. this post would be worth updating.

March 11, 2009 11:01 AM  
Blogger wolfie said...

Ah, I find it liberating to finally hear someone talk about that the moment is bigger than the light. I'd like to add that with big stationary lights you also give up a lot of your flexibility. I personally prefer to be able to move around, find angles and expressions within a heartbeat to capture those key moments that make a picture. Lighting is important, but it's just "make-up".

Good post dude. Now I'm gonna check out your site some more.


November 19, 2009 4:53 AM  
Blogger Lucy said...

This article is great. Really what I needed to read... I find I rely too much on my Bowens lighting kit, having little or no confidence in using natural light. I'm self taught so always believed to make a 'professional' looking photo I had to have lighting (as I suppose its easier to control) but you're right - its all about using what you have and using your eyes to see all the potential possibilities. I did a shoot recently where I set up my lighting all ready and then as soon as the subject walked in to the room - I saw this beautiful pool of light right in front of me - so turned off the light and shot ambient! (pic here: )

Any further tips on how to shoot inside portraits with little light, much appreciated!

January 03, 2010 5:12 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

DUDE! Love these little lessons. I have been shooting for well over 8 years now and I must say...I am impressed. I remember when I first started photography...i was literally afraid of light. WHY? because of over exposure, hard shadows etc, but as time went on and with much PRACTICE, i have come to realize that light is a photographers best friend. I am self taught. Haven't spent a day in a classroom. Started out as just a hobby, but moved into it full time. Thank you so much for these lessons..ESPECIALLY....the DIY snoots, gobos and domes. Would you believe I was getting ready to go and purchase a gary fong dome? WELL...SCRATCH THAT! RUBBERMAID....HERE I COME! My wife will be missing some tupperware out of the cupboard....SHH! DONT' SAY ANYTHING!!! LMAO!!!!

January 12, 2011 4:39 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

DUDE! Love these little lessons. I have been shooting for well over 8 years now and I must say...I am impressed. I remember when I first started photography...i was literally afraid of light. WHY? because of over exposure, hard shadows etc, but as time went on and with much PRACTICE, i have come to realize that light is a photographers best friend. I am self taught. Haven't spent a day in a classroom. Started out as just a hobby, but moved into it full time. Thank you so much for these lessons..ESPECIALLY....the DIY snoots, gobos and domes. Would you believe I was getting ready to go and purchase a gary fong dome? WELL...SCRATCH THAT! RUBBERMAID....HERE I COME! My wife will be missing some tupperware out of the cupboard....SHH! DONT' SAY ANYTHING!!! LMAO!!!!

January 12, 2011 4:40 PM  
Blogger Michael R pdx said...

Six years later your writing and insights are still doing great things for us.

Thank you.

May 18, 2012 5:26 PM  
Blogger Ja said...

Hi Dave,

Shall we start working on Polish translation of new Lighting 101 now, or shall we wait till tomorrow?



August 05, 2013 12:12 PM  
Blogger Xander said...

Wonderful writing! Your L101 has explained things so much better than I have ever (tried to) received before! I am so completely stoked to be able to take my D200 and SB-800 as a completely wireless simple kit and now add in the SB-28 for extra punch when needed! My incomplete lighting set-up is now going to be revammped utilizing your thorough expertice as guidance. Those old, manual flashes of yester-year I find at flea markets and pawn shops for cheap suddenly have great value to me!


August 09, 2013 9:47 PM  
Blogger Elga Walker said...

Wow this was amazing! Just what I have been looking for. I am VERY new to photography and blogging for that matter. This made sense to me. I'll be one of those strange people in park lighting up trees. I hope to be ordering the DVD set soon. So glad I stumbled across this blogspot. Thanks again for an informative blog.

August 15, 2013 4:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you so much. Excellent presentation. Much appreciated. I'm re-entering the world of photography. Never before had I worked with Speedlights in this manner, only studio lights and such. I love this! Looking forward to my 'Compact Kit'which should be here in a few days. Thanks again for all you do.

August 20, 2013 3:16 PM  
Blogger Jenny Gavin-Wear said...

I went through 101 the first time last year and it got me started very quickly.

Nice work on the update, it's a lot "cleaner" than version one and lots of new ideas thrown in.

A great guide, David, thank you.

September 30, 2013 8:10 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey said...

David, THANK YOU for putting together Lighting 101! I read thru it over the last few evenings... I've learned a lot, but I'll need to go back thru it again to get it more solid. I plan to get the basics you mentioned and start practicing... I'm excited about that! One question tho... all the examples are like you're working with someone for a portrait, so there's time for a lighting stand, or a friend to hold the light, etc., but what if you're just wandering around an event or party taking photos of people here, there, everywhere, and without an assistant... what's the recommended approach for light for that type of situation?

October 03, 2013 8:01 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Um maybe just shoot available light? #KindaThePointOfThisPost

October 03, 2013 9:12 PM  
Blogger Miki said...

Hi David,

Thank you very much for this complete guide for lighting photography! I work as a lighting technical director at a big vfx studio, and basically what we do on shots, is pretty much the same you do in photography. The main difference is the tools we use. I shoot all my photos before at available light because I didn`t know much about flashes, and buying big studio lights are far more expensive than my hobby budget. Your lectures opened my eyes that I can go for a budget friendly approach, and I am doing it now! My photos are looking much more like a frame of a movie now (a dodgy one :) ), there is a lot more to learn through practicing!


October 06, 2013 11:37 PM  
Blogger Admir Tane said...

Great guide David.

October 12, 2013 6:32 PM  
Blogger David Hogg said...

A fantastic introduction to the world of flash photography. So far most of my work has been using natural light (of which I'm a great advocate). However, the first time I took the flash off my camera, put it on a cord, and put a small softbox on the end I was amazed by the results! It turned out to be an invaluable investment at the first wedding I shot a week later ...

I'm now looking to learn more about working with multiple flashes, and this tutorial was so easy to digest, and I found myself reading it faster and faster as I wanted to keep learning! I did make sure I read everything though :)

Thanks again for sharing your passion and knowledge, and Happy New Year!

January 07, 2014 2:18 PM  
Blogger Trina Yarrington said...

Someone recommended this site to me some time ago but I was still intimidated by the thought of anything but natural night. Now I have my first speedlight in hand and I've made it through 101. Hope to get the DVDs soon but fow now I'm just excited to start really learning how to work with light. After all photography is writing with light. Thanks for sharing so much great information,

January 22, 2014 8:43 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Thanks for the sentiment, Trina. I love seeing people discover this for the first time and have it down on them that, "it's not... that... hard!"

Because it isn't. Very jealous of you having just walked through one of the coolest doors in photography for the first time.


January 23, 2014 7:18 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This has been amazing; I really appreciate you putting together this guide!

February 11, 2014 11:06 AM  
Blogger Aaron Campbell said...

after seeing your tuts at i like your teaching style and adaptive photographic eye, a good refresher to the Lynda modules & more, cheers David

May 13, 2014 8:38 AM  
Blogger Chad Roeder said...

Recently rediscovered my love for photography and have been educating myself this go'round. In researching and reading how to take that "better picture" over the past month, I happened across this after watching the awesome things that you did in the cheap camera challenge on DigitalRev on Youtube. That was where I learned about the optical sync which I then found the bower that I've had for years does. Just finished the read through of L101 and am excited and have so many ideas. Now to get that to translate through the lens.

July 16, 2014 8:16 PM  

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