UPDATE, MAY 2024: When I wrapped up Strobist in 2021, I promised to check back in whenever I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to be for traveling photographers what Strobist always aspired to be for lighting photographers. If that's you, I hope you'll enjoy it. -DH


Lighting 102: Introduction

*** PLEASE NOTE *** This is the old, original version of Lighting 102, first published in 2007. It has been completely updated in late 2016. The newer version of Lighting 102 is here.

If you were around for last summer's Lighting Boot Camp, you will find this a completely different experience. Boot Camp went for the instant gratification of a quickie series of assignments. L102 is designed to be a comprehensive course that starts from square one and is designed to build a broader and organic understanding of how to control light.

There will be full assignments and small exercises. But where Boot Camp skipped straight to dessert, this time we'll eat our veggies first.

We will start by exploring the different ways in which light can be controlled. Along the way we will be doing exercises to build a strong understanding of each of those variables. As we start to get some of the control factors under out belt, there will be assignments that make use of what we have learned so far.

With each new subject, exercise and assignment, there will be discussion threads created on Flickr so you can easily ask and answer questions.

Photo classes typically have class review sessions, where the students just stick their assignments up on the wall and learn from each other. This one will be no different, except for the class size and the far-flung nature of the students. And the more people participate, the more valuable the experience will be.

And if you are reading this post sometime much later than June 4th, 2007, no worries. All of the above will be archived it in such a way as to make it easy to start whenever you want and work at your own pace. You may catch up to us, or you may not. Makes no difference. You'll still have access to the course material and the students' photos will be archived.

Like most courses, you will get out of this exactly what you put into it. You are not required to do anything. There are no grades. There will be no tests.

I will only make you one promise:

If you study the lessons, do the exercises and complete the assignments, you will build a stronger understanding of how to control light.

Some of you are already doing some fantastic lighting work. You guys may find the beginnings of this class a little boring and/or remedial. But I am not structuring this course to make a few Rock Stars that much better. This class is designed so anyone, at any experience level, will be able to learn to light better.

Okay, let me back up on that just a bit. You'll want to already be comfy with exposure, as in f-stops and shutter speeds and such. Because we will be leaving your TTL flash comfort zone behind in search of more creative control.

That said, let's get started.

First Things First: Be Willing to Change Your Thinking

The first goal is for you to be open to thinking about light in a different way. Depending on whether you are experienced at using flash or a rank beginner, this will mean one of two things.

If you are an old hand at this stuff, be willing to learn to approach it from another different direction. No one is asking you to forget what you know, or to abandon your tried-and-true techniques. But looking at a well-known task from a different angle can serve to strengthen your understanding of it.

If you are a total newb, your job is a little more difficult: You'll need to put aside any fears you have of learning about a subject as nebulous and intimidating as lighting.

We will be breaking this down into little chunks that are easily digestible. And you'll have many, many people who will be able to answer your questions. All I ask is that you go into this process with the confidence that you can absolutely learn this stuff. Because you can.

Here's a little secret: There are only a few things you can do to control light. Once you learn those - and learn them well - you are off to the races.

Conversely, I find it to be an amazing thing that so few controls can yield such an huge variety of visual styles for lighting.

When I wrote Lighting 101, it was pretty much created on the fly. I was a newspaper shooter with a decent grasp of a few lighting principles and tricks, and I wanted to share them.

Fast forward a year or so, and I am a completely changed photographer. That's the biggest advantage of being in the position of running a lighting blog: It tends to make you to think about light pretty much non-stop.

And you also find yourself at a vortex of a continuous stream of ideas being flung at you by readers. Every day I get new threads and emails pointing me to neat photos, ideas and tecchniques. That rocks. And any long-time pro will tell you that ideas are the valuable commodity in this business.

I can easily teach you lighting techniques. But what do you do with them after you learn them? That's the real trick.

The goal is to get you to the point where your only limitation is your imagination. If you can visualize a look that can be created with light, you can almost certainly achieve it. But that assumes that you can visualize it to begin with.

Once you learn the techniques, some of you will be limited by them - or to merely reproducing them and other techniques that are demonstrated by other photographers.

But some among you will find that having the techniques under your belt will free you so that you are capable of doing just about anything you want to do with light.

I do not spend a lot of time dissecting technique when I shoot. I don't think of light in terms of f-stops and shutter speeds any more. Lighting ratios are gone, too. Inverse square rule - never much fun to begin with - is history.

Now, I think of light in the same way that I think about music: Genre. Style. Volume. Ensemble. Mood.

Or sometimes I think of light in terms more like food: Flavor, spice. complexity, simplicity. Do I follow the recipe, or do I ditch it and improvise?

Food, actually, is a very good analogy to light.

Science tells us that we can only taste five things: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Don't believe me? Check out the Wikipedia page for more info. (And I didn't know what "umami" was, either.)

Yet, even with only those five tastes, the possibilities are endless. And the concept of food and cooking still captivates millions - billions - of us. How many magazines, books, TV shows, etc., are devoted to food? How many restaurants are there? How many years are spent in search of the perfect Bar-B-Que? The perfect red wine?

Here's the analogy:

Try as I might, I cannot come up with more than seven things you can do to light.

Seven simple little controls. Each with its own effect. Each with associated advantages and disadvantages. Each infinitely variable.

You learn those seven controls, and you have the Rosetta Stone. You speak the language.

You get so comfortable with them as to be able to manipulate them effortlessly, and lighting becomes merely another method of creative expression. And that's the real goal.

Each of the seven controls is very simple in both concept and execution. We will discuss each one at length, discuss them in Flickr threads and do exercises to drive the concepts home.

We'll do assignments throughout the process that incorporate what we have learned so far. By the time we get through all seven controls, they'll seem like old friends.

Do you drive a car? Or maybe ride a bike? Can you walk?

If so, you are clearly capable of calculating and controlling a simultaneous stream of variables. Lighting is way easier than any of those activities when you think about it.

So for today, your only assignment is to clear your mind of any fear you may have associated with learning to light. You can get this stuff.

Only a jerk would assign homework on the first day of class. But if you do want to learn more (or review) I have moved all of the L101 posts and the On Assignments to drop-down menus on the sidebar. They will be good references throughout the course, and now you can get to any individual post in one click.

As we get to concepts that also are covered in the book Light: Science & Magic, I will be referencing sections you may wish to review. So if you are stuck on a point, this should help you to get past it.

And if that doesn't work, there's always those couple of thousand other photogs in the Flickr threads to ask.

Next on Lighting 102: Seven ways to control light - an overview.


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