Getting Started With Flash Photography: I Wish I Knew These Things

Getting Started With Flash Photography: I Wish I Knew These Things

Being able to use off-camera lighting is considered a skill only for the pro photographers. When I started out, still in high school, I saw the flash photographers use their cool lights and always thought about how cool they are. Soon after, I bought my first flash. Mistakes followed.

While I can understand why using off-camera lighting is considered an advanced skill in photography, I believe that just placing it into this category makes it seem harder than it really is. Flash photography is not easy, but it’s not impossible either. Quite the opposite. If you’ve ever had your headshot taken and saw the lighting setup in the studio, you might’ve thought of it as complicated, but it really isn’t. Each light has a purpose and solves a challenge. There really isn't too much authenticity or creativity that goes into taking a headshot. At least I was not able to see that authentic voice in headshot photography. Rather, I’ve been fascinated by how certain headshot photographers have managed to create a following of students that essentially do the same image that one photographer does. It’s a good image nonetheless, and a much more profitable business model than what I am doing. I won't lie; when I was asked to do headshots, I did a style similar to what that photographer was doing.

Light Setups Are Pointless

When I first started with off-camera flash, I was browsing YouTube and the internet at large, trying to find as many lighting setups as possible. This was a task that allowed me to solve a specific problem and get a specific look. Little did I know, my images ended up looking like everyone else's, and I didn’t think much about getting an authentic look. I was only concerned with nailing the light setup and nothing else. While I hate to use the word “wrong,” I will say this: Learning light by copying light setups from the internet is wrong. The same applies to learning light by copying others' light setups.

Copying can only be interesting if you are experimenting and trying to achieve a look you saw in an image. The key here is problem-solving. During the process of figuring out a light setup, you learn much more than just the setup itself; you learn about how modifiers work and how light works. It will never be perfect, but you can get close to what you’re trying to achieve. I love referring to Platon. When I asked him what light he uses, he did not tell me. Instead, he said to find out my own way of doing his light, and it will be even better because it will be authentic.

One Light Can Do a Lot

A common complaint I hear from the photographers I coach is that they only have one or two lights. While it is nice to have an unlimited light supply, we need to be realistic. Even if all you have is one speedlite, you can still make outstanding work. This comes down to knowing how to modify and shape light. When I travel and only bring a backpack with me, I can only bring a single light (as well as the sun). Having one light and one modifier is a limitation that pushes you to explore just how much you can do with it. Even if you do own several lights, I encourage you to play around with them and see what you can achieve by moving the light to unusual places. Adding more lights sometimes creates more problems than it solves. To highlight the importance of being able to work with one light, I spent a whole lesson on it in my lighting tutorial.

Anything Is a Light Modifier

That’s right. Everything we see interacts with light; hence, it’s a light modifier. That’s just how seeing works: your eye catches the reflections from a surface and translates that. The famous example would be the BigMac box that was used as a light modifier, but let’s be real and consider some everyday objects you can use as light modifiers. The first one I would think of is tin foil. Given how reflective it is, you can use it to create small reflectors, which are particularly useful in product photography to create small highlights in your image. Another one is stained glass. It can act as a gel and create unique light patterns for your images. Another one you can use is a mirror, yet another one is a magnifying glass. The list goes on.

There Are a Million and One Ways To Use a Modifier

If you are buying a dedicated light modifier such as a softbox or a hard reflector, be advised that there are multiple ways you can use it. For example, you can angle a small softbox in a way that creates gradient light, or you can remove diffusers to give the light a different quality, or you can half-diffuse your softbox to expand the possibilities further. The same with a hard reflector – you can zoom it, diffuse it, add grids on it, and paint the inner surface white. One of the ways to find out what your light is really capable of is by limiting yourself to only using that particular light. For example, I learned a lot about a beauty dish when that was the only thing I had.

The Perfect Setup Does Not Exist

There is no such thing as an ideal setup. This is something that can’t exist as every lighting scenario has its solutions which won't necessarily work in a different situation. My light depends on a lot of factors ranging from my emotional state to what clothes are being used. More rationally, I look at things such as movement, facial and body structure. Often I just follow my gut when it comes to light. However, before I would really think about the modifiers and lights I should be using to capture the scene the way it is appearing in my imagination. Going back to my roots, I was a documentary photographer, and now in my work, I seek to capture moments rather than staged scenes.

Closing Thoughts

To close this article off, these are just some of the more common things I wish I knew before starting flash photography. There are, of course, others, and there are inevitably some that I am yet to find out. Over to you, where are you in your flash journey? What are some of the lessons that you have learned and some of the things you wish you knew? Let us know in the comments below!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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I don’t fancy the headshots with two or three strip lights much. I have been looking and there are some uk based photographers that do really nice work. I think using a lot of butterfly style lighting. Of cause we are designed to live under the sun so one light above is a good beginning :)

Yep! It's incredible how this look became so popular because of the cult-like following of its inventor. I disagree, it's not a bad look, just a vastly overused one.
A light above you say? Not always, light below can be quite beautiful too.

Well the work of Martin Schoeller is pretty cool. Since they are so close up, the catchlight in the eyes are catchy- so to speak.

I am just a simple person making simple pictures and never use more then one light on a face. In my humble opinion it the better option to light the person from above:)

Big fan of that look!

I withdraw my comments. I think as and old retired photographer I may be out of touch with things. I meant no offense. I appreciate your excitement for your craft and I have to admit I do miss my long ago portrait shooting days.

It's not that hard. the age/appearance of your subject really doesn't matter

I beg to differ with you, Andrew. In my work, the age, appearance, character, and many more factors make a huge difference. I spend a considerable amount of time trying to find the right model for the job. This is why castings exist in the first place. Roughly out of 15-20 models either none or perhaps one/two make the cut. Each individual aesthetic and direction has a different face in mind. The girls that can do a job for YSL are not likely to be cast by Dior etc. The best example of this would be the casting for a Balenciaga show, and a Victoria Secret show.
With that said, my portrait experience is not as vast as yours, I am sure you are able to find a beautiful way to photograph your subjects no matter who they are, which is a skill I salute.

I think you might have misunderstood me :)

I was saying that the age and appearance of your model doesn't make a dramatic difference to your LIGHTING. The person I was replying to was stating that the same simple lighting techniques wouldn't work with older models, which I was showing to not be the case. While I might light an older man with a weathered face in a specific way to highlight the character of his skin, a single beauty dish will product just as nice of a portrait for him as it would for a 22 year fashion model.

Ah, completely misunderstood you! Apologies for that.
Very valid point indeed, however, my personal taste would tell me to never use a hard light on a person with textured skin.
This mostly comes from photographing myself, as I have notoriously bad skin texture on my face. I think we all like to look a little younger than we actually are, so using a large soft light on an older model would be much more effective in making the subject like the photo. While for a model you can do pretty much anything you want and get away with it so long that you are happy.

I'm sorry I lost you, Milton. I believe we are talking about slightly different genres here. The bulk of my experience is in the fashion scene, where it is rare to find middle-aged or older models. The people I photograph are predominantly models, in carefully curated settings with makeup, hair, and a whole team behind to make their beauty even stronger.
Nonetheless, we do have classic models who tend to be middle-aged and older. Here are some images I shot back in 2021 of such a person.

This very nice. Sorry if I sounded grumpy. I think I miss those years of portrait shooting more than I thought. I apologize if I offended anyone and you especially. I love your work.

No worries at all Milton! you are incredibly nice, and I fully understand your point, of course.
Out of curiosity, what's stopping you from going back to photography? Anything I can do to help you get back to portrait shooting?

I retired 5 years ago. I'm 70 now. I did the portrait thing for 32 years professionally along with theater performance photography, all on film until the last few years. Now I do mostly scenic things, not landscape as such. I do minimum editing since I did film for so long. I also did professional video from 1978-2010 but I stopped before HD really took hold of things. I planned for this so I'm doing well. Keep at this young man.

Two lights.

I remember when I first started in the studio, it was at my university's lighting studio. We have over a dozen lights, and I thought to make good photos I needed to use them all. My first portraits used four or more lights, with a main light, a fill, a key, a background light, etc... The photos I made weren't coming out how I wanted and messing with all the lights was frustrating. After a bit more research and practice, I learned that using just one light and being intentional about where I placed it was far easier and more flattering. Don't overcomplicate your lighting, and it will be easier to see what you need to change and what is flattering. The example below was taken using one light with a softbox to light the model, and two lights on either side of the background with umbrellas to keep it a clean white.

Ah this reminds me of how I was as well! Trying to use as many lights as possible only to then take the final with only 1 light from my original setup. Simply adding light creates more problems than it solves haha.

I believe that adding, removing are both fine. It's self training. Over doing it teach a lot actually and there are cases when it's okay or needed so it is an excellent form of training. On the job, it makes you better more efficient to analyze and react to the situation.

In theatre and TV lighting we always say "Add a light, add a shadow."

The fact that there are a million and one ways actually frighten me. There's way too much for me to try and pick and choose - and I don't have the time to try them all. Do you have any suggestion for how to address this?

use just one light and learn the predominant ways of using it. The "standard" for lighting styles is Rembrandt lighting, which lights one side of the face and casts a triangular shadow on the other side of the nose. This is very similar to the easy-to-use 45/45 style, where all the angles of the light are 45 degrees (45 degrees to the side, 45 degrees pointing down). These are very versatile and pleasing to use. You can add lights to these setups to be rim lights or background lights as needed.

Personally I find it quite useful to develop "go-to" light setups for my work. I used to take your approach many years ago where I would "follow my gut". Problem was that, although it got the job done, there was no refinement in what I did.

Instead these days, I take time to constantly develop light setups in my studio. When I get to a place I like, I write down the light diagram. And then that gives me a solid starting point for commercial work. Since I often use 3+ lights, day of I can make adjustments to the ratios between those lights to finesse things. But it drastically cuts down on the setup allowing me to focus on other things, gives me a chance to plan way more in advance, and also allows me to light with a signature that feels intentional rather than random.

This approach has elevated my work because a lot of planning and prep has gone into the light before the shoot. At any point I can whip out my diagrams and recreate previous light setups or build upon them further.

But its a method that works for me.

I am with you on that one. Won't lie there are a few setups I keep going back to over and over. Since quite a lot of clients use very simple references, I do have some work that's fairly easy to reproduce etc.
Light diagrams are super helpful! I often draw up one before a commercial shoot and send it to the studio just in case they don't have the gear needed.
By the way, I love the studio space that you built!

I must be critical in my critique of some of the answers on whats important and not. First and foremost, as a photographer, it is your job to capture the image, the attitude and show who your subject is. Its not your job to just take their picture. Studying lighting is the most important part of what we do and also studying subject features. A persons feature makes up who they are, and its your job to bring that out. Hense, Rembrandt light, split light, loop light butterfly light, and all the above modified to some extent. Study your subjects face, and that is what will help you to know what lighting pattern you need to use. Hard light vs soft and a high, medium or low key background. How to shot a wide face, or long one, someone with bad skin or a long nose or coke bottle glasses. You are creating the personality of the subject in a way that they have never seen themselves before. Study posing. Now you are creating not snap capturing. Have fun.