One Light at a Time: Lighting and Creating a Scene


Have you ever looked at photographs and wondered how they were lit? Strobist diagrams can help after the fact, but what about before: how do you know how to get the look you want? Consider a cinematography technique: lighting your scene one light at a time.


The Scene

First, it's a good idea to have a preset vision in mind (which in this case is the opening image in this story.) This vision will give you a bit of guidence. Think of it as trying to mimic the look of a photo that has already been manifsted. In this case though, the photo is all in your head. You'll need to create it in almost the same fashion that a painter creates their paintings. This time though, you're designing a set and the elements in your art are all tangible.

The Process

Your process will vary depending on your location. In a studio you often have maximum control over the lighting and what elements and props go into the set. Outside of the studio, you'll have a different experience. When you're on location, there are many variables that can affect the lighting and the overall scene. For example, think about the changing direction of the sun and how it will change the look and feel of your scene. Plus, there are all of the other natural factors that may interfere: animals, wind, weather, etc.

One Light

In a studio, it's a good idea to light your images using one light at a time. Start off with one strobe or hotlight and observe its effects on the subject. Notice the way that it casts shadows and then try moving it. Once you have it perfectly set the way you want it, consider placing the second light.


Before we talk about the third light, let's talk a bit about modifying the current light that we have. We've talked a lot about modifiers in the past. To refresh, modifiers take the light currently coming out of a strobe or hot light, and reshape it. In these photos, I have a modified flash camera left illuminating Matt and a spotlight behind him hitting the gray background.

Let's take a look at some example images:

Flash pointed directly at the ceiling. Notice where the light is hitting and how there are shadows under Matt's eyes and under his neck.

Flash pointed directly at the ceiling and to the left. Notice how the left side is illuminated softly and evenly. However, now there are shadows on the right side that I don't really want.

Flash bounced off of a reflector placed camera left. This is a nice look, but still not what I'm totally going for.

Rogue Grid 16 Degrees. The beam is too narrow now.

Chris Gampat Beauty Dish Hack. The quality of the light is nice and now we're getting close to the look that I want.

Chris Gampat Beauty Dish Hack with Grid. The grid is focusing the light more. and I don't like the look.

Three Lights

Now that we've got something close to the look that I want, it's time to add another light to illuminate Matt's other side. To do that I've set up another strobe camera right.

This photo was shot with:

- Beauty Dish camera left without the grid

- A spotlight set up behind Matt and illuminating the background

- A strobe camera right filling in the shadows that the beauty dish can't take care of. The secondary flash fired at 1/16th power output and firing directly at Matt without a lighting modifier.

The Image

In a real shoot with paying clients, this would never fly. Photographers are required to know how to get that perfect photo in one or two frames at the most. However, this is a great exercise to do with a friend or model that can help you to observe the effects of your new modifier or light before you go to shoot that next wedding or portrait of someone.

Give it a try and show us some of your portraits in our Flickr group. You'll be amazed at the things that different lights can accomplish. And once you have that knowledge, you'll be a step closer to mastering lighting.