Sunday, April 13, 2014

When Lighting Strikes: An Essential Guide for One-Light Portraits

Starting Out

I was going through my photos that I’ve taken over the last ten years and noticed that I have a large number of portraits of different people in many countries around the world. Although each photo is unique, I realized that generally follow a number of principles, especially when it comes to using my light either on my camera or off-camera.

Jump shot with a lighting bolt in the background

As someone who learned things from scratch, I can still remember the frustration one feels when looking for free, credible information and tutorials on strobist photography, not to mention the desperation when one finds overwhelming facts about the topic. My suggestion for serious beginners who want to learn the ropes of strobist photography, is to keep things as simple as possible.
Explaining the behavior and quality of light can be complex and technical. However, it can also be explained in a practical manner, which most people will understand. Over the years, I’ve landed on a few basics that I keep in mind when working with lights and people. In this simple guide, we’ll go through these basics and, without being technically annoying, and equip you with the essentials of lighting portraits with a single hot shoe flash. :-)


Using built-in flash

There is nothing wrong with the built-in flash in cameras, but it does have very limited capability when it comes to sculpting someone’s face with light to create texture and a three-dimensional effect.

External Flash unit attached to camera.

Most, if not all professional cameras don’t have built-in flashes and there is a reason for that. There are two situations, however, when a built-in flash can come in handy: for emergencies or for important images where quality of light is not as important as getting the image, and for fill-in light using controlled output of light for daytime shots where there are heavy shadows.

Using fill in flash allowed me to soften heavy shadows caused by strong sunlight

The main source of learning material I used was from Neil van Niekerk who has some great material for creating pleasant looking portraits with your flash on your camera. The basic technique relies on their being some surface to “bounce” your light off onto the subject - essentially creating the same look and feel as off-camera lighting. In fact now, I can’t walk into a room without looking at the walls and ceilings to see if they would be good to bounce light off of, even if I don’t have a camera with me!

After seeing the results from the on-camera lighting course from Neil van Niekerk, I eventually moved to off-camera lighting techniques, where the main light source is placed away from the camera and triggered by a cable or electronic trigger attached to the camera. In looking for education material for off-camera lighting I found a site called run by David Hobby. Although this is the main destination now for anyone wanting to learn off-camera photography, in 2006 it was a new site and the only one I could find what had both great material and was free!

Basics of Portrait Lighting

Over the years I’ve landed on a few basics that I keep in mind when working with lights and people. I like to keep things as simple as possible and no matter what I’m doing will always start off with what I can do with my flash on camera, then what I can do with one light off-camera using some kind of light modifier. Only once I have exhausted my possibilities will I look to using more than one light.

There are six “basics” that I think about when using strobes in portrait photography:
  • Light-to-subject distance
  • Relative size of light source
  • Quality of light
  • Direction of light
  • Balance of strobe light to ambient light
  • Light modifiers
I’ll cover some basics to get you started for each of the above areas, but I don’t intend to cover each of the above areas in detail, as there is really good reference material online, which I will reference in each section.

Light-to-subject distance

There is a lot of material out there on the Internet about what’s called the “inverse square law”. Whenever I see the words “inverse”, “Square” and “law” together my eyes glaze over and strait breaking out in a sweat, that was until I read David Hobby’s explanation which is real simple to understand "The closer you are to the light source, the more powerful the light. Get real close and it gets really powerful. Get far away, and it gets weaker”.

The reason this is important is because as you move your light closer to or further away from your subject you’ll need to know how to adjust the power of the light to make it stronger or weaker.

The other component that took me a while to understand (I am a very slow learner) is that light, similar to a lens, has a depth of focus. Unlike the depth of focus on a lens, which defines what is in focus in an image, the depth of focus of light relates to how much of the image will be lit, if the strobe was the only light source. The short description for depth of focus is the further the light source is away from the subject the more the surrounding objects are going to be in the lit in the picture.

Depth of focus, therefore allows you to control what you want to appear in the image. If you place the light closer to the subject it is more powerful, allows you to control more accurately what you include in the image and gives you more control of exposure. If you place the light further away the light is less powerful and allows you to light a broader area more evenly.

Large soft box about 1 foot away from the subject

Large soft box about 3 feet away from the subject

Large soft box about 5 feet away from the subject

Understanding the light-to-subject distance allows you to exploit the lighting depth of field to produce the images you want. This is the first piece of the puzzle related to something called the “Quality of Light”.

Relative size of light source

Understanding that the closer the light source is to the subject you’re photographing, the bigger the relative size of the light becomes, was counter intuitive to me. Not sure why, maybe I’m slow or something, but once I got it, it became clear.

As you bring the light source closer to the subject and the light gets bigger, the more the light is able to wrap around the subject. This is important, as it is the second piece of the “Quality of Light” puzzle.

The soft wrap around shadow gives the impression of a medium to large light box

But the light source is a small 8x10" light box placed very close to the subject
Using the same small softbox gives hard shadows similar to a small light source.

Of course some light sources will always be small compared to their subject, e.g. a normal flash compared to an elephant, but if you had a light source big enough to light an elephant, then moving it closer to the elephant would make it relatively larger and wrap around the elephant - was that too abstract?

Quality of Light

The quality of light is affected by the interplay of the above two elements or light-to-subject distance and the relative size of the light source. I found the easiest explanation of quality of light from David Hobby where he compares the head shot from the Department of Motor Vehicles to a professional portrait.

Bare bulb flash - very hard shadows with a quick transition from light to shadows

Large Octabox - very soft shadows with a gradual transition from light to shadows

Quality of light covers both hard and soft light, neither one is right or wrong only appropriate and inappropriate depending on the image.

Understanding how the quality of light affects images

Direction of light

The direction of light is easier to understand how it affects the image. Taking your strobe off-camera allows you to move the light to any angle in relation to the subject, which reveals form in a person, or any other three-dimensional object. The easiest way to see how light from your light angle will affect your subject is to move yourself to the position of the light and view the subject from that position.

It's important to understand how the direction of light affects the portrait

Just like there is no right or wrong quality of light, there is also not right or wrong angles of light, only appropriate and inappropriate depending on the image. For instance the low angle of the light source in the image below is great for a scary Halloween photo, but probably not appropriate for a portrait of a bride.

A low angle of light create a distinct type of portrait

Balance of strobe light to ambient light

Probably the most complicated part of using a strobe is understanding the relationship between the light source and the natural surrounding light, known as ambient light. When using ambient light, a camera’s exposure is affected by the aperture of the lens, the shutter speed and the sensor’s (or film’s) ISO setting, whereas a camera’s exposure when shooting only with a strobe is only affected by the aperture of the lens and the sensor’s (or film’s) ISO setting (as long as the shutter speed is below the max sync speed).

Changing the shutter speed affects the ambient light not the flash light

When using a strobe you are essentially created two exposures, one for the ambient light and one for the strobe. David Hobby’s article on balancing ambient and flash light clearly explains this concept in detail.

My most frequent use of balancing ambient light and flash is for night-time pictures like the common jump shot

Jump shots are a great example for balancing Ambient and Flash lighting

Jump shot with a lighting bolt in the background

My youngest daughter - ready for New Year's dinner

Balancing flash with early evening light

Another great use of balancing ambient and flash light is for using the sun as a back-light and the flash as a main light to light faces.
Balancing the sun as a back light and the flash as the main light

Light modifiers

Light modifiers do exactly what it sounds like - they modify the quality of light. Some light modifiers, like umbrellas or soft boxes, make the light softer and some, like snoots and grids, make the light harder. For now I’ll focus on portraits with softer light modifiers:

The softbox I use is a 24x24 Ezybox from Lastolite, which creates a nice soft light and has the ability to add a grid on the front to control spill.

Lastolite 24x24 Ezybox I

Softbox light is soft on the face with a little spill on the background

Softbox light creates a nice profile with little spill on the background

The Octabox I use is a 36" Octabox from Lastolite, which creates a nice big soft light for a great quality of light.  

Lastolite 36" Octabox I

Octabox light is really soft on the face with a little spill on the background

Octabox light creates a nice profile with little spill on the background

Octabox with fill card
One of the easiest ways to get an additional light is to add a reflector.  In the images below you can see the model holding a white foam card to reflect light back up into the shadows under her chin.

Holding a reflector under the model can creates a second fill light

Final image with the Octabox on top and the fill card underneath

Strip Light
The strip light softbox I use is a 48x16 strip light from Lastolite, which creates a nice controlled soft light for a great quality of light.

Lastolite 48x16 Strip Light Softbox

Strip light is fairly soft on the face with a little spill on the background

Strip light creates a nice profile with almost no spill on the background

The great thing about umbrellas is that compared to other light modifiers they are cheap and create a fairly soft light.  Most of the time I prefer softboxes as I am able to control the spill of light, whereas when using umbrellas, the light tends to bounce everywhere.

Lastolite 20" Translucent Umbrella

Umbrella light is fairly soft but also has a quite a bit of spill onto the background

Umbrella light creates a soft side profile but also has a quite a bit of spill onto the background

Beauty Dish
The beauty dish shown below is a 24" dish with a diffuser sock over the end.  It creates a harder light than the softboxes but still has a nice quality to it.

24" Beauty Dish

Beauty dishes create a harder light and control the spill on the background

A beauty dish is also often used in conjunction with a fill card under the chin to create a nice clean look.

Beauty dish with fill card underneath

Beauty dish creates a nice profile with almost no spill on the background

Ring Flash
The ring flash creates a fairly strong image and is often seen in fashion magazines (hint: look for the ring of light in the catch light in the eyes.)  I use a ring flash from Orbis that fits over the front of the lens, which is what causes the almost ghost like shadow effect.  Although the light is fairly harsh, because it is a ring of light, it creates almost no shadows on the face.

The ring flash goes over the lens and the flash fits into the slot at the bottom

The ring light creates a very distinct look for fashion magazines

Sto-fen Diffuser
The Sto-fen diffuser pops onto the top of your flash to create a fairly soft light.  You do need to order the correct diffuser for your flash unit, so make sure you check that you are getting the right one.  These are great at diffusing light and I keep them on nearly all the time if I am doing journalistic events.

The Sto-fen filter sits on top of the flash and is tilted at about 60 degrees

You can also use Sto-fen diffusers in portrait mode.

Sto-fen diffusers create a large light and which creates spill on the background

Bounce - Ceiling
Bouncing light of the ceiling is a great way to create a large light source and soft light.  I shoot a lot of events and family shots using this technique.  The main problems are (1) you have little control over the light as it goes everywhere and (2) the light is affected by the color of the paint on the ceiling.

Ceiling bounce light creates a large light and large spills on the background

Bounce - Wall
Bouncing light of a wall is a great way to create a large light source and soft light, while keeping some of the 3D form with shadows.  I shoot a lot of events and family shots using this technique.  The main problem is that the light is affected by the color of the paint on the ceiling.

Wall bounce light creates a large light and large spills on the background

A special thanks to my daughter Abby Emmett, for modeling for these photos.  Abby hosts a YouTube video channel where she discusses various make up products and how to apply them effectively.  You can view her videos on her YouTube Channel.

I hope you have enjoyed this article about portrait lighting with a single strobe. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shooting Products with a Single Strobe - Cup Cakes

I've been spending time going back to basics, shooting products with one light using a variety of techniques and tools. This is a mini update to my previous article about shooting fig rolls using a variety of different products using different techniques and tools with a single strobe (flash).

After shooting the fig rolls with a single strobe, I decided that I would try and shoot other products using similar techniques.  I ended up using the same technique as I did with the fig rolls, bouncing the flash against the back wall to reflect back onto the product with white cards to light up the front,  like this:

These are the product ads that I came up with:

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Chocolate Cupcakes

Similar to the fig rolls, I ended up enjoying shooting the product and eating if during the shoot.  I would have shot more, but my kids took the rest away from me!

I hope you have enjoyed this small update. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shooting Products with a Single Strobe - Fig Rolls

I want to spend some time going back to some basics of shooting products with one light using a variety of techniques and tools. This series of hands on projects will attempt to shoot a variety of different products using different techniques and tools with a single strobe (flash).

The first product is something close to my heart – cookies. Before I start any product shoot I always consider how the final image is going to be used. For the cookie shot I want to create a product photo that could be used for an online or print ad so I want to make sure I leave space for text and want to include the whole cookie.

This is the kind of ad I have in mind.

I have no personal relationship to any fig roll making company, however I do have a very personal relationship with fig rolls and have for as long as I can remember.

I want to get fairly close to the image to capture the texture in the crust and fig layers so I’m using a 100mm macro lens. Because I’m going to get close, I need to think about the depth of focus of the cookie; too shallow and the eye won’t have anything to focus on, too deep and my eye won’t be drawn to anything particular in the image. I decided on a middle aperture of f/9 and it’s a good starting point. Finally, as I’m using a single strobe to provide all the light, I set my speed to between 1/160 and 1/200 and ISO at 200.

The first thing I want to do is see if I could get a good enough photo with the flash straight on.

 This rarely works, but there is no harm in trying.

With the harsh shadows and flat image, straight on flash is not going to work.

I’m still keeping the flash on my camera, but this time I’m going to turn the head of the flash and point it upwards to bounce the flash on the ceiling to see what that will look like.

Bouncing the light off the ceiling should give a nice big light source and provide a nice soft light.

Although it looks better it’s still flat but at least the harsh shadows are gone.

There is another problem though, the image is rather dull and the whites are more grey that white. This is because there is a lot of white in the image and it’s tricking the camera to reduce the amount of light the flash generates. To counter this I increase the output of the flash by 1 stop - which means that I am doubling the amount of light that the strobe will generate.

Here’s some articles that describe exposure compensation:

Here’s the image with the +1 stop increase in light.

I’m happier with the light and the softer shadows, but there is still a lack of texture in the roll’s crust on the top and the fig paste in the front.

Now that the exposure is closer to where I want it to be, I’m now going to focus on creating texture in the fig rolls. To do this I need to be able to cast light across the fig roll to create small shadows in the crust. The best way to do this for food is to have the light come from the back to the front of the image.

To achieve the back lighting with the flash on my camera, I need to turn the head on my flash to face toward the back white wall.

This will create a big light source pushing light across the top of the crust and creating a nice texture.

I’m really starting to like the lighting now. There’s good texture on the top of the fig rolls. I’m ready to control the light hitting the front on the fig rolls. To do this with one light on the camera I need to do something that may seem counter intuitive, I need to make sure that the light from the flash isn’t directly hitting the fig rolls.

To keep the light off the food I attach a gobo (short for “go between”), which blocks the light on the bottom of the flash hitting the food. I use Honl Photo products, but any piece of black card will work. Why black, because using white card would bounce light up to the ceiling and create a second light source, which may affect the image.

This is a top view of the gobo on the flash.

The gobo fits on the bottom of the flash. Using a card and rubber band works just as well as the Honl Photo Speed Gobo and Speedstrap.

Here are the fig rolls with the same lighting settings as before except with the gobo. You can see that the front has lost some light, but not all of it, as the large light bounced off the back wall wraps around them.

To bring light into the front part of the fig rolls we use some white board (or paper) that will bounce the light from the back of the wall onto the front of the fig roll.

A look toward the camera shows the flash with the gobo on the camera and the white card in front that is bouncing the light back on the front of the fig rolls.

This is a side view with the near card removed for this shot.

The resulting image has the lighting that I am trying to achieve. Now I can go ahead and find the angle that will help me create the final image I have in my head.

After shooting a few different angles this is the angle that I’m looking for.

Now all I have to do is some final adjustments and clean up of crumbs (Fig rolls have a terrible crumbly outside which means you will always have some post to do).

This is what I am looking for and would be able to use for my ad.

The main problem with using the flash on camera is that as I move the camera round to find the right angle, the flash moves with it and the lighting angles change. This means that I have a lot of adjustments to make with the angle of the flash and the bounce cards every time I move my camera.

To solve this problem I need to take the flash off the camera and see how we can get the same quality of light. The way to do this is to take the flash off the camera and put it on a light stand behind the fig rolls and aim it at the back wall.

(Editor's note: if you look closely you'll notice that one of the fig rolls disappeared whilst shooting the setup shots - sorry about that, but I did warn you in the beginning that I had a special relationship with fig rolls!)

Setting up the light this way allows me to replicate the same affect as have the light on my camera, but now I have the ability to move my camera without worrying about having to keep messing with the light and bounce cards.

Of course it doesn’t mean that I don’t have other things to worry about!

Using the same settings on my flash as before (set at about ½ power) you can see that the light is now a lot brighter. This is because the source of the light is now a lot closer to the back wall and is travelling a shorter distance to light the subject and therefore effectively becomes a stronger light source. All I need to do now is take a number of images while reducing the light by 1 stop each time to find the right settings.

This is at 1/4 power and is nearly right, I’m going to try and take off 1 more stop.

This is now at 1/8 power and is too dark. I can now increase the the lighting by 1/3 stops to try and get the right power.

I end up with 1/8 +2/3 stops and finish off the image by cleaning up the crumbs.

Although I’ve already got two good images using a bare bulb flash, both on and off camera, I’m going to try and use some light modifiers to get the same affect.

The first light modifier I’m going to use is a simple shoot through umbrella.

I start by setting it up at roughly the same position as the previous bare bulb flash bouncing off the back wall. After a few shots I realize that using the umbrella is creating a much smaller light source than the big wall that I was bouncing the light off before. To create the same big light source I move the umbrella a lot closer to the fig rolls.

This now allows me to explore different angles that may work for my image, like this one.

After a few different angles I decide that I still like the same angle that I’ve used in my other images.

I finish off by cleaning up the image in Lightroom, but realize that there is now a pattern on the plate that wasn’t there before. The pattern is caused by the reflection of the umbrella ribs on the plate. If the plate weren’t so reflective the ribs probably wouldn’t have appeared.

Because the umbrella gave me the quality of light I was looking for, but created the pattern with it’s ribs I’m going to use another great light modifier - a softbox. This should give me the right light I’m looking for, but without the patterns from the umbrella ribs.

The above shot shows the softbox up high, but just like the umbrella, I ended up with the softbox up close and at about an 25° angle above the fig rolls as shown below.

All I need to do now is clean up the image.

This is the final image that I then used to create my ad below.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to