The lighting you use in your photography is one of the keys to achieving outstanding results. One thing I have observed as photographers develop their skills is how quickly they become more sensitive to the effects of subtle adjustments in lighting. Novice photographers tend to be happy with gross lighting adjustments, but experience smooths this out.
Practice, practice, practice. Another thing I have noticed is that many professional photographers fail to practice their lighting skills. In other professions (e.g. surgeons, pilots, actors, firemen), there is an emphasis on regular practice sessions. In these sessions, working professionals refine their skills, work through potential problems, and experiment with new equipment. Yet many photographers fail to do this. This is a shame, because no matter how good you may be, it’s easy to get rusty, stale and complacent. Practice gives you a way to avoid these issues and continue to grow and develop your skills.
Practicing lighting skills can be done within your professional domain. A portrait photographer can offer portfolio shots to a model who agrees to be a subject for some experimental lighting setups. A product photographer can grab some stuff from home and set up a fake shoot. A landscape photographer can go to a well-known location and shoot it differently.
Lighting practice can also take place outside of your normal shooting domain. A portrait photographer can switch to macro for practice. At least things such as crystals don’t complain when you take too long, and you can slow bugs down by putting them in the fridge. Landscape photographers can setup tabletop scenes and practice their skills indoors. Wedding photographers can do some studio portrait work. And so on.
One benefit of practicing outside your normal domain is that you may discover some new techniques that can be adopted in your everyday work. Perhaps these discoveries will give you a new look and edginess that will help you stay competitive.
In other words, practicing contributes to your growth as a photographer. It takes you outside of your comfort zone. It is from this position that you can gain insights, new skills and get those breakthrough ideas that change the shape of your work.
No Such Thing as The Right Lighting: Remember that there is no such thing as right lighting, only the right lighting to produce the effect that you want. So if harsh side lighting works for you on a particular portrait, use it, even though it would not be part of the everyday setup for a portrait photographer. But to realize this you have to have tried it out and worked out for yourself exactly what you will get. So in your lighting practice you should not only try some of the different setups you see in books on photographic lighting, but you should also try as many other setups as you can think of.
How does doing landscape photography by moonlight look? Try it. How does a face look when lit only from directly above? Try it. How does a flower look when lit from inside the flower? Try it.
The average photographer follows the rules. The outstanding photographer knows when to break them and how to make up their own rules.
Experimentation Isn’t Costly. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to experience lighting from another domain. A tungsten light and a sheet of translucent fabric can simulate a large softbox, so you can see what it does.
Ten minutes and an LED light, some wire and a battery can create a great light for macro. A desklight with a cardboard snoot can make a spotlight. To get some intensive practice, you can rent both lighting equipment and complete studios in most cities. Or get together with a couple of other photographers and share your lighting gear. If you all have the same systems, you may be able to pool your portable flash gear and do some complex wireless flash setups. Some camera stores will have lighting workshops or in-shop setups where you can experiment with the gear and get a feeling for what you may need.
Broad education. To really try new to you lighting set ups requires that you know about them. This means looking outside of your domain. It may benefit you to do a workshop on macro, for example, so really come to grips with how they handle lighting. Books, magazines and websites can also help. The other education method is deconstruction. Find a killer image that seems to use different lighting than you are used to, analyze it and then try to reproduce it. Reproducing something is often the first step to moving beyond it.
Whatever type of photography you do, it is worth mastering the light needed for each image. After all the word photography itself refers to “imaging with light.” So it is natural that lighting is one of the keys to achieving outstanding results.
We all get bored sometimes: bored with ourselves, bored with others, and bored with what we're doing. Boredom with our photography can be a great kick to a new start.
The other day I was bored. I was feeling somewhat agitated. I wanted to shoot something (with a camera), but had no idea what. After some hours of pacing around the house and annoying my wife I realized what was going on. I had the need to do something new. So I went into the studio, looked around and started brainstorming in my head.
Some time ago I had been experimenting with LED lighting and fiber optics. I didn't have those accessible at the time, so I kept looking for alternative ways to create the same effects. Then the light bulb went on in my head and I put it all together.
I grabbed some black thin cardboard, a craft knife, my camera and macro lens (also a lensbaby for fun) and my portable flash unit, along with some flowers. I cut slits in the cardboard to let light only to parts of the flower, then propped up the cardboard on books with the flash underneath. I used some aluminum foil to limit the light to just the holes and slits I had cut. With the flowers covering the holes completely and the camera above, the resulting image looks as if the flower is lit from within.
The technique works simply by allowing you to control exactly where the light goes to backlight your subject. It works with anything that is translucent. I used flowers, but this technique can work with other things.
You don't want the light holes to be directly visible to the camera. With many translucent objects the amount of light you need to pump through would only cause massive underexposure if any of the light source was directly visible to the camera.
The effects can be interesting. I was shooting white lilies, but if I put the green end of the flower through a small hole and lit through the stem, the green of this part of the flower acted as a filter on the light, turning the whole flower green.
Now the point of this post isn't the particular technique I've described above (though it is worth trying). What matters is that, having identified what was wrong with me, I set in motion a creative process that I know works for my personality. It not only got me out of my mental state, but also helped me find a new technique (new to me, at least) that worked well. In fact, it has opened up a new series of work that may be interesting. We will see.
Creative people are often at their happiest when they create. Conversely, they are at their lowest when, for one reason or another, they cannot.
Recognize this trait in yourself and find ways to overcome it. Build a file of good ideas you come across. Or clip out images you'd love to figure out how to do for yourself. Keep these files handy. Have stimulating books around to give you a creative kick. Do whatever works for you.
You will find ways to turn a negative day into a positive one. Your photography and your life will benefit.
Because most of my work is now done in very remote areas without the help of a trained assistant, I have learned how to simplify my on-location lighting substantially. Now I choose lighting equipment based on its reliability, simplicity and weight.
When I first started making portraits of indigenous and tribal people in the field, I wanted to re-create the same lighting I was accustomed to using in the studio. So it was natural for me to think of a softbox as the best solution to get nice soft directional light. But instead of a light stand, I started using a tripod to accommodate the uneven terrain in the field. I would hang my Lumedyne power pack on the tripod to stabilize it in the wind. Then, it usually took me five to ten minutes just to set up the tripod and softbox. Once I started shooting, I found it very awkward to change the direction of the light while I was working with my subject.
On one trip it finally dawned on me that I didn’t need to use a softbox since I didn’t have the problem of extraneous light bouncing back at me off studio walls. I could use an umbrella which was much easier to assemble. I also realized that I could almost always ask one of the many eager kids that would gather around to hold my light stand when the wind was blowing. So why did I need a stand at all?
After I returned home, I modified a strobe bracket with some quick-release brackets and came up with a portable system that could be assembled in the field in less than a minute. This also allowed me to check my Polaroids, then change the direction and distance of the light in seconds.
Since then, I have simplified the whole process even further. For one thing, shooting digitally with my Canon Mark II 1ds allows me to check my strobe-to-ambient-light ratio on the LED of the camera. I no longer need Polaroids.
To simplify matters even more, I use the ST-E2 Speedlight sender which allows me to use the Canon dedicated flash in TTL mode wirelessly off camera. I power the strobe with Underdog rechargeable batteries instead of AA’s. The battery pack is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and the universal charger is even smaller.
I now soften the light by having my assistant hold a one-stop translucent disc about one foot in front of the strobe. I shoot one frame then check the LED. If the strobe light looks too bright or too dark I can quickly make adjustments with the flash exposure compensation dial on my camera body. It is so easy!