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Learning to light in your photography (Series 1 of 6)


Keywords: flash, studio, lighting, filter, guides, tips, speedlights

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.



Nikon SB-600. 1/250th f/8 ISO 100

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.


Exposing for the background and using an SB-600 in a shoot-through umbrella to light the subject. 1/320th f/4.5 ISO 200

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!


Same game plan here -- expose the background, light the subject. 1/200th f/4 ISO 100

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:


All of our Speedlight and Lighting articles

We have many resources specific to Nikon flashes and suggest you have a look at the Speedlight index and the Lighting articles index.



Got a Nikon Speedlight question?

You have a question regarding your Speedlight flash unit? No problem - just ask in our Speedlight and Lighting forum.


Post a Speedlight Question



(2 Votes )

Originally written on October 21, 2012

Last updated on January 24, 2021

User User


daniel wade (dmaconthe1) on February 12, 2013

Hello Josh, This is the first forum I've reviewed that approaches the subject of lighting. I look forward to following your blog....I lived on Strobist for the past few years.

Deborah Mathison (Mormorazzi) on January 27, 2013

You're a brave soul, taking on a hungry nest of lighting fledglings! I take lots of photos of events -- banquets, awards ceremonies, grip-n-grins -- and I'd appreciate any tips you can give me to get a simple, portable system going. I have a D600 with an SB600 flash, and no lighting toys. Thank you! I'll be taking notes!

Neal Page (Audiobuff007) on January 24, 2013

I've plateau'd a bit, in some areas. So looking forward to some additional thoughts.

terry ross (terryross) on January 19, 2013

sounds great, can't wait. i've read the sb600 manual 6 times and only know how to turn it on ,

Robert Nix (RENIX) on January 11, 2013

This is something I definitely want to wrap my head around!

Thomas ireton (isail2) on January 11, 2013

(Edited by jrp Sunday, 16 August 2015 ) Just up my alley, after trying to decode the Nikon Manual, I'm really ready to learn something about lighting.

John Dale (dalej1) on January 10, 2013

I am in for sure, love to have the opportunity.

Dan Bailey (Dan Bailey) on January 4, 2013

Both of those are very good resources. Light, Science and Magic, while a little academic in style, is nonetheless, filled with in-depth information and lots of diagrams about lighting. Combined with the practical methods of David Hobby and Strobist, you can't go wrong!

Bert Moffitt (pactrain) on December 21, 2012

When I think about all the time I've spent packing my speedlight around in my backpack, and not using it, it makes my back ache. I'm really ready for this.

John R. Galie (jrg419) on December 20, 2012

Count me in too. I its about time I use my speedlight for more than just a larger pop up flash

Tom Ferguson (tekneektom) on December 4, 2012

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Winner in the Annual Nikonians Best Images Contest 2015

Looking forward to learning as much as possible about LIGHT!

Dale Armstrong (Dgastrong) on November 30, 2012

I'm in too. Biggest issue is lighting. Any help will be great especially from an experienced flash-xpert. Thanks for doing this.

User on November 27, 2012

BTW, follow up... One Idea is to allow for some interaction and set ups... I've followed along several of the pros in their lighting books etc....and what I think is really useful is to see the set up, pre photo, then the shot, then change the settings... Another idea might be to allow some of us to show some things we are experimenting with that follows your theme for each week.....or even give a homework assignment ??? Then, those that want to post the their results can do so... dc

User on November 27, 2012

Looks like some fun... Keep it up.... I've got some speedlights and Lastolites... Always wanting to learn.. dc

John Springett (Yoos2) on November 26, 2012

Very much looking forward to further discussions. This 79 year old mind might have a few miles left in it. Many thanks for your efforts Josh. John

User on November 19, 2012

Love what you're doing here. It could not come at a better time for me. Like you, I am going back to the basics and filling in those gaps in my knowledge that come back to haunt me. Keep the lessons coming!

Robert Wong (Gardenerbob) on November 16, 2012

I have been trying to get Berger Bros. to hold a Nikon Speedlight Course during the Winter Months (my off season), to no avail. This looks like it may be what I am looking for!

DONALD J MCKAY (djmckaytx) on November 12, 2012

Count me in...

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on November 10, 2012

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for  his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Great idea and thanks for doing it!

User on November 5, 2012

Hi Robin, I'm shooting in manual exposure mode and have my flash set to manual as well. I've found that this gives me the most control over the situation, rather than letting my equipment decide what's going to look best.

robin brown (winclk) on November 4, 2012

I will be following along hoping to have an ahaaaa moment. Question---What mode are you shooting in when you expose for the background?

Chris Garrett (cgarrett) on October 30, 2012

Another Thank You from North Carolina! I have the SB600 but have never been happy with my attempts at family portraits or hummingbirds on the feeder. I'll be following your series with great interest, thanks!

Luis Castillo (alphavax) on October 30, 2012

Count me in!! as all of you got a flash unit (mine SB-700) most of the time misused or not used at all!! So I'm eager to learn everything, but thanks for sharing also your sources, I will consider buying the book for reading it myself.

User on October 27, 2012

I guess you are about to teach this old dog some new tricks..I also gave my sb600 a two year LOA for fear of understanding..thank you for starting this..Ed

David A. Mack (spirit) on October 26, 2012

Thanks for taking this topic on!!! LIke many others, I"ve taken a nikonian course and it was good, but then I didn't use it much and it has slipped away again. Working with exercises is a great learning tool.

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on October 26, 2012

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Great to see this series taking off Josh! Thanks for sharing the steps you have taken.

Keith Brown (kwb49) on October 25, 2012

I'm in also. I took a course online for off camera flash that gave me a little better understanding of things, but I still do not get it completely. I am sure that I will benefit from this.

User on October 25, 2012

If you just teach us most of what you "re-read" in Light, Science and Magic you will have saved all of us about $40 a piece. I'm ready to go!

User on October 25, 2012

Glad some folks have decided to follow along! I'll certainly add some diagrams for lighting when I can, but in general when using one light I'll at least give you a sense of where it's located, i.e. camera left, 45 degrees from camera, a bit above the subject's eye level. @Lawrence -- I would highly recommend a shoot through, or better yet, Westcott makes a few with a removable cover so it works as a shoot through or as a bounce. They're relatively inexpensive and really do improve the light. @Thomas -- Hopefully my writings will help. As for the softbox, how big is it? I have a post coming up about apparent light size that looks at how the size of your light modifier is relative to the size of your subject in terms of how it will soften the light.

Thomas E Faherty (earleinatruck) on October 24, 2012

Fine, I'm in. I got an SB-910 and softbox to do some portraits of some poor,unsuspecting,good natured folks at church. Frankly, that flash intimidates me. Maybe a teacher months ahead of me, rather than decades, will help.

Amy S. Enyart (Nola Nikon) on October 24, 2012

Great start, Josh! Some people might find it helpful to see diagrams that show where the lights are placed. Will you be having those?

Lawrence Gasaway (lgasaway) on October 24, 2012

Looking forward to ur expertise. Guess I need a shoot through umbrella. When you expose for background are you using A setting or S setting?

User on October 23, 2012

ditto for me too!!!!

Dale Maas (marnigirl) on October 23, 2012

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

You are reading my mind. I have a SB700 and I tried to read the manual and put it all together. The next day I put it in its case and there it has stayed. I am looking forward to ANY help you can provide me. Thank You, Dale