Getting Started with Strobe Lighting

Natural light. I often hear photographers say they ONLY work with natural or available light. To me, that means one of two things. They have either found a way to channel the creative genius of Ansel Adams – or they have yet to master the art of the strobe.

Flash or strobe lighting turns pictures into photographs. It allows you to control the impact of elements in a frame, to bring life to the eyes of a subject and to control the feeling and mood of the overall image. And it’s not hard to learn when you follow a few simple guidelines.

First, take it off camera! A flash that is popped from on camera creates a flat, one-dimensional image because it removes most if not all of the shadows on your subject. It’s those shadows that provide 3-D contouring and rich depth.

To take a flash off camera, you’ll need a syncing method. You can choose from either a sync cable when using only one light or a wireless remote for controlling one or more lights. It is also possible to set a flash to operate in slave mode where it’s triggered when a master is fired.

When getting started, use your strobe in TTL mode, allowing the camera to control the output of the light. Set your camera to manual exposure mode. Expose for background using the in camera light meter, and then underexpose 1 full stop or more depending on how prominent you want the background in the image. Doing this creates separation between the background and the strobe lit subject.

The main light of the image can be any combination of sources; the sun, continuous lighting or room lights. If you are already familiar with the inverse square law, it applies here. Short explanation is the closer the light source is to the subject, the faster the light falls off behind the subject. Make backgrounds go dark by moving main light sources in closer. Even make harsh noonday sun disappear by bringing a soft box close to the subject, underexpose 2 full stops and pop the subject with flash.

Now position your flash to expose the subject. A good rule of thumb is 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to the side to start. This will result in rich contours. Take a shot and look at the image.

Adjust the intensity of the light. Simply moving the strobe back or forward can do this. Light modifiers can also be applied. Shooting through an umbrella will diffuse a harsh light. Light can be dispersed by using a soft box, shooting off white walls or ceilings, or using light benders. Dark spaces can be filled in with a carefully positioned reflector.

Now get creative. Shoot through structures – like blinds or lattices - for effect. Add a snoot on a light behind a portrait to create a soft glow in the hair. “Pop” elements in a darkened scene with a strobe to bring it to life in the picture.

Once you get more comfortable with using your strobes, switch them to manual mode. This allows you to adjust the light intensity and zoom (the bandwidth of the light) for individual strobes.

Add gels over the flash unit to alter the lights color. Use this for effect in the scene or to balance for different temperatures of light from multiple sources.

And a few last techy details to wrap up. Set your camera to rear curtain sync – your camera manual will explain how to do this – when shooting with moving subjects in slower shutter speeds. This will prevent a ghosting effect behind the subject. Never shoot faster than your cameras flash sync speed (1/200 second for most Canon cameras and 1/250 for most Nikon ones) to prevent black bands from appearing in your images.

Photography is often referred to as painting with light. Adding strobes to your pallet will add a whole new dimension to your canvas. Be creative, but most of all, have fun with it!

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July 22, 2015

Estevens077

Thanks for your article. I am enjoyed! )

June 30, 2015

Clearvista

Very interesting. You have started the cogs turning in my head now regarding strobe lighting. Thanks.

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Photo credits: Karen Foley.