Creative Lighting Without a Flash [Tutorial]

The more I study photography the more I realize the importance of lighting. It seems to me that the difference between an exceptional photographer and a decent photographer is that the former has a solid understanding of light. Light defines this visual medium.

Backlight only. White background. No direct light. Directly above. Close. -1EV

Most photographers, myself included, prefer to shoot in natural light, but the downside is that it cannot be controlled. In order to achieve complete creative control over the lighting of your scene, you need to work with other light sources. Anybody who has shopped for lighting equipment is aware that this thing you once called a “hobby” is suddenly a much bigger investment. Good equipment isn’t cheap, but resourcefulness and ingenuity are priceless.

My goal in writing this tutorial is to help you understand the effects of light, how to control it, and how to do it on a non-existent budget. Here’s a look at the tools I used to make it happen. Chances are, you already have this stuff lying around your house somewhere.

  • Lights – I purchased this lamp from IKEA. It cost six dollars. It comes with a clamp for attaching it to a desk, and it uses up to 100W bulb. I have three of them.
  • Reflector – I used a big white envelope (12″ x 12″). You could tape two pieces of printer paper together, or better yet, tape the paper to a piece of cardboard for support. You can also make a reflector out of aluminum foil and cardboard.
  • Foam Core Board – Four pieces from an office supply store (24″ x 32″) two black and two white. I think I paid $4 for them.
  • White Poster – i.e. “big white piece of paper.” I used the back side of a standard wall poster.
  • Tripod – I paid $30 for my tripod. It’s cheap, it’s not built to last, but it’s extremely convenient. (In all honesty, I used my sister’s tripod [$200ish] for this tutorial. It’s faster to work with and a bit more stable, but when it comes to the image you capture it makes absolutely no difference.)

Background Info In order to get creative we first have to know what is considered normal. Three-point lighting is pretty much standard in most visual arts, so we’ll begin our study by taking a brief look at that. It consists of three lights in relation to the subject: key (main) light, fill light, and back light.

Three-point Lighting setup.

Key Light only.  Above, left.Fill Light only.  Above, right.Back Light only.  Above, behind.

Put ’em all together and what you end up with (below left) is a well-lit shot that comes reasonably close to simulating natural light (below right).

Three-point LightingAll natural light.  Large, north-facing window to the left.

That’s the nutshell version of three-point lighting. There is much more to be said, but it falls outside the scope of this tutorial. Basically, the three lights work together to provide the feel of the scene, to reveal details, and to distinguish your subject.

Similarly, there are three main components or levels to Creative Lighting:

  1. Understanding Shadows
  2. Revealing Details
  3. Capturing Highlights and Reflections

Each one builds off the previous one, so I suggest you start with shadows and work your way down the list. If you prefer, you can view this tutorial in its entirety by following this link.

Be sure to check out the Advanced Techniques, and Lessons Learned.

Creative Lighting: Understanding Shadows

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

The first thing I did was set up my scene. I found it easiest to work with a small card table in the middle of my room. If you have a blank wall, you can shoot against that as your background; otherwise you’ll need to place something behind your subject to give it a solid black or white background. I used the backside of a poster, taped to a piece of foam-core board (as seen below).

Three-point Lighting setup.

By using a single sheet for the wall and the floor it eliminates the seam where the floor meets the wall. Appropriately enough, this technique is called a “seamless” [background]. (Thanks, Mariano!)

The whole idea of creative lighting is to be able to control the light; therefore I recommend that you shoot at night with all the blinds and doors closed. You don’t want any light leaking onto your subject from another source. Be sure to turn off any computer monitors or other unsuspecting sources of light.

The subject you choose to shoot is quite important. For now, pick something simple. We’ll shoot more exciting objects later, but to start you want a subject that’s not too intricate. I used a wooden model, but you could try a vegetable, Willow Tree figurine, or small toy.

For this first exercise, Understanding Shadows, I recommend that you put your camera on Aperture priority. Initially I tried shooting in Manual, but I quickly found that the exposure values can be quite different simply because of the position of the light. Set your ISO as low as it will go –not Auto. You’re camera is already on a tripod, so you don’t need a fast ISO. Put the focus on Manual too. Your setup won’t be changing so there is no reason for the camera to re-focus each time. Affix a lens hood if you have one. Lastly, take your White Balance off of Auto. I mention more about WB later in this tutorial.

Once you have set up your scene and camera the way you like them, it is very important that you do not move your subject or your camera. The best way to observe the effects of different lighting setups is to keep all other factors equal (namely perspective and composition). By keeping your subject and camera in the exact same position you can scroll through the images on your camera’s LCD screen and easily see the differences from one frame to the next. If your perspective changes, it throws everything off and makes it very difficult to learn from what you’re doing.

The following images were taken using only one light. I put the lamp in a different position each time to give the picture a different feel. To simplify things, I never placed the lamp to the left of the camera.

If you hover your mouse over any image you will see a brief description of the light placement. By the way, if you view the photos as a slideshow you will more easily be able to see the differences from one photo to the next. This is especially helpful when the changes are subtle. Look for “slideshow” links throughout this tutorial.

Side-front. Above. Close.Side-front. Level. CloseSide-back. Level. CloseSide. Low. Medium distance.Side. Low. Close.

Side-front. Above. Medium.Straight on. Light directly above the lens.Straight on. Light directly below lens.Side-front. Above. Very close.Above, pointing down. Slightly front. Close.

Directly above, pointing down. CloseAbove, pointing down. Slightly behind. CloseBehind. Above. Slightly right. Close.Side. Low. Mostly bouncing off floor. Close.Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close.

Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVFront. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Shining on background. No direct light (all bounced). Close. -1EVBehind. Above. Far. Pointed at subject.

Behind. Above. Close. Pointed at subject.Directly above. Close. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly front. Far. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly behind. Far. -1EVDirectly behind. Close. -1EV

Above. Far. Shining on background only (no direct light).Directly above. Behind. Close. With pop-up flash.Pop-up flash, only.

Notice how different the photo can feel simply by changing the position of the light. The same wooden model can look like a friendly neighbor saying hi, an angel pointing to Heaven, or a sinister villain ready to attack. The only things I have changed here are the position of the light, and the Exposure Compensation. None of these images have been edited. They all came straight off the camera.

I hope you’re beginning to realize just how much the shadows and lighting can affect the feel of the image. Not only do shadows provide shape and form for the subject, but they direct the audience’s emotional response. A simple change can make a dramatic difference.

Continue to Part II: Revealing Details

Creative Lighting: Revealing Details

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

The second component of creative lighting is revealing the details and textures that make the subject unique. I used a completely different setup for these examples because I wanted to emphasize details rather than just shadows. A piece of fruit, a watch, flower, or tv remote should work well here. Building off what I learned with my wooden model, I started my second series.

I placed an orange on a black piece of foam-core and positioned the light behind the orange. As you can see in the first image (below left) there is virtually no detail visible in the orange. (Why do I keep typing “oranged”?! It’s driving me nuts!) Anyway, instead of positioning another light, thereby complicating the scene, I grabbed a big white envelope to serve as my reflector. I held it between the camera and the orange but just off to the left of the frame. The second image shows the results. This effectively revealed the texture of the orange, but it still seemed a bit flat.

Almost directly behind. No reflector. Almost directly behind. With reflector to the left.

To remedy this I repositioned the light above and slightly behind the orange, and then I fired the third shot (below left). This simple adjustment simultaneously gave me a strong backlight, plenty of texture, and solid shape. I thought the texture could use a little more depth, so I added the reflector and fired the last shot. The orange now has more form, texture, and color.

Above. Behind. No reflector. Above. Behind. With reflector.

Normally I wouldn’t place something like an orange against a black background –it just seems out of place. BUT, think of how different the image would feel if I used a white floor/background. All the light would be reflected back at the orange. After all, my reflector was nothing but a white piece of paper. Think back to the photos of the wooden model. How do you think it would appear if I used a black background instead of white?? Remember that your shooting environment accounts for a lot of the bounced light. Just because you don’t intentionally put a reflector in the scene doesn’t mean there won’t be any reflected light. Try to keep this in mind as you set up your shot.

Next I ate the orange and then placed my watch on the foam-core. The next series of images follows a similar pattern: Shoot a photo, reposition the light, use the reflector as needed. Those are the only things I changed in this next series; it didn’t get any more complicated than that. Again, hover your cursor over an image for a brief description. Click here to view as slideshow.

Directly above. No reflector.Front-left. Above. No reflector.Front-left. Above. With reflector to the right.Behind. Above. Left. No reflector.Behind. Above. Left. With reflector.

Above left.Behind. Right. No reflector.Behind. Right. With reflector.Above. Right. With reflector on left.

Careful attention to detail will easily put your photos a step above most others’. Using a reflector is an excellent way to accent those details. The beautiful thing about a reflector is that it can never be more powerful than the original light source. It’s entirely possible to use a Fill light to reveal details, but just be careful that it doesn’t overpower your Key light. On a random note: watches are almost always photographed with the time reading “10:10.” They say it’s the most aesthetically pleasing time. Go figure.

Continue to Part III: Capturing Highlights and Reflections

Creative Lighting: Capturing Highlights

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

Now we turn our attention to the third and final component of creative lighting: highlights and reflections. Obviously, you will need a reflective or transparent surface like a wine glass, cologne bottle, sunglasses, vase, or kitchen utensils. The tricky part about shooting a subject like this is that you need to define its shape and reveal its details without blowing out the highlights or causing any undesired reflections. It’s a tall order for sure, but once you get the hang of it you will be more attentive to the fine details of an image and your photography will improve because of it.

For the next series, I had a particular image in mind that I wanted to capture. I wanted the image to have a dark feeling overall, yet a rich, regal boldness to it. (These are the sort of useless guidelines you get when someone tries to verbally describe something visual =) That being said, I knew in my head what I wanted, and I set out to capture it. I started with a black floor and background, and a single key light.

Fill/Key Light only.

For starters, the glass looks flat and formless. The wine (which is really just water and red food coloring) looks cloudy and black at the top, and the glass is riddled with ugly reflections and glaring highlights. Clearly a strong key light won’t work, so I turned it off and took another photo using only a backlight shining on the background.

Backlight only. Shining on background (no direct light).

Now we’re getting closer. It’s still a little too dark; there’s not much color in the wine, but at least it’s not suffering from terrible highlights and reflections now. From here, I took a series of images that combined the backlight with the fill light. I had more success in the latter half of the images where I used a reflector to bounce more light at the glass without blowing out the highlights. The last couple images are close to what I wanted, but not quite it. View as slideshow.

Backlight. Fill Light side, level, very close.Backlight. Fill Light behind, level, medium distance.Backlight. Fill Light directly above (halo).Backlight. Fill Light behind, close, level. -1.5EVBacklight. Fill light pointed at subject. Directly above lens.

Backlight. Fill light pointed at subject. Side, level, medium distance.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector in front, slightly right, very close.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector above, side, right, close.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector above, behind, right, far.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector right, level, close.

After all this, I decided that the best way to get what I was aiming for was to use a white floor and background. This means that my environment will now work as a reflector, so I shouldn’t even need any fill light. Sure enough, I changed my setup from black (below left) to white (below right), and then captured the following image right away.

Black background setup. White background setup.

Backlight only. White background. No direct light.

I also did a similar shot with a cologne bottle, but this time I wanted to emphasize the importance of White Balance. The only thing that changed in the following images was the WB.

White Balance 2357KWhite Balance 2706KWhite Balance 3191KWhite Balance 4381K

Don’t overlook the importance of color in your photos. Particularly when you’re using desk lamps the Auto WB setting on your camera will likely give the image a yellow-orange tone.

For my final example, I chose to shoot an old hard drive that I dismantled. I was amazed at how reflective the disks were –just like a mirror! I knew this would add another layer of difficulty, so I pulled together everything I knew to capture the following images. View as slideshow.

Key Light above, left, medium distance.Key Light above, almost front, medium distance.Key Light directly above (halo).Key Light directly behind.Key Light bounced off ceiling, front, left. Fill light above, right.

The biggest difference for this one was adding a “ceiling” to the environment. Since the disks were so reflective I was seeing the ceiling of my room in the reflection. The picture below shows that I suspended the second piece of foam-core as a ceiling to ensure that the reflections were smooth and free of distractions.

As you can see, the game changes quite a bit when you start shooting transparent or reflective surfaces. Backlighting no longer produces only a rim of light around your subject, but it can illuminate the body of it. Bounced lighting can do more than simply reveal detail, it can serve as the main light source in the scene.

To sum it up: Shadows provide form and shape to the subject. Fill Light reveals its details and texture. And Highlights bring it to life. All of these aspects are controlled in three-point lighting. What I’ve done here is simply isolate each one and then observe how they all fit together.

Continue to Part IV: Advanced Techniques, and Lessons Learned.

Creative Lighting: Summary

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

Advanced Techniques – If you need a bigger reflector try using a sun visor (like the ones you put in your windshield). Some of them are identical to professional reflectors except that they are designed to fit in a windshield.

Position all three lamps next to each other to create “one” bright, soft light. With the combined intensities you may be able to photograph bigger objects and use a faster shutter speed.

Shoot in context. Instead of using a black piece of foam core board, use a board game as your background and let your subject be the game pieces. Try to create an engaging product shot that would sell or summarize the game. A sharp-looking chess set would be a perfect place to start.

Try lighting something with a screen, for example: a compact camera, iPhone, GPS device, or digital clock. First make sure the screen is displaying something, then see if you can capture a well-lit shot without the screen being washed out. Watch out for glares and reflections.

Lessons Learned – You don’t have to use expensive equipment to achieve stunning results. Creative thinkers with some ingenuity will always be leading the way in the photography industry. Don’t let yourself be stifled by what you don’t have.

The main advantage of working with desk lamps is that you can “see” the light and sculpt it instantly. When using strobes you have to fire a test shot, review it, make adjustments, and then fire another test shot. These little desk lamps, on the other hand, allow you to instantly see how the position of the light is affecting your subject. If possible, reposition the lights while looking through the viewfinder to observe the changes.

Learn how light “works” with little lamps first and you’ll find yourself much less intimidated by more complex lighting equipment.

It’s easiest to compare differences in lighting if the position of the camera and the subject remains unchanged.

Subtle changes can make a huge difference.

Desk lamps don’t put out nearly as much light as a strobe. Because of this, you will most likely be using relatively long exposures; that means you need a tripod and a stationary subject. Also, this means that if you try adding a flash to the mix it will significantly overpower the other lights.

Light intensity diminishes with distance (*quadratically, if you care to know). Therefore the further the lights are from the subject, the less effective they will be. This essentially limits you to shooting very small subjects –probably nothing larger than one cubic foot.

Don’t complicate it by adding every lamp you own. Do as much as you can with a simple setup. A creative thinker once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ”

The most common barrier between a good photographer and an exceptional photographer is the ability to see and capture light.