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An Introduction to Using Strobes in Your Photography

This post is part of a series called Studio Portrait Lighting.
Recreating a Professional Studio Lighting Effect
The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Low Key

Do you ever see a picture and wonder how the photographer obtained perfect lighting on a subject? You might be asking "What kind of flash does he use?" or "What are the settings on his camera to get such lighting?" In this tutorial, I will be explaining the secrets to turning your pictures into perfection. 

1. How do they do it?

Essentially, the secret to having perfect lighting, in a location where it seems as though the natural light cannot possibly give such a perfect composition on someone's face, is strobes. Strobes are lights - lights that act as a flash on your DSLR camera - that are specifically placed and angled toward a subject. The difference between a strobe and a "built-In" flash (or even an attachment flash) is that a flash module is directly connected to your camera - meaning that however you adjust you camera, the flash will always go off from the same direction as the lens is pointed, leaving shadows on whatever is behind the subject, and nearly destroying your image, putting unrealistic light on the subject.

A strobe, in contrast, can be placed wherever you desire, making it able to add light from under/over/left/right of the subject, with a much more real, soft light on the subject, making the image much more tolerable.

To illustrate the difference, I have composed a picture with strobes, and then recreated the image, without strobes, but with a speed-light (direct camera light attachment).

using strobes in photography

As you can see, the image that included strobes is well worth the work, as it displays details better, has a softer effect on the skin, and doesn't leave a shadow behind the subject. This process makes any image much more appealing.

2. Acquiring Your Equipment

Now that you understand the importance of using these lighting-life-savers, here is a list of equipment you will need to obtain this technique.

  • A Strobe/Light Head. This is what will be initially giving you your light. There are many companies who make these light systems, including White Lightning, Alienbees, and ProFoto.
  • A Diffuser. This is usually white, and will diffuse the harsh bolt of light coming from the strobe. There are many different kinds of diffusers, Octoboxes and Softboxes, being the most popular.
  • Sync Cord. This is a cord used to connect from the camera to the strobe, so that the strobe may act as a flash. A Sync Cord will almost always come with your strobe light head. (It is also possible to connect the camera and light wirelessly through a Transmitter and a Receiver, available through Alienbees.)
  • Hot Shoe Adapter. This is only needed if you are using the system with a wire. If you are using transmitters/receivers, you do not need this product.
  • Portable Battery Pack. This is only needed if you should decide to shoot on-location, at a place where you know there will not be any electrical outlets nearby. A recommended system in this field is the Vagabond II from Alienbees.

Once all of these objects are acquired, you are now ready to start having a "Hands-on" learning experience.

using strobes in photography

3. Adjusting the Camera to Work with the Gear

Once we have set up our lighting system, we are ready to adjust our camera's settings so that it will cooperate with our additional lighting. The three most important elements you will want to adjust are your Aperture (F-Stop), Shutter-Speed, and ISO settings.

Your aperture is shown on your DSLR's screen as something similar to "f 1.4." Your aperture is what regulates how much light passes through the lens as the shutter is released.  Translating this knowledge to a situation with a strobe, we know that because we will have an exponential amount of light, we will want to counteract the aperture so that the amount of extra light will not make the image over-exposed. In most situations, one should set their camera's aperture to a setting like f 8 - f 12. To learn more about aperture settings, visit Jeffery Kontur's Kick-Start Guide Tutorial.

The Shutter Speed is very simple to understand. In most cases, you will want a shutter speed of about 1/200 second. This will allow the strobe enough time to cover the image, while the shutter speed is fast enough to make the image sharp, preventing motion blur.

The ISO is quite possibly the most important element in the image, as it can "make or break" the photograph. The ISO refers to the sensitivity of the light in the image. In other words, the higher the number of the ISO, the higher the sensitivity of the light. In a situation with a Strobe, we will want the ISO set to around 100 – 400. To learn more about ISO settings, I would once again recommend reading Jeffery Kontur's Kick-Start Guide Tutorial.

using strobes in photography

4. Placing & Angling Your Lights

Your lights are extremely vital to the success of your photo. You must also understand that simply pointing the light toward the subject will not guarantee you a perfect shot. The lights can be placed in almost any desired position to add the perfect amount of light to your subject. You will need to think about where to position your lights to give your subject the most attractive look. Sometimes you can even use natural light to compliment the strobe lighting.

Typically, you will want to start out by setting your lights about 5 or 6 feet away from the camera, which may be anywhere between 3 and 20 feet away from the subject. You will want to set the lights either camera left, or camera right; anywhere where the shadow from the lights will not be visible in the camera shot. In most cases, it would work to put a strobe about 5 feet to the right of the camera and angle it toward the subject. This will add light to the side of a subject, rather than the front, giving the subject a nice, realistic, clear feeling in the image.

using strobes in photography

5. Conclusion: Be Creative

If you want to add a particular effect to the scene, you will want to light up the area as well. For example, in the image below, I had the subject hold grinded up chalk in his hand. I then had him blow the chalk in the air as I took the picture. Should you decide to create this style of photo, you will want to have a light pointed in the air where the chalk will be included, so that the light will luminate the chalk and your photo will be complete after a little bit of editing in your favorite photo-editing program.

Now that you have all of the technical difficulties taken care of, it is now your time to have fun and be creative. What direction do you want the light to come from? Do you want a dramatic shadow on one side of the subject? Do you want to add an extra light or two to the photo to light up another subject? Should you consider lighting up the surroundings, or even add an element to the photo to light up? These are the kind of questions you should ask yourself when shooting. While shooting, you should be thinking about creativity, the final image, and making sure the shot will be easy to edit when you put it in Photoshop, Lightroom, or even iPhoto.

using strobes in photography

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