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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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