Learning to See Light

As photographers, we are pretty intuitive about recognizing interesting ambient light when we see it. But stick a flash and umbrella in our hands and we tend to default to much more standard styles of lighting -- especially at first.

In the real world, great light rarely comes from 45 degrees up and to the side. So if you want to be able to create more interesting light with your flashes, you should work to better recognize how ambient really works. This way, you can recreate those different looks when you are in control of the light.

My daughter Em rides horses, a quality she surely gets from her mom. Even though I grew up with horses, it is my strong preference that any vehicle I ride have a failsafe means by which to stop.

Saying "whoa," or pulling up on the reins doesn't cut it for me. And since they won't let me carry a big rubber mallet when I ride, I'll stick to motorized vehicles.

I drove Em out to the barn this weekend, and took a camera along. It is easy to forget to grab the day-to-day types of photos that are so fleeting when your kids are growing up fast. So I try to always have a camera with me, but also to balance between shooting and just watching.

Seems like only yesterday she was an equal mixture of new, excited and nervous around horses. But at 13, she is full of confidence -- trotting, cantering, even jumping. As a dad who never got the horse thing it still makes me a little nervous to watch. But I am happy to hang out and take photos. (For one thing, the moment I take my finger off of the shutter release, I know at least my camera will stop running.)

As she was getting her assigned horse ready, I noticed that the light was gorgeous. There wasn't much of it, but it was beautiful. It's the kind of light that you are not sure will translate in the camera, so you take a frame or two and chimp it to adjust the exposure before shooting more.

This is exactly the kind of light I want to be able to create with flashes. So after shooting in this environment I always try to take a moment and notice the sources. And lately, to do an ambient lights pullback and make some visual notes for later.

Here, I was amazed to see that nearly all of the ambient in the photo was coming from this long strip of windows behind them. There were windows on the other side of the barn (way behind me) but they were far enough away to be contributing very little. Ditto the door at the camera left end of the barn. I know this because the strongest shadows from the horse's hooves are pointing forward.

So most of this light was coming from the back, then wrapping around and bouncing off of the ceiling and reflective objects in the frame.

I love the light, but it is something I would have never previously tried to create. Which is exactly the point about trying to more consciously see and analyze different types of ambient light.

If you are constantly looking at interesting ambient, you'll have no shortage of ideas when it comes time to create your own light with flash. In fact, this scene quickly seeded an idea for an upcoming portrait of a local poet. I want to push everything in from the back -- a single light source -- and build the portrait with internal reflections.

I won't have a fill horse. But I will have fill boards, which should work even better. (I will state for the record that I have actually used a fill goat on assignment, which long-time readers will remember.)

And while I do not own the dozen or so boomed strip boxes it would take to create this horizontal bar of light, I think I can do a lot with a backlit sheet or two. The trick will be to put something opaque (in frame) in between the subject and the huge backlight to allow the light to wrap around the edges (out of the frame) without contaminating with flare.

Or maybe let it contaminate. Sot sure yet. Either way, we'll see. If it works, I'll post it.


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Blogger Franci J. D'Costa said...

Yep, just yesterday I was watching the panorama and thinking of how to recreate the light, but at the moment I don't have a portable sun :D

November 21, 2011 9:12 AM  
Blogger Yugo said...

Brilliant! I'm so excited to start looking for these ideas now.

BTW, I was just waiting for you to make the pun about a "filly"!

November 21, 2011 9:15 AM  
Blogger B.D.Mac said...

Great article. I photographed a Sean-nos singer in Doonbeg Clare, Ireland and a window with northern light above and to camera right produced a perfect mood light for the scene.I am presently trying to recreate it with an ezybox and umbrella.

November 21, 2011 9:16 AM  
Blogger bmillios said...

Wow, little Em is growing up!

Another thing you've done before - creating a big "strip" of lighting using multiple umbrellas - either bounce or shoot-through. Remember the group shot on the Strobist DVD?

Also - the contamination "issue" - I can see that the backlighting has affected your contrast a bit in these photos - which adds to the softness, the overall look and feel of intimacy. Not a bad thing.

More postings like this, please. They make me think, and look at stuff in a new way. :)

November 21, 2011 9:18 AM  
Blogger stan said...


First of all, a beautifully executed image. As you say, the light is - remarkable - well illustrated by the second picture, showing the strip of windows. I'll have to seek out more stables for portrait work :0).

Couple of items for you:
1. What time of day was this, and what was the atmospheric condition? (The light seems bright but very even, suggesting time toward the mid-day and cloudy.)
2. Just a nit - the water bottle is a visual distraction for me, suggesting either a crop or perhaps a little post-production magic.

Thanks for the inspiration!


November 21, 2011 9:26 AM  
Blogger J.P. said...

Thanks for this great post. I've mentioned a few times on here how continually impressed I am with your ability as a teacher, and this kind of "how I think about it/get inspired" post is a perfect example of that gift.

I do have one question about translating ambient light to flash: doesn't the incredible distance of the ambient light source lead to a more even lighting front-to-back (or back-to-front in this case) than you'd likely be able to get with even the most powerful strobes given power and space/distance/not having a 10,000 ft light stand constraints? How do you overcome that?

November 21, 2011 10:13 AM  
Blogger Larry Eiss said...

Stuff like this is why I keep coming back to Strobist, Dave. Please do more of this.

You wrote, " If it works, I'll post it." I want to encourage you to be bold and post it even if it doesn't work. We could talk about why and I, for one, would learn a lot from that.

November 21, 2011 10:55 AM  
Blogger Dennis Pike said...

fill horse... brilliant

November 21, 2011 11:29 AM  
Blogger JoeH said...

"If it works, I'll post it."

I agree with @Larry...post it either way. Let us know what doesn't work and why.

November 21, 2011 12:36 PM  
Blogger Igor Marić said...

Interesting story, I love the way you presented the matter. I'm keen to see what the next posts will bring on the subject as I'm a passionate ambient light lover. Recreating it with flashes will be a challenge. Good luck!

November 21, 2011 1:38 PM  
Blogger John DM said...

Funny, but i thought at first the bottle was lighted separately, one of those touches of detail that adds to a photo...

November 21, 2011 1:41 PM  
OpenID 9c81cea4-1472-11e1-9550-000bcdcb8a73 said...

I like the water bottle, it adds a bit of narrative to an otherwise empty space, and keeps my eye moving around the frame, not distracting, intersting.

November 21, 2011 1:57 PM  
Blogger John said...

Great education, as always.

Love the water bottle (and the other stuff -- tack, grooming equipmnt, whatever), definitely adds interest.

Haven't seen your daughter lately, amazing to think back to her in some of your early posts.

November 21, 2011 3:29 PM  
Blogger Alfred said...

This picture is a true master piece!

November 21, 2011 3:51 PM  
Blogger anotherview2 said...

That one of your daughter Em standing by the horse possesses a dreamlike quality -- a magic moment. This kind of picture my eyes want to drink.

Instead of strip softboxes, a few diffusion panels clipped together in a row end-to-end, and set high up, with several flash units firing through them, could probably emulate the ambient light in her picture.

November 21, 2011 5:24 PM  
Blogger Jeffery Kordsmeier said...

So this "Fill Goat" you referenced... do you have someone hold that or do you put it onto a light stand with a boom arm (I would think it would be heavily sandbagged)?

November 21, 2011 6:11 PM  
Blogger Mail Order Mystic said...

As a Steeler fan, I can think of one thing that would greatly improve that picture...


November 21, 2011 7:32 PM  
Blogger TV said...

I hope that you decide to post it even if it doesn't work out, because I'm sure it will have an interesting outcome which will be good to learn from.

November 22, 2011 4:38 AM  
Blogger Tekun said...

i think that this write is very inspiratif.

November 22, 2011 5:00 AM  
Blogger CDC Design and Photography said...

Always love your posts but including your daughter made you seem so real. Just like "one of us." I got yelled at by my daughter last week for making "everytime I see my granddaughter a photo session." So, I appreciate that you can enjoy Em's activities without forcing her to stop and look at the camera. As for the light, you are right, it is absolutely beautiful and I have no doubt that you will recreate it in new and wonderful ways. Thanks for your candid, casual way of writing and sharing. May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family. I KNOW that I am thankful for all the time YOU give to share photography and lighting with us.
- one of your 1% females, Chris

November 22, 2011 8:18 AM  
Blogger Shannon Cayze said...


Great post and wonderful photos, as usual! I'll try to look past the Ravens shirt, given the fashion in which they beat my beloved Bengals on Sunday. Nothing like a little salt in the wound... :) Seriously though, great reminder to always evaluate ambient light and consider its impact on our photos.


November 22, 2011 10:12 AM  
Blogger zena neato said...

It's sad observation that skilled photographers find themselves reflexively defaulting to artificial solutions and expensive gadgets instead of simply seeing, analyzing, working with, what we have. There is a consumer imperative that stifles us and our creativity. These are lovely images -- location! location! location!

November 22, 2011 5:50 PM  
Blogger James said...

It took me a moment to realise that your daughter's face was being so wonderfully lit by fill light from the horse's white fur. Works wonderfully and is somehow the more gratifying for being a completely natural surface.

Lovely photo, definitely one you'll be glad you have in a few years I think :)

November 22, 2011 7:08 PM  
Blogger nolaphoto said...

An ambient light on a strobist blog, no fair! I was looking at the forst image and thinking...boom, softlighter a little from the rear, single SB800. You gotta warn us man....

Awesome post BTW.

November 22, 2011 11:33 PM  
Blogger nolaphoto said...

oh and ring flash fill (see my previous comment)

November 22, 2011 11:35 PM  
Blogger Yo Shello said...

I regularly drive by a couple of stables and fantasize about catching the beautiful light created inside, especially catching the steam coming off the horse after a ride. This post has inspired me to get in there and try it out.
I was wondering if your wouldn't mind sharing the technical stuff with us i.e., lens, camera settings and exposure? This would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much for sharing the inspiring photograph.

November 23, 2011 10:18 AM  
Blogger p4pictures said...

Thanks for this, i'm often looking at pictures trying to think how to create natural and interesting light similar to what i'd get with natural light. The tip is look at the best natural light and see how far you can go in trying to build your own version of it.



November 26, 2011 3:25 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

fill horse, hahaa, like it.

November 27, 2011 9:19 PM  
OpenID imagesbyceci said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this and many of your other articles. I bought the DVD set and have watched it several times - each time adding something new to my repertoire. Thanks so much!

December 01, 2011 9:54 AM  
Blogger Jan said...

David, even thou you wanted us to pay attention to the ambient light, I think it would be less confusing to mention the flashes involved... I clearly see two (bare)flashes illuminating the background wall from both sides (shadows around "pilaster", plus wooden frame on right side casts long shadow across bgrnd wall) +plus I would say there is umbrella illuminating girls arm, and maybe on axis orbis.. - Am I right? ;)
And the ambient is really wonderful - creating a "Genius Loci" for the image...

December 02, 2011 9:06 AM  
Blogger RFS said...

In the days before electricity, photographers built their studios with rows of windows just like this and used bounce boards for fill.

December 05, 2011 1:23 PM  
OpenID Grasyah said...

Great post! I always love the natural lights over those triggered from flash.. :)

December 12, 2011 1:03 PM  

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