Lighting Basics

On November 28, 2015 by Simon Fleming


After many requests over the last few years I finally got into the teaching role. Rather than jump into a workshop style setup with multiple students I decided to go with some one-on-one training, beginning with using lighting primarily on location. Having run a number of sessions now this year I have found it to be a really rewarding exercise being able to pass on my knowledge & experience to others but it has also been great for me revising what I know and putting that into a form where I can articulate it to someone else. What you do (and have done for a long time) almost without thinking isn’t necessarily easy to convey to someone else with minimal knowledge. I now have even more respect for those people that I have taken workshops from in the past.

Outside of the practical hands on stuff I cover in the training I have also put together a basic guide – my thoughts of what the essential mechanics of lighting are. It simply covers what I think are the most important aspects of lighting. The things you need to get a grasp of if you are starting out, the boring technical bits that need to become second nature so that you can concentrate on being creative. I thought I would share it here on my blog today too…



For all intents & purposes light is light. Whether it comes from a small hot shoe flash or a larger studio style strobe, light is light. What matters more is what you do with it – what sort of light you make…

Understanding the application of artificial lighting & the relationship it has with your camera settings will serve you far better than spending a lot on gear to start with.

Important stuff to get your head around:

“Aperture controls flash power, shutter speed controls ambient”

What does that mean? Your aperture (F stop) primarily controls your flash exposure & your shutter speed always controls your ambient exposure. Note that if you change your aperture it can also affect your ambient exposure but a change in shutter speed will only affect your ambient exposure.

  • A change in ISO will affect both your flash & ambient exposure.
    Understanding these relationships is the key to shooting with flash.

Flash sync speed

Another consideration which will play in to your calculations & choices is a thing called sync speed – the maximum shutter speed you can set on your camera to shoot with flash. Now there are more and more ‘high speed sync’ options becoming available these days but if that is not what you are shooting with then you are generally limited to somewhere around 1/200th – 1/250th depending on your camera. Setting a speed faster than this will result in a blacked out portion of your image which is the shutter curtain blocking the film/sensor during the exposure. As I mentioned high speed sync options are becoming more common these days on many units but in most cases there will be a trade off in power available for the exposure.

If you are trying to control a bright sky and you can’t do this at your maximum sync speed then you will need to close down your aperture (remember aperture will also affect your ambient exposure). This has it’s own set of ramifications as aperture controls flash power too, meaning that more power will be required as you make your aperture smaller. Make sense?

There will be times that a small hot shoe flash will not have enough power to do everything you need. There may be strategies that will get you by – remove/reduce the modifiers being used, move into more shade, move your light closer to your subject or use more flashes grouped together. There is a LOT that can be done with small flash but there is also a time and a place to move up to big flash too (or combinations of both)

Quality, Quantity, Colour & Direction

Just as important as understanding the relationship between aperture & shutter speed when using lighting, is how you use that lighting…

These 4 things are what will determine ‘the look’ of your image. Simply firing off a flash directly at your subject doesn’t require a lot of thought, and more often than not won’t produce an image with any artistic value. You are not just trying to light your subject & scene, you are trying to convey a mood and add some life to your image.

Quality refers to the hardness or the softness of the light. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong here – more so the most suitable light for your subject & the mood are trying to create. There is a multitude of ways of modifying light sources to produce varying quality of light – reflectors, umbrellas, soft boxes etc


**The larger your light source is, in relation to your subject, the softer the light will be**

Here is another way of thinking about it. The sun, although massive, appears very small to us because it is so far away & hence creates a very harsh light with strongly defined shadows. Not soft or flattering at all. A relatively small flash placed very close to the subject will produce a much softer light.

Quantity simply refers to how much light you throw at your subject or allow into the scene. There are technical issues, too much or not enough, and then there are taste issues – how much or little you need to achieve your vision.


Colour is exactly as it sounds. The colour of the light that is in your image either through means of the ambient exposure or your flash, or a combination of both. Warm, cool or neutral, the colour of the light can make a huge difference to the mood & feel of the shot. The colour temperature of the light straight out of your flash is close to that of the midday sun – fairly neutral. You can vary this by means of your white balance adjustments on your camera (this will affect everything – not just your flash). You can also get creative by using coloured gels on your lights. And taking things a step further, combinations of gels & different white balance settings.


Direction refers to the angle your main light source is coming from. This determines what is lit, what isn’t and where shadows fall or don’t fall. Again, this can turn a blandly lit ‘safe’ image into a much more interesting or moody shot. Personal taste can play a big part in direction, as can technical requirements & limitations. Direction also helps you to give shape & definition to your subject.

Don’t be afraid of shadows – shadows can be your friend.


Finally, when shooting on location with strobes outdoors don’t forget that the sun can be used as another light source. Possibly your main light through a diffuser of sorts, or as a backlight or rim light to combine with your artificial lighting.


As I said at the beginning, this is just a starting point. There are LOTS of other things to learn, and you will the more you shoot but understanding these concepts will pave the way for everything else….  Concentrating more on this stuff now & less on the gear you ‘think’ you need will serve you much better down the track.

If you are in my neck of the woods and are interested in some personalised training please fell free to contact me for more information – I’d love to hear from you.

Happy shooting.

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