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.

7 thoughts on “Creative Lighting Without a Flash [Tutorial]

  1. wow! My favorite part= when you ate the orange.. you really should write a book! Its intertaining! Lighting for dummies… something like that! I will for sure use this info! thank you for all your hard work!

  2. Hi Stephen,

    great article. Very insightful and a great resource.

    I hope you don’t mind if I add some things that you could have done differently? I mean those points in the most constructive way possible.

    I think the content would be more approachable if you would have made a series out of it. Smaller bits are easier to swallow and easier to comment on.

    You’re right, using hot lights is much easier than using strobes for the reasons you stated. But they also can lead to some shortcuts that wouldn’t work when you use strobes.
    You can’t use you camera’s light meter for example, when using strobes. So you have to shoot in manual mode. And I personally would do that anyway, even with hot lights. That the exposure value changes when moving the lights is a desired effect that using aperture priority counteracts. I consider it a good thing to see how the exposure is affected.
    Btw. in studio situations like with your wooden puppet, the light meter is probably not working all that accurate anyway. With mostly white or black background you’re usually way off of 18% grey.

    The hot light setup will give you a hard time when you want to have different lighting ratios without changing the apparent size of the lights. Maybe other light bulbs or a dimmer can help here?

    I like the idea of using the wooden model and the orange. It is so much easier to understand how things work when the setup is reduced to the essentials.

    Regarding the 3-light-setup I prefer to have the fill-light on camera axis, possibly a pop-up flash is enough. This way you will never have a second shadow.

    In your last picture of the wine the highlight is blown. Or you intended to show some spirituality in the wine? Anyway, it distracted me. Otherwise great shot btw.

    It is called a seamless [background].

    I also love the quote. It is from Antoine de Saint-Exuper, the author of The Little Prince.

  3. Thanks for the comments you guys! I really appreciate the feedback.

    For other readers, please note that the above comments were posted when this tutorial was one giant post. I have since broken it into smaller sections.

  4. Great read. Yes, I’ve done this many times, when I need a quick and dirty way to make a shot. Despite the “quick and dirty” overtones, shots come out quite well. It’s great to know others have time to share their experiences with others. Keep up the great work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s