6 Common Lighting Mistakes

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff HarmonLeave a Comment

Jeff and Brent talk about 6 common mistakes photographers make with artificial lighting


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What’s New With Latitude Photography Podcast?

In this episode we are going to open up a little and talk about the mistakes we have made with lighting.  Before we get started, Brent, take a moment and tell the listeners what you have coming up on the Latitude Podcast you host.

Brent: I just released some great episodes with The PhotogAdventure guys and David Long. With David we talked about fall and winter shooting in New England. Coming up I have a great conversation with Alyce Bender and some of the recent adventures she’s been on, as well as those coming up.

Then Richard Bernabe, one of the Create Photography Retreat presenters (actually, all these recent guests except for David will be there in Las Vegas and giving some type of presentation) and we talked about the Creative Principle. It was a deep dive in to what motivates us as landscape photographers and how to deal with a multitude of challenges that we face when we’re out there shooting and sometimes things just don’t work out the way we planned. But also, how to achieve more and do something new and useful in our work.

Finally, I have an interview with photographer Timothy Allen scheduled for December. He operates the website humanplanet.com and he’s a travel/adventure/culture photographer who essentially specializes in the far reaches of the planet. If you can get to a destination in two or three airport connections it’s not far enough out for Timothy, it seems. I’m very much looking forward to that conversation.

Photo Taco – What is Luminosity Masking

Jeff: As you get this episode my latest Photo Taco episode will have just been released a few days earlier.  It is an episode I did with Greg Benz where we tried to answer the question “What is Luminosity Masking?” It was a lot of fun to talk to Greg, a real master who knows more about exposure blending and luminosity masking than I think I ever will.  If you have had that question then make sure you go over to https://phototacopodcast.com and check that one out.  

6 Common Lighting Mistakes

Brent, there was a recent blog post from our friends over at Petapixel.com that illustrated a very common mistake made with lighting.  The holiday season is approaching really quickly, poor Thanksgiving is being ignored almost entirely, but a photographer was walking through their local mall and saw a very common lighting mistake in the beginnings of a setup for taking photos with Santa.

Now it may just be that it was setup very quickly and wasn’t done, but it made us think we should talk about lighting mistakes we have made or have seen made frequently.  Brent, why don’t you describe the mistake made in the mall studio for Santa photos first and then let’s walk through others that we have made or seen made.

1. Light Not Using Modifier

Brent: I did share this on Facebook, but not because I was trying to poke fun at newer photographers or anyone who might have made a mistake like this.  I am really glad we get to talk about it here to clear that up.  We are talking about these mistakes because they are common and we all make them.

The photo in the article was taken from above, probably someone standing on the second floor of the mall looking downward into this area where Santa is going to be taking pictures over the coming weeks.  There was a really nice Alien Bees studio light on a good light stand.  It is setup however high you need it there on the stand, looks like about 8 feet in the air here.

Usually you have two modifiers on the flash.  The first is called a cone.  It is attached directly on the flash, helping to direct all of the light in a forward direction.  If it isn’t on there then the light scatters everywhere and doesn’t give you what you want in this kind of setup.  That was on there properly.  What they didn’t have right had to do with the reflective umbrella.  In this case the light with the cone modifier on front of it is pointed directly at the model or where Santa is going to be sitting instead of pointing into the reflective umbrella.

The purpose of using that cone is to focus the light up into the umbrella so that it can enlarge it and reflect it down onto the models.  Produces a nice soft light that would be great for the scene that was being setup.  In this case the reflective umbrella is there on the light stand too, but doing no good at all with the flash pointed directly down to the model.

It is kind of funny to see it setup like this.  It is not a rain umbrella, but setup like this it will do no good at all.  You hope that someone will figure it out before you start shooting.  Going to be really harsh lighting if they don’t.

Jeff: This is a reflective umbrella.  The kind where it is black on the outside and then silver on the inside.  Purpose is to take a very small, tight, powerful light source and spread it out, making it softer.  I didn’t think about it until you brought it up, but having that cone on the end of the flash would actually make the light even more harsh.  You don’t want to use that cone if you aren’t going to be putting another modifier in the path of the light here.

I am sure someone will figure it out before they shoot.  It is pretty obvious to pretty much everyone.  It brought back memories for me.  I remember setting up a light stand and getting to the top of it with the flash and the umbrella and then looking at things and thinking that it wasn’t right.  I set it up this same way, for only a few seconds, but it totally made sense when I thought about it.

So I chuckled when I saw this because I knew I had made this same mistake.  It made me want to go through other common lighting mistakes photographers make as they first get into lighting.  This is the first one where the umbrella in this case became a decoration instead of being a modifier.  We have five other common mistakes we are going to talk through.

2. Light Not Filling the Modifier

Here is one I did for a long time, not knowing any better.  I mean I have probably done all of the mistakes we have listed in this episode at some time or another.  Part of learning and growing. Nobody should be offended or feel bad for making these mistakes because everyone does them.

Not filling up the modifier is the mistake I was making.  I pointed the flash into a shoot through umbrella, but I was putting it as close to the umbrella as I could get it.  It is such an easy thing to do because you are putting the umbrella into the light stand, so you get to pick how close or far away from the flash it is going to be.

I was pushing that umbrella into the light stand as tight as I could get it into the stand because I wanted it to be as secure as I could make it.  Didn’t want the stand falling over or for the umbrella stem to bend. This was inexpensive equipment. The light stand wasn’t a big one, the umbrella the least expensive I could find.  They weren’t made super solid and it just felt to me like I needed to push that umbrella stem into the light stand as far as I could to make it all secure.

Doing this made the stand and umbrella stay upright more solidly, but what it did was turn my big 6 foot umbrella into a tiny little 2 or 3 foot shoot through umbrella because the flash was too close.  It made the light much harsher and the modifier less effective.

The modifier works best when the flash can fill it.  In the case of a 6 foot wide shoot through umbrella you want to get the flash and umbrella as far apart as possible on that light stand so that the light can spread out to the full width of the umbrella.  Unless you want the light to be more concentrated, then you have the option to move the umbrella closer to get what you want out of the setup.

Same would go for a softbox, though it is generally harder to make the mistake with a softbox because you don’t generally choose how far away they are from the flash.  

Putting the Flash and Modifier Too Far Away

My next common mistake is one I continue to make regularly.  It just doesn’t make sense in my head even though I have proven it to myself many times.  I have to really think about it still as I do work with flashes. The mistake is putting the flash and modifier too far away from the model.

Again, just seems completely counter intuitive for me.  Maybe a little like aperture where the smaller the number the more light is let in.  Anyway, as I setup the lighting and would take a test shot, if the light on the person was too bright or harsh, my first impulse was to move the light further away from them.  Not even turning the power down, just moving it.

Doing that does change the lighting to be less bright on the model, but it also makes the light more harsh on them.  One of the things you are usually after is making the transition from light to shadow on their face in particular to be one that is very gradual.  Connor and Erica have talked about this a lot on this podcast as well as on their seriously good Portrait Session podcast that is part of the Master Photography network.

The objective isn’t to eliminate the shadows entirely, that helps to show the details of the person’s face and is something we are all used to seeing.  Looks a little too commercial or fake to have a shot with no shadows in many cases.

Anyway, the way to make that transition from light to shadow as gradual as possible you need to have that light modifier as big as possible and you do that by bringing it closer to the model.  As close as you can get it without it being in the shot or even if you can get it in the shot and have a good way to take it out in post.

Turning the Flash Sound Off

This one is going to sound a little silly, and some may disagree with it being a mistake, but in my shooting today it is essential.  I like to turn off as many notification sounds as I can. My phone is ALWAYS on silent for example. The vibration and my watch let me know that the phone is ringing if someone is calling and I don’t need a big dinging sound to go off every time I get a text message.

I thought I would want the flashes to be the same way.  I thought I would save my clients from having to hear a whine after every shot I take.  It isn’t a very pleasant sound. Sounds great, right?

The problem is that the noise is super helpful to know when the flash is actually ready to pop again.  This is more of a thing that matters on the less expensive flashes like the Yongnuo we have talked so much about on the podcast.  

It takes some time for the flash to be ready to pop at the power it is set to and if you push the shutter before it has completed that recycle time then you are going to get whatever charge it had at the time.  So important to me to have that whine let me know when the flash is actually ready to pop at the power level you have chosen.

Turning the Flash Power Too High

Kind of goes along with the last mistake.  When I moved that flash away from the person, i would move it way too far and then when I took the next shot I couldn’t really see the flash affecting the shot anymore.  I would increase the flash power and take test shots until I could see the effect of the flash on the model again.

Increasing the power isn’t a mistake in general, really it was because I moved it away from the model that required me to do that.  To overpower ambient light and actually do something in the photo you may have to increase the power of the flash. I say it was a mistake because I would often end up in a spot where I had the flash at full power and it wasn’t doing what I wanted.

That is what made it a mistake.  I had nowhere to go with it. That would lead me to move it closer to the model again.  All of this was costing me time on shoots and making my clients uneasy like I didn’t know what I was doing – and I really didn’t.  Wasn’t too big a deal as I was going through that because they knew I was not a professional with it.

The other problem with having the flash power too high is the impact on recycle times and how fast the batteries are going to die.  If the flashes are up at full power they are going to drain the batteries very quickly and it is going to start to take many seconds before that flash is ready to pop again.  Time you will have to make the clients wait and you won’t even know when they are ready if you turned the sound off.

Using the Little Diffuser on the Flash.

Brent: When I first started out I was just learning to use the hot-shoe flash and the flash had this little fresnel lens that you can pop out and put in front of the main flash area. Its job is to spread the flash out a little bit. But when you’re bouncing off a wall or ceiling you don’t need that!

Those items are called a “wide angle” diffuser and it’s to be used if you’re shooting with a bare flash head pointing right at the subject. It softens the edges of the flash so you don’t have a hard edge where the flash cuts off in the frame. Well, it defeats the purpose if you use that either zoomed in (with the flash head zooming too) or if you’re bouncing it off a wall. Very simple mistake, but hey, I didn’t know ;0


Jeff: Godox Xpro flash controller ($70).  I just got the Godox AD200 flashes and I am really excited to use them.  I will be sure to report back on the podcast how that turns out for me, but you also need to get the flash controller for the system.  Things don’t work well trying to mix brands for the controller and the flashes, so I had to get a Godox controller here even though I have one for my Yongnuo equipment.

Brent:  SKB Hard cases designed by ThinkTank Photo.


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