New Workshop! Lighting 3 | Advanced Off Camera Flash

Lighting Tips

How You Shot It: Lighting a Complex Scene With a Single Light Source

By Guest Contributor on September 16th 2014

How You Shot It is a series where you show us how you shot an image. Many who use our presets love to share their special processing recipes. You can join the SLR Lounge Textures and Presets group on Facebook and share your favorite images and recipes as well! For our wedding and portrait photographers, please join the SLR Lounge Wedding and Portrait Photographers group.

Today’s post is from Matt Emmett  of Forgotten Heritage Photography. Matt is a heritage and ruin photographer with a particular fascination with industrial remnants and underground locations.

From the point of view of a photographer there is a total lack of distraction in the stillness of a derelict building; the sound and movement associated with people or workers has been removed, for me this makes them far more sensory than when they are occupied. Your mind can easily focus on what is around you and takes in so much more. The building’s voice is clear and a character and visual aesthetic emerges that was much harder to define than if it was a busy, populated environment. Capturing this character and stillness comes across well in the photos and is something people tell me they love about the images.”

Check out his Facebook page and website here.

Tutorial image

I like shooting in unusual locations and this lava cave in Lanzarote gave me a great opportunity to capture something quite different from the kinds of things we see on a day to day basis. For me, this what makes an image interesting.

Lava Cave bright

First test shot of the cave lit with forward facing light

This is the cave lit with my helmet mounted Scurion wide angle light facing forwards from just behind the camera. When I’m in a dark environment like this, I usually produce a version like this so I can check the composition on the view screen before moving on to the real shot.

Lighting the cave like this is OK, but it’s not a particularly great shot. To get more mood and character out of the scene, I needed to change the light position. Having only one light source, I also needed to change the light position more than once to make sure I had the entire scene lit across several exposures.

This required a little on-the-spot visualization as I hadn’t planned the shot in advance. I decided upon 6 light positions that would illuminate all sections of the scene.

Lava Cave exposures

These are the 6 exposures I created. In each one, the light is placed to illuminate a different part of the cave.

  1. My main focus was to use side lighting on the central pillar which can be seen in the top 2 images.
  2. I used back lighting elsewhere for the rock walls as this creates great rough looking textures on surfaces like rock or lava.
  3. For the final shot, I put myself in the scene wearing the light on my caving helmet, facing away from the camera. Illuminating the wall beyond me made sure I would appear as a dark silhouette.

Post Processing

Once I was home, I processed the images and layered them one above the other in Photoshop and used a soft edge eraser to blend the different parts together and create a final image. Even though the light source appears in several shots as a star burst effect, careful planning made sure I could remove them, leaving rock in their place from a different exposure.

Lava cave final

Having quite literally ‘built’ the scene from several separate more manageable lighting jobs, the final image is a far cry from the initial test shot. It has mood and drama and for me something of the excitement I felt whilst I was in there alone, beneath the lava fields at midnight.

Some photo or lighting purists may say this is cheating, but for me, I got the result I wanted in the end, and I only needed to use one light.


This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

If you’re interested in becoming a guest contributor, contact us!

Q&A Discussions

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Daniel Jester

    Nice Shot! Out of curiosity, could this have been achieved by holding open the shutter and popping your lights as you moved around the scene? It looks like it might be dark enough to do that, but then that would pose other challenges, like having the light source in frame, light zones overlapping, etc.

    | |
    • Stan Rogers

      It would definitely be possible, Daniel — but it would be far riskier. It’s not just that the individual pops might not balance perfectly (with multiple frames you can throw out bad pops and develop/adjust each good pop separately), or even that you’re stuck wandering around in a cave with extremely low working light (so it doesn’t register) while occasionally nuking your night vision. Those are just the photographic equivalent of high-altitude nude para-snowboarding on the Cliffs of Death. It’s the possibility of things getting lit twice that’ll bite you, whether that means a simple one-stop overexposure or crossed shadows that adds the chainsaw-juggling component. And since it’s the image that matters, and not the heroism that went into making it (well, except on photography forums, I suppose), why make life harder than it needs to be?

      | |
    • Matt Emmett

      I have lit other locations in a single take but this place was a little too dangerous for that. The floor was razor sharp solidified lava and moving around on that uneven surface in the dark would have resulted in bad damage to my legs, knees and hands.
      Doing it this way was infinitely preferable :)

      | |

    great use of your creativity

    | |
  3. mugur ic

    Nice and creative

    | |
  4. Peter McWade

    Im working on this very technique for some creative in home shots. Read about this technique a few weeks ago. Watched a video on this very technique. Very nice.

    | |
  5. Mark Iuzzolino

    Very creative. I don’t consider this cheating at all. Great look you created.

    | |