Lighting Gear Makes A Difference

Lighting is the most crucial element in photography, and, in fact, it’s at the very core of image-making, be that photographs, paintings or drawings. An artist needs great light to produce great images. In photography, the most basic source of illumination is “available light,” a general term that describes the existing light on hand. Sometimes that’s enough for capturing landscapes or a realistic interpretation of a scene. But quite often, we need to supplement this available light with some auxiliary light or “fill light” by using flash, studio strobes or continuous light sources.

In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary. —Film Director Aaron Rose

ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBender

Using Portable Flash

A portable flash is the most common lighting source carried by professional photographers, and it’s, by far, the most underutilized by everyone else. Modern flash units are a vast improvement over the flashes of the past, and photographers are now empowered with features such as E-TTL (evaluative through-the-lens) metering, total exposure control and wireless remotes. Yet, even among those who do use them, most just slip the flash into the hot-shoe, fire directly at their subject and hope for the best.

LumiQuest QuickBounce


One of the best practices I can recommend is a technique referred to as “fill-flash.” You’ve probably heard the term. It’s a common practice where the strobe is used to add additional illumination to that of the main ambient light source. Now this may seem counterintuitive when shooting in bright daylight, but the goal is to achieve a well-lit scene using a balance of both natural and artificial light.

An appropriate use of fill-flash would be when photographers pose their subjects outdoors on a bright, sunny day. By placing their subjects with their backs to the sun, they can use the flash to illuminate their features. The bright daylight naturally illuminates the background, but the supplemental fill-flash eliminates the silhouette and shadows on the subject, resulting in a natural-looking image.

Flashpoint Q Series Beauty Dish

Additionally, all flashes have a power control setting that enables the photographer to dial the intensity of the flash up or down to match the available light. The advantage of the E-TTL system is that the strobe and camera work together, analyzing both the flash and ambient light to determine the proper exposure. Analyze any advertising portraits shot outdoors, and you’ll discover that most pros use this fill-flash technique to light their models, producing a flattering and natural outdoor portrait.

Interfit STR104 Softbox


While direct fill-flash is useful in brightly lit environments, in dimly lit areas, it will be needed as a primary lighting source. Here, you want to start thinking “beyond the hot-shoe” and deciding how to modify and soften the flash output. One of the easiest methods is to adjust the flash head and “bounce” the light off a large neutral surface that will reflect back onto your subject. The diffused light coming off of the ceiling, a wall or a reflector will be quite flattering. Another method is to purchase an off-camera extension cord, which maintains all of the automatic E-TTL features and allows the flash to be repositioned off-axis from the lens. This will add directionality to the light and eliminate the dreaded “red-eye” in the subject’s eyes.

Flash output can be modified and controlled by affixing any number of attachments directly to the flash. When bouncing the flash off the ceiling, for example, you can redirect some of the light by simply attaching a reflector to the flash head. LumiQuest is one of the leading suppliers of flash accessories, offering a wide variety of detachable flash reflectors. The concept is simple: By attaching a reflector to the flash, your subject now will be illuminated from two directions from one flash—from above with the light bouncing off the ceiling and from the front by the light from the reflector. This is an excellent method for kicking extra light onto facial features, eliminating dark shadows in the eye sockets and ensuring that the subject’s eyes receive the critical “catchlights” that illustrate the spark of personality.

Honl Speed Grid

Advanced Modifiers

For even greater control, most flash units can accept a wide variety of customized lighting-control attachments that once were reserved for large strobes in a professional studio. ExpoImaging, Honl Photo and Interfit each offers an extensive selection of softboxes, snoots and grids that enable photographers to fully control the quality of light emanating from the flash. By softening the intensity, narrowing the beam and manipulating the spill of light on the subject, photographers now can exert complete creative control—all from a single flash in the camera’s hot-shoe. The ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBender is a particularly interesting and multitalented device that can act as a bounce card, snoot and general light-shaper. The Flashpoint Q Series Beauty Dish Reflector is a 6-inch modifier that attaches to your flash and creates a flattering, shadowless look.

RadioPopper PX

Using Multiple Flash Units

The best lighting situation, however, is the one the photographer can fully manage and sculpt. This requires multiple flash units set up around the subject or scene and controlled remotely from the camera. Multiple Canon and Nikon flash units can be operated remotely using an optical-based firing system where the main flash or “master” fires the remote or “slave” flash units. This system is built into the flash itself and requires no extra equipment.

Litepanels MicroPro Hybrid

However, the working distance is limited to approximately 50 feet indoors, and the slave units must be within “line of sight” of the master unit. A more effective method for firing remote flashes is a radio-based system that offers greater range and avoids line-of-sight issues. Two of the most widely used systems are PocketWizard and RadioPopper, with a basic three-light RadioPopper JrX available for less than $400.

Flashpoint FPVL 112

The primary advantag
e of using a multiple-small flash studio setup is lightweight portability. A basic starter kit would consist of three flash units and two or three light stands with cold shoes, brackets and umbrellas. The kit is scalable and, as your needs and budget allow, can be upgraded by adding additional flash units, large softboxes and other third-party lighting accessories. This system is extremely versatile and will provide excellent creative lighting for everything but perhaps the most exotic lighting scenarios.

Lowel Blender

Continuous Light

Portable continuous light sources are an alternative to flash for providing artificial lighting. The advantage is that you can see exactly how the lighting looks in a darkened scene and make any needed changes before capturing the image. Several manufacturers now are producing LED-powered studio lighting equipment that leverages LED technology to produce a stable, cool and portable continuous lighting source. Although primarily targeted for video production, still photographers should consider them as well, since DSLRs now serve a dual role as an HD video camera. The Litepanels company offers a wide variety of products that offer the benefit of low power, low heat and adjustable light sources that retain their color temperature, with no color shifting at different power settings. The ikan iLED package and another small LED panel, the Flashpoint FPVL 112, are other DSLR-friendly LED solutions. Lowel has a new product that’s quite versatile for both still and video photography. The Lowel Blender is a small LED light source that combines the best of both worlds in artificial lighting. Its versatility stems from its ability to emit daylight- or tungsten-balanced light, or a combination of both (hence the Blender moniker) to match virtually any light source. In addition, it can be powered by AC or battery for total portability. Finally, for fashion or beauty lighting, Kino Flo offers the Kamio 6 System, a ringlight that attaches to the lens and casts flattering glamour-style lighting on the subject. The advantage is that the LED source is cool and won’t cause any discomfort due to heat, which other light sources may emit. It also features daylight and tungsten options for proper color balance.

The Bare-Bulb Look

Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce

Gary Fong Puffer

For an omnidirectional, or bare-bulb, look, there are several good modifiers to choose from. The Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce and the Lightsphere by Gary Fong attach directly to most models and can be used to cast light in all directions. They offer an effective way to light small groups, and they’re widely used by special event and wedding photographers to provide soft, even lighting in nearly every conceivable situation.

In harsh outdoor lighting, using a reflector or fill-flash helps your subject to stand out and defeats harsh shadows.

Using Reflectors with Available Light

The old-school advice was to keep the sun at your back to fully illuminate your subjects. While that may have been valid in the early days of photography, there are better ways to light your subjects using available light. The simplest technique is to pose your subject in indirect light such as open shade. The omnidirectional nature of this type of lighting is quite flattering, although it likely will render skin tones a bit “cool” in color. This can be easily remedied on the spot by changing your camera’s white balance to Cloudy or Shade, or fixed later with a minor color correction during your workflow.

ikan iLED package

Another method is to pose your subjects with their backs to the sun, then use one or more reflectors to bounce some light back onto their features. There are many reflector brands and styles available on the market, but using a plain white reflector always works well to even the lighting on your subject. Reflectors that offer a neutral surface such as the Bruce Dorn Select Natural Muslin + Silver from Westcott work great for portraits, since the reflector surface is very close to a natural skin tone. The Photoflex Soft Gold/White LiteDisc is a popular choice for many pros. California Sunbounce also makes reflectors as well as scrims, which are used to diffuse harsh sunlight. Even in the most difficult lighting situations, beautiful portraits can be created by choosing the right location and then using a combination of reflectors and scrims to control, modify and redirect the available light.

Photoflex Soft Gold LiteDisc

When faced with a challenging lighting scenario, such as bright overhead daylight producing harsh shadows, a couple of reflectors and diffusers can be used to harness that light and manipulate it into a soft, flattering source that produces professional results.

First, you’ll need to position the diffuser between the sun and subject so that it filters the direct sunlight and transforms it into a soft and muted source. Second, a reflector will need to be positioned so that it bounces some of that soft light back into the subject’s features. With the right positioning for background, you can achieve very professional results quickly with a minimum amount of gear. Naturally, you may need some “voice-activated light stands,” aka helpers, to hold the reflectors, but any nearby friend or family member will serve nicely in that role.

California Sunbounce

When shooting indoors, available light is used for portraying interior features in a realistic and natural manner. Subdued indirect light for churches or cathedrals and stage lighting for theatrical performances are prime examples. Most of the time, you won’t need to change this lighting, since it represents the mood and veracity of that environment. For portraits or still-life images, it’s best to find a strong source of indirect light such as a skylight or north-facing window to provide the main lighting source. Then use reflectors, fill cards or even a brightly lit wall to provide the extra available fill light if needed.

Give It A Try

Proper lighting is both a science and an art. Although there are certain rules to be followed to create great light, as is true with any form of art, knowing when to break those rules separates the good from the great. There are many different choices available for photographic lighting and a lot of debate on the best methods and techniques. For now, decide what lighting style works best for your style of photography and build from there. The most important thing to remember is that, whatever your photographic passion, you’re pho
tographing the light—not the land.

Flash Manufacturers

IN ONE FLASH is good, then more are better. As I mentioned, the best results are realized when using multiple flash units to achieve total control of your lighting, and that can become expensive when purchasing matching flash units from the camera manufacturer. There are several options for third-party flashes, but you need to be sure that they’re compatible with your DSLR’s features.

A good choice would be the Sigma EF-530 DG Super. It offers full-feature compatibility with most popular DSLRs for around $200. Nissin offers several models based on size and power, with the Nissin Di866 at the top of the list for about $330. It’s also compatible with most major DSLR makers and features a cool “sub-flash” that can be used as fill when bouncing the main head off the ceiling. Both flashes work wirelessly as master and slave for off-camera shooting.

The Quantum Qflash T5d-R is a powerful unit that’s prized among wedding and portrait shooters for its power and versatility. The Qflash T5d-R supports wireless control of all dedicated camera-flash functions, as far as 600 feet away. It’s compatible with most DSLRs using a Quantum QTTL adapter. And, finally, for an affordable flash that incorporates basic E-TTL metering functionality at a very affordable price, the Sunpak PZ42X priced at $140 is an excellent choice for a starter flash and as an auxiliary unit for a multiflash setup.

Quantum Instruments, Inc.


California Sunbounce
Gary Fong
Honl Photo iDC Photo Video
Kino Flo

Jeff Greene is a veteran professional photographer and digital-imaging educator with more than 25 years of experience in photojournalism, studio portraiture and commercial photography. Visit for his blog, portfolios and workshop information.

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