All about lighting

First published on: Thursday, 10 April 2008

Last update (Jan 21, 2009): Joe McNally shows how he sets up the lighting for a typical location-based model shoot

Here’s a personal compilation of lighting for photography techniques and tips that I’ve found extremely useful. Topics range from the use of ambient or natural light to flash, studio strobes and light modifiers and other equipment.

Lighting How-to and Show-and-Tell articles and blog posts

Rick Sammon’s Quick Tip on affordable lighting

Rick Sammon (who co-authored upcoming book, Studio Lighting Secrets with Vered Koshlano) shared this quick lighting tip for portraiture using, of all things, venetian blinds.

Effective lighting is good. Affordable is great.

Dobbs Workshop, Day One

Joe McNally shows how he sets up the lighting for a typical location-based model shoot, and I have to say, the list of equipment (visit Joe’s list of equipment) is mighty impressive (as are the photos).

For the first portrait, Joe used:
Nikon D3, Nikkor 24-70mm lens, Nikon SB-800 and SB-900 flashguns, Lastolite Tri-Grip, Lastolite 3 x 3 Skylite Panels (Basic Small Skylite Kit and Small Premium Skylite Kit).

I really like the way the images were photographed, as the backgrounds and backdrops make the photos much more interesting. The green gelled SB-900 (included in the SB-800 and SB-900 box) and the use of industrial wrapping to light the background is just ingenious.

Day Two of Joe’s lighting workshop, and he gives more tips and tricks, including using Tungsten B4 white balance on the Nikon D3.

Scott Kelby reveals how the lighting was set up for a portrait of rapper 10 Minute

Equipment used included the Nikon D3, Nikkor 24-70mm lens, Westcott shoot-through umbrella, and a couple of Nikon SB-800 and SB-900 flashguns.

The Basics

To get a good general understanding of strobes, flash guns, lighting modifiers and accessories, and how they all work together, view this excellent Strobist Preliminaries video.

Nikon Lighting System

Nikon is well-known for its innovative CLS, or Creative Lighting System which is basically lighting though the use of one or multiple Nikon Speedlights (flash guns) in wireless (or wired) mode.

Dave Black: He’s one of the best authorities on the subject. His articles on the use of SB-800 units are clearly written and include fantastic photos to drive home the point. Here are a few of them:

  1. How to use two SB-800 flash guns bound together

  2. Setting up multiple SB-800s for on-location photography

  3. Focus on the SB-800 as the master and remote flash. There’s some excellent advice on how to use the camera’s white balance and warming gels on the flash guns to achieve a blue sky and warm illumination on the subjects.

You might also like to read through his entire collection of photography workshop articles.

Joseph Nicholas Spina: Here’s an excellent forum post authored by Joseph comparing the pros and cons of using an SB-800 speedlight vs an SU-800 remote commander vs Pocket Wizards. The SU-800 is not suitable if you need fast recycling times for continuous shooting. His site also has explanations and photos demonstrating wireless lighting setups and techniques with Nikon’s CLS system.

Studio Lighting

Tao.Design on Studio Lighting: Here’s an extensive post on the forum, where Tao.Design explores every facet of photography lighting in the studio:

  1. Equipment

  2. Lighting Setup: Technical

  3. Lighting Setup: Design

  4. Light Modifiers

  5. Triggering the Strobes

  6. Metering & Exposure

  7. Conclusion

  8. Samples

Light modifiers

Shoot-through vs reflector umbrellas: You see umbrellas being sold in almost every photo store, and they’re a dime a dozen on eBay — which type should you choose? Strobist has the answer, and I’m inclined to agree with the conclusion, which is that shoot-through umbrellas is the better choice.

The article also shares a neat trick on how to get a nice blue background for portraiture by using a couple of drinking glasses.

A comment in that blog post has a link to an article which explains what happens when you use different zoom settings on the flash head and have the light go through a shoot-through umbrella.

Triggering flashes

SMDV FlashWave flash triggers

This is a relatively new product that looks to be more reliable than the Cactus / GadgetInfinity V2s wireless flash triggers, which also causes a hotshoe flash to sit to high on the receiver, due to the design.

The FlashWave kit looks as good as those from MicroSync Digital.

They’re a whole lot cheaper than Pocket Wizards too.

So, good reliability + great design = a successful RF (radio frequency) flash trigger product?

Here’s a user review of the FlashWaves, and another review on Flickr (which also explains, in the comments, why he didn’t opt for Elinchrom Skyport units instead). is the authorized distributor for the SM FlashWaves.

Miscellaneous methods:

  1. Hobby Robotoics shares information on the hardware and software required to enable a flash to be triggered by light or sound.

… more to come …

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