How To Improve Your Lighting Skills

I’m giving you an assignment that you can do in your dining room, or a kitchen, and it will improve your technical lighting skills. We’re going to be taking inspiration from modern-day football players, and 17th century Dutch Masters to learn a few things, so don’t go anywhere we’re gonna get started right now. Hi everybody! Welcome to another episode of Exploring Photography right here on AdoramaTV brought to you by Adorama.

It’s the camera store that has everything for photographers like you and me. Well you’ve probably seen football players at some point in your life practicing before the game, and they’re doing crazy things like running down the field, putting their feet in tires really fast, or they’re pushing these big heavy things, sleds down the field, or they’re jumping into mud. I don’t know, they’re doing crazy things, that they would never actually do in an actual football game. So why do they do that, well it’s obvious they’re trying to increase their skills, their agility, their strength, their decision-making, all that kind of stuff that they will be using in the game, and as photographers we need to do the same thing. We need to put ourselves through these agility practices, so that we can understand things, like specular highlights, and shadows and direction of light and color temperature and retouching, and all of that kind of stuff! And so that’s what we’re doing today, I’m giving you an exercise that will help you in your actual photography game, but this might not be something that you actually use to publish, and so this is an exercise to help you improve your skills, and we’re going to do something that was originally invented by painters way back in the 17th century, and even before, but it really became known in the 17th century by the Dutch masters, and what they would do, is they would paint still lifes and they would do that to show their expertise, by showing how they could paint the cloth and the highlights and the shadows on fruit, and they’d also throw in some political statements and things like that along the way.

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We don’t have time to get into that, but we are going to be shooting a still life so that we can understand how to control light, and understand specular highlights, and shadows, and direction of light. All of that kind of stuff, now if you do this at home and try it yourself, it could take you an hour or two, or four, to do everything.To dial it in exactly, but once you’re done with this, you’ll have a much much better understanding of how light works, and how your light modifiers work. So let me show you the setup we have, right back here this is something I’m doing in my apartment living room here. I have my Leica M10, with a 50 mm lens thats set to f/8 for a nice depth of field, and then at the other end of the table, I have some fruits and vegetables, and a glass pitcher full of potpourri.

The reason we’re doing this, is because if you’ll notice, this is really shiny. All these things are really shiny. So we have these things right here, these are called specular highlights. There are the reflections of the light sources and then in this room we also have these four chairs around a glass table, and then the entire thing is being illuminated by this window, to the side, and this other window over here, so we have lots of light streaming in, and then on the ceiling, we also have this normal incandescent light. So those are our light sources, and this is how everything is set up. Well now that we know what this scene really looks like, let me explain to you why I’ve chosen these specific things. The reason for that is they are highly reflective, and that means that they show the reflections of the sources of light, and so they’re going to show the reflection of the light coming from the window.

They’re going to show the reflection of the light bouncing off the table, they’re going to show the reflection of everything that light the reflection of the source of the light is called a specular highlight, and so if you hear somebody say that something is really specular, it means that you can see all of the different things that are illuminating that object. So shiny things are really specular, and so we want to control that specular light in this exercise. So the first thing I want to do is just take a photo using the ambient light, and we’ll see what it looks like, and then we can see all those specular highlights.

So I have my camera already set up. It’s at f/8 it’s at ISO 100 and the shutter speed is going to be determined by the camera. So I’ll just take a quick picture here, and we can look at this, and you can see it’s sort of lifeless and bland, but we can also those specular highlights. Look really close, you can see the reflection of the window lights, you can see the reflection of the table, and the chairs, and all of that stuff on these shiny objects. So we want to start to control that. That’s the exercise, that’s the agility that we’re going to go for. But what we want to do remember, is we want to take inspiration from those 17th Century Dutch Masters, now if we look at these old photo, or old paintings. You’ll see that they are really shadowy. The shadow is toward the front not the back. We have these muted tones, it’s really dark, we have chiaroscuro, which we talked about in previous episodes, and so that’s what we want to do, we want to take this really sort of high key bland light, and we want to fix those things.

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So the first thing we need to do is get rid of all of this ambient light, and so to do that I’m just going to close the windows. So let me do that really fast. Well now that the blinds are closed the only light that’s illuminating our subject, is the light from the apartment, and the video light that’s illuminating me right now. But because we’re going to be shooting with a studio strobe, our shutter speed and our aperture are going to be too fast and too small for these lights to do anything. So the only light that our camera is going to see. Ss the light from our flash. Now when you’re doing this at home, you can use any flash you want. You can use a speed light. You can use a studio strobe. All you need is a flash and some type of softbox. It can be a small, medium, or large softbox. That’s the beauty of this exercise, is that you can see what those do differently, and so try each one of those things.

So what I’m going to be using is my Profoto. This is a B2 with a two-foot octa box. Now normally when we’re shooting portraits or normal subjects, what we would do is we would take our key light. That’s what this is. I’m going to turn on my modeling light here, and we put it in front of our subject, but what we’re trying to do is to really control the specular highlights.

The reflections of the light from our light source on our subject now. Because this is glass. If we put this in front of our subject, what we’re gonna get is we’re gonna get a reflection of this light in the glass, and on the tomatoes, and on the grapes. It’s going to be specular, it’s going to show up. We don’t want to do that, so the way to do this is the exact opposite. This is something I learned from my friend Rick Gale. He calls this the circle of beauty. So what you do is you take your softbox, your large soft light, and you put it behind your subject, and you can put that wherever you want to the right, or to the left, as long as it’s behind the subject.

Now what we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna put it directly behind. The other thing that you want to do to control specular highlights is.. you need your light to be close, and really large, so the larger your softbox the better, and the closer you can get without your softbox showing up in the frame of your camera better, and even if you can put multiple layers of diffusion, that’s even better.

So we’re gonna keep it simple, something that you can do in your kitchen or your living room, or dining room, like I promised so we’re going to use one medium or small softbox. We’re going to place that behind the subject as low as we can possibly get it, and as far forward as we possibly can. So that the front of our softbox is actually even with, or even in front of the subject. So we get light spilling in front of that, and reflecting back, and then a lot of light behind that, and so it’s really important to play with the placement of your light. So when you’re doing this at home bring it closer, bring it farther back, move it around, and see exactly what that does to your photo.

Now you’ll notice that I have an issue. I have a light stand right in the middle of my photo, but we’re gonna get to that solution next. We’re gonna do each one of these things one at a time, and build on all of that. So the next thing we need to do is, we need to meter this light, and so let me get my light meter here. I’ve got my control, I’ve got just my little Sekonic Light Meter, now normally what I would do is, I would point my light meter to my camera, but I can’t do that because if I do, well I’m gonna get an incorrect reading, because well the light has to go through all this stuff.


So that’s not going to work, and so then I would normally point my light to the light and my meter to the light itself, that’s probably a better option. So I’m going to put my meter right here in front of the glass, because I want to see how that glass is affecting the exposure, and I’m going to meter that, and that meters at f/8 which is exactly what my camera is set to. So let me take a picture and we’ll start with this and we’ll see exactly how it looks. So we’re going to make sure this is all framed up, and focused. It is. Let’s take a picture. I’ve got to put my remote control on here, just won’t let me do that.

All right, all right now, we’re set now. Let’s take a picture…. ooh look at that! We’ve improved things dramatically, but we still have some issues. If we look really closely at this image, we can see some specular highlights to the side of our glass here, what the heck is that? Well it’s these chairs, so they’ve got to go. Let me do that, and we’ll do another picture. All right? Well we’ve removed our chairs, so let’s take another picture really fast. Everything is exactly the same, and take a look at that. When we compare these side-by-side, you can see the subtle difference that the reflection of the chairs in our glass vase made. They created some specular highlights, that just by moving those chairs we were able to eliminate. Now in your dining room you might have something on the wall.

Some painting, something if you look really closely to your shiny objects, look for the things that are creating specular highlights, and try to eliminate those. You can do that either by moving them out of the way, or you might be able to cover them with dark cloth something like that, or just put things in the way to block those reflections. The other thing we have to fix is that light pole back there. So we’ve got a light stand that is clearly showing up in our photo. Well we can fix it with something like this. I’ve set my camera to a 12 second delay, so when I push the shutter release on my camera. It’s gonna wait 12 seconds, and then the flash is gonna fire, but because I’ve manually focused, everything is set exactly as it is before. It’s going to work exactly as it did before, except for this time I’m gonna run back there. Grab that blanket and hold it up so it gives us a nice black background, and it obscures that light stand. So let’s do that right now. I’m hitting this, I’ve got 12 seconds, gonna run back here, make sure this is nice and still as far back as I can get it, so don’t get any light on there…

And then and that goes off! Now let’s take a look at this photo, and you’ll see that now we’re dialing it in. We’re there, we have our specular highlights the way that we want them. The background looks pretty darn good, but we still have one more thing that we need to do, and that is to touch this up in post-production. So let’s do that really fast. Well here is the image out of the camera, and you can see that we have some problems with this image, but that’s okay, let’s not forget what we’re doing here. We’re not trying to win the big game, we’re trying to learn the skills it will take to win the big game.

So this image is perfect for us to learn from and to practice some of the new skills or some of the old skills, that we need to sharpen up. So specifically in this image, there are some things that we can learn. We can learn that we needed a little bit more front light, because this is underexposed. We learned that well we needed a flag, it’s a little bit better, that’s not as seamless as I would like.

These table legs are a little bit obnoxious, we’ve got some things that we can do here. Ideally we would have done that on the table using some lights or reflectors, but now is the time to learn how to correct things. In post-production you can do this with Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever image editing software that you want to use. It’s up to you, the key principle here is for you to practice. So let’s learn how to do this really fast. Adjustment brushes are a big deal in Lightroom, and photo because we’re going to practice using thes,e and so we need to increase the exposure here on these tomatoes, and the grapes and the apples. So I’m going to take this up by… I don’t know how much.. but let’s give it a maybe one stop.. around there, boost so now I’ll go down here and I’ll just start painting this in, and it looks, looks okay. So I think we guessed correctly, you can see that’s really fixing it, and so what we’re doing here is, we’re trying to figure out how far we can push our camera.

If we need to, we don’t want to do this, unless we absolutely have to, but it’s good to know if we can do that, if we need to, if we run into that situation, so I’m just going to sort of paint this in here. I think I’m going to change the feather of this brush, so it’s not quite as abrupt on the edges, that looks pretty good. I’m going to go in here, and do these grapes. To me the grapes are a little bit too much. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to erase what I just did there on those grapes, so if you don’t know how to do that, well guess what you can practice..! That’s what this is for. There’s an erase brush, I’m going to get a new brush here. I’m going to take this up by… oh I don’t know, just a little over half a stop, and let’s see what we get with that.

Make sure you have a nice big feather, get this a little bit bigger brush, and make that feather a little bit larger. Okay, yeah, that’s a little bit more pleasing to my eye than what we had before. All right! So we also have some problems up here with this, this, line here, so let’s get a new brush. Let’s take the exposure down by how about 2 stop’s, something like that. It doesn’t have to be really specific at this point, because guess what, we’re learning that’s right, we’re learning so I got a nice soft brush here! So that’s another thing you can learn, is how soft does this need to be, and we can start going in here, and correcting this, and really spend some time now.

Obviously, I’m not spending the time to do this right now, because you don’t want to watch me do this forever, and that’s okay. I’ll get a new brush, we’ll clean up these legs really fast by just taking this exposure down by, I don’t know about 4 stops, something like that. Go in and then you can see that these tomatoes then need to have some correction, we need to erase that. You get the idea, the idea and the key principle here, is to learn how much clarity do you need? Is it 43? Is it 28, I don’t know. You can play with that. Do we need to increase the vibrancy a little bit? No I think that looks pretty good. The other thing that we can do here is.. take this, and maybe we can go over into Adobe Photoshop to play with some of the filters there, or even learn how to use smart objects, and once we have that image in Photoshop, we can fill this we can start practicing our shortcut keys.

We can maybe go in and take this into the Nik collection. In fact that’s really what I want to do, I want to go see what I can do in the Nik analog effects plus analog effects Pro 2 software, and once that’s, and you can make this a large fill. Fill the screen here, and then you can start doing some different adjustments… dirt and scratches or whatever it is you want to do, just play with this. I did a little bit earlier. I created this custom camera here called apples, and it’s pretty good. The one thing that I don’t like about it is the frame. I don’t like that so I’m going to take that frame away, and then the other thing I don’t like about it is. I’ve got these dirt and scratches that I thought would look pretty cool but they make it look pretty nasty. So I’ll take those away, and also this photo plate here, I don’t really like that, but I do like the bokeh, that’s pretty cool.

The point is to get in there and play with things, until you get a result that you like, so you can repeat it when you need to. Use that in a real-life situation. So I’m gonna hit okay here. Bring it in maybe. I’ll let this sit for a week and come back, and try it again, but it’s an image that I have that I can play with, and when all is said and done here is the final image from my practice session today. Okay. So let’s review, what did we learn? Well we learned that if we put our illumination behind our subject, sometimes we have a more pleasing light. We know that we can control the shadows, we know that we need to change things to remove specular highlights from our subject, and we know that we can do some burning and dodging and changing of things in post-production to make it absolutely perfect, but the most important thing I hope that you learned from this video, is that you need to do this yourself in your own studio or your own dining room or kitchen or whatever space that you have, and then you need to make small adjustments.

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Move that light around, use different light modifiers, use a small softbox, a large softbox. Try that from the side, use different types of reflective objects, use silverware, use some nice fine china, maybe use some crystal. Whatever you have, and then work at this over and over and over again. Learn the post-production techniques, and it’s going to be like you being a football player right before the Super Bowl. You’re going to learn all of those different things that you need to use in the big game, when you get to that big photo shoot, and you have a small problem you’ll know how to adjust, and fix that, because you’ve practiced before you got there, and that is what this video is all about.

Thank you so much for joining me. Don’t forget to subscribe and turn on the bell, so you get notifications. Also check me out on Instagram so you can see sort of the behind the scenes stuff that I do, and all my travels around the world! Thanks so much for joining us. I’ll see you again next time.