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Great (and Free) Idea: Keep a "Lighting File"

If you have worked your way through the Lighting 101 and/or On Assignment sections, you should be getting to the point where there are few lit photos that you can't reverse engineer.

Heck, we even did a page on this, which reminds me that I should update and expand it now that I am not writing through the haze of the Please-Let-Me-Die Flu.

The idea a Lighting File is similar to the technique Mrs. Strobist uses to keep track of examples she sees of cool kitchens and (potentially) great haircuts.

While I am not one to equate mere lighting design with epic, critical decisions such as kitchen remodeling and haircut choice (just in case you are reading this, honey) the concept is a good one.

In practice, it is very simple. Any time I see a photo in which great light was created, I try to keep it in a file for later use.

If the idea is in a magazine that is (eventually) bound for the trash recycling bin, simply tear it out. One should get permission, of course. (Or develop a sufficiently noisy cough to mask the sound...)

If the idea is a reproduction of an Old Master's painting in a valuable manuscript in your college library, that's a different story. Maybe jot some ideas down. It's hard to light stuff from jail.

Keep a rolling list of visual ideas in a folder or envelope in one of the slots in your laptop bag and you may be surprised at how organic and serendipitous the lighting idea process will become.

Ditto the web sites of great photographers. On a Mac at least, you can save anything in a web window by simply "printing" it to your hard drive as a .pdf file. Keep a folder full of cool stuff for inspiration when you need it.

For example, I keep a file of California-based photog Tim Tadder's work. He is really doing some edgy stuff with light lately, and I have been experimenting with a "wrap-around" look similar to what he does with several of the photos on his site.

As an aside, just 10 years ago this guy was a college puke following one of my colleagues around, soaking up knowledge. Now, he is out there cranking some top-notch stuff.

For me, this is inspirational on a couple of levels.

First, he is doing some crankin' light. And second, Tim is a great example of getting off of his butt and just diving right into his work and technique.

Note that I am using the term "inspire," and not "rip off." The idea is not to ape someone, but to look to their style as a new venue you can explore and meld into your own vision.

The difference is important.

Anyhow, keeping Tim as an example, I am trying to create a sort-of wrap-around look with two or three cheap, small strobes.

I already have one attempt under my belt, and I will throw up a full write-up after it runs in the paper on May 10th.

I gave the first effort an overall "B-," meaning the concept will absolutely work, but I have some work to do on the execution. This is normal, and not to be interpreted as a failure. I will keep working at it, tweaking the light to be more subtle and remembering to have more to the picture (content and motion) than just cool light.

My first shot at it had the subtlety of Mike Tyson. In addition to toning it down a bit, I should worked more (uh, as in some) content into the photos. But I was using three lights in a tight zone. And one of them was the sun, which was moving in and out of the clouds. (That's my first-timer's excuse, and I'm sticking with it.)

I keep a file with me most of the time, because I am always combining ideas and techniques on assignment. If I have 20 minutes before heading to a portrait assignment, I might drop by a magazine stand on the way there. Or, better yet, a music store. You get the idea.

Visual stimulation is everywhere.

Immerse yourself in it, and keep a journal. You'll be glad you did.

Congratulations! You Made it Through Lighting 101.

If this has whetted your appetite to learn more about lighting techniques, you'll want to visit Lighting 102 or On Assignment for the more in-depth stuff.

So, where to next? Lighting 102, or On Assignment? (I'd suggest taking a break and perusing some On Assignments. See if this stuff is starting to make sense in real-world settings...)


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Blogger A.W.S. said...

Browser Bookmarks are another great way to keep track of lighting ideas. Make a folder where you keep nothing but links to shots you like then go through it every now and then. Added benefit is that if the page happens to be on a specific photographer's site you end up back there and can click around to see if they have put anything new up that you like as well.

(Kudos on putting toghether a great set of info)

May 03, 2006 4:05 PM  
Anonymous emarc said...

For Firefox, there is a great extension called ScrapBook for saving web pages, including pics, for offline reading. It's kind of like bookmarks, but with a local copy of the page. You can even add comments, notes and highlights to pages - it really is much better than 'save as' or whatever - try it!
I sound like an ad, but that's just because I like it.
I discovered Strobist, and had only read about half of the 'on assignment' articles when I had to go on a trip - I quickly scrapbooked the remaining pages, and read the on the train :-)

July 01, 2006 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link to Tim Tadder does not work.
Love you site and I'm still working on Lighting 101

July 25, 2006 1:25 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I re-routed the link to his main home page.


July 25, 2006 1:34 PM  
Blogger Savvo said... does not exist, or is pulling some stupid trick to keep out evil turrist furrners.

chris@tog:~$ host
Host not found: 3(NXDOMAIN)
chris@tog:~$ host
Host not found: 3(NXDOMAIN)

September 14, 2006 9:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hmm. Looks like you are right. I can assure you that Tim (the photog) exists, so we'll give him a little time to clear up what may just be a web snafu or a domain renewal.


September 14, 2006 10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ugh, tim tadder exist and its huge...
and this site too. Thank you very much.
p. from italy

January 05, 2007 7:36 AM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Thanks ALOT..
I've been stuck in a rut with my basic, 'every portrait' style lighting.. im definantly going to work on softening up light in the places i want and the shadows extending/shortening to increase effect and detail.

Thanks again,
Tim, Australia.

January 10, 2007 10:46 AM  
Blogger chris. said...

Tim's work is fantastic, thanks for the link (which works like a charm)!

May 15, 2007 3:41 PM  
Blogger Domen said...

Link works, great inspiration there.

July 05, 2007 8:42 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Wow! His work is amazing. I would love to have you reverse engineer a couple of his shots to get a better idea just how he does such unique and amazing work.

November 02, 2007 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, agree with Richard ! Please reveal how its done !


November 24, 2007 4:14 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Tim Tadder's shots are amazing! His shots appear to be HDR. Can't tell whether it's just lighting or HDR. or a litte of both.

January 04, 2008 10:40 PM  
Anonymous Asprine said...

Another way of keeping track:
Keywording all the lighting test you do.

Thanks for all the tricks; these 101 pages will never stop to inspire.
Regards from the Netherlands

February 02, 2008 5:17 PM  
Blogger Spook said...

You don't need to publish this one, as it is more of a question than a comment...

I had been reading the 101 on/off for some time and finally got myself a pc sync cord (big spender, I know) yesterday. When I sat down to read the 101 "cover to cover" the blog format started to bug me - So I ended up doing a printer-frienly .pdf of everything. I have not published it anywhere, hell I haven't even printed it myself. But would you like to see it? It's simple copy/paste of the blog content, with the layout bugs fixed for printing rather than blogging.

Drop me an e-mail at info@distraction, either to tell me to sod off (and delete the file) or where to upload the .pdf.

...or just to point out the printer-friendly version of everything that I somehow missed.

Anyways - thank you for all your great work!

kind regards
Søren S. Nielsen

May 14, 2008 4:48 AM  
Blogger David said...



May 14, 2008 8:33 AM  
Anonymous George Quiroga said...

I have also kept a lighting file but I tend to call it a posing file because I'm inspired by both the light and how the subject is posed and composed. For stuff on the web, if I can't save the photo easily, I capture the screen (use Alt-PrtScr on the PC) and crop the resulting image accordingly.

One suggestion that may help prevent ripping up other people's magazines or books is to use your camera phone or whatever camera you may have handy to photograph the photograph, painting, or page. It may not bring out the details as well as the real thing but it may help trigger your memory.


August 15, 2008 8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey thanks for the 101, It was needed. As I too have an urge to learn the kind of high detail lighting Tadder does I can't help but wonder where the follow up went of your 3 speedlight take on it.
Would love to hear about it.

February 05, 2009 2:38 PM  
Blogger eugene said...

@george, re printscreen'ing and cropping - those of you with Vista (except vista home basic) should have the snipping tool preinstalled.

The quickest way to get to it is to just hit Start, type snip, and hit enter when Snipping Tool appears. Simply draw a box around what you want to capture and it's automatically copied to the clipboard. You also have the option of saving the snip.

August 03, 2009 11:16 AM  
Blogger Angad said...

I find "Google Reader" as the best way to keep track of blogs and photography related sites (like the boston something, and national geographic). Try it! Thats how i read this blog :P

August 19, 2009 7:38 AM  
Blogger Bev said...

David, I agree with everything you said in your article above except:
quote:The idea of keeping a Lighting File is similar to the technique Mrs. Strobist uses to keep track of examples she sees of cool kitchens and (potentially) great haircuts.Unquote.

I am Mrs Strobist and youshoudlknow that Mr. Strobist is the non-photographer. I am apparently one of the rare but growing breed of female Strobists.I would much rather be behind (or 45 degrees adjacent to) a good strobe anyday for kitchens! That comment was so old school! Love your site, though! Many thanks for all the great information.

December 06, 2009 5:32 PM  
Blogger David said...


FWIW, when I use that particular term I am almost always speaking specifically of my wife.



December 07, 2009 3:01 AM  
Blogger mitchy said...

Hey dude - can't seem to find your write-up on "wrap around" lighting that you mentioned above - any help finding that one?? Would be greatly appreciated!

Love your blog - thanks for all the tips!

January 20, 2010 10:22 PM  
Blogger Danny said...

Great reading here. Tried to 'like' for facebook and it gave me an error. I think the like button isn't coded for this site - the URL's apparently missing. Thanks for some great info.

Danny - Ormond Beach, FL

April 22, 2011 1:36 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

I use Evernote to capture anything I find on the web in "notebooks." It is great! I can save anything I find on the web with the web clipper.

June 26, 2011 7:39 PM  
Blogger Oleg said... had mentioned Tim Tadder's technique here:

November 20, 2011 7:45 PM  
Blogger Bill_K said...

Great series - thanks very much!

May 22, 2012 3:09 PM  
Blogger jose renteria said...

Man, you just brought me out from a dark basement (my photography lately) to a very open and "lighted" garden.



October 21, 2012 1:09 AM  
Blogger junkyardsparkle said...

just wanted to point out that the link to "On Assignment" at the end of this post appears to be dead. that is all. rock on.

February 14, 2013 4:29 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks! (Fixed.)

February 14, 2013 10:00 AM  
Blogger Virgopunk said...

At last something written in a way that makes sense to me AND is actually funny about too. Thanks for that. You've given me the confidence to just jump in and start messing around. BTW that Tim Tadder is something else isn't he!?

May 10, 2013 10:37 AM  

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