Steps For Deciding How To Light Your Subject

I was asked today to help a friend who had worked herself into a lather over how to light her subject. I went around check on  her plight and gave her a quick tutorial on different ways to use light to her advantage. It didn’t take too long to sort out the problem and I said I would give her some bullet points on the subject. Instead I thought it would make a great blog post.

Firstly some Do’s & Don’ts.

1. Lighting is not complicated, so don’t make it complicated. People get confused when they add too many elements or variables. Keep it simple.

2. Decide on the image you want to produce first. Notice I said image not images. Work on getting one right then another & another…..

3. Work out what gear you want to use and stick to it. Don’t add extra gear unneccessarily.

4. Read your instruction manual AGAIN. You might find something you forgot. Nothing looks worse than you not knowing how to use your gear. Friends will forgive you, clients wont.

5. Practice the basics. Shutter Speed, Aperture & ISO. If you move one how does it effect the others. It’s all about those 3 elements…Oh and the light but those 3 things will control the light. Get them right and you’re in control, ignor them and the light wins and you will cause yourself all amounts of stress.

Here is my decision pathway to lighting.

Step 1. Are you using Natural Light (Ambient) or Flash Only or a Mixture?

Step 2. Decide on the image you want to finish up with. You may end up with something different as you experiment but you have to have an idea to start with.

Step 3. Decide where you’re going to take the image.

Step 4. Decide on the lens you want to use. Stick to it. Don’t change it.

Step 5. Decide on the lights you are going to use and then all the other stuff & bits you need for those pieces. Nothing else.

Step 6. Get it all together, in one spot.

Step 7. Double check.

Now onto the photo.

I build every image up from the background. I put the camera onto a tripod and place my subject where I want them and position the camera/tripod. Remember I have one image in mind and only one lens. So the placement of the camera/tripod is already determined by the image I have in mind.

I take a normal ambient exposure of my subject, no flash. I usually start at 400 ISO and in Aperture Priority and set the aperture at f8. With the aperture set & the ISO set the shutter speed is now the variable and the camera will set the shutter speed to give you a “correct” exposure.

Now look at that image. Where are the shadows falling? Are they on my Background? What shutter speed did the camera choose? Do I have enough depth of field? Is my image almost like the one I had in my head? Is my subject in the right spot?

If your subject is in the right spot, tell them not to move. No point in trying to set everything up to get a good shot if they move after each time the shutter fires. One less variable.

Is your depth of field right? If yes move on, if not check your focus point and take another shot. Check again. Is it right? Yes, move on. If not make a change and take another shot. Repeat until you have a yes. We’ve now fixed the subject. Remind them not to move.

Now we need to work on the background. Is the available light hitting the background? Do you like it? I usually put my camera on manual at this point and change the shutter speed up from what the camera used before. I go 2 shutter speeds higher than the ambient reading and retake a shot. You will get and underexposed image but don’t panic, you’re just seeing what is happening to the background. I also put the shutter speed up to the highest flash sync speed my camera can do and take another. Once again to see what is happening to the backgound. If I want the background darker I can lower the ISO down to 200 or 100 ISO.

Are you going to add your own light on the background? With a dark background we can add our own light the way you want it. If you are not going to add extra light to your background, the shutter speed you choose will have an effect on the exposure of the background. A fast one, a darker background, a slow shutter speed will let more light in and you’ll have a lighter backgound.

So now you have your subject in place, your camera in place, your aperture set for the depth of field you need, the ISO set to give you a workable shutter speed for the exposure on the background you want. Now its time to light your subject. Check your last exposure. What light is falling on your subject? If no light is on your subject you should have a silhouette. If there is any stray light on your subject that you don’t like, use something to block that light but keep an eye on your background. You don’t want to change the background exposure.

Put up your light and the accessories you need. I always set my flash to 1/8th power to start, and move the flash as close as possible to my subject but still out of shot. Take a photo and check the exposure. Is the light hitting the background? If yes move the light and reshoot. If not check the exposure of your subject. Is the flash exposure too high or too low. Move the output to 1/4 or 1/2 if the exposure is too low. Go to 1/16 or 1/32 or lower if too high. Once you have the output of the flash now you can look at how the light falls on your subject. Rememeber the subject hasn’t moved. Is the flash creating the light and shadows where you want them? Move the flash keeping it the same distance from the subject. Moving the flash closer increases the exposure and moving away decreases the exposure. Once you have the flash in the right spot you are now set.

If you want to add another flash you follow the same steps as the first flash. Turn the first flash Off and follow the steps above until the 2nd flash is set up. Now turn on the first flash and fire both flashes. Are the flashes working together nicely? If you want one brighter than the other just raise the output of that flash, if you want it darker lower the output. Simple. If you want another flash turn off the first two and set up the third. Then test it against the others. See a pattern emerging? Add one thing at a time and get it working before moving on, recheck the new item against the others.

With all of the variables tackled one at a time, you are able to elliminate each problem as it arises rather than setting everything up and taking a test shot and wondering “Now What?”  Changing 2 things at once is too many. Having more than 2 different light sources is asking for trouble. Keep it all simple. Master a one light set up before trying a 2 light or 3 light set up.  It makes sense.

You’re not going to wake up tomorrow as a lighting expert. Over time and trying out different lighting set ups you will get to know what works and what doesn’t. It won’t be long and you will be able to walk in, set up the background, set up the lights, get your subject to pose and 3 or 4 test shots later you’re up and away. Finish shooting and reset the lights for a different look and 4 test shots later you’re going again. Baby steps, works every time.

Happy Shooting

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