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.