Start With One Light

Today's post comes from the book Lighting Essentials: A Subject-Centric Approach for Digital Photographers by Don Giannatti. It is available from and other fine retailers.

I have a method that has served me very well for over thirty years: I build each shot one light at a time. In the studio, I get the main light ready, and then add the secondary. If I’m working outdoors or in a daylight studio, I find the placement of the ambient light and decide what I want to do with it. Perhaps the image calls for the background to be a bit overexposed. Or maybe dropping the ambient light down a couple of stops will add a dramatic flair to the image.

When making these fundamental decisions about ambient light, there are some important settings that must be taken into consideration, of course. If you are going to use only the ambient light and fill cards, remember that there is no way to overcome the ambient—no way to make any kind of light that will be stronger than the direct sun. You also have choices to make about your aperture and shutter speed. Why? Because they can be whatever you want. With natural light, you are not limited by anything other than your lens’s widest aperture and your camera’s fastest shutter speed.

If you will be augmenting the ambient light with strobes, you’ll need to have an idea of what you want to do before you begin to sketch. For example, if I know that I am going to be bringing in my large strobes, I will set my camera to aperture priority (Av on my Canons) and choose the aperture I want to work with. My first consideration is aperture, but there is a real concern about the shutter speed, as well; I know that I cannot sync at shutter speeds faster than 1/200 second. If I chose f/8, then saw that the shutter speed dropped to 1/400 second, I would need to rethink my aperture—so the exposure might be made at f/11 at 1/200 second. Most of the time I will walk the scene with my meter (set within the required parameters of the camera and sync speed) and make notes of the highlights, shadows, and midtones in the scene.

Sample Shoot: Stephanie on the Docks. I saw this image as I walked up onto the covered dock. I loved the incredible sky, the boats, the way the light was playing off the water, and the different shapes of the buildings around the background. I wanted to do something dramatic, so I sketched in a shot while we were setting up the boomed softbox.

The setup for my image of Stephanie.

The direct strobe from the left adds some nice highlights and the softbox from the right gives her face the soft light I wanted. The sun gave me some wonderful shadows coming in from behind, and the look was what I saw in my head when I walked up to the scene.

I started by considering the ambient light. This seemed to be sufficient for the background feel I wanted. However, I needed more light on Stephanie, so I added a softbox on a boom to illuminate her face and jacket. With the ambient light on the background and the main light on Stephanie in place, I determined that the light from camera left was a little lacking. Adding
some light from that side would create a more dramatic, three-dimensional feel in the shot. Therefore, I placed a bare strobe at a low angle to camera left. I wanted the light to seem like a reflection on her, not a “full light” as from an instrument.

Sample Shoot: Jazmin and Column. For this shot (below), Jazmin was posed on a column at a beach house we used during a workshop in Mexico. The sun was on her face and I knew the light would be a perfect “Sunny 16” on her. But that also meant that the shadows would be too dark for what I saw in my head. Knowing this about the ambient light, I added a speedlight at f/11. This was aimed it at the shadow side of her. I immediately saw that I needed another light to add something to the ceiling; it was going far too dark. I aimed this speedlight at the ceiling but away from the camera. I wanted it to produce an “open shadow” feel, not look lit, so I settled on getting an f/8 on the ceiling—two stops away from the f/16 ambient level. The resulting image has a nice feeling of light to it, with just a little drama. Jazmin added the wonderful pose and I got the shot in only a few exposures.

Building one light at a time allowed me to design the image of Jazmin I envisioned when I saw this location.

The point is this: Don’t try to get it all at one time. Building the image one light at a time lets you see the possibilities—and alerts you to places to improve. After you do this for a while, it becomes second nature; while you may be building the setup one light at a time, you are thinking so far ahead that it feels seamless to those around you.

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