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Inside My Simple Lighting Setup

I get a lot of people asking me about my lighting setup in my photography. I find it hard to explain my setup because I don’t really have a single, rigid setup. Instead, I usually just apply the basic theories of lighting that I have learned over the years and apply them to the scene at hand. I’ll say it now. Lighting is easy. Let me be more accurate. The basics of lighting is easy and learning a couple concepts will get you along the way to mastering lighting your scenes.

Simple Lighting

Tonight, for my 365 shot (shown above), I took a photo of my Canon AE-1. This is straight off the camera without any processing. I want to step you through my process of lighting it.

The photo was shot at my dining table. I wanted to use my Speedlite to light it since the overhead lighting makes for boring shadows and no great contrast. In many of my portrait photos, I would use my strobe and an umbrella. I often put the light next to the subject and pointing at them. The strobe will act as the key light and being on the side would cast shadows on the opposite side of the subject.

Being very lazy tonight, I did not want to set up my umbrella, but I wanted to achieve a similar effect. At first, I had the flash to my left directed straight at me and the lighting was too harsh. There were too many blown highlights. The way to combat that is to diffuse the light. This is the main function of an umbrella. I did not want to set up my umbrella so I used the same concept and used a flat, white surface to bounce the light to me instead of directly at me. I used what was at hand, MacGyver style. I had a miscellaneous mail on the table. I propped up a white envelope and faced it towards me with the flash parallel to its surface. Since light floods out of the flash head, a lot of the light is reflected off the envelope but much more diffused. This was a lot better. The lighting was soft and the transitions to shadows were smoother. This got me to 90% of what I pictured in my head.

The thing that still bothered me was that the right side of the photo was too dark. The camera strap looked black on that side. What I needed was to get some light on it. In a portrait setup with one light source, I would use a reflector on the opposite side to bounce some of the key light back to the subject. This is exactly what I did. Again, I didn’t want to set up a huge reflector. Instead I use the concept behind it and setup another envelope on my right side to reflect back some of the key light. This created a classic triangle, one light setup where the key (the flash and first envelope), the fill (the second envelope), and the subject make up the corners. The photo below is a shot of the complete lighting setup.


In the picture, you can see that the red represents the initial bounce of the light from the flash. The red arrow is the key lighting where the majority of the light is directed to. Most of that light hits the one side of the camera and my face. A portion of the initial lighting, represented by the blue arrows, bounces off of the second envelope and is redirected back to the dark area of the scene. A lot of light has fallen off after the second bounce so it is not as bright and therefore, acts like a fill light.

You might be wondering why I am writing about this very unprofessional lighting setup instead of a setup I would use in studio. The answer is that I want to use this to illustrate that the technique of lighting is way more important than the quality of the gear. Yes, it is important to have good gear if you want to be a professional photographer, but it is no good if you do not understand the fundamentals of how to light a scene with that gear. This photo was all about technique. Instead of using my Speedlite, I could have used a bright $15 flashlight from a hardware store. I would still get a decent, well-lit photograph if I used the same lighting concepts. So if you have not experimented with lighting yet, go out and try it. It can get frustrating, but overall I think it is fun to learn. It does not take much to make your photos look more dynamic and have more depth with a little lighting. Feel free to comment here if you have any questions or you can find me on twitter at @JavaJunky.

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Categories: Photography


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