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7 Tips for Improving Your Photography With External Lighting

Do you want to know how to use external lighting to take your photos to the next level?

Are you looking for some external lighting tips?

Then you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, I’m going to give you 7 tips for immediately improving your images—using external lighting.

And you’ll come away as an external lighting expert…

…able to take amazing photos with external lights, consistently.

Let’s get started.

1. Always Take the Flash Away From Your Camera

First things first:

Whenever you’re using an external light of any kind, even if it’s a flash

…get it away from your camera.

Don’t put it on top of your camera via the hot shoe.

Don’t put it just behind your camera, or just above your camera, or just below your camera via a lighting stand.

Keep it off to the right or the left, significantly above or below.

You see, if your camera and flash are perfectly (or closely) aligned with one another, you’ll create extremely flat photos.

Photos that generally look terrible.

So instead of putting the external light near your camera, mount it on a light stand. And move it away.

Now, there are plenty of places you can put a light that will work.

And I discuss many of those in the tips that follow.

But the first step is to get that light disconnected from your camera.

Make sense?

2. Modify Your External Lights for a Softer Effect

Step one is to get the external lights away from your camera.

But step two?

That’s about making your external lighting much softer.

You see, external lights—and flashes in particular—are designed to be very harsh.

They give you a burst of directional, bright light.

And sure, it’ll do a lot to illuminate your subject.

But what it won’t do is make your subject look good.

In fact, the harsh light of a flash will make your subject look pretty bad, unless you do something about it.

What am I talking about?

External lighting modifiers.

Modifiers go between the light and your subject (they usually attach directly to the flash) and soften the light. The particular degree of softness depends on the modifier, but good modifiers will make your photos seem like they’ve been lit by diffused window light.

And this looks amazing.

What type of modifiers should you consider for your external lighting?

A great way for beginners to get started is with translucent white umbrellas. These attach to your setup via a flash mount, and they do a lot to soften the light.

The main drawback when using umbrellas is that the light spills everywhere. So if you’re aiming for a dramatic, spotlit photo, you’ll struggle to get it done with an umbrella.

You’ll also need to keep the subject pretty far from the background if you want to capture a low-key shot.

Other than that, an umbrella is a great way to go.

It’s super useful, it’s easy to work with, and it’s cheap.

If you want a lighting modifier that’s a bit more directional (in that it allows you to guide the light more carefully), then a softbox is a great second option.

(That’s what used for lighting in the studio below.)

Now, the larger the softbox, the softer the light.

(And there are some huge softboxes out there!)

But generally speaking, softboxes produce light that’s slightly harsher than umbrella light, but not significantly so.

I often alternate between umbrellas and softboxes in my own work; umbrellas for the softest light and softboxes when I need something more directional.

Finally, if you don’t want to shell out the money for an umbrella or a softbox, I recommend grabbing a 5-in-1 reflector.

This should include a large diffuser, which you can place over your flash to get similar light to a softbox.

Bottom line:

No matter which modifier you choose, you should use at least one—because modifiers are amazingly useful, and they’re a huge step in the right direction!

3. Use 45-Degree Angles as a Go-To Lighting Option

You know how to get your flash away from your camera.

And you know how to modify its light for beautiful images.

But what about angles? Where should you position your flash now that it’s on an external lighting stand?

While there are plenty of lighting setups to try (especially if you have two flashes, or even three)…

…a nice basic setup is the 45-45.

How does this work?

You take your (modified!) flash, and you walk it 45 degrees to the side of your subject.

And then you mount it about 45 degrees above your subject, pointed downwards.

This is a classic portrait setup, and it’s where portrait photographers often start out their photoshoots—because the 45-45 produces some nice shadows on one side of your subject, while illuminating the other side beautifully.

Like this:

At the same time, it’s not too dramatic, because it doesn’t produce complete sidelighting (for more on dramatic lighting, see the next two sections).

The 45-45 setup is also a good way to work with products (though you may eventually want to increase the sidelighting angle), as well as still lifes.

In other words:

It’s a good starting point for pretty much any type of external light-based photography.

However, if you’re looking for a more dramatic style of image, or you have a second flash to add a bit of depth, you might want to try backlighting:

4. Use Backlighting to Create a Beautiful Rim Light Effect

I love backlighting.

This is because it adds so much drama and depth to photos.

Take a look at the image below:

Do you see how the backlighting adds a highlight toward the back of the subject? That’s known as a rim light, and it’s the most common reason to include a backlight in your images.

A bit of backlight will take a mediocre photo and really make it pop.

It’ll take it from something boring to something special, pretty much instantly.

It’s also really easy to use.

Here’s how you can create a brilliant rim-lit photo of your own:

Put a flash behind your subject.

It’s okay if the flash isn’t positioned directly in the background—it can be off to the side.

Modify the flash however you like, but note that rim lights can look cool with hard light, soft light, even with light modified by a flash gel for interesting colors. So don’t be afraid to experiment.

Then point the flash at your subject.

If the flash is directly behind your subject and has a wide enough beam of light, you’ll get a full rim light effect.

Whereas a flash off to the right will light the right side of your subject, and a flash off to the left will light the left side of your subject.

(So if you’re struggling to get the full rim light effect with one flash, or you want a more pronounced rim light effect, you can always add a second flash on the other side of your subject.)

If you’re going for an ultra-dramatic look, a rim light may be all you need.

But if you want to just use the rim light as an added touch, then I’d recommend putting a light in front of your subject (perhaps in a 45-45 position).

This will keep the front of your subject well lit, but won’t overpower the effects of the rim light.

If you don’t have a second light, by the way, you can always use a reflector in front of your subject. This will bounce some of the light from your rim-lighting gear back into the shot.

And you’ll get a very cool image.

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5. Use Sidelight to Add Depth to Your Photos

Sidelighting is another of my favorite lighting types.

Why?

Because sidelight is dramatic.

Like this:

You see, sidelight illuminates one side of your subject, but shrouds the other side in shadow.

And while the illuminated side of your subject looks nice and bright, the shadowy side will appear dark, moody, and (potentially) intimidating.

To create sidelight, all you have to do is place an external light off to the side of your subject. If you like, you can raise it up high (to 45 degrees), but you don’t have to, and it’s a good idea to experiment with different looks and see what you prefer.

Note that if you find that the opposite side of your subject is too shadowy, you can always add a reflector for some fill light.

Now, side lighting isn’t just reserved for moody portraits.

Product photographers use it all the time to create darker-style shots. And if you add a second weak light or reflector opposite the first (on the other side of your subject), instead of a moody image, you’ll end up with a sculpted product photo, like this:

Cool, right?

So make sure you keep sidelighting in your photography arsenal, because it’s can give your photos a very professional feel.

6. Fill in the Shadows for a More Subtle Image

I’ve talked briefly about using a reflector to punch up shadows in the tips on rim light and sidelight.

But reflectors really deserve a section of their own, because they’re just that useful.

You see, when you use a single light, you’ll often create heavy shadows somewhere on your subject.

And (especially if your light is fairly directional) this translates to a loss of detail in certain areas.

Sure, it looks dramatic.

And if that’s the look you’re going for, then great. You can keep creating dramatic shadows like a pro.

But sometimes you won’t want to do this. Sometimes, you’ll want to retain some detail in those shadows–for a less dramatic photo.

That’s when a reflector comes in handy.

All you have to do is put a reflector on the side of your subject that’s in shadow.

And the light from your flash will bounce right back, illuminating the dark side of your subject.

You might be wondering:

Why use a reflector? Why not another flash?

First of all, flashes can be expensive. And it’s more cumbersome to carry around multiple flashes than it is to work with a flash and a reflector.

But reflectors are also more subtle than flashes. A reflector will never bounce quite as much light as the flash originally produced, so it’s guaranteed to maintain some level of shadow in your image. And this is often what looks good, because you want depth, just not drama.

Fortunately, reflectors are very cheap. You can buy 5-in-1 reflectors for very little on Amazon.

Alternatively, you can use a neutral white board as a reflector—even a piece of posterboard will work just fine, as long as it’s true white.

7. Slowly Build Up Your Lighting Setup for the Best Look

Here’s your final external lighting tip:

Build your lighting setup.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that you should start with a single light, and position it for a certain effect. For instance, if you want a somewhat deep, cinematic look, you might position your light at the 45-45 angle.

And if you want a dramatic, shadowy look, you might position your light directly to the side of your subject, or even slightly behind.

Then, once you’ve achieved this effect—take a few test shots to figure out if you’ve been successful—you can bring in your next light, or even your reflector.

Position this light/reflector wherever you’d like it to go, based on how you’d like to modify your lighting setup. For instance, if you want to fill in the shadows, put it opposite your original light source. If you want to add a rim lighting effect, put it behind your subject.

Then take a few more test shots, carefully noting the ways in which the light falls on your subject.

Then, if you’re still not happy, go ahead and add a third light or reflector, and then a fourth, and so on…

…building the light as you go.

7 Tips for Improving Your Photography With External Lighting: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you can produce some amazing photos using external lights—guaranteed.

For instance, you can use 45-45 lighting to give your photos depth.

Or you can use sidelighting to add drama and mood to your shots.

Or you can put your light behind your subject for a cool rim light effect.

Really, the possibilities are endless.

So grab your camera and start practicing with your external lights!

Do I need a dedicated off-camera flash?

If you want to capture beautiful shots indoors, I highly recommend you grab a dedicated off-camera flash. While camera pop-up flashes will sometimes offer enough light for photos in darker scenarios, they don’t allow you to manipulate their angle or direction, which is crucial. In fact, if you don’t have an off-camera flash, I’d highly recommend you get one right now!

What are lighting modifiers?

Lighting modifiers go over your external light and change the hardness or the direction (or both). For instance, a softbox will soften a harder flash, and an umbrella will soften it even further. A snoot, on the other hand, will create a hard beam of light. And barn doors allow you to direct the light away from certain parts of your subject.

Is hard light or soft light better for portrait photography?

Generally, soft light is much more flattering, and therefore much better for portrait photography. Soft light will give your subjects well-defined, smooth features. However, certain portraits do benefit from hard light – when you’re aiming to capture a shot of an intense athlete, for example, you might prefer to give your subject a hard-edged look. So don’t think that hard light can never work, though it is far less common and less useful than soft light (on average).

What are the best external lighting angles?

There are many great external lighting angles, but a few popular ones include the 45-45 angle (where the light is positioned 45 degrees up and 45 degrees over from the nose of your subject), as well as the butterfly angle (the light is positioned out in front and above, pointed downward), and the split lighting angle (the light is positioned off to the side for a dramatic, half-lit effect).

How many lights do you need for good photos?

It’s entirely possible to capture stunning images with just a single artificial light source – especially if you have a reflector on hand. You can create plenty of stunning effects with one light, such as basic loop lighting, butterfly lighting, split lighting, and more. That said, more lights do give you more flexibility. With two lights, you can illuminate the subject from the front and from behind, and with three lights, you can illuminate the background plus the subject. Some photographers go even further, shooting with four, five, or more lights! Personally, I’d recommend starting with one or two, then purchasing more as required.

Author

  • Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.


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