Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Lighting Equipment

Posted in photography by Jason Gray on August 1, 2010

“I’m not interested in the texture of the rock, or that it is a rock, but in the mass of it, and its shadow.” -Ellsworth Kelly

For the photographer, there is no more expressive a component to his/her photography than the bending and manipulation of light.  Light is the one element in photography that enables the photographer to “sign” the work, and this is because light embraces and defines the subject.  It cultivates relationships between objects, determines their mass, sets the mood for the scene and so on.  That being said, light is also the most difficult part of photography to master, and I know of no “masters” who don’t spend a significant amount of time on their sets solving the problems of lighting.  Even for people who mostly “get it” intuitively, lighting set-up is complex and variable, and a constant process.

The lesson here is to not get discouraged.  If you can not afford the expensive strobes, go with the less expensive strobes; if you can not afford the less-expensive strobes, or need portability, go with the speedlights; if you can not afford the speedlights, go with lamps from the hardware store or with flashlights.  Bottom line is, use what you can afford and always keep experimenting.

In terms of lighting equipment there are three categories that act as checklists for what you might need to build a lighting array.  They are:

1. Exposure/Light Meters- help to define the correct exposure by supplying readings of both the ambient and artificial light in a space.  There are two types of exposure/light meters:

A) Handheld Meters- record the light in a scene through a photosensitive receiver on the surface of the meter.  There are two styles of handheld meters, they are:

i. Reflected Light Meters– measure the light reflecting off of the subject toward the camera.  This type of meter is useful because it provides you with an accurate reading of what the light temperature and intensity will be when it finally meets with the camera.  Helps to determine exposure values (aperture/shutter speed/etc.).  Generally, this meter is the most adaptable of the two because it is both near the camera and useful for when you are not worried about shaping the light so much as meeting the parameters of it (ie. when you are trying to get the quick shot).  All current DSLR’s have a built-in light meter of this type, which, unless you are used to using a handheld version, and like the process of them, makes these kinds of light meters obsolete.

ii. Incident Light Meters– measure the light as it falls upon the subject.  This type of light meter encourages a different type of thinking about light, and requires at least a minimal understanding of light (especially the difference between luminance and illuminance).  For this meter to read, the photographer places it in frame and activates (if necessary) the light source in question.  The resulting reading displays an ideal exposure reading for the photographer to match his/her camera to.  Because of how this meter reads light, it is less efficient for the type of fast photography listed above, but can be extremely useful for the photographer looking to gauge the average ambient lighting level of a room before a photo assignment (ie. cathedral, etc.).  This process is made somewhat obsolete because of the DSLR’s LCD screen, which instantly plays back the image taken by the photographer and provides illuminance readings through the built-in histogram(s).

B) Built-In Meters- measure the light that reaches the inside of the camera.  Readings from this type of meter help the camera to automatically adjust exposure settings, such as the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO, depending on the camera mode selected.  As digital cameras have progressed, these types of meters have become more accurate and complex, and provide more variety of readings.  In Nikon cameras, these types of meters are known as “TTL” of “Through the Lens”. The three most common types of built-in meters are:

i. Spot Meters– takes a reading from a specific point (usually wherever the selected AF point is positioned) of the frame, and ignores the lighting variables everywhere else.  This type of reading is similar to an incident light meter in that it records a specific light reading, but it is in fact a reflected light meter.  Useful for photographing scenes with high contrast; like when a person stands against a sunset.

Example:

ii. Center-Weighted Meters– take their reading from the whole scene but emphasize the data coming from a portion within a small circle (circumference usually can be set by the photographer in the camera’s menus) inside the scene.  Originally, center-weighted meters, like spot meters, recorded the predominance of their light from within the center (thus their name) of the frame, but in newer DSLR’s the reading is centered around whatever AF point is selected.  This type of meter reading can be useful for headshots, where you want the majority of the exposure to be accumulated over the face, or for when you want to stand the subject out from a background, like when a person is positioned in the shade of a tree and the bright background is visible.

Example:

iii. Matrix Meters– work by taking an overall reading of the entire scene (a reflected meter), and compounding that data with distance readings provided by the camera’s lens (in most modern lenses) and stored exposure information within the camera’s internal CPU (my D300 has 60,000 stored exposure profiles that it cross-references brightness/contrast/color data coming in to the camera with to determine the best overall exposure). The position of the AF point does have some bearing on the exposure decided, also.  In this setting, the camera is using the meter’s complex set of readings to attempt an overall exposure that properly exposes all individual parts of the scene; of course, this isn’t always possible, so the camera makes choices (this is where that AF point comes into play).  This metering mode is the most useful for general use.

Example:

2. Artificial Lighting Devices- sources of light in addition to the existing ambient light of the scene; usually supplied/controlled by the photographer.  Artificial lighting devices are extremely varied in terms of their output, purpose, portability and appearance, but they each do essentially the same thing, and that is, light the subject.  Many of the same rules that apply to lighting your subject in ambient light apply to lighting them with artificial lighting devices, except that you generally have more control over manipulating the latter.  An excellent resource for learning about lighting with artificial lighting devices is the <a href=”http://www.strobist.blogspot.com/”>strobist</a&gt;.  Their are many possible types of artificial lighting devices, but I will cover three of them.

A) Electronic Flash Units or “Strobes”- operate either on batteries (usually, sizable box-type ones) or on current supplied by an electrical outlet.  Strobes are invaluable to the photographer because they provide light under controlled circumstances.  All strobes can be synchronized with the camera’s shutter speed, and many of them feature an additional “modeling” light that is constant illuminated when the flash isn’t being triggered to allow the photographer to approximate how his composition will look when lit.  The synchronization is triggered by either an infrared or radio beacon, an attached synch cord, or by setting the strobe to “slave” or “cell” (in which case, an imbedded photo-cell on the strobe recognizes another flash going off, like the pop-up flash on a camera, and sends a trigger message to the strobe itself).  Most strobes contain an ionized gas sealed inside a tube that emits a concentrated burst of light when an electric current is passed through it.  An assets to these types of artificial lighting devices are that they require very little to no power recycling time between flashes and they can be synched to very fast shutter speeds.  The downsides are that strobes are generally the least portable artificial lighting devices, they are usually much more expensive to purchase than speedlights, and they usually require more space to set them up in.  Best artificial lighting devices for studio use.

Example of a Strobe (not mine):

B) Hot-Shoe Mount Flashes or “Speedlights”- are common, portable flashes used by photographers for a variety of scenarios.  Speedlights are generally mounted on top of the camera in the hot-shoe, and provide much more illumination than the built-in flash (which is also a speedlight).  Significant resources have been spent by varies manufacturers over the last 10-20 years in making the speedlight a viable and portable alternative to traditional strobes.  Nikon was the first camera manufacture to include an infrared system integrated into certain cameras that could control some speedlights when mounted off-shoe.  This system is known as “CLS” or the “Creative Lighting System”, and it enables full i-TTL (Nikon’s flash version of TTL metering) compatibility.  Canon has also included a similar technology in a recent model (the 7D).  Still, many photographers, Nikon and otherwise, prefer to use radio-triggers because of the inconvenience of line-of-sight limitations (the flash IR cell has to “see” the camera’s IR beam) to the infrared systems.  In any case, speedlights can be adapted for most purposes and offer the most flexible solutions for lighting subjects in the field.  Plus, a full speedlight setup often costs far less than a comparable strobe setup.  The major downsides to these systems are that they don’t generally produce as much light as traditional strobes and that they are slower to power recycle between flashes (speedlights that are compatible with external battery packs improve upon this).  Best artificial lighting device for field use.

Example (not mine):

C) Alternative Light Sources- are really anything that you can use to sufficiently light your subject.  I have seen some amazing work done with nothing for lighting save a few inexpensive shop lights from the local hardware store.  Mind you, this isn’t an ideal way to light your subjects (for one, these light sources general cast a color over your scene that will need corrected), and who can imagine showing up to shoot a wedding with a couple of flashlights taped to your camera (it just doesn’t make the right impression, you know?).  In any case, I have been in a few instances, when I either left my speedlights at home or didn’t feel like digging them out of my bag, where I have resorted to lighting the scene with whatever was handy.  This is why I always put one or two of those little LED flashlights in my bag.  Not to mention, there is a whole art to lighting this way called “painting with light”.  It requires some patience and a lot of practice, but basically you can light a long exposure at night, or in little light, by waving a stream of light from a flashlight or by pulsing a strobe/speedlight over various parts of your composition.  Here is an example where I used an LED flashlight to illuminate a sign in the frame:

Generally speaking, using alternative light sources to light your subject is not ideal for most purposes, but it can be an easy and inexpensive way to introduce yourself to the basic mechanics of manipulating artificial lighting devices to properly or creatively expose a subject or a scene.  That said, a lot of photographers swear by trigger-format flashlights like the one below, and find ways to integrate using them into their regular workflow.

Example (not mine):

3. Lighting Modifiers- are tools used by the photographer to reflect, diffuse or channel the light emitting from the artificial lighting device in play.  Common lighting modifiers (note, there are others) include:

A) Diffusers- include a large variety of semi-translucent materials placed in between the source of the lighting and the subject.  They work by softening the light that eventually reaches the subjects, generally producing images that feature less sharp contrasts and have more even lighting.  Common diffusers include:

i. Speedlight Diffusers (not mine):

ii. Umbrella Diffusers (not mine):

iii. Soft-Box Diffusers (not mine):

iv. Diffusion Panels (not mine):

B) Reflectors- are positioned to reflect light into a scene in order to provide additional illumination.  Some reflectors are colored, usually gold or silver, which help to either warm or cool the subject.  They work by diverting the light from outside the scene into it; the results can range from producing slim “key” or highlight-types of light to sharp, contrasty light.  Using a sheet of foam-core is an inexpensive way of homemaking a reflector.

Example (not mine):

C) Light Channelers: are screens or plates that fit over the lighting source that help direct the flow of light and control its intensity.  They work by focusing the light leaving the source upon certain areas of the image.  Generally speaking, these modifiers act like pointed fingers so that whatever there openings are pointed at, light reaches (pretty straightforward, right?).  Common light channelers include:

i. Snoots (not mine):

Which create a result such as:

ii. Honeycombs (not mine):

Which create a result such as:

iii. Barndoors (not mine):


Which create a result such as:


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  1. […] Cameras 2. Film 3. Lighting Equipment 4. Filters 5. Lenses Tagged with: Basic of Photographic Equipment, Jason […]

  2. […] impact of aperture is on flash exposure.  When a photographer introduces artificial light to a scene in the form of a strobe or […]


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