The Lighting Journey: Where Are You?

A few days ago, a reader whose opinion I value greatly made an impassioned argument for limiting the content of the Flickr Strobist pool to just professional-quality images.

It was a macro shot that he felt was inappropriate that set him off. But the gist of the discussion was that people were throwing many things up that he thought were of little intrinsic value.

I gave it some thought and came to the conclusion that the sheer diversity of the group's effort was its primary strength. We have seasoned professionals, rank amateurs and everything in between.

But the meat of our bell curve would be the very excited advanced amateur who has just discovered off-camera light and is going nuts with it. And for me, that stuff is great.

Twenty photos of you girlfriend in a week? No prob.

Macro shot of a bug? Yessir.

Skater boyz at dusk in every photo you post? Keep 'em coming.

I absolutely love seeing the ways new-found lighting enthusiasm expresses itself in people's images. I think the kick, for me, is not about where you happen to be on your personal lighting journey, but how hard you are crashing up against your ceiling as you try to get better.

That said, I believe that all photographers experience a fairly similar series of growth phases as they strive to improve at lighting. Some people may blow through the phases, while others get to a wall - or comfort zone - and camp there for a while.

And once in a great while, someone seems to transcend this process and become the lighting equivalent of Yoda, able to snatch the X-Wing fighter out of the swamp with the sheer power of will. These guys have no predictability to their lighting other than extreme quality.

I love to look at magazine covers and try to guess the shooter. There are a few people who stand out because of their style of light. But very rare is the photographer who is both gifted and versatile to the point where sheer quality and elegance are their only calling cards.

That's always been my goal. Whether I will ever reach it remains to be seen. But the journey is its own reward.

To that end, I worked out a list of what I see as the Seven Levels of Lighting. These are not set in stone. They are simply one person's map of a journey, partially completed, and the road that is visible ahead.

So here they are. I'll spell them out, then tell you where I think I am. Think of your own station, and more important, the growth path you are on.

1. Available Light is Best

Many people work under the theory that available light is the only way to photograph. Or maybe they have been burned by bad flash. Or maybe they just do not know.

In many cases a lack of knowledge of quality light (or a fear of flash) leads to a defensive position that backs them into the corner of not creating it. In theory, this has nothing to do with strobe. But since continuous light is visible as you are shooting, the "math anxiety" feeling tends to center on strobe.

For many years we could get away with this as photojournalists because we shot black and white. But color, with various (and mixed) light temperatures has ended that as a crutch. And the web's cheap access to color photography for publication has meant that B&W is a style, not a comfort zone.

There are people who spend entire lives (and careers) here. Which is fine, I guess, if you disregard the potential of what you could be doing.

2. Competent On-Camera Flash

Here is where you'll find the TTL-flashers, the on-camera bouncers, the Gary Fong-ers, the Lumi-Questers, the flash bracket hounds and the vast majority of perfectly happy amateurs.

These are the wine lover's equivalent of folks who are perfectly happy with a bottle of Sutter Home White Zin because they have never really experienced the good stuff.

There are many who make a fine living shooting in this zone - weddings, events, candids, team shots, etc. It is comfy and predictable - which is not necessarily a terrible thing.

Warm milk is not a terrible thing, either.

3. Overdone Off-Camera Flash

At this stage, quality os defined by watt-seconds and f/stops. Pump it all into two umbrellas - at 45-degrees on each side - and a backlight for good measure. Add a hair light while you are at it.

Just nuke it till it glows, dammit. They want f/16 and they want everything visible.

I have worked with guys like this, and I have never really understood them. For growth, they need more watt-seconds. Maybe f/32.

It's not a very rewarding place to be.

4. Experimentation

If I had to pick a level where many Strobist readers live, I would choose this one. As often as not, it is because they may lack the f/16-light-everywhere arsenal.

But that is a good thing. Necessity is the mother of invention. Ergo, you are resourceful. And you share notes constantly. As a group, you are like the Borg, learning to light.

It's a fascinating, organic process to watch from my position as gatekeeper of the Small Flash Geeks. I believe it would be all but impossible to be a steady participant in the Flickr Strobist group and spend much time mired down in level three.

Where level three is comfy and predictable, level four is error-prone, and sometimes random in its quality. Which I will take over predictable and boring any day.

5. The Bag of Tricks

Most competent magazine / agency shooters live here.

He knows what works, and he can make money with it. She experiments, but a has a collection of techniques that she can choose from to craft almost any situation into a beautiful photo.

Grid spot, soft box, flash drag, you name it. They know them all and can cycle them to the point where their pictures do not appear to be cliches of themselves.

To someone in level one, two or three, they appear to be the ultimate destination.

6. Personal and Unique Lighting Style

From the bag of tricks, a technique is chosen and carved in stone. The shooter and the technique marry, and live happily ever after.

Often with this style comes huge financial success - and rampant, blatant imitation from others. Think William Coupon's softbox-painted-background icons of the '80's. Or Aaron Jones' Hosemaster images of the same era. (People are still copying him.)

Or Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' elegant, painter's light and subtle, large-format detail.

7. Subject-Driven Light

Level seven is defined by absolute mastery of the craft to the point where it transcends into art on a regular basis.

The command of a wide array of techniques leads to a pure versatility unmatched by other shooters. The key is a variety of styles - singular or combined - from which to choose The Appropriate Response to a given challenge.

It's the difference between a very good cellist playing a piece, or that same piece being owned by the late Pablo Casals.

It is being so far beyond the mastery of technique that "how-will-I-light-this" is replaced by sheer, instinctive vision. It's craft to the point of genius. It's Dean Collins in his prime.

It's Gregory Heisler, now.

Quoting Heisler, from his website:

"The work is primarily subject-driven. All decisions flow from there. The photographs are all made in response to a unique subject in a particular context at a specific moment in time.

The thoughtful preparedness that defines my working method actually facilitates spontaneity and allows me to embrace surprise.

I always have a game plan but view it merely as a jumping-off point."

That's it, folks. That's the gold standard.

If you think he is BS'ing you, look at his photos.

You want a compass point for your own lighting journey? Get that mantra tattooed onto your forehead. In reverse, so you can read it in the mirror in the mornings.

If I can get there, I will never ask for anything else. I promise.

But I am not there.

I see myself at the Bag of Tricks level on an average day, sometimes resorting to random experimentation when my bag of tricks fails me.

I want to be at "Subject-Driven" every day. I get a glimpse of it once (maybe twice) a year. Photographically, nothing makes me happier.

I want to work and learn and feel until I can be there consistently.

Where are you?

Where did you come from?

Where are you going?

How are you going to get there?

( The wonderful photo of the Tibetian Monk at the top of this post was taken by Reznorsedge, in Pakistan, in 2002.)


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Blogger righteye said...

personally some days i'm a 1, others i'm a 2, 4, 5, or 7.
never a 3 or 6. For the most part i dont think its me that dictates my number but the event or person i am shooting.
for example i was doing a shot for canadian press last week and i was given 5 minutes to get the shot of three bank vp's at an event. They were standing in a hallway greeting people as they came in and there was a huge line, which they were not about to leave. I was a 2, shooting them in the hall lined up looking at the camera with bounce flash. I went there hoping to be a 4 or 5, and i tried hard to find something interesting around them before i shot, but no luck.
I really think that you have to be it all to be successfull in my world.
yours truly
ps: this was a very , very, well written piece you did.

November 21, 2006 12:44 AM  
Blogger Sean Cayton said...

Quite honestly, I can't stand using a strobe. But I read your stuff anyways because I want to know how people are using strobes, off camera or on.

I find your description of the seven levels of lighting to be simplistic and as a photojournalist downright discouraging. Aren't you a photojournalist?

Or are you just shooting cover photos for section fronts?

What does a really wonderful photojournalist do when they are subject-driven?

They make decisions, instinctively. More often than not, those decisions have always involved available light. Here's Steve Liss
an accomplished photojournalist. Someone who tell stories. He also shoots covers and uses flash photography very specifically.

And Greg Heisler who you mention in your post, right from the start announces he is a portrait artist. But he also includes on his web site front an image that has no flash and shows him working with his subjects. Sort of like that monk at the top of your post.

So, I have to ask what's more meaningful to these guys? Is it their use of strobe or their interest in their subject matter. Undoubtedly, it is the latter.

I read your blog because it's important to me to know what strobist's (plural) are doing. Plus, it informs my own work.

Do I think that using strobe (creatively or not) justifies my work? No. And for good reason. You seem to be jumping beyond the intuitive and justifying a more formal view of photography as a better way. But really, it's just one way.

I enjoy your blog and I will continue to read it. But after reading your post on seven levels, I felt the need to comment.

Your way or the Dean Collins way is not the only way, especially for those who decide not to shoot for four-coler section fronts, covers or annual brochures.

Sean Cayton

November 21, 2006 1:08 AM  
Blogger David said...


I appreciate your comment very much.

This post was written from the perspective of off-camera flash lighting, as opposed to that of documentary photojournalism.

As a photojournalist, lighting is a tool that helps me to create the photos that I feel can best draw people into a story.

But that is only one facet of my job.

In the last week, my job has sent me to shoot spot news in a hrizontal rain, NFL football, 22-hour-old zebrafish zygotes, the $70,000,000.00 expansion of a solar panel factory (also, ironically, shot in a driving rain) an Armastice Day tea, various environmental portraits, a story on the future of a small town, a biologist who studies e. coli, NCAA night soccer in a black hole of a stadium, a fifth-grade string instrument class and high-school football. Among other things that I cannot pull out of my sleepy brain right now.

You have to be able to handle everything from night sports to fly-on-the-wall documentary photojournalism to sophisticated, lit portraiture - and many other things - to do well as a metro PJ.

My writing about one facet does not imply the exclusion of the others.

Similarly, wanting to excel in off-camera flash does not negate the validity of using available light. Heisler sees it as one of a countless number of tools at his disposal. The fact that he uses it does not negate his lighting knowledge, nor doe sit limit his possibilities.

The problem would be relying on available light to the exclusion of the flash. Available light is not the best option. It is an option. When it is there, that is. Ignoring flash as an option would be like being a pro tennis player with no backhand. It could be done, but...

I never said that "my way, or Dean Collins' way was the only way."

In fact, what I said was, "These are not set in stone. They are simply one person's map of a journey, partially completed, and the road that is visible ahead."

If you can't stand using a strobe, that's your choice. There are many other areas within the genre in which you can excel.

But this site is about using strobes. And that's my choice.


November 21, 2006 1:38 AM  
Anonymous Erik said...

Heisler rocks.

He did a week-long workshop this summer. Can you imagine a week with that guy?

November 21, 2006 2:16 AM  
Anonymous dwbell said...

Not quite on your 1 - 7 scale but just an observation on using off camera strobes. I was taught once in a seminar that there are four "Levels of Competence"
1) Unconscious Incompetence - you don't know you're rubbish!
2) Conscious Incompetence - you realise you are rubbish (and hopefully want to do something about it)
3) Conscious Competence - you are able to do it, but it's deliberate and premeditated every time.
4) Unconscious Competence - it's like riding a bike, you can do it and do it well and you don't even notice it happening!

In terms of off camera lighting, I'm at 2) - Concsious Incompetence. But it's a pretty neat place to be right now!


November 21, 2006 3:03 AM  
Anonymous Jukka Vuorinen said...

Sometimes it's quite easy to get the impression that using strobe is the best way. I know that David has said that strobes are just one tool. Anyway, I think that people should learn to use available light before they start using strobes (master the basics before going advanced). Maybe this way people get better grip how and when strobes are most useful.

Maybe I have this opinion just because I have seen few photographers who cannot take photos if they don't have their strobes with them.

November 21, 2006 4:35 AM  
Blogger Rick Morris said...

What a great post! Even better than your usually good stuff. Life itself is a journey and we all should be trying to find our where we are in our journeys.

Thanks again for all the help, guidance, ideas and inspiration.

November 21, 2006 5:26 AM  
Blogger Rick Morris said...

What a great post!

I can't believe that someone would ask you to restrict the photos shown to only those of "professional" quality. How are we supposed to get better unless we compare our work with others and let those people critique it?

All of life is a journey and we should be trying to find out where we are on that journey.

Thanks again for all the help, guidance and inspiration.

November 21, 2006 5:29 AM  
Blogger Marten said...

IMHO the qulaity of submissions has strtling improved over the last 6 months! So, something must be going rigt?

November 21, 2006 7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 7th stage of "knowing" is teaching.

I got to wallow through a lot of fuzzy logic when I got my education degree, but "Understanding by Design" by Wiggins and McTighe still resonates. Their stages of "understanding" and "knowing" parallel your epistemology (howz that for ed-speak?), and one way to assess how well a student knows a subject is have him or her explain it to another student.

FWIW, you explain lighting very well.

November 21, 2006 8:57 AM  
Anonymous Doug said...

Such an insprining and uplifting post. I've been getting frustrated with my "progress" lately, ultimately related to the lack of time I am available to spend on it, but frustrated none the less. Reading over your 7 levels makes me feel better. I would have to classify myself as either a 1, 2, 3 or 4, depending on the photo and the situation. I do understand everything you have said in lighting 101, I just need to put it to good practice.

Thanks for the constant flow of information, inspiration, and push to make my photography better.

November 21, 2006 8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anthony said...

I'm borderline stage 1/2, but I hope, with the help of Strobist, I will skip to stage 4 at least.

It wasn't long ago that I was really hating flash photography and trying to embrace available light. I despised the look of my flash photos. I knew that strobes could provide nice light (I have done a smidge of assisting a photographer friend - mostly just watching him work) but I thought you had to spend thousands on "studio" strobes, which is something I can't justify as a hobbyist.

I learned about bounce-flash and got an SB-800 and was immediately happier, until I realized it didn't always look that great and I had no idea how to control it. Thanks to this blog and community, now I do.

I am only beginning to get the hang of it in the last few days, but photography is also part of my new job, so I have ample reason and opportunity to keep trying.

November 21, 2006 10:10 AM  
Blogger Don Giannatti said...

A thought provoking and very well written post. You are hitting a great stride here with your writing and insight.

I started at 1. My heros were Weston, Adams, Caponigro. And, in that genre, yep... natural light is best. It is a given... er, was a given, now you have some fantastic environmental shooters using strobes and such for added impact, or style.

I began shooting women / people and thusly ended up with strobes. Lots of them. Big ol' Normans, Ascors that would melt a cyc and two dozen heads. And I used them all. Big set shooting required tons of light. It required tons of practice. And it required tons of Polaroids. I tired of it rather quickly though as the pace was so slow... sometimes taking several days to create and light a shoot.

Moved to fashion, ditched the big studio and started shooting in environments. Along the way, I have tried and used nearly every type of lighting that exists. I even had two 5K Fresnel Movie lights that were nearly 2 feet across.

There are some pitfalls along the way to achieving lighting prowess versus client satisfaction. One of the most dangerous is comfort. I can light a headshot with one big softbox and two bounce panels in my sleep. The comfort zone of that is at the same time good and bad. If you allow yourself to become too comfortable, the work starts to look the same and new ways of seeing become harder to create.

That being said, there are of course amazing shooters for whom the light is a given, unchanging and deliberate. Avedon, Skrebneski, Scavullo, Hauser... all excellent shooters who do very little in the 'let's change up the light" realm. For them it is the subject. It is a different style of shooting, but it is just as valid and important. In these cases, the style of the photographer trumps the lighting.

Where I have ended up doing is letting the subject drive the image, and the image drives the lighting. Example: Erica as a first time model - (you can see the images here

In the top row of images (first 6) you will see softbox headshots to show the beautiful skin, an umbrella shot with the fur (in order to bring out texture I used a large soft umbrella for the main and a small silver scrimmed off for the fur), a "pan light" for the two hot headshots in fur so I could achieve a very poppy image. In the rest of the images you will see fill cards in gold, silver, white, a wink of strobe, some all-natural light with 'BOB' fill - that's Big Ol' Building - and combinations of the two.

I don't 'think' about the technique, I think about the image as it will be presented... depth of field, color, composition, emotion and more... the lighting becomes second nature.

The best way for a young photographer to get fast and proficient is to do everything you can do to see what works and how to do it. Then, look a the picture. Does it work? Does it have emotion? Does it look staged, or does it look 'real'? Does the lighting choice you made seem natural and part of the image, or does it look like an experiment in light that was the wrong choice. NOTE: you have to do this yourself, asking others may not be what you need to do, but asking others may help at some point in knowing whether the picture 'connects.'

In the end, the subject, the assignment and the final image should be the driving consideration, and the more tools a photographer has at his/her command, the more they are able to deliver.

That's my two cents worth.

November 21, 2006 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Balmore said...

"Skater boyz at dusk in every photo you post? Keep 'em coming."

Have you ever tried getting them out of bed before midday and out skating before dusk? (One of the joys of rollerblading photography.)

Glad you like them. comments would be appreciated.

I'm trying to be a bit more organised with the lighting.

(The Balmore)

November 21, 2006 11:21 AM  
Blogger ericrudd said...

David, I can think of two reasons (at least) why this is one of your best posts. One, it mentions yet again photographers that I have never heard of and that propels me to search them out based on the their mention here. Two, it opened the doors on a healthy, productive discussion about the art of photography.

To Sean Clayton, I read your post, then looked at your work. It is beautiful. Truly.

The only observation, David, I have about your "7 points" list is that I wonder if numbers 6 & 7 might be reversed in order of ascendancy? As a creative parallel, I've been in the professional recording industry for 20 I approach a particular recording is subject-driven. How the band is "composed" in the room (and believe me, it's VERY visual), what mics and equipment I use, are all based on the subject. But I think the greater majority of craftsman in the field know what mics to use on what instruments, where to place them, how loud the vocal should be, etc. I feel that the real "art" comes from the "personal and unique sound style" that comes from having a command of the tools at your disposal, then consciously or unconsciously putting your stamp on things. That's why certain mixing engineers are in demand. It's why I can document down to the millimeter how one engineer recorded a particular instrument, recreate it on my own, and it NOT sound the same. Ever. It's why Heisler or Hobby are sought out. It's assumed that you know how to respond to what the subject and environment presents you....what they want is YOU and what you bring to the image.

Great, great stuff.


November 21, 2006 11:29 AM  
Blogger melissa said...

I don't post much on blogs anymore and as I'm a newbie when it comes to strobing I'm a bit shy to start now but I think this is an excellent way to look at the journey.

I'm a number 3 but trying hard to get through it to number 4. I believe quite adamently that all that I do with photography whould be subject-driven and think this could apply to concept as well.

excellent post sir I am sure when I'm feeling glum about what I'm trying to do and perhaps not getting there fast enough for me I'll come here and re read for inspiration.

thank you : )

November 21, 2006 12:07 PM  
Blogger //ed pingol said...

3. Overdone Off-Camera Flash
4. Experimentation

still haven't found my style and i totally get lucky sometimes. but that's just it... i get lucky. i'd like to be able to read the "matrix code" of photography. someday (i hope), i'd like to just look and KNOW what the next logical step would be rather than "click, uh.. okay, maybe this setting would work better... click, uh... let's try this... click" and so on.


November 21, 2006 1:50 PM  
Blogger Alan Morris said...

Currently at Stage 2 trying to skip 3 and go to 4. I don't like a lot of equipment. My main subjects are children engaging in activities and not in a studio. The portable strobist gear is working great. I just need to practice more. Using the Nikon CLS system (with SB800) as an interim step. Once I feel comfortable with it, it is Pocket Wizard time. Great post and many thanks to all.

November 21, 2006 1:53 PM  
Blogger bumt said...

As someone who is a "Conscious Incompetence" from above, I realize that my photos are "Trash Photos" (wouldn't make it out of more experienced photographers trash pile) and have nothing anywhere near a "professional quality" photo to add to the stream, I want to say thanks for this post. All of the photos I am taking right now are test photo, and all of them are failures because of one reason or another, forget to check camera settings, trying to get the camera to do something it can't do, lack of equipment, too much dependence on the camera, or deliberate failures because I want to see what happens when.... I know that and it is one of the hardest things for me to do, intentionaly set myself up to fail, but it is the only way I am ever going to become a decent photographer, knowing how things affect my photos and being able to use the tools at my desposal to the best of my ability. As such I had already decided to put more limits on what I added but it is nice to know that I don't have to wait for that "perfect" photo before participating.

November 21, 2006 2:47 PM  
Blogger John W. MacDonald said...

It was a good post so I thought I would say so in this comment. There. I said it.


I very much enjoyed the four "Levels of Competence" as posted by dwbell above.

November 21, 2006 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...


As others have noted, you're hitting high-gear with your writing - and importantly with your capacity to communicate so effectively. i.e. GREAT POST!

I really related to this, I think I was stuck in Stage 3 until I found your blog (via Ron Galbraith site) and now the fun of learning in stage four has kicked in. Like last night, trying to do Christmas card, a total screw-up but before I fell asleep I reflected on what I had learnt so all was not lost. That's what stage 4 experimentation is all about for me; try, reflect, try again, learn, etc, and so on...


November 21, 2006 4:38 PM  
Blogger natasha said...

hey dave, a friend sent this tutorial on making a supa dupa cheap light tent and i didn't know how else to send it to ya....

November 21, 2006 8:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I am printing this out and sticking it somewhere where I can see it often.

Thanks for a great site.

November 21, 2006 9:47 PM  
Anonymous Bill Rogers said...

David, this is a truly insightful essay. I predict that it will become a classic that people will reference for many years.

Your essay inspired to me write about two ideas that have been bouncing around in my head recently. Neither is original, but they are worth repeating.

The first is a revisit to Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” Life Books has just published a coffee table book entitled Life Platinum Anniversary Collection, showcasing seventy years of photographs from “Life” Magazine. Many of these iconic photos broke the rules of composition, lighting, exposure, or focus, but so what? The truly great photos produce an emotional response in the viewer, and that’s all that really matters.

For instance, consider a 1991 David Hume Kennerly photo of Presidents Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon. Taken in open sunlight, President Carter’s, Ford’s, and Nixon’s hair and/or forehead are overexposed. The photo appears to have been taken between poses for a group of shooters to Kennerly’s left, and only Reagan is looking at Kennerly. It was a decisive moment and a terrific photo.

A 1958 Leonard McCombe photo of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, and David Niven is poorly lighted. Hope is blurry and only half of Niven shows in the photo, but it captured a priceless, lighthearted moment.

A 1945 Peter Stackpole image of James Stewart is well composed and perfectly lighted, but the subject’s face is partly obscured by a telephone handset. Here's a photo of Senator McCarthy with his hand obscuring his face. A photo of Hugh Hefner with his eyes in deep shadow. A blurry photo of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Don’t misunderstand. Many of these photos are perfectly composed, lighted, exposed, and focused. But this is not why they are in the collection. Each photo is in the collection because it jumps off the page into the viewer’s lap, and thus rises above the textbook rules for good photography.

To me, the message is simple: take the photo. Don’t worry about all that textbook stuff. There’ll be time for that later. Right now, take the photo.

If you see a group of shooters in one location, move to another location. If you’re taking an individual or group portrait, shoot before, between, and after the posed shots. If you're attending a show and you can't get a good photo of the performer, take photos of the audience.

Above all, be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. Don’t let all the technical stuff come between you and a great moment.

My second topic is simplicity. Occam’s razor applies: “All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.” Thoreau said it better: “Simplify, simplify.”

Anything that stands between me and the decisive moment has to go. Flash brackets, lightspheres, lumiquests, mini-softboxes, cardboard grids, and small beauty dishes, gone. I use umbrellas, reflectors, and snoots, but any light “softener” less than about one meter in diameter isn’t worth carrying.

At the end of every shoot, I reset my D200 to the Program mode, and I take most of my photos in that mode. That way, it’s ready to shoot without having to change anything. The viewfinder shows me what shutter and aperture the camera has chosen, and most of the time it’s a good choice.

Similarly, I reset the D200’s pop-up flash to TTL mode; if I need flash quickly, all I need to do is press one button. I often have an SB-800 mounted in the hotshoe and set to TTL; again, just press one button. I use Nikon CLS to trigger external strobes whenever possible, avoiding the additional complexity of pocket wizards.

I try to begin with simplicity and move toward complexity. This is where experience makes a difference, because an experienced photographer can quickly size up a given situation and go directly to the simplest lighting solution that will get the job done.

Many of us ex-hippies will recall “situational morality,” best expressed in the Stephen Stills song, “Love The One You’re With.”

So: “If you can’t have the light you love, love the light you have.”

Thanks for reading this.

November 22, 2006 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Smith said...

I started as #1 (Available Light is Best) because I'd seen a lo-o-o-t of bad flash shots in the local papers and I didn't want to go down that road. Spent a while at #2 (Competent On-Camera Flash) doing the standard newbie newspaper group shots. Definitely spent a few expensive shadow-free months at #3 (Overdone Off-Camera Flash) but at least I've got a nice collection of strobes when I need them! Currently wandering somewhere between #4 (Experimentation) and #5 (The Bag of Tricks) as I develop my own style, largely by copying what I like and learning how I might want to improve it. For non-commissioned shoots I'm toying with #6 (Personal and Unique Lighting Style) although I'm not sure how unique my style is becoming, most if not all of it has been done before. I fear #7 (Subject-Driven Light) will elude me, as realistically I'm just not good enough and I struggle to ad-lib new set-ups on location. Still you never know, so long as there's room for improvement I can improve...

November 22, 2006 2:17 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


Wonderful post and especially effective for me was your inclusion of Heisler's quote. Shortly after your "Merry Christmas to Me" post, I found this quote on Heisler's site and it quickly became one of "those" quotes - the kind I write down and keep with me all the time for inspiration. Even though I have no expectations to ever make a living on photography, it is a hobby that I take seriously and I hope, one day, to reach level 7. I am reminded of another of "those" quotes, the author of which I cannot remember, "It takes great effort for anything to become effortless".

Thanks for everything you do with this site.


November 22, 2006 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People are gonna complain about what ever youd, gotta get some tuff skin for this. Dont let one "obviously" closed minded person with way too much time on their hands throw ya... I looked at all thee pics trying to find it and believe i did... "Batman"? lol anyway whos to say it wasnt done by a pro? I guess Pros do not have a sense of humor? Well golly gee, Thats it, I need to be a stick in the mud to go pro.. geeze, wish Id'a thunk this up sooner... thanks David, you're site rocks!

November 22, 2006 12:56 PM  
Anonymous Richard Boyd said...

Please just keep on going the way you are!!!!! Beg?

It's great we learn everyday... ;)

November 22, 2006 4:48 PM  
Blogger jimmyd said...

Wow! I feel like I just read some super-sage words from the Dali Lama... if, I suppose, the Dali Lama were a shooter. Thanks. You just put a whole lot of perspective into my perspective.


November 22, 2006 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Ferguson said...

A combination of 1 and 4.

Though my main reason for sticking to one is my lack of lighting equipment and a budget.

With regards to 4, I experiment a lot with DIY stuff. I use lights from Home Depot, theatrical gels, I've built my own DIY lightbox for product photography, and I rent and experiment with flashes both on and off the camera.

When I decide to take my camera with me to see what I can see, I shoot available light. When I decide I want to take a photo of something in particular and I'll have the time and control, I'll experiment. For hours sometimes, without even noticing.

November 23, 2006 7:36 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I'm late to the Strobist community; this post was long before my time. I don't even know how I stumbled upon it, but I'm glad I did.

I think one of the earlier comments was correct: this is destined to be a classic essay on the topic of not only lighting, but photography in general. It lays out the stages most of us go thru as we seek to better our craft.

Personally, I like context, structure and a plan. It's helpful to know where I am and where I have to go.

Thanks DH for the insight on the human condition. It was a very unexpected and much appreciated "find".

I will be "stealing" this for use elsewhere.


November 02, 2007 1:19 PM  
Blogger Mythidiot said...

I was very recently a "available light" guy... I skipped the nuke the shadows stage (having already done that in several video shoots with clients looking for that "hi I'm a mac" look) and now I'm wandering around with strobes in my bag trying to figure out what's going on... Still without my own style... I'm glad I'm adding tricks to my bag. I also agree that with all kinds a varying assignments coming up, its good to know your way around all kinds of photo techniques

January 11, 2008 3:00 AM  
Blogger shund said...

Good read.

My only suggestion would be to divide level 1 into two distinct groups:

1a. Those who think "available light is the only way," and

1b. those who understand that we must walk before we run.

I've met plenty of militant "available light only" photographers who pretend to identify with Ansel Adams as a way to justify their stagnation. They aren't interested in learning and/or don't want to invest the time and money in discovering artificial lighting. They settle for shooting at dawn and dusk, using long exposures at night, and investing in fast glass. This is all well and good, but they don't continue their journey...they only skim the surface of photography. And that seems like a shame.

Then you have those of us who use available light extensively in the hopes of mastering it before taking it to the next level--studio lighting. I skip "on camera flash" as a level because I honestly don't respect it as much of a learning challenge. I use an SB600 on occasion and have made some wonderful on-camera, bounce-lit wedding photos and portraits...and I've only had the flash for two months. It's not complicated to figure out. My goal is to move to the studio level of off-camera flash. Multiple lights, snoots, grids, softboxes, gels--the works.

I do this because I've seen so many portrait photographers that are inept at available light shooting. One of them is a good friend of mine. He's never been much of a photographer--he's not patient enough to practice and learn; he'd rather just buy a different camera and hope that it would make his pictures for him. He's taken this same approach to lighting, opting to "buy" his talent by rigging some studio up in his basement. And yet, his work is still less-than-mediocre, and he doesn't understand why.

Walk before run. That's my theory. Not only does it help you understand light, but it slows you down so that you learn about your camera and your style simultaneously.

I'm a proud graduate of Level 1b and part of the entering class of Level 4.

February 25, 2008 8:50 AM  

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