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.
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!