Good/Bad Light

I’ve written at times about my own rather coarse flash techniques using high ISO, and it was interesting to come across an article by a photographer working in a very different area,  Kristian Dowling, on PetaPixel a few weeks ago. Obviously the ideas and solutions that Dowling presents in  What Photographers are NOT Considering When Using High ISO work well for him – as you can see from the example images – but I’m not sure they are suitable solutions in my own practice, where situations tend to be fairly fast-moving and often rather crowded with both protesters and other photographers.

Like Dowling I have experimented with using LED lights, though not the Westcott Ice Light mentioned in the feature, and have not been too impressed with the results, though I’ve often piggy-backed on the video lights of others at events (though at other times they have been an annoyance.) At $500 the Ice-light seems a little on the expensive side (and there are ‘Accessories Galore’ to add to the expense), but perhaps it does do a better job than the £15 ‘160 LED Video Light Lamp Panel’ you can find on E-Bay. This seems to claim a similar light output, but is perhaps a more suitable rectangular shape than the long, thin, Ice Light sabre. But the cheap units I’ve tried have been a little disappointing in terms of light output for photographic use, though good for other purposes. More powerful units are available for around £100, but I’ve yet to try these.

Similarly while fashion work may make the Phottix Odin wireless TTL flash triggers seem a snip at $329 or $399 for the twin pack with second receiver, for those who work for the poverty fees now paid by newspapers and magazines (or more often 50% or less of them) may find the Yongnuo RF 603-II which offers a manual Wireless Flash Trigger and 2 Transceivers for around £20 of more interest (or if you want iTTl the Yongnuo YN-622N is around £60). At these kinds of price I’m tempted to try one out myself.

But I think what is important is to understand the difference between good and bad light, and there are things in the article by Dowling that I find confusing, either because they are confused or because I got to bed to late last night. Here’s how I think about lighting.

Quantity & fall-off

Light intensity is perhaps the most obvious feature. And for most artificial light sources we need to think in terms of the inverse square law – twice as far away means a quarter of the intensity etc. (Theoretically only for point sources but even with large soft boxes or bounce the light falls off, just not quite so dramatically.)


The angle from the light source over which you get relatively even light distribution. Can be increased by diffusers over the light source


The size of the light source viewed from the subject (where the sun is a small light source but the light from a small flash tube bounced off a large white wall is large.) This mainly effects the hardness/softness of the shadows. Despite what many photographers seem to think, putting a diffuser in front of a flash hardly effects this unless the diffuser is considerably larger than the flash reflector, at least where there are no large reflectors around – it does work in rooms with low white ceilings. But using it outdoors simply cuts down the range of the flash and increases recycle time.


Pretty obvious, but mainly important in avoiding mixing light of different colour temperature. Filters come in handy at times, though I seldom bother to filter my flash, there are times when it would help to do so. The LED panels usually come with both a simple diffuser and an amber one to use with tungsten lighting, but little outdoor lighting is 3200K.

Direction & Position

The horizontal angle between the light, the subject and the camera, and the angling of the light down (usually) on the subject

Main Light and Ambient/Fill

Although we can have very complex lighting situations, it is useful to think in terms of the main light – which gives the subject its ‘volume’, the ambient which illuminates the whole of the scene and the fill, light used to soften lighting contrast by putting light into the shadow areas.

In Practice

The main light is always better away from the camera, whereas fill is best from close to the lens. So flash on camera is great for fill, but rather lacking as a main light. With camera systems like Nikon, flash in bright sun for fill is simple, and handled very well by the TTL BL mode with a flash in the hot shoe. With some lenses you can alternatively use the built-in flash on some bodies, but physically large lenses such as the 16-35 cast an ugly shadow in the frame.

At night, working in fairly brightly lit areas, you can still use flash for fill, (though not in P mode) by working at high ISO, setting up the camera with appropriate underexposure to give some feeling of night, and then adding a touch of flash to illuminate close subjects. Often I’ll combine the flash – of short duration – with relatively slow shutter speeds such as 1/15s to retain information in relatively dimly lit areas of the background.

When the light falls so low as to make flash the only possible main light source, again I usually like to use as high an ISO as practicable so as to pick up what little I can from ambient in the background. Here it would be good to have the light source off camera, but it isn’t always practical to do so. Probably the easiest method for my sort of work would be a long flash cable enabling me to hold the flash in my left hand, arm outstretched and above head height, but I think a wireless flash trigger would give more control and get in the way rather less, so I’m considering that option.

Even with flash on camera, there are things you can do to make life easier and your pictures better, at least with units like the SB800 I like, where the head will swivel both left and right and up and down. If you are able to have close foreground on only one side of the frame (often the case) you can get some help from the flash fall-off by angling the head away from the closer parts of the subject. Just occasionally I see the chance to bounce the flash from a suitable white wall or even a white coat or other white object rather than use direct flash, almost always an advantage.

And then of course there is post-processing, burning in closer parts of the subject and brightening the more distant. And just occasionally a little burning in parts of the face can help add the volume that the flash wiped out. Getty might not approve, but it is getting back towards how I saw the subject – without the distortions introduced by the flash.

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