Photography Changes, Lighting Doesn't

Have you ever seen "How To" photography videos from the 80's and 90's? Most of these videos are so cheesy that it's hard to take anything of value away from them. In the video below Dean Collins teaches a workshop on the properties of light and instead of focusing on current trends, he sticks to the fundamentals. This video was shot in 91 but it is still completely relevant today.

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Jon Schanz's picture

Now, as someone who never had any formal photography education, I am completely lost as to what he's talking about when he keeps mentioning 18%. Can anyone explain this to me?

Simon's picture

I virtually fisrt "met" Dean Collins on Strobist blog. Last year (I think), David Hobby posted some of these videos from this show and I was blown away.

Just like Pat wrote yesterday, I can't even imagine these guys were doing all this stuff with no LCD, no histogram, no tethered shooting. Only a couple rolls of film and a whole lot of patience to wait for the lab to process the film and see if they had screwed up.

Look for the video when he explains of he lit an hotel dining room with his assistant dressed in a black ninja, walking with a strobe in his hands and popping at some strategic place. EPIC !

Lee Morris's picture

Your camera attempts to make everything 18% gray. That's why if you let your camera auto meter something dark it will over expose and make it too bright and for a bride object it will do the opposite.

18% gray is simply the standard for photography metering

Simon's picture

18% = grey 18% (18% of black/82% white in the mix)

It represents a well lit object. When you put your DSLR on aperture or shutter priority and you keep your expo slider in the middle, your camera take a reading of your target and try to make it grey 18%.

So, if you point your camera to a white wall, it's gonna underexpose to bring it to grey. If you put your camera in a black closet, it's gonna try to bring the black to 18% grey.

Michael's picture

The youtube channel with the "out of print" videos is

You can rent the DVD that the clip is from at They have several Collin's DVD there. Great stuff but it comes at you in buckets.

Simon's picture

The strobist post is here :

Look at the third video for the hotel dining room thingy.

Antoine Thisdale's picture

I've loved Collin's videos. They are certainly outdated, but his knowledge of technique is huge and so controlled. He is also a very funny person.

arnold's picture

Guy was a true talent in lighting. Too bad he is not around to find out what techniques he would use in the today's digital world.

Carlo Parducho's picture

What's f64? lol

J.R.'s picture

It's unfortunate that Dean Collins left us a few years ago, but at least he made some incredible tutorials. I'm especially fond of the video where he breaks down the setup and lighting configuration for a Yamaha motorcycle ad (which you can find on Strobist). It's pretty amazing to watch what he had to do in order to create motion and environmental aspects to make that shot really work. One of these days, I'm gonna shell out for that DVD set from Software Cinema.

Jay Malone's picture was he getting the color in those shots on that white or black background?

Eric Duminil's picture


I'll try to explain, but you can find much more info about it on or the excellent Dean Collins DVD's (

* First, let's assume you only have the background in your frame. That is, you don't have to consider the exposure of any other subject.

* Whichever the shade of gray your background is (black, white or in between), your goal is to turn it to black on your camera.

* To do so, first set your shutter speed to your camera flash sync speed (probably between 1/60s & 1/500s).

* If you take a picture of the background with this shutter speed and a given aperture, the resulting picture will be somewhere between black and white.

* If the background is too light, just dial your aperture down till you get a black background without detail.

* If the background is already black, you can leave your aperture as is. However, it might be a good idea to see how far you can open up your aperture while leaving the background without detail.

* You're almost there. Just bring some flash with a color filter ( on it, and throw it at the background. The gel you use will affect the hue which appears on the background, while the relative power of the flash will affect the brightness and saturation.

* To achieve the strong colors you see in the video, you might want to double the filter or use relatively low flash power on a perfectly black background in order to increase saturation.

* Finally, if you want to use this background with a subject, you lose one degree of freedom. You'll want to play on the ratio (distance flash->subject)/(distance flash->background) in order to set the shade of gray you'll want your background to be (see If the main flash is too close to the background, using a gobo might prevent light from spilling to your background.

Hope it helps,


Chris Riccio's picture

To Jay, the colour is added to the background by using gels in front of the strobes. The background should be looked on as a solid tone for a colour to be added to. Think of it as holding up coloured glass sheet in front of a plain white background.
the colour would be really vivid as a result. Now hold the same glass sheet in front of an 18% grey background and the colour would be a lot less vivid. I work to light the background thinking in terms of greys, think of it along the same lines as Ansel Adams Zone system. The gel just changes the colour but the amount of light changes tonality. Hope that makes sense?

Jeremy Countryman's picture

I watched some of the older Dean Collins videos and all I can say is WOW.. This guy thinks about light and photography on a whole different level...

isaninja's picture

What, no 720p? :D

Steve Cantellow's picture

Software cinema doesn't seem to be selling the Live at Brooks Institute DVD any longer. Anybody got an idea of where I can get hold of a copy? It looks like dynamite!

James's picture

Dean Collins is the man, I have see a few of his videos on lighting. He has a level of technical knowledge that some will only dream about! Where is the rest of the video giving the formula?

gotta love the mustache.

James's picture

The king of colour gels.... Dean Collins!

khappucino's picture

So I just went through about a dozen of Dean Collins videos on youtube. This guy's ability to deliver extremely technical info in a very clear way is amazing. I rather liked the video where he did the CEO's at the airport and the 3d contrast videos.

great links guys. keep it up

Stefan's picture

Dean Collins is the standard of lighting education and lighting technique. He took a bunch of techniques people were using with different vocabulary and made a standard language with which we as photographers could communicate.

Mark Fore's picture

@Carlo Parducho - f64= aperture setting only available on large format cameras, the highest I've seen a dSLR go up to is f22. No body actually shoots at f64 (Not even the famous f64 group) because you will actually get better definition with your middle of the road fstop.