Making peace with lighting

Sun-light, very bright!
Available light photography – the sun has some distinct advantages over artificial lighting but…

Lighting. If you are anything like me, it’s a subject that has, at times, caused a degree of discomfort. It took me a long time – longer than it should have done – to get to grips with photographic lighting and what equipment I need.

Like many photographers, I gravitated towards available light photography. You know where you stand with the sun. The sun does not try to befuddle you with dubious guide numbers. It is continuously on and does not generally trick you by turning off before your sensor has been fully exposed, thus leaving half of your image in the dark. Surely all lighting should be that simple.

For a long time I avoided gaining any real skills in working with photographic light. However, it’s all very well extolling the virtues of available light photography, as I am want to do, but knowing when and how to add extra lighting into your bag of tricks is indispensable.

When I finally went digital not so long ago, it seemed like a good idea for me and my new camera to join a digital imaging group to get quickly up to speed. As it happens, the principle of the group that I joined here on ‘The Island’, Gary Early, is rather well versed in all things lighting. Several group meetings that followed featured some important aspects of using lights. The surprise was that I already knew more about lighting than I had realized. The patient ministrations of the digital imaging group served to pull all those bits of information, collected over years, into a framework that added up to a working knowledge of lighting issues.

On the back of this, I managed to inveigle my way into a fashion shoot at a local country house, East Dene, the one-time home of the poet Algernon Swinburne and now an impressive weddings and events venue. I am indebted to the photographers, shoot organisers and fellow group members Anne and Gary Cheeseman for letting me get involved in what turned out to be an enjoyable and informative day.

I attempted to make myself as useful as possible as a self-elected general ‘gofer’. There were about half a dozen photographers who had set up in various parts of the house and grounds and, at one point or another, I was able to have a look at how each of them worked. Having buried my head in the sand for so long about lighting, I was relieved to discover that they were working in a way with which I was entirely familiar, just with a more flexible, and therefore more productive, lighting solution added into the mix.

As it happens, most photographers are very happy to have an assistant for things like doing their running,  holding a reflector and also as a sounding board for ideas. This is a very effective way to move your knowledge forward and one I hope to do again at the next opportunity.

What I took from all this, is that setting up lighting, and manual flash in particular, is so much easier than I had expected – or more accurately, was not shrouded in the dark arts of my imaginings. As a result, I have since set out to assemble together a basic general purpose lighting set on a somewhat limited budget.

Setting up for product shots
That’s a 60cm softbox to the left and a 150cm umbrella reflector on the right. My Fujifilm X-T1 is mounted on an old but versatile and sturdy Manfrotto 190 Pro tripod.

I already had a couple of decent Nikon speedlights and a smaller Meike MK320 that I currently use as my go-to on-camera flash. I’ve added to that a set of four Yongnuo manual remote transceiver triggers. These are reliable and simple. They allows me to trigger a couple of flashes and also the camera shutter, while I hand-hold the other transceiver to remotely trigger the entire rig. This also frees me to hold a reflector in place to give a little infill.

Brown pullover product shot
This is from a shoot for my partner’s sewing blog taken with the set shown above.

Other bits of kit that I have recently collected include light stands, a snoot, a softbox and a good-sized pair of backdrop stands and cross-rail. A king-sized bedsheet comes in very handy as a makeshift backcloth. This has worked out well and gives me a reasonable choice of arrangements.

This set-up is limited by the amount of properly diffused light the various flash units can deliver. Speedlights are always a compromise between delivering light abundantly and the limitations of designing a suitably compact light source. They are great at delivering light to where you need it from a very small unit, but the light is poorly diffused and hardly ideal if light quality is critical.

This is the point at which you decide whether you are prepared to sacrifice portability for a better quality of light and more control over how that light is placed. With that in mind, my next step is to continue to extend the capability of my existing gear with a better lamp and appropriate modifiers. 

On the lighting wish-list
On the lighting wish-list – A Cactus V6 II light trigger and a Godox AD360 hybrid studio head/flash unit and battery-pack.

The Godox AD360, which is a speedlight/bare bulb flash head hybrid, is by all accounts pretty impressive and offers much more evenly diffused light. Whatever light upgrade I get, it will require at least one suitable modifier and ideally some more technically advanced remote triggers, such as the excellent Cactus V6 II units.

A big Pixapro 150cm umbrella reflector was a recent impulse buy that will work well with the expected upgrade lamp. Its first outing was something of a success. I tested it out doing some product shots for my partner’s blog made@ginjer. She is rather keen on making clothes, so when she bashed out the pullover top (you can see in the photo above) it was an excuse to try out the new brolly for some product shots. With a little luck she’ll post about it and use one or two of my shots.

Although I will need to get better at using the new reflector, I am already delighted and it looks like it will help build my system in the right direction. Unfortunately, it has limited efficacy until I can get a bigger light and drive it properly.

I’ll come back to this subject in the next couple of months once I have further assembled and tested the new gear to let you know how I got on.

My current lighting kit list

It’s a modest enough kit list, but it is already enough to start getting serious about studio photography –

  • Nikon SB-800 speedlight
  • Nikon SB-50DX speedlight
  •  Yongnuo RF-603N II remote flash transceivers
  • 80cm multi-surface gold/silver/white/black reflector
  • 60cm softbox
  • Pixapro 150cm umbrella reflector
  • 3 metre light stands x 2
  • Godox S-type Bowens mount holders
  • 2.8 metre backcloth frame (2 stands and a top-rail)
  • Bowens mount snoot

I’m a sucker for a decent bag and this lot, apart from the softbox, fits into a single Cobra 1000cm tote bag that I got on ebay.



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