Photography Lighting Techniques 101

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If you’ve never done anything more than taking snapshots then you might think that this is one of those many articles that you run across that will do you little to no good. The truth of the matter is that everyone that uses a camera at one point or another is going to wish that they had taken the time to learn a little more about lighting so that the pictures that they take move from being just an ordinary snapshot and get into the realm of a small masterpiece.

The first thing that you need to realize is that there are a few different types of lighting and they are somewhat similar and yet a whole world apart when it comes to technique and the equipment needed to handle those types of lighting. Be advised that if you are looking at becoming a true professional anywhere down the line, you will likely need to master each and every one of these techniques to make you life easier. Each one of these has a different place where it is outstanding above the others and learning them well will allow you to be able to choose just the right one for any type of application. It is not as difficult as it looks at the onset and you will more than likely enjoy it once you get started.

Available Light Photography Techniques

The most common form of lighting when it comes to photography is using only the available light that is visible. Even the pros use available light a lot and most of the people I know that shoot portraits for a living prefer to avail themselves to using the natural lighting that mother nature provides if and when possible.

I know it seems weird to many people that available light is such a great thing but it truly will make for lovely shots as long as you master the art and know how to set your exposure and learn how to use your film ISO speed, aperture settings and shutter speeds. With these items mastered and a good faster lens, there is a likelihood that you can hand hold and shoot down to as low as 1/30th of a second in the right circumstances.

Now I advise that anyone using available light as a main source for shooting their photos be sure to carry a tripod or a monopod with them at all times just in case. The last thing that you want to do is lose or ruin a shot because you were not prepared with a way to stabilize your camera. I actually carry a tripod with me everywhere I go. I like having the stability and when I get to a shot where focus is critical, light is low and the depth of field is mere millimeters I like knowing that I have a solid base.

Another thing that is worth investing in for this type of lighting is a decent remote control to trigger your shots without having to touch the camera. In slow shutter speeds any touch of the camera or tripod can mean the difference between a razor sharp image and a slightly blurry one.

The main concerns here are that you need to try and keep your setup as small and as light as you can so that it does not wear you out carrying it to a location shoot. Remember you will also have your camera and lenses to carry as well so take that all in to consideration when planning this setup.

If you are planning on available light photography, there are a few rules that you need to remember to avoid disastrous results. The experts all say to try and avoid any shooting between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon because it us unflattering, the subjects eyes tend to fall into shadow and the harshness is just bad. My own personal preference is to shoot before 9 am and after 4 pm at my location.

Also try and set the shot so that the subject is being hit on the side with the sunlight. It will add more natural depth to the photograph and also will cut down on the amount of ugly squinting that they will be doing as you try and shoot the perfect portrait.

Also if you try to shoot with the sun behind your subjects, use the reflector to bounce some sun on the face but you need to be mindful of lens flare which can ruin an otherwise perfect shot. If you are careful though, the backlighting can be both pleasing and dramatic.

You should also be adventurous on cloudy or overcast days. The lighting is much softer all day long and so the time constraints are removed. The filtered lights from the clouds change the textures on the face and tend to make most portraits look great. So don’t discard the session just because the weatherman says it’s going to be overcast.

Flash Photography Techniques

There is no doubt that having a flash is a necessary evil in the photography world. It doesn’t matter if you are a professional that makes a living with his lens or the one person in the family that owns a decent camera and always gets designated as the official camera person at all family events, you will need a flash. Some cameras have a built in on board unit that does fairly well for most close range things but there is very little control over those units and the result is likely to be that you are either getting too much or too little flash on a good portion of your photographs. The main good feature of them is that they are always on the camera and so it is one less thing to carry, find and then put on when you need it. The sacrifice is less than stellar results.

In fact, using the on camera flash is the single worst way to try and get light on to your subject. Most professionals, if they are forced to use a flash, use a higher quality hot shoe unit or even better yet, one that they can hand hold or mount off camera and fire remotely with either a cord or infrared.

Another huge problem with a flash that is mounted close to the camera body is that there is a severe problem with red eye and the farther away from the camera body the less bounce back from the flash from the back of the eyes and thus true red eye elimination is able to be achieved without the use of software enhancement.

Another thing that you have to watch out for when using a flash is what is called the outline effect. That is the shadow that is cast on the wall from the strong beam of light from the flash. With a little creative Photographic Lighting Techniques 101 you can move the subject to a place where there is a black or very dark background. This will all but eliminate the outline effect and save the photo.

A good external flash can easily set you back from $200 to $500 dollars each. But you are getting a lot of illumination for that amount of money. Not only will the flash typically be read through the lens – TTL as it is called – so that the camera will tell the flash how much power to put into the burst so the exposure should be, pardon the pun, picture perfect. But you can tilt the head up and bounce it off the ceiling. Many of them allow you to angle them sideways and bounce them off the wall or side reflector.

Many of the top of the line flash units such as my favorite, the Canon 580EX II, will allow me to designate it as a Master unit and slave off two other units, I use a pair of Canon’s 420EX units. What this allows me to do is set up a very complicated setup where I have a main flash unit that reads through the lens and sends information to the other two units that I can position left and right of the subject and I have a nice studio quality lighting system that carries in my camera case.

AS you can see there is a lot of flexibility for you if you use a better grade of flash. It is worth the money. Stay away from the temptation to buy the entry level units because they almost never allow you to expand into a system and the result is that you will likely end up spending more money in the long run because you will have to replace the entry level unit at some point in time.

Much like the available light setup, this is another system that can be used on remote locations as long as you keep the stands light. There is no need to deal with heavy stands because the flash units and the remote flash modules that allow them to work together are light and can be battery powered for the most part if you plan ahead before purchasing.

If using flash units is the choice that you make, whether due to the cost factor or the fact that you simply like using several flashed for the power range that they give you. It is advisable that you use a diffuser to allow the short edge of the flash to be taken off. For lack of a better explanation, a diffuser is a piece that you add on that goes over the flash head and as the name implies, it diffuse the light so that instead of a harsh light of a flash you have a much softer lighting unit. It will affect your light output to a minimal effect but the usability that you will attain is worth a little loss in light.

Studio Light Photography Techniques

It is every photographers dream to have a studio set up in the house or the garage with actual studio lights and background stands. And today with prices of those things down where they are, it is a dream that can come to reality fairly easily. You can get a decently priced and highly functional studio lighting kit for well under $500.00 to get you going with more than enough things to do a decent job all the way through until you become a professional.

The bare minimum that you will need to get is three lights and reflectors, three stands for those lights / reflectors and a background stand to use for doing your portrait work.

Take a moment and consider the first of the two lights as the main light and the second one as a fill light. Firstly you will light the main subject of your photograph with the light we referred to as the main light. We will start by moving it around to get different lighting effects and to try and see how the shadows work on the subject. Once you like the way it looks in the viewfinder with the main light it is time to turn on the second or fill light. We are going to use the second light, on a much lower power setting or move it further away from the subject so that you get the effect you are looking for. This will have the effect of being able to soften the shadows that were created by the use of the stronger or closer main light. The purpose here is to soften or lower the shadows but not to eliminate them completely.

This system is going to be way too bulky and heavy to be carried around for casual shoots and therefore will likely not be removed from your actual studio location. You can make things a lot easier on yourself if you have no assistant if you mount your trip and your lighting gear on dollies of some sort so that they can be easily moved about in the studio as you adjust from one set up to another.

Another thing that a lot of the major photographers use is what is known as a soft box. It is a lot like the diffuser that we spoke about above in the section about flash photography. A soft box (and the diffuser) serves to soften the light and therefore giving much less and softer shadows which make for a much more enjoyable final photographic image.

There are times when you are going to want to go for the hard edged look. The classic or very rough looking texture of a cowboy, for example yields its self to a stark and rather harsh lighting. This type of subject actually can have the quality and mood enhanced by not softening up the lighting.

In other words you are going to use an entirely different lighting setup for a newborn baby and the smooth skin and soft features than you might if you were shooting a punk rocker with his or her tattoos and many piercing spots. There are exceptions to the rule but for the most part the subject will dictate what type of lighting it needs to have in order to be captured at its best.

General Photography Lighting Techniques

When people first start with shooting photographs they tend to think that one flash is a catch all and that when the use it all the evils of the picture will go away. Then after they look at the results they realize that is not quite the case.

The truth is that a great photo does not usually just happen, especially if it involves people or animals. You need to have basic illumination on the main focal point of the shot and then you need to have lighting that will separate the subject from the background, such as a hair light. You then need a couple of side light sources so that you can light one up stronger than the other to give some depth and shadow to allow for some character to be added to the final shot.

Pretty complicated stuff you’ll have going on there. And if that were not enough, you will need to calculate the exposure from each of those light areas to be sure that the end result is not over or under exposed.

What I find works the best for the majority of my photos like this is to use a reflector that will bounce even lighting either on the background or the back of the subject to give the separation and pull them away from the background scene. It gives me the depth that I need without having to do anything out of the ordinary.

I will typically run the lighting element on the left at about 50 percent power and the unit on the right somewhere close to 100 percent. That gives me the nice shadows and subject depth that turn a snapshot into an interesting photographic portrait. I will also usually bounce my on camera flash unit off a reflector that I have hung from the ceiling about 18 inches from the subjects hear and I keep that power from the camera at about 25 to 50 percent of full power. That adds some interesting highlights to the shot and tends to make the bangs and eyelashes pop in the portrait giving it a very life like look.

What I suggest, no matter which of the lighting methods you will be using, you need to practice. And when I say practice I mean shoot the heck out of things using your own gear that you will be using once you start trying to make money at it. That way you know how each camera body and lens is going to work in any given lighting situation. Your decisions will become something that you do without thinking and then you can actually start to concentrate on the art of taking the photo rather than the mechanics of it. And that is the point where you graduate to the next level.

What I do is to take a dummy – no not a silly relative! – But an actual mannequin style dummy which I traded some photography for early in my career. I then dress her up the way a model might dress and put a nice rubber mask over her and shoot the different lighting styles that I think might work or that I want to see what they do to the subject.

Once I do that I will down load the images to the computer and write myself some notes in the word processor and save that all to a file folder. I then have written and visual information that tells me that if I do this the end result will be that. Yes it’s a bit over the top and even perhaps a bit crazy. But my photographic skills with regards to lighting have improved dramatically and the speed with which I learned my imaginary photography lighting techniques 101 diploma increased dramatically. I truly went from a scared novice to being a confidant photographer in no time at all. Now the varied lighting elements didn’t scare me, in fact I look forward to the challenges that the lighting gives me.

The nice part here is that once you have experimented with all of the variables, if you have documented the results which you should always do. You will know exactly what to expect from your photo.

Cleaning Up the Image

If you do digital photos, no matter how great you are at setting up the lighting you will need to master a program such as Photoshop or something similar. It will help you color correct your images and do some magic such as removing the red eye effect that happens when you have to use flash because it was the only way to shoo the photograph.

Go to the tool pallet and get a brush in your editing program of choice. Next you need to set the size of the brush to roughly the size of the subject’s pupil. Set your hardness level on the brush to somewhere between 50 and 70% and change the brush mode to ‘color’ instead of using the ‘normal’ mode.

Next be sure the color palette is set to the default black for the foreground and then use white for the background. When you are doing your painting of the pupil with the brush will act to de-saturate the red without affecting the tones in the eye. This means that the highlights and any other level gradations in the original will still be there. Also it is imperative that you are cautious to only work on the pupils. This will so as not to lose the color of the eyes.

Final Words of Wisdom

There is absolutely no substitute for trial and error. Every lighting situation and every studio set up is going to be different. The lighting set up that I use for portraits and my personal taste is going to be different than yours. But that is what makes specific photographers more sought after than others. People see the way that you make the lighting play with the subjects that you are shooting and they decide that you are the right one to take care of their needs.

Believe me when I tell you that I have lost many jobs to other photographers because my style was not what they were after. Conversely I have gotten many jobs that others have not because of the way I personally use my knowledge to work around the light.

You should never stop trying to learn. Most professional photographers are more than willing to share their thoughts on various things. If you live where you can find someone that has been doing it a while, ask him or her if you can hang out at a session and help them do set ups. Let them know that you will be there strictly to watch and learn from a professional and they will more likely than not be happy to have your help. Everyone loves to have their ego stroked, just try not to over do it.

If you want a great example of someone that uses light to great advantage, take the time to review the works of Ansel Adams in detail. The man could take the ordinary and through the use of light transform it into a photograph that will stand the test of time.
Remember that there are many rules in photography and in lighting. Those rules do not change regardless if the situation. However, the way that we look at those rules and then apply them; bend them or even break them for creative reasons, is what separates the snapshot takers from the truly gifted professional photographers that people will want to emulate. So do you want to be a follower or a leader in this business?

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