Lighting 101: Introduction

Learning how to light is one of the coolest doors you can walk through as a photographer. Photography is, literally, writing with light.

More than anything else, light determines the way your photos look and feel. To be in control of the light is to be in control of what you are saying with your photos.

Welcome to Lighting 101

In this first of Strobist's three lighting courses, you'll learn how to use off-camera flash to create beautiful light and more professional-looking photos. Lighting 101, 102 and 103 are all free. And the gear required to turn your small flash into a wireless studio is very inexpensive compared to the cost of a camera.

You don't need to know anything about lighting to start this series. Here are the only two assumptions we'll make before you begin:

First, that you have a camera that allows you to adjust shutter speeds and f/stops, and which has a hot-shoe style flash mount on top. This is not a course for iPhone photographers. You'll need a real camera that gives you control of the shutter and aperture settings. Almost any DSLR or mirrorless camera will be fine.

Second, you'll need to have a basic understanding of how f/stops and shutter speeds work—and the effects that they each have on your photos. If you have ever used your camera in manual mode (where you are in control of both the f/stop and the shutter speed) you are probably fine.

And that's it. If you already have a flash, we'll show you how to tell if it is right for off-camera lighting. (It's probably fine.) If not, we'll show you a solid, inexpensive choice for beginners. The same goes for the related inexpensive gear you'll need to turn your flash into a wireless studio. More on that in a minute.

Lighting is Not Hard

You are not alone. About 2,000 people start Lighting 101 every day. Over four million people have already come through this door. Some have gone on to become professional photographers. Many others simply use what they learn to make beautiful photos of family and friends.

If they can do it, you can do it. Lighting is not hard, and it need not be technical. At Strobist we teach an intuituve approach to lighting. Honestly, it's more like cooking than it is like math class.

Now that we have digital cameras, you'll get instant feedback on the results of a change in your lighting. This is a fantastic advantage, compared to when I first learned this stuff as a photojournalist back in the 1980s.

That efficient visual feedback loop will help you to learn faster, and your lighting will quickly become intuitive. In short, no worries. This stuff is easy.

Lighting Need Not be Expensive

Sure, like anything else, lighting can be expensive. But it doesn't have to be. If you already have a camera and a flash, we can point you a quality, proven kit that will turn your flash into a wireless, portable studio for under $150.

And if you don't yet have a flash, we'll help you there, too. Armed with a little knownledge, you can get a professional caliber flash for about one third of the cost—and twice the warranty—of a legacy brand (Nikon, Canon, etc.) flash.

We'll even show you how to make lighting modifiers for free out of household items. See the photo up top? Strobist reader Sam Simon, who not very long ago was just as new at this as you are now, used a shoe box and some paper to create the light for that portrait.

It's the location and the quality of the light that is most important, not how much you spend. By getting your flash off-camera, your images become more three-dimensional, more textured and more professional looking.

All of the photos on this page were made by Strobist readers working with small flashes. Not so long ago, those people were exactly where you are now.

Professional Photographers Have Started Here

(Photo by Strobist reader Ken Brown)

Strobist reader Ken Brown, who now specializes in automobile photography, started his lighting journey at Strobist.

Even while just starting out, he made this photo of a gullwing Mercedes by putting two small, bare flashes on the front seats. This was a very cool trick: he lit the car, while at the same time using the car itself as a lighting modifier.

Building on the basics he learned here, Ken has gone on to create lighting techniques of his own. He now makes sophisticated photos of exotic cars using a single flash and multiple exposures to light different parts of the vehicle.

We'll give you a good foundation. Where you take it from there is entirely up to you.

Or Maybe You Just Want to Amp Your Instagram

(Photo by Strobist reader Benny Smith)

Lighting can be the difference between snapshots and art. Any 13-year-old schoolgirl already knows to rotate her face and her phone to exploit the best light available for a selfie. Understanding how to create beautiful light anywhere will take your photos to a new level.

Learning how to light is easy, inexpensive and fun. And you can take it as far as you want. Here is what you'll learn from Strobist's free lighting courses.

Lighting 101

It all starts here. We'll assume you have a basic understanding of f/stops and shutter speeds, but no experience at all in lighting. You'll need an adjustable camera and a single-light kit. (The beginning of the course is about how to choose your lighting gear.)

After your lighting kit arrives you'll learn how to assemble it, and how to position your light to make an evocative and dramatic one-light portrait. Like the photo above, for example, which we lit with a single small flash and a shoot-through umbrella positioned directly over the cellist.

You will go on to learn how to create and use soft light, hard light, restricted light, and even omnidirectional light. You'll learn how to cross light, and light for textural detail. You'll learn how to balance existing ambient light with the light from your flash in subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

You'll learn how to study other photographers' lighting to easily learn how they lit their photos. Finally, you'll learn to be more observant of the complex natural and artificial light that occurs around you. Because soon enough, you'll be creating light like that, too.

Lighting 102

In Lighting 102 you'll learn to blend and control multiple lights to build a more nuanced and sophisticated look to your photos. If you continue this far, you'll want to pick up a second light kit. Since you'll already have the remote trigger from your one-light kit, the second light kit will be less expensive than the first.

For a working photographer, two lights is an ideal balance between capability, portability and cost. Before starting Strobist, I completed over 10,000 assignments as a professional photojournalist. The vast majority of them of them could have been done with two lights. We lit the photo above with two small flashes—with an assist by the musicians' parked cars in the background.

In L102, you'll learn complete, three-dimensional control of the tonal range of your subject—one light for shape, another for detail.

You'll explore angle and distance to learn ways to vary a light's softness and reach. You'll learn about the different zones of light, and how to control them.

You'll learn to control the legibility in your shadows, or to tame the reflective glare in your highlights. You'll learn to adjust your two lights to fulfill two different roles—a key light and and environmental fill.

By the end of L102, you will be able to walk into a room with no useful existing light (even a black room, theoretically) and create a beautiful, nuanced and textured portrait with two small flashes.

Lighting 103

What could possibly be left to learn? In L102 you will have learned a half-dozen or so physical controls for light. But the remaining variable is such a big deal we devote an entire section to it: color.

Lighting 103 will teach you how to use gels to wean yourself from the sterile, white light that your flashes produce right out of the box. Because light in the real world is not white. It's messy. It has color—multiple colors, even. And those multiple colors mix together to create light that discovers your subject is complex ways.

You can use color and light in an endless variety of ways, with varying amounts of sophistication. You might create light with layered color to enhance luminous sub-hues in someone's skin in a close-up portrait, for light that looks less photographic and more painterly. Or, you could bathe a scene in cool hues to evoke nighttime, as we did in the photo above.

And since you already have your lights, supplies for L103 are really easy: a small gel kit or two, and a companion book.

I long time ago, I was exactly where you are right now. It makes me very happy—and just a little bit jealous—to know that someone else is about to enter such a cool growth spurt in their photography.

Are you ready?

Good. Let's go.

NEXT: Understanding Your Flash


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