Falcon: Learning to Light; the Advantages of Lighting Space Rather Than Your Subject

One of the most common questions we get goes something like this: “I thought using a flash was supposed to help me get great images in low light. Instead, the flash created more problems that it solved. What’s up with that?”

However instinctive it has become to point a flash at whatever we are photographing, or using an on-camera pop-up, doing so can actually make lighting problems worse. An “off camera” flash helps, but it doesn’t fix all problems in low light. Why? There are a number of reasons. To begin with, the camera doesn’t interpolate or correct what it sees. What is sees is what it sees. So, where the human eye and brain fills in every part of an image to look perfectly exposed, the camera can’t do that. So, for example, if highlights and shadows are too far apart, when you point your flash at our subject, the flash actually pushes the shadows and highlights farther apart. The result? The image looks even worse.

What I am about to explain may seem counter intuitive, but it is nonetheless true: It isn’t about lighting the subject, it’s about lighting the space. The closer together the shadows and the highlights are, the better the image will look. Or, as we say, the farther apart the “blackest black” and the “whitest white”, the more difficult it is for a camera to render an image the way we see it. When you light the space and not the subject, you ensure that the volume of light in the space is consistent. When the volume of light is consistent, the dynamic range of color, detail, contrast and texture explode and an ordinary image suddenly becomes spectacular.

Here are some things to remember before we look at a “real life” example:

1. Light reflects at the compliment of the angle with which it strikes an object. So, if you are using an on-camera or pop-up flash, the light will hit whatever you are photographing and reflect right back at the camera. Conversely, if your light or any light source for that matter is 45 degrees to your subject, you want to avoid being 45 degrees to the other side of the subject. Otherwise the light will come right into your lens and that won’t help.

2. Light diffuses at the inverse of the square of your distance from an object. Wow. Sounds intense, let’s look at it this way. If you are five feet from your subject, then there will be 1/25th the amount of light at the point where your light strikes whatever you are photographing. Stepping back and putting more distance between you and your subject can actually significantly soften the light.

3. Despite what you were taught in school, light can be broken or softened by actually pointing your lights at each other. This produces a very soft, even light. Don’t have two lights? No worries. That’s where a Photoflex MultiDisc works perfectly. In fact, that’s how these 2 example images were created. See Figure 1 below.

As you can see in the digram, we used the 5-in-1 MultiDisc to refelct light from the TritonFlash at and around the flowers. Because the angle of the reflector was severe, the light reflecting from the MultiDisc was very soft. The results were effective and the best part was that we used very little light to achieve this look. For a more dramatic look we could always increase the power of the Triton strobe.

As Figure 2 below shows, the goal was to diffuse as much light as possible around the flowers by setting the MultiDisc Reflector at a sharp angle to the light. This ensured that when the light struck the MultiDisc, the light would diffuse even more. Placing the light source as far as possible from the multi-disc also helps because the light that hits the multi-disc is already diffused. Remember, softer light creates an image that has less contrast and often more vibrant colors. If you really want dramatic results, add a second multi-disc to the side of the TritonFlash so that additional soft light is pushed back towards the subject.

This sounds terribly complex and it can be a lot to think about. With that in mind, let me offer some tips on how to quickly and easily improve your images by lighting the space and not the subject:

1. Avoid pointing any light source directly at your subject.
2. Try to keep the most intense part of the light source about three feet in front of your subject. This ensures that the most diffused and even light will land on on your subject.
3. Reflect light back onto your subject using reflectors or soft boxes if you have them.
4. Remember, you want to add enough light to bring the “blackest black” and the “whitest white” as close together as possible. Usually, bringing as much light as you can across the subject does this effectively.
5. Stand so that the light crosses the space between you and your subject.

Practice makes perfect so the more you use this technique, the better your images will become.

Since the Fall of 2002, Falcon’s photography has appeared in many publications in the Unites States and in numerous galleries. He has won a number of awards for his work and his series "Tea and Sympathy" was featured in Life Imitating Art magazine. As a senior partner for The House of NyghtFalcon, Falcon has met the photographic needs for a wide variety of commercial clients. His popular imaging workshops are focused on helping students change the way they see the world. Register to receive a free subscription to The House of NyghtFalcon magazine: http://www.nyghtvision.com/register-2/

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