The following is a guest post on lighting by Lindsay Adler, a professional portrait and fashion photographer based in New York. To get things started on guest posts, we always like to establish a bit of credibility by showing some images from the photographer.
After years of photographing in terrible lighting, we’ve learned a perennial truth: the best mood lighting is often the worst for taking good photos. When the lighting in a venue is too dim, unflattering, or awkward, photographers need to be prepared to bring their own.
While there are a number of ways to use flash to augment ambient light, striking the right balance between the direction and intensity of light is crucial. Luckily, some extra equipment and experimentation with reflecting light can get you all the light you need. Using any of the techniques below, often in combination, makes extracting the best shots from poorly lit conditions completely manageable, even under pressure!
Most basic flash kits include at least two gels: orange and green. These are especially helpful when shooting under the famously unflattering cast of halogen or fluorescent lights. Orange gels affixed to your speedlight help to warm up your flash to match the warm hue of tungsten light, while green gels allow you to match your flash to the limelike cast of a fluorescent bulb. Once we balance our light sources– ambient light and strobe– then we can white balance to eliminate any color casts. We like to use a gray card or ExpoDisc to work out the perfect white balance either in camera or in post-processing.
Bounce the light
Using your on-camera flash means you’ll be firing light straight at the subject. Most of the time, this yields the severe, harshly-shadowed effect of a deer in headlights. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a neutral room, with plenty of walls primed for bouncing light. Turning the flash towards a wall or the ceiling bounces a softened gleam onto the subject, wrapping her in a gentle blanket of light that’s much more natural than the directed beam of a speedlight. This technique is excellent for gently filling shadows and increasing the catchlight of the eyes. To manipulate contrast, move the subject towards and away from the wall. Moving her further away increases shadows that sculpt the face and create drama, while moving her closer effectively mimics the effect of a softbox: a gentle, diffused blanket of light with minimal shadows. Remember, only bounce off neutral surfaces to avoid an undesirable colorcast. If your walls are red, or green or anything but neutral, you are going to have to do something to soften your flash without bouncing it off of a wall, like perhaps using a modifier!
Remove the flash
Detaching the flash from the camera is remarkably easy to do, and does an incredible job of increasing your options. Some photographers use a TTL cable to connect the flash to the hot shoe on top of the camera, though we prefer to use wireless triggers when more flexibility is needed. Additionally, detaching the flash enables you to use a real softbox with the speedlight instead of having to reflect light off the walls. Removing the flash offers maximum control over the placement of shadows, the gradient of light, and the mood of the shot. For starker shadows and contrast, move the flash further off the camera’s axis. For more fill and catchlight in the eyes, use a softbox or bounce the light. To find the right equipment, we like to use sites like Pocketwizard or RadioPoppers.
Lastly, knowing what mood you are trying to set will help you decide on the best technique. We’ve found that investing in the right equipment helps to save time, but I’m careful not to rely on it too much. Flashes are an easy fix to augment existing light, but it’s important to remember that you are usually complimenting, not overriding the light you already have. Be playful, experiment, and don’t be afraid to get creative.
Lindsay Adler is a professional portrait and fashion photographer based in New York. Her editorials have appeared in dozens of publications internationally including Bullett Magazine, Zink Magazine, Fault and more. She regularly contributes to a variety of major photo publications including Professional Photographer, Rangefinder Magazine, and Popular Photography.