Know Your Light

If you're a photographer, you know that there are a couple of things you need to make a good photo. Perhaps the most important one of all though is Light. Whether it be natural, artificial, or some combination of both; good photographers know how to work each situation to maximize their images.

There are two situations that I recently worked with, both involving a flash, that I think a lot of photographers struggle with; including myself at times.

The first is keeping things simple. When I first started doing flash photography I immediately wanted to get more studio-like shots, so I bought two flashes and tried to use them together. It made it incredibly difficult to get the looks I wanted. I knew how Manual and ETTL worked, but I didn't understand how my light changed between my softbox and umbrella, how zooming my flash head affected power or the size of my light, and how all of that tied into the shape and look of my light. Doubling every variable and trying to solve them simultaneously was a recipe for disaster. So I slowed down, read David Hobby’s Strobist blog like it was the Bible, and really started learning light.

My biggest takeaway? One flash is incredibly powerful, both literally and figuratively, and more often than not, all that I need. It's not uncommon for me to arrive at 90% of my shoots with a single flash, light stand and umbrella. I recently did a series of headshots for my local theater, ACT1 and all I used was a single light.

Working with the director, we decided to go with a dramatic look. Heh, dramatic for theater... For these, I knew a single light would be perfect. So I placed my light in a 24” x 24” softbox about 60 degrees from my subject’s left AKA camera right, with the middle of the box just above my subject’s head, and angled slightly down. The whole light stand was maybe two feet from my subject. That meant I’d get directional light with lots of shadow on the far side of my subject’s face, and it would be very soft. I set my camera for a low ISO, narrow aperture of f/5.6, and my shutter speed at 1/150. These settings translated into enough depth of field to get the subject’s face in focus and darken the ambient light so that the flash did most of the heavy lifting.


The result? Some really nice light. Just keep it simple.

The second lesson is to use the sun to your advantage. I recently started using the sun as my rim light for outdoor sessions, but it can require either High-Speed Sync or a Neutral Density Filter if you shoot closer to the middle of the day. I was doing a family photo session in a local wooded park in the morning and the sun was just starting to creep over the treeline. To help create some separation and to keep my subjects from going blind, I had them stand between me and the sun, thus letting the sunlight illuminate their backs. I then placed my flash with a 45” umbrella and light stand off to my left, and about 30 degrees and 4 feet from my subjects. My camera was at ISO 100, f/2.8 and 1/500. I was shooting with at 50mm lens, but standing about 8 feet from my subjects meant depth of field wasn’t going to be an issue, therefore, f/2.8 was fine. By using High-Speed Sync, I could use a fast shutter speed to darken the ambient, thus keeping the exposure balanced and minimizing blown highlights.


Again, the result looks pretty darn good. I’m using the flash as my key light to overpower the sun in this situation. If I wanted, I could also rotate the whole situation so that the sun was a fill light off to the side like I did with these family photos from another weekend.


If you’re just starting with flash, I highly recommend checking out David Hobby’s blog Here. He has fantastic tutorial posts and is an entertaining writer to boot. Again, start slow and keep things simple. When you start feeling comfortable, start using existing light to accent or aid your flash, such as the sun. Learn Light and your photography will improve immensely!

If you have any questions about the above setups, feel free to leave a comment!


Mike Glatzer

Mike Glatzer Photography, Marietta St NW, Atlanta, GA 30318, United States