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