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.

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