Basics of Flash Photography

The Main skill is to Learn to Actually "See" the Lighting

After we assemble our new umbrella kit, then we place them in front of the subject. The topic then becomes Lighting. Maybe see a lighting setup article. But this page is more about the philosophy of learning lighting, than about the techniques.

At first, photography novices simply don't know what to look for, and we overlook so much in our flash pictures. At first, we naturally may think we do look, but we do not see yet. At first, we don't know what we are looking at, or looking for. We only see what we want to see, which is not the same as searching out all details. At first, we may only "see" that it's a picture of friend Mary, or that she has cute clothing, or maybe that it was taken at the park or zoo. We see what it is, but we may never notice the lighting that creates it, the angle of the lights, the gradient shadow tones sculpting the face, or the catch lights in the eyes, etc. Everyone starts there, looking but not seeing anything at first. Lighting is not the same as exposure or brightness, there is a lot more. To see the lighting, to actually recognize its elements, we have to learn to stop and intentionally look at the actual shadows of the tonal gradients that we create. Seeing is about awareness (realizing what we do see). This becomes easy automatic habit, but it isn't easy at first, we don't even know we don't know, not until we become aware. This does not happen overnight, learning to see occurs in steps which takes time to develop. As we learn that there are more details, then that is more things to look to see.

This awareness takes a conscious decision to stop, and actually look, and think, in a determined way, to search your images at length — to realize what we see (to notice detail that we actually are aware of). I wish I were better at it, but I have finally learned there is much more to be seen than beginners ever have a clue about. We can spend many years still as a beginner (been there, done that), until one day, we realize we have to look, and see. To have a clue, we just need to practice looking, learning to actually see. The first step is to realize what you are looking for in the lighting. Your eyes and brain are the best tool you've got. And then our life changes, at least with regard to photography and lighting. Study your photo results carefully, numerous times on multiple occasions. The more you look, the more you can see (if you try), and thinking about what you see becomes the norm. Then, after awhile, you easily see more, automatically, it immediately jumps out at you as you first walk up. Think about what you see, search out every shadow, every gradient tone. What do you see? (think about it). Was there a plan for the lighting? Account for each light, and account for their shadows, and their location and degree. The portrait lighting is about the shadows. That's always true.

This is a simple bounce flash snapshot, but bounced from ceiling to improve the shadows. By "shadows", I don't mean the flash shadow behind the subject (but which is generally filled by the bounce). There is slight evidence of a dark shadow rim under the lower edge of the ear from the frontal fill card above the camera lens, but which is hardly noticeable. Generally we do try to eliminate those shadows behind the subject (using close umbrellas, and more distant background, or with bounce flash). And we do try to create the mild shadow shading on the face. So what I mean is look at the shadows and shading on the subject, especially on the face, intentional shading which creates the desirable natural gradient tonal shading which adds interest, which sculpts (shapes or models) our subject's curves. Even the shadows added on her shirt, it all shows "shape" (not flat).

So we have two light sources here. The bounce flash was mounted on the camera, aimed up at ceiling as the off-camera soft main light, and the flashes pull-out bounce card was used to add a little forward fill, weaker just to lighten the bounce shadows, especially to fill the eye shadows (to prevent the raccoon eyes that bounce can cause when camera is too close), and specifically to add the catch lights in the eyes (which look more "alive"). You don't have to pull the bounce card all the way out, which is more control, if you just actually look. This is what we try to create with the off-camera lighting. We know where the light was, and can see what it actually did (if we think to look), and learn what the shadows actually show. To learn, we just have to remember to simply look at results, and think a second. And then we can better plan those shadows and gradient shading tones (not necessarily specifically, but certainly generally — a natural look that we might call "avoiding the flat deer-in-the-headlights look"). This is hard to describe, but this picture is an example from the bounce page. It's just a quicky snapshot, one bounced speedlight on camera, but the point is that the lighting is not at all flat (and is a better picture than the deer-in-the-headlights look).

Note that these facial shadows (gradient tonal variations) are why studio flash modeling lights are called modeling lights. From the big dictionary: "Modeling: The technique of rendering the illusion of volume on a two dimensional surface by shading". "Model" in the sense of to help visualize something. If using studio lights, the modeling lights show the sculpting or shaping that the setup of our flashes will create with shadows. Using like f/8 or f/5.6, and low ISO 100 and the fastest maximum sync speed shutter will hide the continuous light. The flash power will overwhelm the modeling lights so that there is no orange incandescent contribution to the final picture (a test picture with flash trigger disabled should be Black). But a digital camera simply allows a preview of the first test shot, the "real thing", more precise. The available power of a bounced speedlight may need like ISO 400 and f/4 or f/5.6 (as a starting point). The incandescent modeling lights provide a continuous light so we can see the shading that the instantaneous flash would create. Which is good, but might not match the flash power, and now that we use digital, our first setup test shots can show the same results, better really, but certainly the modeling lights were essential in the film days. Note though, the idea is about looking, and seeing. We should look, and we must learn to see, as a conscious plan.

It is true when showing people your pictures, that they don't see this detail either. They do see it is a pleasant natural attractive picture that they like, without realizing why. But you should know — it is your job to learn why it is, and how to do it, every time, automatically.

This is not rocket science at all — we can see everything that happens in the picture result. The lighting is all there right in front of us, obvious even, so we ought to learn to just look for it. You may be amazed when you realize how much is already right in front of your face... Learn to see the light, and the gradient tonal variations. Where are the shadows? Really, is that all of them? You didn't miss anything? Look again. And again, and again tomorrow, and every day. This new seeing ability slowly builds, not overnight, and we slowly start realizing that there is more to see if we just look. We see more and more (but which was always there). It becomes easy and obvious, once we become aware. I am repeating a lot, and it is hard to describe in words, but the goal sought here is for you to realize there is actually more to see, right there in front of your face, and hoping for your determination to watch it and think about it. The actual problem is that beginners typically don't see much, until they teach themselves to look. Start by concentrating a little harder, what can you actually see?

At the top of my list of dumb questions is to ask what will happen if I change this setting, or try that procedure? Because, with digital cameras today, we can immediately see that answer, so don't ask, just try it, and then look at the result, so that you will actually know. We can see everything that lighting does, if we learn to look. Seeing is the tool, and practice is what makes perfect.

It is considered to be very good standard classic academic portrait practice to start learning with one light and a reflector (specifically to learn about lighting, to learn to see the shading on the face, etc). A reflector can provide the fill, to modify the shadows we see. Beginners typically don't see much at first, so the first skill is to learn to SEE this lighting, to recognize what you are trying to do. A reflector may be sort of doing it the hard way (passive, only does what it can do, from where it can do it), but maybe is about the same deal as not letting little kids use a calculator in school, to teach the principles first. And both the results and the learning can be absolutely excellent. An excellent inexpensive and stiff reflector is a white foam board from the craft store.

You could read a bit here: Google: one light portrait lighting

Clearly, photographic lighting mostly boils down to personal preferences, either the look you want to create, or simply the method you want to use. There are many ways it might be done, some better than others, but no one way is right or wrong (some do seem to approach wrong). It's your picture, create it as you wish. But those who have learned to observe the shadows that we can see if we look, often have different preferences than those who don't see yet. They might choose to move or re-aim a light, or to set a different intensity ratio. Lighting is simply about what we can see, and there are obvious details that we can learn to see (so practice looking, and think about it). You will see more and more as you progress, if you think to look. And if you think when you look — which is admittedly platitudes, and admittedly hard to describe, but seeing really does require practice looking, and practice thinking. If you have not started looking yet, you have much to discover.

The first day of looking may be disappointing, because nothing will change until you start thinking. What am I seeing? (gradient shadows). Where are the shadows? (maybe on the distant cheek for starters). What do they do? (they show and define the shapes and curves, of the face for example). Why are they there? (the angle from the light). How can I recreate that look? (if you can see and recognize it, then you likely already know). Seeing and recognizing what you're doing is the big part. Know your goal. Learning to see does not come quickly, ability to see builds over time, but every session can increase it, if you are thinking about trying to see.

Adding more light is easy, and IMO is almost always better than too much dark. This illumination is the major advantage, and about anything is better than nothing. If the exposure is acceptable, then a cute little kid or a pretty girl will be wonderful, nearly no matter what you do. However, there is more you can do, there definitely are some subtleties too. About any weird lighting plan you can think to try probably already has a name, and may have some fans too. But some of these methods are classics, with far wider appeal than others. Pros also have the need to learn what sells.

Lighting books are sometimes disappointing to novices, because they show pictures, and to get it, we have to look, and we still have to see. So practice your seeing, which is much of the skill of lighting. They do say "photography is about light", however IMO, portrait lighting seems more about the shadows (the gradient tonal variations). To recognize it or to control it, you have to be able to see it (meaning, an awareness to notice it and think about it). There is much known lighting information online, but seeing is an awareness which involves the thinking brain.

Here are a few generalities, examples of lighting types, of its initial steps, about the things we can see, which should become obvious to your seeing.

My preaching here is hoping to convey the advantage of learning to actually see your results to be able to create them (look and actually see the lighting). Beginners are confused because they don't even realize that they do not see yet — they are unaware that they are missing the nuances of the lighting. Once you finally realize there is a lot more to be seen by just looking, then you will get it, and will know your preference and how to create it. But this awareness is a beginning step which always requires conscious effort, to actually look and see. I started clueless too, we all did. Believe me, I understand about not seeing nuthin' at first. We can spend years that way, before we wake up and look around, and realize there is more to be seen. Lighting simply requires looking, and thinking, which becomes seeing. I'm talking a lot, and beginners may scoff at this, we all think we see everything. I imagine I do too, but as you practice looking, there will come a time when you finally realize what it is about, and will understand more, and will be aware that you have become more aware. You can consciously decide to practice actually looking, and thinking about what you see, and about how it was created. It will not be real easy, it will take time and thought, and is mostly about paying close attention, but anyone can do it if they try — just not many of us bother to try. But photography is so much more than just point & shoot. Mostly it is about actually seeing the subject and scene.

Just learn to look, so you can see, to better know what you are trying to do. Pretty soon, you will be noticing the gradient shadows in all the pictures you see, magazines, movies, television, the catch lights in the TV news anchors eyes, all the visible stuff you never thought about before. This might sound hard, but everything is there to see, just learn to look for it. A high point will be when you realize you are contemplating the lighting ratio in the dramatic scene in the movie, instead of worrying about who is the murderer.

After lighting ratio, the next new basic studio lighting concept to be grasped is short and broad lighting (look at the shadows). Simply good and important starting stuff to realize, an excellent first step towards realizing the goal of lighting is these shadows. A lighting ratio is required to create those shadows. There are of course choices and preferences, but I am trying to say — if you can look and consciously notice (see) these obvious shadows, and their differences, then you are on your way to actually seeing when you look. It is all out there for us to simply see, if we look. Then, after you see, you will know what you are trying to do. And then, you have a pretty good idea how to do it.

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