This Stuff Ain't Rocket Science

Pictured above are the students in last week's five-day lighting class in Paso Robles, CA. Teaching one of these extended classes was a first for me. And while I was expecting a fun, intense week, what was more interesting was watching the students to see how they learned.

That was an eye-opener, to say the least. We had a wide range of ages, personalities and learning styles. And I am more convinced than ever that anyone -- anyone -- can learn to light in a relatively sophisticated way in a pretty short amount of time.

Some thoughts, punctuated by their photos, after the jump.

NOTE: Photos are credited at the bottom of the post. Click on any photo to see it bigger in a new window.

The Usual Suspects

One of my biggest apprehensions before the week was having no idea where the students would be, ability-wise, when they arrived. Would some of them be long-time pros? Would some be rank beginners? Worse yet -- maybe a mix of both?

So we spent some time Monday morning looking at photos and getting to know each other. And as it turned out, the class was a decent cross section of the readership of this site.

They were mostly amateurs, and some transitional pros. We had businesspeople, a dentist, a pioneering punk rocker-turned rock doc filmmaker -- even a cog in the military-industrial complex. We had all ages, from a 22-year old bachelor to several old far .. er, middle-agers.

In the end their age, profession, skill level and/or personality type really didn't matter when it came to seeing how they progressed. Which is really cool when you think about it, and also nukes about 90 percent of the excuses people have for not jumping into this stuff head first.

Left Brain, Right Brain

Many people look at lighting as a technical thing. In reality it is about as technical as playing with the bass and treble knobs on your stereo. And about as difficult, truth be told. I would rather be math-challenged and very creative and be learning this stuff than to be an engineer with the same goal.

Why? Because absolutely anyone can learn to do it. And when it is said and done, you'd rather be a creative person who knows how to light than a tech-head with yet one more new skill in your back pocket.

The biggest hurdle with learning to light is just deciding to do it. It's math anxiety, or being afraid to walk across the room and invite a partner onto the dance floor in sixth grade, or just about anything else that has seemed intimidating -- until you learned how to do it.

It's Not About the Gear, Either

Syl Arena is the proprietor of Paso Robles Workshops, where we were all learning together. (Syl's the guy under he mop of red hair at center left.) He and I originally planned on forming the class into teams based on their brand of gear and various synching methods. In the end we ended up rotating them into a completely new group every day, making for a more diverse experience for the whole class.

We quickly realized it was not the gear that was important. Throughout the week, I could not discern any correlation between how fast someone picked up new skills and the weight of their gear bag. To be sure, you do need some stuff. But you do not need to go into hock on a bunch of high-end bodies, lenses and strobes to get great results. So, for those of you who have more time than money, take heart.

In fact, to be honest I think being a gear hog can be a handicap when learning. Practice frequently and learn to use what gear you have. Then slowly add gear only when you have a specific need. You'll make better photos that way, plus you'll prolong the fun process of gearing up.

It's All About Balance

After this week I feel even more strongly that the key to understanding lighting is to become very comfortable with the concept of balance. We have talked about it in L101 and L102, and in just about every OA post. But everything comes down to how well you understand this concept. All of the other stuff is icing on the cake.

In its simplest form, begin by assessing your ambient. Make a normally exposed photo. Tamp down the exposure a little, until you get a photo that would make a nice "floor" exposure for your final, lit image. Then lay in your light, be it soft and flattering, hard and edgy, or anything in between. We have a little visual run-through of that process coming shortly. And that will reiterate just how easy it is.

Once you get that ambient/flash two-step down pat, you can begin your all-flash photos that way, too. Now you can lay in your fill, ensuring that whatever your key fails to illuminate will fall to exactly what you want. And now you have control over both the quantity and quality of your fill, which is when the photos really start to get interesting.

All of the various styles of key lighting, the light mods, synch methods, gelling, etc., rely on the foundation of balance. Unlock balance, and everything falls into place.

Build Muscle Memory

Once you get the concept, play. A lot. That is a big part of the strength of a five-day workshop -- total immersion learning. I demo'd on Monday, and they shot every other day.

But you can do it at home, too. Make headshots of family and friends. Photograph your own house as a project. Try new fill methods and accent lighting styles.

Reps matter -- every time you previsualize a photo in your mind then pull it off with your camera and flashes, you get better. Heck, by the time they walked in with their shoot on Thursday morning, many were almost looking a little cocky.

With practice, you also get more comfortable stretching your comfort zone. Do it again and again until you are so familiar with the balancing light that it is almost subconscious.

The majority of the fifteen people that showed up one week ago on an chilly Monday morning were amateurs who could best be described as "tentative" in their approach to lighting. We had some nice stuff in the opening images, of course. But most everyone there had more desire to learn than experience at that point.

By the end of the week the problems were far more granular, which is to say that the big stuff was being solved easily. And there was a comfort level that belied where they were just a five days ago. People were taking chances, engaging their subjects and lighting almost intuitively. Almost.

Don't Forget to Make a Picture

Lots of rookie lighting photogs crash here. They spend so much energy working out the light that they neglect the most important part of the process. Save your subjects' attention spans for when you are done with the lighting tweaks away and ready to start making photos.

Engage your subjects. Work through a steady stream of conversation. Don't stick them up there like a mannequin and bore them silly by shooting a frame and disappearing into chimping mode. Seriously, I see this a lot and it is a really bad thing.

That brings us back to muscle memory concept. It is just like doing math. The better your algebra is, the more comfy you will be with the trig. When lighting, if your technical stuff is effortless, you are free to engage the subject with all of your attention. That pays off with great photos -- that happen to be beautifully lit.


The dynamic of team learning is hard to beat. Go to a meetup. Find another local shooter and practice some together. They understand you way better than your poor spouse does. Another lighting photographer will be a VAL (voice-activated light stand) or VAB (same, but a boom) for you until their arms fall off, simply because they want to see what the light can do from way up there, too.

Collaborate with other photogs to gain confidence, then collaborate with subjects toward the goal of making interesting photos. Everyone wins, and you get better fast.

Seventeen Shooters, Eighteen Flashes

For our quickie group shot seen up top (it took us about ten minutes, soup to nuts) we decided to light entirely by flash. This was done by shooting at a 250th of a sec at a decent aperture -- way above the ambient. We had a PW'd Canon speedlight on a stand in a shoot-thru right next to the camera. Almost a ring light look, if you will.

We exposed for the umbrella fill and then closed down the aperture about two stops. At that point, all that was left was for everyone to light themselves with either an SU-4'd SB-800 or an LP120. (Tim, close to the middle, had a Canon speedlight with an off-board slave, I think.)

The contrast range was courtesy the ratio between the facelights and the umbrella fill; key light courtesy the subjects.

About the Photos on This Page

The images seen here were done by (mostly) amateur and transitional pro shooters, and for the most part without my involvement. We lectured hard on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, then shot each other on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday and Thursday we got access to models and two very different locations.

For Friday's assignment, we turned up the pressure several notches. (I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise unless we do it again, and if you tip anyone in the comments you won't be published.) But suffice to say I could have called in sick on Friday and these guys still would have knocked the cover off of the ball.

Credits, in order from top: Everyone in the group photo (it was a self-timer shot), Steven Nguyen, William Yu, Tim Bosma, Sam Graham, Sean Rolsen, Richard Clary and Victory Tischler-Blue.

SPECIAL NOTE TO THE PRW STUDENTS: Whittling down the selects list was a bear, and very sorry to not have something from all 15 shooters. If you would like your credit to link someplace, shoot me an email from the address used in the Paso Robles group email list and let me know where to link it. I will do so ASAP-est.

Thanks much for for such an awesome week. It was a total pleasure to work with you guys.


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Anonymous William Yu said...

As a student of the first Stobist Paso Robles workshop, I sincerely encourage you to attend this workshop if you can in the future. You will not be disappointed, 'cause you are standing on a giant's shoulder.

May 04, 2009 12:03 AM  
Blogger Tim B said...

The credit is all yours. Your willingness to share your techniques; your fun coaching style of teaching, and the great interpersonal dynamics of this group made it an amazing learning adventure.

Syl and Amy were consummate hosts. They did everything they could to make it all go smoothly. I'm really looking forward to future Paso Robles Workshops.

Paso is a wonderful place to stay with all the fine restaurants and wineries. And where else can you sit at the feet of the strobist master himself and learn how to make a point & shoot camera flash diffuser/reflector out of tissue paper and a cut up soda can?


May 04, 2009 12:20 AM  
Blogger Eric Chan said...

Dang, I'm so jealous, I wish I was there. Love all of the pictures posted, nice work everyone!

May 04, 2009 1:34 AM  
Blogger Charles Verghese said...

You know...between you and Zack Arias (, I am slowly realizing that I can produce great portraits or pictures like any other photographer.

The only thing that now separates me and other really good photographers is imagination or creativity. I am not limited by the gear or how many strobes & PWs I own!!!

The 'Aaaaha' moment comes and flows over you like salvation to a sinner and then you realize why & how come you didn't do this before.

I humbly thank (all) you shepherds!

May 04, 2009 3:55 AM  
Blogger Alexander Sharpe said...

How did you fire all the flashes for the group shot? Were they all Nikon (or Canon) flashes using CLS or E-TTL? Or were there actually 17 similar triggers there?


May 04, 2009 4:47 AM  
Anonymous arun said...

Sounds like you guys had a great time. I love it when pros like yourself speak about the importance of "using what gear you got" and flooding it with creativity and imagination.
Speaking of muscle memory - I shot some muscular men this past weekend cross lighting with a couple of simple hard light strobes and I am quite pleased with the output, considering the amount of shoot time.

Thank again for your willingness to teach and share via this site.

May 04, 2009 7:33 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Great post!

May 04, 2009 11:28 AM  
Anonymous Jamie Maldonado said...

Wonderful message! I went here thinking "this stuff is going to be hard to learn" ... but learned it wasn't what I thought. And I'm someone who thinks anyone can learn to be at least a decent photographer on some level. Thanks for opening my eyes more, and thanks for helping fight photo-elitism!

May 04, 2009 11:40 AM  
Blogger Natalia Rex said...

"Lots of rookie lighting photogs crash here. They spend so much energy working out the light that they neglect the most important part of the process."

Great post. I myself have experienced difficulty shooting when I've put so much emphasis into the technical, I forget to be creative. You can have the most technically "sound" photo but without the creativity, what is there? You're working with humans, after all, not robots.

I think its hard to have a balance as a photographer sometimes. The technical can dominate the creativity. Some photos that can be taken with Polaroids and natural light can be better than taken with the most expensive equipment out there. It's all about what we see in our heads, not what technicality we notice...I feel so, at least.

Sounds like you had a great experience. Sounds like a lot of fun. Next week I'm going to a "shoot out" myself to learn some new things, so I hope I learn as much as you did by working with others.


May 04, 2009 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Histed said...

Sounds great: hopefully one day I'll get to come on a course/ day...

I have a particular comment on the picture under the "collaborate" paragraph; of a lady in a chair; with a lmap behind her: harking back to comments David made a long while back about a McNally "thing" of "motivating the light in a picture"...

It is a nice photo: but I strongly disagree with a comment on the flikr page for the picture that the lamp perfectly motivated the light in the picture: that the lamp gives the impression there's a single source of light:

It does indeed give the impression that is what should be happening; but the reality jars with that clue: the light in the picture has not followed that motivation: the lamp could never throw illumination on the subject's front: This looks like the lighting we get in the UK on (I'm sorry) badly lit TV soaps where the light does not tie in with the motivation from the scene. It's near but not quite.

I first grappled with the logic of this stuff years ago as a lighting designer in theater. If you "motivate" light in a scene: it has to be logical and carry through or it looks wrong. If the logic can't be completed it is better to have a light coming from "stage off" so there is no logic to contravene, or seem paradoxical imho.

I also think there is a deeper thing wrong with the lamp being there: without the lamp; you imagine the scene is being illuminated from outside of the picture. nothing wrong with that. But: why would a light like that be put there; when clearly there is so much light coming in from outside the scene that lights just where the lamp would, and better ? The internal logic of the picture is wrong... It could be resolved if there had been a "faux" light source camera side of the lady...
or something perhpas light was reflecting off...

The nice aspects of the shot are not the lighting: but composition: both shapes colours; subject... all really nice. but lighting: no, sorry, not for me !

I hate to be negative though: I intend my critisicm to be consturctive rather than negative, photography is a difficult business: and I'm sure this picture is way nicer than most that I take... well done none the less, and to all the other photographers here: for people learning I take my hat off to you to take such interesting and competent photos. Well done.

May 04, 2009 2:22 PM  
Blogger David said...


You may be reading a wee bit too much into it. Vic was merely balancing the lamp as a source, not trying to make it appear naturally lit with the only illumination coming from the lamp.

But Ross Lowell would be proud, nonetheless.

May 04, 2009 4:29 PM  
Blogger David said...


The umbrella fill was PW'd. All of the other flashes were slaved with normal (dumb, not TTL) slaves.

May 04, 2009 4:30 PM  
Anonymous Paso Robles Workshops said...

More workshop pix can be found at the PRW group on Flickr.

May 04, 2009 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chance you'll take the act on the road? I'm sure us wannabe-Strobists could get enough people interested in our respective necks-of-the-woods that we could afford to fly you out and put you up for a few days... :)

That, or maybe you could create and sell a curriculum that could be presented by various (experienced) Strobists in a "meetup" type of context.

Wish I could scrounge the cash (and vacation time) to make it to one in Paso Robles... :)

Thanks for the inspiring words, nonetheless.


May 04, 2009 7:33 PM  
Anonymous nate said...

don't you think the choices are a bit vag-o-centric? i realize that pictures of the ladies in super soft core poses get lots of hits, but how about pictures that show something cool with flashes instead of flashes of thigh skin?

May 04, 2009 10:52 PM  
OpenID jerseystylephotography said...

Very nice post, David. I for one would be hesitant to do such a workshop since I'm so off-camera flash illiterate. But it's baby steps, I guess. And I'm taking them.

I'm one of those with more time than money (and as a husband and father to a two-year old, even the time is stretched). Would you recommend any basic off-camera gear to start with? If you've covered this in a previous entry, I'll try to find it. I'm just not sure what to save for first. Basic umbrella to shoot through and a PW maybe?

Again, thanks.


May 04, 2009 11:11 PM  
Blogger David said...


Blame Syl for the models. We so wanted to shoot ordinary, even profoundly unattractive people. But Syl dragged us, kicking and screaming, to the likes of Tammy, Kristen, Sophia, Mallory, etc. We capitulated only out of profound politeness.

It was the same way with the food. We just wanted bread and water -- maybe a little McDonalds on the weekend, ya know? But nooooooo... Syl made us eat all of this delicious food from just about every genre. I did sneak in Subway once.

Sigh. Kinda hard to embrace your ghetto creativity when Syl insists on treating you like royalty.

Next year, I am insisting on butt-ugly people (maybe I'll do a self-portrait) and Ramen noodles every day. Thanks for the inspiration!

May 04, 2009 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Cameron said...

Its such a shame you are so far away, I think ignorance would be bliss so I didn't know I was missing out on this.

If you ever need an excuse for a holiday in Australia I can guarantee you would fill a class in at least Sydney if not all major states :)


May 05, 2009 12:43 AM  
Blogger Stormin said...

All that AND you got a group shot! Joe's group didn't get one of those!... but he was busy locking you out of the appt and short sheeting your bed!

May 05, 2009 1:25 AM  
Blogger steven said...


What was that guy to girl photographer ratio again?

May 05, 2009 2:27 AM  
Anonymous Mel said...

Again I cry..when are you coming to Australia??

May 05, 2009 3:31 AM  
Anonymous Pamela Vasquez said... will seem at one of your 5 day workshops one day..hopefully soon. I attended your 1 day workshop in Orlando last year and it was amazing what I learned.

Thanks for all you do. Good job you guys fantastic shots!

May 05, 2009 6:46 AM  
OpenID mthurmancredible said...

Having class content suitable for all levels is going to be great for future workshops. I dig that you 'graded' people on their advancement and enjoyment of learning before technical understanding.

I hope that when things are right you can come back to the UK again. I missed the last workshop here by a friend went and said it was really good. Any ballpark on when this may happen or are you waiting for a UK partner tie-in to promote like at the flash centre?


May 05, 2009 9:16 AM  
Blogger Alvah said...

I was wondering if one of these lighting seminars might take place out here in the Boston, MA area??

wishful thinking..

May 05, 2009 12:47 PM  
Blogger Wayne said...

I'm stupid - what does "after the jump" mean?

May 05, 2009 8:16 PM  
Anonymous Austin Photographer said...

Very cool. A nice juxtaposition against Zach Arias group shot. Wonder how many Mcnally could manage to use.

I will make it to a workshop one of these days.

May 05, 2009 9:56 PM  
Blogger David said...


You're not stupid. It is an old newspaper term. Making the jump means opening the paper to continue reading a story off of the section front.

In this context, it would mean clicking the "more" button, which would bring you to the rest of the story that is excerpted on the blog front.


May 05, 2009 10:08 PM  
Blogger Michael Ignatov said...

Looks like a very successful class. Nice work.

May 06, 2009 10:40 PM  
Blogger A Whites Photography said...

Love this post. Looks like an exceptional time was had by all. Particularly about having such a mixed crowd. All the photos are great. Really love the lighitng on Victory's shot. Moody lighitng.

Will there ever be a seminar or workshop held in the Jacksonville Fl area? Just wondering?


May 07, 2009 6:04 PM  
Blogger tdavis44 said...

I wish I would have know about this class, I woul have definately attended. It's exactly what I was looking for. Next Time!

May 08, 2009 1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great images - but the usual strobist info would be greatly appreciated


May 09, 2009 7:03 PM  
Blogger David said...


As I said, I was not around when most of these shots were being made. Your guess is as good as mine!


May 09, 2009 9:54 PM  

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