See the Flash

As we said earlier, the incredibly brief burst of light from a strobe can be very difficult to visualize. Sure, you can see it. But what I mean is that it is hard to understand the way it is going to look when you are first learning to light.

At least it was for me.

I had this instructor in the photojournalism program at the University of Florida, (former Miami Herald photographer John Walther) who would tell me to just pop the flash and look at the effect on the subject/wall/whatever.

I can still hear him.

"Did you see that, Dave?" He would say. "That looks like about 5.6 at 400 to me..."

Uh-huh. Sure it does, Mr. Walther. If you say so.

I was never completely sure when the guy was kidding or serious. He was a legend as far as black and white technical quality was concerned. I swear, the guy could look at a tray of crystal clear fixer and tell you how many more good prints it had left in it.

I'll never really know if he was pulling my leg. But the guy sure could light.

And he got me thinking, which might have been what he was trying to do in the first place.

Rewinding a little, I had a couple of heaters Lowel Tota-Lights (quartz lights) at the time. And I could use those just fine, because I could see the effect right there. But flash? No way.

Then one day, it occurs to me that I could previsualize what the quartz lights were gonna give me before I turned them on. Why? Because I had seen the effect so many times.

This is really nuts, if you think about it. I could previsualize the quartz lights before I had even turned them on, but I could not previsualize my flashes? (C'mon, Dave.)

Anyone knows what effect a flashlight will have when we turn it on. But a flash? Try to previsualize that and we suddenly turn dumb as a sack of nails.

Which is when it hit me. If I just imagined my little Vivitar (at the time) as a very powerful continuous light, I could previsualize what the effect of the light would be.

This was an epiphany for a dumb, green college shooter. And it worked. I could not judge the quantity of the light. That was what meters were for, before TFT sceens. But I could now prejudge the quality of the light. To some extent, I have been doing that ever since.

My mind applies a convenient little automatic dimmer to my mental Nikon Speed Light/Continuous Light. I'll take care of the exposure in a minute anyway. What is important to see is what the light is going to do, not how bright it will be.

Try it. Start out with hard light at first, because it is easier to visualize the effect. Then learn to think how restricted-beam (snooted) light will act. Then soft light.

Bouncing flash against a wall? Imagine a window right there. You'd be surprised how you brain will start to register how the light will look.

And getting back to Mr. Walther, I think he was onto something.

When you choose the zoom/lens coverage setting on your flash, for instance, it will affect the size your light source. (The light source is now the bounce surface.) Pop the flash while looking at the wall. Sure, it only happens in a 10,000th of a sec, but you can see it because it burns a momentary image into the rods and cones in your eye.

Where does the light hit? How big is it?

What would the light from a window that size and location look like on your subject?

Starting to get the idea?


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

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


Blogger J.George said...

interesting that this lesson has remained bereft of comment, but the central idea is rather Zen-like, Dave. If i was perfect, i could always see what my photos would look like before i took them (and therefore wouldn't need to shoot them, i suppose), but that's still the target at which we should aim our arrows.

BTW, i've lost track of the number of times i've revisited Lighting 101, but i always find something new to learn. Thanks

March 18, 2007 6:27 PM  
Blogger BigLerowski said...

Actually, popping the flash and instantly closing your eyes can help visualize the light as you don't mess up that image that was burned in your receptors with available light...

March 31, 2007 6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go Gators! Love the series BTW, learning a lot.

August 24, 2007 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Wedding Photographer France said...

Very interesting post. I have been trying to apply this in the past few weeks and can't really say that I've been 100% successful.

What it *does* bring however is a discipline to try to anticipate what the light is going to be like. By trying to guess before taking the shot what the light is going to look like and then taking the shot it really is like a game - you're right or wrong. The more you play that game the better you become.

It really is like trying to guess exposure. It's easy to just pre-focus and discover exposure. Try guess exposure before pre-focusing. Do this for a few weeks and you'll be pretty close.

Games help you learn and being disciplined accelerates the learning.

September 08, 2008 9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that really helped me predict what my strobes were going to do was my experience in computer animation. I majored in 3d animation on computers (Maya, 3ds Max) and spent hours setting up virtual lights on virtual characters. These applications give you unlimited access to light control as well as unlimited lights. In minutes you could light a character with 30 lights all with different settings. It's an infinite studio in a tiny box. When I started dabbling in studio photography, I found myself visualizing the light in terms of the 3d applications I had spent years mastering. It's amazing how close to life those applications are. I am now a professional photographer and have my virtual lighting experience to thank.

September 19, 2008 11:44 AM  
Blogger Stargazer Dave said...

Thanks for the great Strobist series!! It's helping me step out of my newbie ambient light comfort zone. Go Gators!

May 31, 2011 1:06 PM  
Blogger Mathew Lodge said...

This really struck a chord with me as I learned to shoot with a Braun view camera and a hand-held light meter. I was 11, and annoyed anyone in the vicinity by swinging the meter around to see how the reading changed across different parts of the scene. Eventually, I got to the point where I could eyeball the exposure and not need the meter any more. I became one of those "ambient light purists" as a result.

I have (may years later) realized that a photo taken with flash has two exposures -- ambient and flash. Need to practice enough to eyeball exposure for both :-)

September 17, 2011 12:44 PM  
Blogger tylerw said...

I'm very new to everything on the site and am excited to get started. I am purchasing the recommended starter kit. I have a t2i and a ton of lenses and am about to purchase my first flash.

Would a canon 430ex ii allow me to do the things on this site? Would I be better off purchasing the 600-rt?

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

October 10, 2012 6:55 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


the 430 ex ii is a good choice for a first flash. The 600rt is very nice, but it is crazy expensive and requires other gear to get the most out of it (i.e., an expensive radio transmitter.)

The 430 ex ii will do everything you need, and will need for a while. Any other gear Q's you may have, definitely check into the Strobist Flickr group for answers.

Best of luck,

October 10, 2012 10:46 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home