I love light; it is the foundational component of my photography. I started off with light setups from the internet; however, I soon realized they don’t work for what I was aiming to get. This led me to come up with my own way of lighting photographs. Here is how I do it and how you can learn it.
The key is lighting with intention, rather than knowing setups. Intentional lighting is a fast track to being able to work with light in its purest form, whether it's sunlight, flash, or constant light. There is really no difference in the core approach to it. The only real difference is in the ability to control light, but the properties don’t change at all. Flash is light, the sun is light. In theory, if the sun were a flash, the image would be the same; the only difference would be that you can't move the sun around, which, in reality, you can't. In this article, I will break down the process of lighting with sunlight, flash, constant light, and mixed setups.
The first lighting scenario you will encounter when starting photography is using the sun as the light source. The key to lighting with the sun is position, weather conditions, and time of day.
I always start by picking the background I want to see in the image and then placing the subject in it. From then on, it is up to moving the subject around and posing them in a way that the face is either lit up, dark, or perhaps there is a rim light. The great thing about having just the sun is that the scene will be largely bright, and you can work with techniques such as over and underexposure to create your desired effect. For example, if the face is in direct sunlight and the background is in the shade, you can create contrast within the image.
The weather conditions are the next point to keep in mind. If there are clouds, your light will become softer as they act as a large diffusion layer. This is perhaps the most ideal time to take location images if you are starting out. Soft light is quite flattering on the face and is much easier to work with. Hard light, on the other hand, creates shadows you need to know how to control. If you don't like contrast, the midday sun won't be your best friend. If you've encountered harsh sunlight and want to make it soft, find a roof or any source of shade. Place your subject in there, and voila.
Time of day is the last factor to keep in mind. Midday sun will be coming from the top and is likely to be the hardest time of day to work in. I would save this for later. The optimal time to shoot if you're starting out is early morning or afternoon. During those times, the sun is lower in the sky, making it easier to find a position where the subject's face is well-lit and clearly visible. A factor to keep in mind is the light temperature. Sunrise and sunset tend to tint the light magenta and make the overall scene warmer. Consider changing your camera's temperature setting to counter that.
A scene with just a flash can be lit even more easily. Let's consider a fairly simple setting where you have just one flash. The first thing I do is make sure there is no ambient light. Take off the flash and capture a black frame. This is easiest done by setting your camera to ISO 100, shutter speed to 1/160th of a second (sync speed), and aperture to f/8. If the frame appears black, you've achieved what you need and can move on to the next step.
The next step is to position the light. I won't dive deep into what modifier to use and where, as that's a whole book of knowledge. The short version is that if you want to create moody dark lighting, go for a light source that will be close to the model and quite focused. This can be a hard reflector or a softbox with a grid, depending on your goal. Bear in mind that you should not worry about the power of the light at this point. Just find the position first. Placed in front of the model, it will evenly light the face and make the image mostly high key; placed on the side, it will illuminate half of the face or less. This will create drama and mood. A good tip to see what your light is doing is to turn on the model lamp – a so-called constant light built into most flash equipment. Keep the model still and move the light around. Once that's done, you are ready to set power. Whenever I don't guess power, I tend to start with 8.0 power, or about 2 stops under the maximum. Then simply check the image. If it's too dark, increase the power; if it's too light, decrease it. Usually in one-stop increments. As such, power 8 would go to power 9, or 1/32nd would go to 1/16th, and so on. A good indicator of properly set power is the skin tone; you should be able to see it in detail, not too bright or overexposed. It is generally safer to set it one level below what appears to be right.
While I promised a dedicated section on working with just constant light, the process is not that different from mixing what you know with flash. The only difference is that you have to work with higher shutter speeds and wider apertures. As constant light is a hot point source, to create soft light, you will need to increase the source by adding a layer of diffusion some distance from the light source. Similarly, if you like the hard-focused effect, set it where it looks good to you, then continue to set the camera settings. I keep ISO at 100 for quality's sake, but there are plenty of times when I go to ISO 800 and even 1600 if the conditions are tough. Shutter speed has to be higher with constant light as the camera is freezing the motion and not the flash. I tend to advise going around 1/500th and above. Once the ISO and shutter speed are set, you can find the right aperture for your shot. If possible, set the aperture and then adjust the light power; however, constant lights don't have the range of flash, so I tend to make the final adjustments with the aperture.
This is it. Lighting images with the sun is both the hardest and easiest, while flash and constant light behave in a similar way. A cool technique is to blend these in one shot. This is a much more advanced way of lighting that I will cover in a future article.
How do you light your images? What is your approach? Let us know in the comments below!