Well-known photographer and lighting guru Zack Arias has written, "I'm an available light photographer 100% of the time. I look in my bag, see that my Vivitar 285 or Sunpak 120j or Nikon Speedlite is available to me and I use that."
My first experiences with flash photography involved the on-board flash, me fumbling around with camera settings, and a subject that wound up looking like he, she or it had been nuked. I quickly learned that the pop-up flash is really only good for a few things: mug shots and drivers licenses. Blown out highlights, deep and probing red eyes, nicely defined shadows (what do you mean light can be soft?). Oh, and there was of course a pitch black background just to round the shot out nicely.
Moving forward, I quickly learned that the pop-up flash is really only good for a few things: mug shots and drivers licenses. Exactly what I wanted to avoid. The solution? A designated flash. Out I went, a few hundred dollars later I had a slick Nikon SB-600 mounted atop my D70s. The result? Go back and read the previous paragraph, because not a whole heck of a lot changed.
So what did I do? I did what lots of photographers do! I promptly tossed my speedlight in my bag and went about my business, dreading situations in which I'd ever have to use it, and knowing full well that when it came out, the photographs I'd make would be pretty bad. In fact, I know that on more than one occasion, I pulled out the old, "you know, I think we could get a much better shot of you outside."
Then somewhere along the line I realized I needed to learn this stuff. It was shortly after I started doing some pro-bono event shooting for an employer. It dawned on me that asking the event organizers if they could possibly schedule everything outside or in a very well lit room wasn't an option. Furthermore, I figured if I ever wanted to actually charge money for photographing something, I needed to get better at this aspect of the craft.
So I read. A lot. I made lots of bad, and some good, photographs of random things in my house. I read some more. I started following photographers online who use light creatively and blog about it. I started paying lots of attention to lighting in movies and on tv. And then I started to get it.
Now here's the thing: I'm not a lighting expert. In fact, I'll openly admit I still have a long, long way to go with this aspect of my photography. But, as I mentioned, for awhile now I have been getting better results with flash and understanding it a bit more. This means I actually use my flash more often because I'm not scared to, and, I can get some pretty neat effects doing so.
I know what you're thinking. "Well that's all fine and good, Josh, that you're getting a better grasp of lighting, but how does that help me." Here's how. My plan for the upcoming months is to start writing about my learning process, show the results, and try to explain what it is I was trying to get a better handle on by doing it. I figure this benefits me, because I retain information better once I write it down, and maybe it will benefit you by reading someone else's take on it!
And here's how I'm going to do it. I'm going right back to the basics, because while I already have a pretty good understanding of hard and soft light, balancing flash with ambient, etc., going over this stuff again and again is really the only way to get good at it. So I'm rereading Light, Science and Magic, I'm going through many of the exercises on David Hobby's site, Strobist, I'm scouring the web for additional insight on various topics, and I'm shooting the various exercises that are recommended. Then I'm going to write about the exercise and post the photos.
Am I going to teach you how to light from a to z? Nope, probably not. Will you learn something? Maybe, I hope so at least. And btw, if you're an expert in lighting and you're reading future posts from this series, please do weigh in and let me know if I got something wrong or if you can elaborate on something I've tried to cover!
Read all articles in this series:
- Learning to Light
- Get Your Flash off Camera for Better Photos
- Apparently, size does matter...
- Control Over Your Lights With Distance
- Specular Highlight Control
All of our Speedlight and Lighting articles
You have a question regarding your Speedlight flash unit? No problem - just ask in our Speedlight and Lighting forum.
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