Your Basic Lighting Kit: A Spin Around the Block

So you just received the gear needed to turn your hot shoe flash into a mini portable studio lighting system. What do you with the box of stuff the UPS guy just dropped onto your dorstep? Where do you start?

That is exactly the gap we explore whenever I teach a beginner's lighting class. So today we are going to walk through a "first steps" exercise.

I Have This Box of New Lighting Stuff...

I'm assuming your basic lighting kit has a light stand, an umbrella, an umbrella stand adapter and some way to sync your camera. This little newb exercise is adapted from a class I teach at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai every year, and it is designed for complete beginners. So if that is you, you're in the right place.

We're going to start with something very simple: an all-flash umbrella portrait. No ambient (i.e., continuous) light, just flash. This is good, as there is only one thing to worry about.

To that end, we'll be working indoors with a simple plain background. We used medium gray paper, as you can see above. I am also switching the camera to shoot black and white, so we can just concentrate on light and form without the distraction of color.

First, We'll Kill the Ambient Light

Every time you take a flash photo, you are taking two photos at once: an ambient photo overlaid onto a flash photo. It's all light, and it is all cumulative in your exposure. To kill the ambient light portion of the photo (and make things easier for you) we'll just dial in our exposure so the ambient portion of the photo will be black (or near to it.)

Set your ISO to something moderate, say ISO 200. Now, close down your shutter speed until you are at your maximum sync speed. It should be marked—maybe with an "X"—and will likely be 1/250th or 1/200th or 1/180th. If you are not sure what your maximum sync speed on your camera is, consult your manual or ask someone who is familiar with your camera.

So, the ISO and shutter speed setting is designed to get rid of a lot of ambient light. Now let's close down the aperture to, oh, say f/8. In a normal room, ISO 200 at (or near) 1/180th and f/8 is going to make a dark available light photo. If not black, then very dark. And that's fine.

Now, let's add our flash to that, knowing it will likely be the only thing influencing your image.

Now Let's Add Some Flash

We are going to use Tarek, one of my students on whom I quickly demo'd this exercise, as our subject. We are literally going to take a walk around his head with our light and just see what happens.

Also, these are straight out of the camera. If you look, you'll notice a blemish on the background paper that is not even getting cloned out. The exposures are what they are. I am purposefully not correcting them to illustrate that, as long as you don't change your distances very much, your exposures should be fine from setup to setup.

Let's mount our flash in our shoot-through umbrella. Which is itself mounted to your light stand (via the umbrella swivel adapter). This combo pretty much allows you to position your light source wherever you want in 3-D space. Next, connect the flash to your camera via either a sync cord or remote trigger. Now, when you fire your camera, your (off-camera) flash will also fire.

Set your flash to manual, at 1/8 power. Set the "zoom" setting (on your flash) to 50mm or 35mm to fill the umbrella without the raw light spraying past the edges. Put your umbrella about 45 degrees up and over to the left (that is the side I chose, but it's arbitrary) with the umbrella front surface at about three feet away from your subject.

Take a test shot. If it is too bright, dial down the power level of your flash. (Like, to 1/16th or 1/32 power or some setting in between.) Or vice versa. When you get your flash exposure (literally) dialed in, your photo should look something like this:

Is this awesome or what? We literally just started and we already have a classic 45/45 (45 degrees up and 45 degrees over) B&W portrait. Simple, and classic. When is the last time your flash made someone look this cool? Probably never—unless you have prevously gotten it off of your camera.

If you have a weird, umbrella-edge-shaped shadow on the wall, your raw flash light may be spilling past the edge of the umbrella. In that case, zoom in the flash a little bit or choke up the umbrella shaft on the swivel adapter and fix it. Or maybe even just rotate your umbrella a tad toward the wall. You'll figure it out.

So, look at the shape and character the 45/45 (up and over) light gives to a face. Let's play with that some.

We are going to move the light around Tarek's head a bit. If we keep our distance the same, our exposure will be the same. If we move closer with the flash, it will be brighter on him. So we'll just remove some power from the flash at the manual power setting (as we did if your flash was too bright.) Or vice versa if we move the flash further away. Just try it and see. It is less like math and more like cooking.

Now Let's Move That Light Around

Let's reposition our flash until it is firing right over the head and shoulders of the photographer. So it will be on-axis with the subject, but "up" a little bit:

The shadows are different. There is more revealed detail in the full face. It's a different mood. There is now a tell-tale butterfly-shaped shadow under Tarek's nose. Which is why on-axis (but "up higher") light is often called "butterfly lighting."

This is fun, no? Let's keep going.

Drop the light down a little, so your head and shoulders are basically in front of bottom of the umbrella. The light is wrapping around you and you are pretty much lighting your subject on-axis.

Now his face (and the photo) looks different yet again:

Okay, now let's play with distance. Go back to your previous 45/45 positiion (up and over) and move that light in reeeeally close. Take an exposure test. Too bright, right? You'll have to dial the power of the flash down a bit to get your proper exposure back.

See how the light looks bigger, softer? That's because it is much closer to your subject's face, and appears to him to be bigger. (That's what counts with lighting.)

Okay, enough with this typical flattering light. Let's amp up the character aspect a bit. And this is what I loooove about lighting. You are in control.

Let's bring our light around to camera left (Tarek's right) for a moody profile shot. If you have changed your distance, you'll have to readjust your flash power to get a proper exposure. Or even if you have not changed your distance, you'll often find lighting a person in profile is somehow more efficient (light skims off of them very efficiently) and you have to drop your flash exposure anyway.

Oh that looks cool. Tarek in contemplation. Mr. Deep Thought.

Let's push it further around him to our left. Now the light is actually a little behind him, to camera left. So we call more attention to his face:

Has more of an emotional feel to it, maybe. Okay, let's drop that baby down a bit, still staying at camera left:

Okay, this is more Tarek the Homicide Detective in the crime drama, right? Same room, same guy, same light, same umbrella—we literally just dropped the light down two feet. I love this stuff.

Let's go the other way. Grab a friend and have them suspend that umbrella (just hold the stand, it's not hard) up over Tarek's head. Point that umbrella straight down and see what happens.

Hmm. If the previous shot was Homicide Detective, this may be trending a little toward the criminal in that same movie, right? Let's walk that light a little more to the right (still up top, tho) and have Tarek throw us a look over his shoulder.

Oh yeah, definitely a criminal look now. Don't mess with top-lit, glancing-over-the-shoulder Tarek. He'd surely kill you as soon as look at you.

So Little Gear, So Much Cool

Are you surprised at how easy (and cheap!) it is to take the first steps into creating beautifully lit photos? Most people are, when they try it for the first time.

I love this stuff. Always have, since I started doing it over 25 years ago. And it is really easy to learn, but you gotta actually physically do it. I can explain to you how to ride a bicycle, but until you get on one and actually do it, you won't know how.

And that's exactly what these guys are doing here. And every single one of them was coming up with photos just like the ones above in relatively short order. Just by playing around.

And that is the secret: you gotta actually do it. You gotta play. You gotta experiment. But if you are willing to do that, you'll learn this stuff quickly.

A quick note: I teach these (and other) workshops all around the world. So if you have a large camera club, for instance, you don't have to go to Dubai. I can come to you.

Okay, so simple, beginning umbrella light is pretty cool, huh? But there are lots of ways to shape your off-camera light. Let's look at bouncing your off-camera flash off of walls and ceilings.

Next: Bouncing off Walls and Ceilings


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