Working with artificial light: first impressions and 9 lessons.

After years of shooting in natural light, I’ve finally taken the plunge. Last week, I bought a flash light, a wireless flash trigger, a mounting bracket and some batteries. I’m repurposing an old, unused soft box. I’m bringing a light stand (also old). But I’m bringing a new attitude. I feel ready. In this post I am sharing my first impressions working with artificial light.

white bread - working-with-artificial-light

Why now?

In the past, I’ve been hesitant to transition to artificial light for my food photography. My excuses have ranged the entire spectrum of “but constraints aid creativity. I can manage fine with natural light” right up to “but artificial light is a huge time/money commitment“. There was even a “but do I really need artificial light for my work ?” somewhere in between. (Notice how they all start with “but“? Who was I arguing with? I don’t know!)

Anyway, last week, I felt ready to explore the world of artificial light. Just like that. No other reason except curiosity and willingness. I like when that happens because then I know that the impulse is natural and is coming from the right place in my head. So I went ahead and committed to a long period of self-learning, making lighting mistakes, and getting inconsistent outcomes with my images – all over again. Just like when I was first learning to shoot with natural light.

Someone once told me that being able to shoot with artificial light is the “right of passage” in a photographer’s journey. Maybe it is. Maybe it is not. It’s too early to tell so ask me again after a year or so. Until then, I’ll keep sharing what I learn, just in case it’s useful to any of you.

[Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post or a product review so I won’t mention brand names. I’ll leave those sorts of things to people that do it well. This post is about my initial experience with choosing and using artificial light. Make of it what you will. As always, I’ll keep it as jargon-free as possible.]

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” and share your thoughts and comments. (By personal preference I always disable the comments section on this blog).

What type of artificial light to buy?

Like most people buying new gear, I usually consider ease-of-use, space(or size), cost, utility and quality. Unlike most people though, my first concern these days has become “space”. As time goes by, I increasingly prefer a more minimalistic and effort-efficient type of living – that means more empty space and less clutter. So any new purchase has to be “really necessary”, “low maintenance” and “compact“.

Also, since I’m just beginning to test the waters with artificial light, it wouldn’t make sense to spend huge monies before I know what’s what. So I wanted something that is at least somewhat inexpensive if not cheap. As you can see, these two constraints already limit the options.

Next, the tech considerations. I did some research and below is a brief description of the key points I considered.

When it comes to artificial light, there are two major distinctions: Continuous and Flash. Some photographers further classify flash lights as studio strobes and camera flash units, but for the sake of simplicity, I like to think of strobes as more powerful, more complex and more expensive flash lights. And anyways, both give out short, powerful bursts of light when triggered. While flash lights output flashes of light when fired, continuous lights are sources of light that is …well, continuous.

I mostly shoot indoors, in my make-shift home studio, with large windows and plenty of light all round the year. That’s also partly why I enjoyed shooting in natural light all these years. At this point, I don’t do on-site photo shoots, so I don’t have to lug all the equipment around. So portability and ease-of-setup were not my primary considerations. You may have a different set of priorities, based on how you work.

While continuous lighting is great for supplementing the available natural light in your workspace, it also comes with the extra effort of learning how to handle mixed lighting. It could be potentially problematic to manage light coming from different types of sources (artificial and natural) especially at different colour temperatures. In my case, I wasn’t very keen on dealing with these types of problems right away.

You could, of course, avoid this problem by killing all the ambient natural light, and only use continuous light to light your scene. That way, there is just one kind of light to manage. But it also means making your workspace completely dark using dark blinds/screens/curtains. I don’t have a dedicated space for photography, so I cannot (and also do not like to!) cover up the large windows and cut off all the lovely natural light in our home for hours and days. So I decided to go with flash lighting.

Going further down the “flash” path, I learnt that studio strobes while more powerful, are also more complex to understand and manage. They are also more expensive and outside of my current budget.

Considering all of this, I decided to buy a camera flash unit. And as I do with most other gadgets and gear in my life, I went with the mid-range equipment/brand – not much of a compromise on quality, yet not too pricey. Maybe you’d choose differently.

[If you’d like the specifics of the setup I own, feel free to ask me and I’ll send you the details]

Also, checkout the videos I’ve referenced at the bottom of this post if you’d like more information about the different types of artificial light. If you are new to artificial lights, these videos would be a good place to start.

9 lessons I learned from the first few hours photographing with my flash light

Because I am not a big fan of jargon, I’ll do my best to keep this simple.

  1. Flash lights are still lights. All laws of physics/optics governing light in general, will apply to flash lights as well. For example, Shadows will fall behind the object, away from the light source. Sometimes, based on the relative height of the light source, “behind” the object can mean on the ground below (or the backdrop) – just like our own afternoon shadow.
  2. There are two ways to use most flash units: on-camera and off-camera. I am using mine as an off-camera unit. This simply means the flash unit will be off the camera body, away from it – mine’s perched on a light stand. I had to buy a mounting bracket to fix the light on the stand.
  3. And because the flash unit is away from the camera, I’d need a “go-between” unit that would tell the flash to fire when the camera shutter button is pressed. That’s a wireless trigger/transmitter. It sits on the camera body, and when the shutter button is pressed, it will “tell” the flash unit to let out a flash of light. Simplicity itself. Right? 🙂 (I won’t be discussing the many ways this triggering can be accomplished in this post.)
  4. I am using my flash unit off-camera because I like having the lighting angle separate from the camera angle. (No front lighting). I also like to be able to light the scene from any direction/distance I want, without affecting the camera settings or the overall composition. It gives me finer control to set it up this way. Also, since I mainly photograph food and still life, my scenes are pre-planned and don’t move unless I make them move, so it makes a lot of sense to set up this way for more control.
  5. Since the flash light drowns out all the ambient natural light, I don’t have to worry about ambient light from my windows at all. This makes it faster to set up the scene – I just do the same set as I would for natural light, take a few shots first, then set up the flash unit and shoot again with artificial light. Two for the price of one!
  6. Shadows, oh the shadows. Flash light is meant to be used close to the scene (there is a definite limit to how far away they can be positioned to light the scene). Also, the light has a definite direction. So, the shadows are harsher, sharper, darker (Especially if you are using just one unit, like me). This is not a problem per se. It’s just something to think about before the shoot. Also the shadows will be invisible until after the shot is taken. What you see before the flash/camera goes off, is very different from what you see in the flash-lit shot. So if you don’t want the shadows where and how they are, you’ll have to modify the light in the usual way – diffusers, reflectors or fill cards. Or even more flash units.
  7. Compose with the shadows. When you pre-visualize the scene, you’ll have to take into account each shadow cast by each element – every cup, spoon and fabric. This will have a strong bearing on where you position each element in our frame. You’ll have to look for overlapping of shadows, merging of shadows and also loss of definition/shape/texture because of shadows from other elements in the frame – unless you plan to always diffuse the flash light and make it soft and uniform. In which case the process will be the nearly the same as composing with natural light.
  8. Colours and textures show up differently in harsh lighting. If you want to make use of the shadows stylistically and for a specific effect, you’ll have to be mindful of the colour and texture of the backdrops so they don’t get lost in them. For example, a dark/black backdrop will not show the shadows at all, nor will backdrops with too much texture. There is no right or wrong way, these are just some things to consider beforehand so you can get the photographic mood and effect you are going for. Otherwise the outcomes will be unexpected and inconsistent.
  9. Play with different angles and intensity and distances. There is no better way to understand artificial light than to actually work with it and see what happens. In the beginning, it’s best to choose a single subject and minimal composition and build from there.

That’s all I have for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far. As I learn more, I’ll be sure to make improvements/corrections in my understanding and share those as well.

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” or use the contact form. By personal preference, I disable the comments here on the blog.


Extra info & references:

I found the videos below very good places to start. There is a lot of information out there, but like me, if you get exhausted reading or watching lots of things before hitting the mark, just start with these. They cover all the basics to get you started without the overwhelm. You can always build more understanding as you go.

What artificial light is the best for food photography? (Joanie Simon)

Flash Vs Strobe Vs Continuous light (Skyler)

AUDIO VERSION

By Boiledbeanstudio

Photographer, writer, creative coach, mentor