Control The Light

Every photographer knows light is what makes or breaks an image. One of my favorite quotes about photography is, "You are not photographing the subject, you are photographing the light on the subject." Photograph a supermodel in flat light and you get a nice shot. After all, that’s why she’s a supermodel. But add some articulated, interesting light in the right place and quantity, and you have a stunning portrait. The right light brings any subject to life.

My first book, Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places (Peachpit Press, 2011), just hit bookstores. As I was writing this book and compiling images for the layout, I realized how important controlling the light was in many of the images. Some shots needed narrow beams of light; other images needed the darkened skies for the right mood.

I teach a lot of lighting workshops and a primary goal is learning how to control the light. Participants start off figuring out how the lights work, which stands are best and how to set up a softbox. Then they start to master lighting concepts like direction, quality and color. After a few days of shooting with flash, they’re getting a good handle on lighting.

But what’s the next step? How can you elevate your lighting technique to a higher level? The following tips will help you improve your photography technique. Controlling the light results in you taking more creative direction over the shot and capturing better images. Try out some of these techniques on your next shoot, and get ready to go to the next level!


When photographers first start using softboxes, they line up their subject dead-center to the softbox. This isn’t a bad thing, since the light should be nice and soft on their subject. Remember a principal rule of lighting: The softness of the light is determined by the size of the light source relative to the subject. A big softbox right beside a person produces very soft light. Move that same softbox 20 feet away from your subject, and as its size diminishes relative to the subject, the light is more directional and less soft.

Using the edge of your softbox allows you to "feather" the light hitting your subject. Light coming from a square softbox has an edge to it, and feathering the flash controls shadow and spill. To feather your light, line up your softbox so the edge of light is illuminating the subject. This allows you to control shadows on his or her face. Feathering your softbox using the back edge enables the light to wrap around your subject, instead of going into the background. When I shoot portraits in small rooms, the softbox looks like it’s aimed in front of my subject. This is because I’m using the edge of light and preventing light from spilling into my background.


When most photographers think about grids, they envision the classic seven-inch circular honeycomb grid. These grids fit on studio strobe heads and often come in sizes of 10, 20, 30 and 40 degrees. Grids do a terrific job of controlling the angle of light coming from your flash. If you use a 10-degree grid, it’s like using a laser beam—the light is very narrow and focused. For almost every shoot, I use gridded lights. If I want to put a "kiss of light" on a background element, I’ll use a 10- or 20-degree gridded flash for the job. My goal is to light the shot, not illuminate it. Don’t blast light everywhere; pick areas to which you want to direct the viewer and add light there.

Speedlights also can use grids. A number of companies produce grids, including Honl Photo, Lastolite and Rogue (ExpoImaging). These grids attach to the flash head and direct the spread of light. Also, many TTL flashes have the ability to "zoom in" and narrow the beam of light. My Nikon SB-900 can zoom out to 200mm. This is a very handy feature in adding flash just where I need it in an image.

I also grid my softboxes. Soft, flexible egg-crate grids attach to the front of most softboxes, radically reducing the spread of light, but still maintaining the soft effect. Any photographer who has used a softbox in a small room swears by using grids. Softboxes send light everywhere in a small room and don’t allow much separation from the background. Add a grid to the softbox, and you can put light on your subject, but not have it spill all over the room. This allows you to add another gridded light to separately illuminate the background. Lighttools makes beautiful grids to fit most brands and sizes of softboxes. They attach securely using a rigid frame, which also eliminates any errant light.


Flash technology only gets better and better. Recent advancements in flash capabilities have changed the way I shoot. One feature I can’t live without is high-speed sync (HSS) flash photography. HSS flash shooting allows you to use a faster shutter speed than your normal flash sync speed, which for many cameras is 1?250 sec. Many people think HSS photography is all about freezing the action, but it also allows you to control the light.

Imagine you’re shooting in bright midday sun. You’d like to use a large aperture, say, ƒ/2.8, to achieve a shallow depth of field in your portrait. Since the subject is slightly backlit, you need to add some fill-flash. When you determine your exposure using ƒ/2.8, you find that 1?2000 sec. is the right shutter speed to use. And since you want to darken the background exposure from your flash exposure, you decide to shoot at 1?4000 sec. Since you’re using HSS, you can use these fast shutter speeds and control (underexpose) the daylight exposure. Without HSS, you’d be stuck using 1?250 sec.

Can you use HSS with larger flash systems to achieve the same effect? The answer is yes, thanks to PocketWizard’s HyperSync utility and transceivers. HyperSync calibrates the flash and shutter timing, allowing faster sync speeds with large flash systems. You need to get a PocketWizard MiniTT1 or FlexTT5 transmitter, and also use a PocketWizard receiver on your flash pack. Sync speeds vary, depending on the flash system and camera used, but I can sync over1?2000 sec. using this system with my
Elinchrom Ranger Free Lite S head. Slower-flash-duration heads work best with HyperSync.


What if you want to control the ambient light and underexpose it, but you don’t have HSS or HyperSync available? Another way to darken the daylight exposure is by using a Vari-ND filter. These filters work by reducing the light evenly as you rotate the filter. I use a Singh-Ray Vari-ND. This filter reduces light from two to eight stops, easily underexposing even a sunny midday scene. A polarizer also could be used to reduce light, but they generally only reduce one to two stops of light.

But here’s the trick if you’re using flash in this image. The daylight exposure will be reduced, but so will any flash added to the shot. Expect to really increase your flash exposure to counter the Vari-ND’s effect. If you’re only reducing the ambient exposure by one to two stops, then your speedlight or studio flash system shouldn’t have much trouble adding enough light. This allows you to underexpose the ambient exposure another one to two stops if yo
u want a dark background for your shot.

Sometimes this can be taken to the extreme. I did a fly-fishing shoot where we wanted the river water to be silky, flowing around a fisherman in the river. Since we were shooting in bright sun, I used a Vari-ND filter to get the 20-second exposure needed for the silky water. But since I reduced the light by six stops, my 1,100W pack couldn’t produce enough power to light the fisherman, even shooting multiple full-power flash pops during the 20-second exposure. To solve this problem, I did a double exposure. My first exposure was with the Vari-ND attached to create the silky water at 20 seconds. For the second exposure, I took off the Vari-ND and shot one flash burst on my fisherman. The final shot had silky water and a lit fisherman.


Many assignments I get involve shooting a quick portrait of an employee in an office setting. Businesspeople need headshots, and brochures need images of employees. These companies want a great shot, but give you 10 minutes and a tiny office as your "studio." One challenge of these small interiors is controlling the flash, but grids work well here. Another challenge is the stale, boring walls most offices have. If only there was a quick way to liven up those white walls. Enter the cucoloris.

The cucoloris is a plate with holes cut in it for the flash to shoot through. Also known as a cookie, it can have a variety of cutouts, from venetian-blind bands to random holes. When a flash is shot through these cutouts aimed at a blank wall, interesting patterns and shapes are created. Shoot your flash through an orange gel and a cucoloris aimed at a white wall, and watch the effect. Instead of a boring white background, you create "sunlight filtering through tree branches" on the wall.

If you’re the do-it-yourself type, buy some Rosco Black Cinefoil from your photo store. Cut out a 4×6-inch piece, poke interesting holes in it, and shoot your flash through this to produce patterns on the wall. I use the Lastolite Strobo Kit for this effect; it has metal plates with different cutouts, and a simple attachment system for both speedlight and cucoloris. This kit also allows you to put a gel in front of the cutout to change the color of the flash.


Snoots are similar to grids, with a couple of differences. They narrow the angle of light even more, and some are flexible, allowing you to mold the light into different patterns. LumiQuest and Rogue both make simple snoots for speedlights. I really like the Rogue FlashBender snoot. This snoot has a built-in Velcro® band to attach to your flash head, with flexible metal bars that form the snoot and can be bent to change the spread of light.

Of all the methods mentioned here, a snoot offers the most precise lighting. One of my favorite techniques using a snoot is to shoot a tiny beam of light across a subject’s eyes. This beam draws attention to the eyes, giving them a sparkle. Snoots also are great for adding a touch of light to a flower in the foreground of a landscape.

ExpoImaging (Rogue)
Honl Photo


Overhead silks control the light by diffusing the direct sun and producing shadowless soft light. I think of an overhead silk as nature’s softbox. You’re using the sun as your light, just modifying it to fit your needs. You can’t control a silk like a softbox, but it does a great job of reducing the exposure of what it shades.

But overhead silks can produce another effect: Instead of darkening a background, they can lighten it. Imagine placing your subject under an overhead silk that reduces the light by one stop. In essence, your subject is in the shade, but the sunlit background isn’t in the shade of the overhead silk. If you expose properly for your shaded subject, the background will be around one stop brighter. This can be a nice technique in creating a high-key shot.

I use Lastolite Skylites for my overhead silks. These panels come in a variety of sizes and have collapsible metal frames. They use white translucent fabric, or can use reflective fabrics like gold, white and silver. I attach the overhead silk to heavy-duty Manfrotto stands and position it to produce soft light on my subject. Be sure to weigh down the stands—a little wind can turn your overhead silk into a sail.

The next time you plan a shoot, think through your lighting. Are you using available light, flash, or both? What are you trying to accomplish with the shot? Add light to the areas you want the viewer to look at and leave other areas in shadow. In the end, it’s all about controlling the light.

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit

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