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The Magic of External Lights

Earlier we learnt about the nature of light and how different types of light sources can have an impact on our photography. We also learnt how the quality and color tone of the light is impacted by the time of the day, which also has a bearing on our photography. Additionally, we have learnt how to use a flash or any other external (artificial) light source to add a new dimension to our photography. In this three parts series on external lighting we shall learn in detail how to use external lights in different situations to add an element of interest as well as to refine the results.

The Importance of Lighting in Photography

Street Portrait
Canon EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM, ƒ/4.0, 105.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/125, ISO 125, photo by Ramesh SA

Photography is essentially about carving something out of a sheer dark environment with the help of light, natural or otherwise. It is an allegorical statement that takes an example out of sculpting. But isn’t that true? Photography is sculpting. Just that instead of a hammer and a chisel to carve out a shape from a rock your tools are light and a camera. Your efforts result in photographs.

Light, both the abundance and lack of it, has its own interesting properties. It can be magical at times and extremely contrasting at another.

Can you imagine any photography without light? Even in a seemingly difficult low light situation where your camera is struggling to auto-focus because of the lack of light, there is still some and that is evidently what produces a breathtaking photograph e.g., that of the Milky Way. Even when you are photographing a cityscape at the dead of night, a long shutter speed magically renders the water to blur, the reflection of the city lights together with that of the lights from passing vehicles add-up and creates a breathtaking composition. So, regardless of the genre of photography that you do, lighting is key.

Dublin at Night (Ha'penny Bridge)
Sony DSLR-A700, ƒ/4.0, 28.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/8, ISO 1600, photo by LenDog64

Even when you say there is no light at all there is some. You are just not seeing it and in doing so is missing an incredible opportunity to produce an image that is impossible to achieve in abundant light.

Use of external light in a situation with abundant natural light

This is a situation where you have a lot of natural light going around. Most amateur photographers would be happy to shoot right at the stroke of noon when the sun is bearing down and everything is well-lit. It is possibly an easier time to shoot than when you don’t have any light at all, right? Wrong! This time of the day isn’t particularly great for shooting photos, that is, without using any additional accessories. Unless of

Wrong! This time of the day isn’t particularly great for shooting photos, that is, without using any additional accessories. Unless of course, you are shooting black & white contrast images in which case this is a particularly good time. Do you see how different types of light has its own application in photography?

Golden oldie
Sony SLT-A55V, DT 18-55mm, F3.5-5.6 SAM, ƒ/6.3, 50.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/160, ISO 100, photo by Matthew Powell

Among the accessories that you do need is a screen. Cinematographers routinely use a thing called diffuser for reducing the intensity of natural light. You can make one from scratch. All you need is a thin white sheet.

Raise the sheet over the subject’s head or at the side depending on the direction of the light and voila! You have a beautiful soft light that wraps around the subject’s face.

Ok, that’s the diffuser part, where’s the external light in all these? Well, a soft light is essentially flattering which is good for portraits and other types of photography but at times you need something punchy to create a bit of contrast going. This is where you can bring in an external light. The external light you need in this situation could be a flash held off-camera.

It would create that slightly hard light that will give the image a bit more edge. Else, you can shoot at the golden hour.

late summer cutness
Nikon D610, 50.0 mm f/1.4, ƒ/2.0 50.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/4000, ISO 100, photo by David D

Another example of the use of external lights in an outdoor bright-lit situation is when you use it for removing shadows. In the above example of shooting at Mid-Day sun if no diffuser is used you’ll have a lot of shadows under the eyes and the chin. This can be ‘filled’ with an external flash/strobe fired at the same intensity as the ambient light.

Read on about high key vs. low key photography.

Learn Contrast & Background Lighting

In the concluding part of this three-part series on Playing around with external lights, we delve into creating contrasting lighting using grids. We also learn how to illuminate your background and create clamshell lighting and lighting triangles.

Contrasty (Edgy lighting)

Contrasty lighting is definitely a type of lighting where there is a lot of shadows. Contrasts signifies a wide tonal range and not merely contrasts between white and black. An image with contrasts will have all of these – shadows, midtones and highlights. High-noon is one time of the day when you can expect a lot of shadows in your images naturally.

Kiss of Light

In a home studio environment you can use a single light to produce the same thing. If the light is large, place it away from the model and you will produce a hard light that will produce contrasty images. If the light is small, place it at an angle to the subject’s face and you will have a lot of contrast going.

Photographers routinely use a number of ancillary tools in order to produce a focused beam of light. Grids are one tool that I shall be detailing below and is one such popular tool.

Lighting your Background

No matter what type of photography that you do, lighting the background of your photos is a key aspect of your photography and therein lies the challenge at times. Rather, challenges. I am referring to studio photography because in a natural light situation the background isn’t in your control.

All you can do is control the shutter speed to capture more or less light as the case may be. But you can’t turn the background light off or use an external light source to illuminate your background.

Portrait of a Man

So, why is it a challenge?

The challenge comes from estimating the right amount of light to ensure that the background is just the shade you want. Let’s say you want a perfectly white background.

You will need to:

The key light will control the exposure of the face. But by the time the light reaches the background there will be a lot of light fall off (courtesy: inverse square law).  So, to make the background appear perfectly white you will need to fire the studio strobe / flash at the same intensity as the key light or at least a stop higher.

The Use of Grids

Grids are one of the more popular light shaping tools around.

They are predominantly used on:

Small grids (stacked grids such as the 3-in-1 from Rogue) are available which you can attach to the front of a flash. They are perfect for creating an on the go hard lighting setup for contrasty portraits.

The Light Triangle

The light triangle is a favorite with studio as well as outdoor portrait photographers. You might have noticed that I have referred to portrait lighting quite frequently in this tutorial. It’s not that I love portrait photography more than other genres.

As a matter of fact, I love landscapes more. But the reason I keep referring to portrait lighting is because this tutorial is all about artificial lighting and portrait and studio photography are the principle areas where artificial lights are used.

Ok, the light triangle is actually a lighting setup. You can use this in a studio environment as well as in the outdoor environment. This is a typical front lighting arrangement but with a twist. The light sources are arranged in a way so that a triangle is formed. The photographer shoots through that triangle.

As you can imagine this arrangement can only be created if you shoot using softboxes and that to rectangular or square ones. This is because these softboxes with their clearly defined edges are most suitable for setting up to form a triangle.

One thing that you will have to keep in mind is that this is a predominantly front-lighting situation and that means the background is going to be dark. If you want a high-key arrangement or want a slightly brighter background you will need to use a background light. This arrangement is sometimes used in outdoor portraiture session. The ambient light fills up the background in such situations.

Clamshell Lighting

As the name suggests clamshell lighting uses two lights – one setup up high over the subject’s head and the other lower down, sandwiching the subject between. This is a high-key lighting setup and one that is used mainly for portraits, fashion shoots, and glamor shots.


There are a million different lighting arrangements that you can try out once you have the concept of using external lights figured out for yourself. This tutorial was designed to excite you to the prospects of what you can achieve with external lights and to inspire you so that you can try it out for yourself.

Feel free to use the lights you have and don’t be afraid to experiment.


  • Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. He loves to test and review new photography gear. He has been writing about cameras and lenses for over 10 years now. You can consider him as your "master guide" here at PhotoWorkout.

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