Lighting 102: 5.1 -- Refract and Reflect

Okay, show of hands: How many people have been trying to do this Lighting 102 stuff with just one flash?

Don't feel so bad. Back in the day, lighting guru Dean Collins was only allowed to use one light source for his first year of studying his craft at school. And he did just fine, thank you.

Whether you have one light or twelve, the trick is making them look like more is knowing how to stretch them into doing double-, triple- and even quadruple-duty for you. Or you can just take that one light and give it some texture -- a little more interestingness.

By reflecting and refracting light, you can pimp it up like a college student making a gourmet meal out of ramen noodles and a few Taco Bell fire sauce packets. Hit the jump for more.

For the most part, light from your flash starts out looking pretty yucky. We have learned how to move it around, soften it up and restrict it, but you can also bend it, or shoot it right back at itself.

In fact, before the light ever leaves your speedlight, it has already been refracted. The fresnel lens on the front of your strobe bends the rays to make them spread out wide or zoom in tight. But who's to say that you can't do a little more of that kind of stuff after the fact?

At left is a photo of photographer Ant Upton, who did this cool guest On Assignment of a soccer player in Paris a ways back. I shot him during a lighting seminar in London last year.

Before we lit it, the backdrop for this photo was an speckled grey room divider. A gelled flash took care of the drab color. But the subtle pattern was created by shooting our background flash through a water pitcher to bend the light around in a funky way.

This is the kind of thing that can turn a plain-jane background into something with a little texture to it. I do these lighting gigs in typical, boring hotel conference rooms, and I often have to scrounge for something to make the light a little more interesting. I have to go with what I have on hand, and frequently, that means a stack of water glasses or a pitcher.

In this instance, the trick is to back the flash up a little from the pitcher to make the light point-source enough to create a good pattern as it shoots through. (This also means you are probably gonna get a lot of spill around the pitcher, so I tend to snoot or grid the light to keep the beam tight.)

If you are looking for an even cooler thing to shoot light through, those (cheap) translucent, wavy-glass blocks at Home Depot look even nicer for a light bender. Use your imagination -- light modifiers are everywhere.

Or, you can easily make one light do the work of two. For this quickie headshot-in-a-corner of actor Bruce Vilanch (in drag for a role in the musical "Hairspray," I stuck a speedlight into an umbrella and used one wall of the corner setting for a backdrop and the other wall as a reflector.

Bingo: One light becomes main and fill.

(Full how-to on the quickie corner headhot setup here.)

This is simple stuff, and you should always think of a neutral-colored wall as a second light source, waiting to help you fill those shadows.

But refracting light can make it more interesting, and reflecting light can multiply it into something that looks far more complex than it is.

For instance, you can shoot light through something translucent and use the resulting modulated shadow as a compositional element. A good example is this shot of a pair of glasses, by Ekistoflarex.

All it takes is a little imagination.

But especially nifty, IMO, is what you can do with mirrors. And rather than throw an example up for this, I want you to take a moment to previsualize it. This way, you start to build a photo in your mind before you pull out the first (and sometimes only) light.

You want to get to where you can see the light in your mind before you ever start to create it. You want a process you can depend on, not a string of lucky accidents. (Although we'll certainly take lucky accidents when we can get them.)

Imagine a table-top product shot, lit with a single, bare light, say, from directly above. You'd obviously get that "suspect-getting-the-third-degree" kind of light. Which can be cool, depending on the reflective quality of the surface the object it is sitting on.

But say, for the sake of argument, that you happened to drop by Ikea or a home store and bought a pack of four mirror tiles for $5.99.

Now, say you placed two mirrors front camera left and right of the subject, and the other two back camera left and right, too. If you angled them properly, you would turn that one, top-spotlight into a full, five-sided wrap-light setup for just $5.99.

You seeing it?

In fact, you can do a lot of seemingly complex table-top photography with just one real light source, if you bounce that thing around some. That mirror-wrap thing is just an example. You might decide to build your lighting scheme on one (real) rim light with reflector cards and mirrors stretching it into a near-endless set of apparent light sources.

If you are into gelling your light, you could control the color of each of those mirrored light sources individually. You just have to remember that you'll get double the strength out of your gels, because the light gets gelled on the way in and on the way back out when reflecting from the mirror.

(It's an easy fix. You just use half of what you need -- a 1/2 CTO becomes a full CTO, etc.)

If $5.99 is beyond your disposable income limit this week, consider making some foil reflectors. Just a little cardboard covered with aluminum foil can do winders for a small product shot. Remember to crinkle the foil up, then spread it back out, for a nice, even reflector surface.

No assignment today -- just some thoughts to get your gears turning. Just a heads-up to be thinking about what you have -- or can scrounge or buy -- as a set of reflectors. Because our next assignment (which I'll be doing, too) will require that you use one light -- in several different directions at once.

NEXT: 5.2: Assignment | Double-Duty Light


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Blogger J. Beckley said...

Oh man, I can't wait for the assignment. I already have something in mind!

February 11, 2008 5:20 AM  
Blogger Madelien said...

I've been using those kind of anti-freeze covers for the windshield of a car as a striplight reflector. They are about 6 feet long and have about the same reflective quality as a regular reflector. Plus it rolls up nice and can go around my compact lightstands.

February 11, 2008 5:30 AM  
Blogger Box of Frogs said...

Totally magnificent post. I love this concept of Less gear - more brain - better light

I typically have

Less gear - no brain - Pardon?

Dave Hobby, I bow on bended knee. Thanks for such an amazing site.

When are the dvd's coming out??

February 11, 2008 5:31 AM  
Anonymous Nick The Click said...

I love the windshield visors that you can buy at Target for under $10 bucks. The one I have is white on one side and a kinda matte, more matte than shiny,silver on the other. It also has dimples on it so it's not just like a flat mirror. A pleasant blend of diffuse and semi spekular, heh, I said spekular, sorta like W says Nuklear. Anyway $10 bucks and I always have it with me.

February 11, 2008 6:37 AM  
Anonymous derJake said...

You can also get the windshield reflectors for about 1,79€ (50x150cm i think) at Kaiser's in Germany. :)

February 11, 2008 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just to remind people - gels do cut a certain amount of light out, dependent on the strength of the gel. so... if the light first has to travel through it and then back out when it reflects off the mirror you can be talking about a fair amount of reduced light - don't be surprised if the light doesn't appear as strong as your strobe

February 11, 2008 9:36 AM  
Blogger Luke said...

I just got myself a second 285HV so I could do more, so I was a bit disappointed to see that I'll soon have hundreds of well executed one-light setups to learn from. But then I realized. If one can become 2 or more, then 2 can become 4 or more! Hooray!

February 11, 2008 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Daveblog said...

This sounds like fun! Disco Ball anyone?

February 11, 2008 1:36 PM  
Anonymous invincible henry said...

Hi Strobist...

This does not concern this post..

I am looking for the "support strobist by shopping at Amazon" link, but I do not see it anymore. Is it gone on purpose? I have gift card dollars burning a hole in my pocket but would rather go this way that have them getting all the dollars..

Thanks for all you do,

Don J.

February 11, 2008 3:27 PM  
Anonymous the other gaz said...

or do, i don't care!
you can run, but you can't hide. what the heck: was quite a shock; who knew you golfed?

here's a website, featuring joey the gaz:

when you get to the page, click for more -- you can catch up on his news. look for the dude with the dog.
----- cheney

February 11, 2008 5:11 PM  
Anonymous invincible henry said...

Now I see the amazon link... was that there the whole time?

What a dork.

Or a blind photographer.. hmmm..

February 11, 2008 10:48 PM  
Blogger David said...


Nope, you were right. I had swapped it to put an announcement there, then forgot to sap it back. I was logged on via cell phone, so I made the choice to swap it back and thank you later.

So, ... thanks!


February 11, 2008 11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post David! I wish your example of Ekistoflarex would have shown a setup shot. I don't quite get how it was done. I'm learning more and more each time I read your blog, I love it!

February 12, 2008 9:00 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

It's a bit late but there is a great article in September's issue of Rangefinder Mag that talks about Dean Collins one light portraits. The article includes lighting diagrams as well as frame by frame images as the light is adjusted using diffusion, bounce, etc...

February 12, 2008 6:26 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

interesting patent from Canon.

Just in case you havent seen it yet,

February 12, 2008 9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

February 13, 2008 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not quite sure if you have heard about it. But go check out the the LIGHTSPHERE at

Used it at a wedding recently, it was awesome.


May 25, 2008 2:53 AM  

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