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L102: Light Controls Overview

Today, we'll run through the various lighting controls to give you some context for later.

If these are all old hat, you may be in for more than you think. While they may sound simple to some of the more seasoned readers, I am discovering new techniques all of the time simply by studying these controls on a one-by-one basis. And I expect to learn a lot just by going through this process myself.

Each control has a range of possibilities, and offers both advantages and disadvantages that can be exploited or avoided for a given subject.

Lighting Controls Overview

1. Varying the Position
Changing the angle of your light position is what will allow your flash to define the three-dimensional shape of your subject. This is where on-camera flash fails us. It illuminates, but does not reveal shape. Getting your light off of the camera is the most basic control, so it is our first of the seven.

In addition to varying the angle of your light source, you can also dramatically change the effect of your light by varying the distance to the subject. In particular, altering the distance of the light to the subject as it relates to the distance from the light to the background.

2. Varying the Apparent Size of the Light Source
Note that I said "apparent." In photography, size does not matter. Apparent size matters. How a subject sees your light source will determine many things.

Size of light source can be altered by reflection off of a diffuse surface, or transmission through a translucent material. In addition to changing the apparent size of the light source, this will lower the intensity per square inch. This, in turn, will alter the way your light interacts with your subject.

We also will spend some time in this section talking about how the various surface properties of your subject come into play with your light source, and how to exploit those variables.

3. Altering the Relative Intensity
This is about balancing light - with the ambient, other strobes, lightning, glowing swamp gases, whatever.

It is not about the light level. That is easily compensated for by your exposure settings. The magic is in the relative light levels, and where you place your exposure settings with respect to your various light intensities.

This is a sticking point for a lot of people, so we are gonna hit it hard.

4. Restricting Light
Even more important than where your light goes is where it does not go. We'll be using various light restricting tools and exploring their effects in a methodical way.

Snoots, grids, gobos, cookies, (man-made and natural, oatmeal and chocolate chip) beam-width adjustment, feathering - it's all good. And we'll be hitting each one in turn.

5. Refraction and Reflection
You do it without thinking about it every time you zoom your flash. That little fresnel lens in the front bends your light to suit your mood. Or at least your lens. But there are other ways to bend light, and we will be exploring them.

Water, glass, mirrors, the extreme gravity around a black hole - whatever it takes.

6. Altering the Color
We're talking gels, gels, gels and more gels. Sure, white light is clean and predictable, but you have a whole color spectrum to play with. We'll make sure we get the basic color correction stuff in. But we'll also be looking at altering light color to develop a theme in a photo.

There are subtle things you can do, and not-so-subtle things. Most people are about as subtle as a ball-peen hammer when they start out with gels. But, just as the vinophiles will tell you, the real fun is in the slight variations.

Layering colors from a given family, complimentary color cross lighting, deliberate in-camera color balance shifting and more.

If you do not have a Rosco or Lee sample pack, beg borrow or steal one. And if you have a good source for said sample packs, please sound off in the comments. Especially out-of-US sources. I never, ever turn down a sample pack. Ever.

Go ahead. Offer me one and try me.

7. Time
Flash is impossibly brief, but continuous light is variable with respect to time duration. This gives us another creative lever to exploit.

Yes, light is light. But elapsed time adds a fourth dimension to a three-dimensional world, and offers results that simply cannot happen in a single instant.


So, there you go. Seven straightforward concepts that together yield a world of possibilities.

We will explore them, dissect them, discuss them, occasionally curse them and finally get to know them on an instinctive level.

That accomplished, the goal will be to control them without letting them distract us from more creative thoughts.

When you tie your shoes, you do not consume mindshare by remembering that the little bunny has to go around both trees before it hops into its hole. (Can you tell I have kids?) You just tie your shoes while you are thinking about more important things. That's how you want to be when you position your lights, for example.

I have noticed a lot of questions popping up in the comments and the L102 thread on Flickr. So before we dive into "position," I will answer as many questions as is practical in the next L102 post, to minimize confusion going forward.

If you have a question, try to stick it in the L102 thread in the next few days. I'll go through and answer as many as I can, assuming they have not been answered by someone else.

FYI, I am teaching for the rest of the week at the Defense Information School at Ft. Meade in Maryland. It is put on by the US Department of Defense and Nikon. I have three days with a hand-picked class of six military photographers to teach an intensive course on location lighting. With such a luxurious amount off time and such a small class, I am chomping at the bit to get started.

That's right folks, join the Army and learn to light. ("Just sign on the dotted line, son, and those SB-800's are yours...")

Following that, I am headed down south with my family for a week to see my folks in greater metropolitan Umatilla, Florida. But I have some interesting stuff in the hopper all ready to go during my so-called vacation.

And two more big announcements when I get back.

Next: L102: Questions and Answers


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