How To Do Your First Lighting Setup

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon11 Comments

Really quick reminder here that we have a listener survey we would love everyone to help us with.  It is a single question survey about what post-processing software you primarily use to edit your photos. Several hundred of you have already answered the survey, so thank you, but I would love to get a few thousand responses if you would take less than 5 minutes to go to the show notes and click on the link.

Post-Processing Listener Survey 

I have had quite a lot of questions ever since the Getting Started Lighting Gear 2019 episode from September 2019 on how to get going with the gear we mentioned.  I am glad that there seemed to be a lot of listeners who took a little courage from that episode and decided to jump into adding flash to their photography.  I heard from a number of photographers who pulled the trigger and bought some of the equipment mentioned in that episode and then they asked a question similar to this one from Tanja Hansen:

“Just received three Godox TT600 speedlights and the Godox Xpro Trigger. I would love to just view a how-to video but can’t seem to find one. Anyone have any resources they would be willing to share?” 

I am going to answer this question sharing a lot of advice I would give photographers just starting out with lighting equipment and in particular there are two pearls of wisdom that every photographer should make sure they understand that I will make sure are clearly stated.

Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment!

The first bit of advice I want to give photographers who are new to adding flash to their photography is to not be afraid to experiment.  Don’t be worried about if what you are doing is “right” or “wrong”. Sure, you could learn the technique that others have developed and create images similar to what they are producing, but just because another photographer shoots flash a certain way doesn’t make that way “right”.

Flash power settings are not the same from brand to brand or even model to model for a flash.  So following the exact settings another photographer used to create an image you really like doesn’t mean you will get the same results with your equipment.  It’s not totally useless to find out what settings were used and how the flashes were positioned as another photographer created their image, but don’t assume you will automatically get exactly the same results by trying to do exactly what that photographer did.

If you are out shooting with other photographers who are more experienced than you are and you ask what settings they are using, you could mimic them and dial in the same settings and probably come away with shots that were better than you might have otherwise.  Without understanding why they set the camera up the way they did in response to the shooting environment you don’t learn as much.  

It is the same with flash.  Why are they increasing or decreasing the power?  Why are they moving the light? Why are they putting a modifier on the light?  Why are they changing the modifier that is on the light? Understanding that mindset as an instructor is teaching those things is what I find helps me to learn the most.  If I can remember what they said then I can go through the same thought process when I am trying to get a certain look using flash in my photos and I have a much better chance of having that work understanding the why.

Patience, Not Pressure  

Some photographers may thrive on pressure and learn faster when they have that pressure to perform.  For me, and I think for most photographers, that is a recipe for disaster. A recipe for failure. Don’t put the pressure on yourself and think you will do this experimentation as part of a client shoot.  Don’t think that you just got your new flash equipment so you are going to bring it with you on the client shoot you have had scheduled for a couple of weeks and as you do the shoot today you are going to make those photos better by adding flash having never done it before.

Set aside some time to play around with things in a no pressure situation and expect that much of your first few attempts will result in failures.  Lot’s of failures. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t experimenting enough! You may very well need a model to be part of your experimentation, but make sure that model fully understands you are experimenting and that they are willing to be patient as you are trying things out.  A family member may be a good option, though my own family has grown very tired of being part of my photography experiments. You could contact a client you have worked with before and see if they are willing to be part of your experiment and potentially get some free and fun portraits out of the session.  Just make sure they really understand that you are experimenting and they may spend a couple of hours shooting and get nothing.

If you can’t find a model willing to work with you, you can be the model yourself.  I have done this a lot. I put a mark on the floor, have the camera on a tripod, change the drive mode to the 10 second time, and then I go back and forth between being the model and the photographer.  It can be done and it can be helpful because you know that model is going to be patient with the experimentation, but it certainly takes more time.

Good Experiments Have Controlled Variables

Think back to your science teacher in elementary school when you were first learning about scientists conduct experiments.  Good experiments require controlling the variables. You really have to be careful to not change too many things at once. You need to be able to learn what happens when you change things so that when you are under more pressure trying to create a shot a client wants you can know exactly what to do to get there.  

I guarantee you will be super tempted to change too many things at once.  You will take a photo and want to change a light modifier, move the light, and change the power all at once because you are really sure doing all three things will result in the look of the light you want.  Resist that urge. Even though you may end up making all three changes, you have a better chance of learning what each change actually does to the light when you do each independently.  

Change out the modifier and then take a photo and compare with the previous to see what the change in the modifier did.  Closer to what you want but not there, now change the position of the light. How is it now? Closer still to the look you are going for or did that make it worse?  Now what if I change the power, how does that affect the light? Changing one thing at a time while experimenting exposes you to so much more information and experience with what each change does.

Now when you are shooting with a paid client you want to get the lighting done as quickly as possible and changing multiple things at once may be exactly what you end up doing.  If you have done the experimentation before being in that situation you have a much better chance of knowing what making all those changes at once will do to your light. Just don’t do that in the experimentation phase.  Be very deliberate to only change one thing at a time so that you can really understand what each change is doing to the light.

Start With The Controller and One Light

Tanja said in her question that she got three Godox TT600 lights and a Godox XPro controller and wanted advice on how to get started learning to use them.  I am going to get specific to the Godox equipment here but the concepts apply equally to all brands of controllers and flash equipment. We have already talked about how you need to experiment with the new equipment to learn how to use it but I want to provide a little guidance for that experimentation.  Not to say that my guidance is the only way to do this. There really is not wrong way to experiment. Everyone learns a little differently and what I am going to share here may not be the best way for you to go through it.  That’s just fine, the most important thing is to do your experimenting with the equipment and learn to use it so that you can create the images you want to create.

Turn On the Controller

I recommend you start off simple.  Remember, we don’t want to change too many things at once.  Even though Tanja has three flashes, I recommend starting out with the controller and just one flash.  Get the controller and the flash out of the package and fresh batteries in both. Turn on the controller.  You may have to look at a manual to figure out how to do that. With the Godox XPro it is a switch on the right hand side of the controller.  It can be confusing when you first look there because there are two on/off switches. If you look closely one of those switches, probably the one closest to you has a pretty recognizable power symbol in a circle with a little line at the top.  A symbol used on a lot of electronics to represent power these days. The other switch has a circle with four lines coming out of it and looks more like what a child might draw for a picture of the sun. That second switch is to turn on something called a focus assist lamp and for right now just ignore that.

You may be tempted to put the controller on the camera, but I think you should hold off for a moment on that.  Some controllers can start behaving differently when you put them in the hot shoe of the camera. Just to keep things simple, I recommend you validate you can get the flash and the controller to work together before you do anything else like putting the controller in the hot shoe of the camera or put that light on a light stand.

Turn On and Test Fire the Flash

The button to turn on the Godox TT600 flash is a little more obvious than the button on the controller.  A single on/off switch on the front of the flash below the LCD screen. Now is where a lot of photographers tend to get confused right off.  You have two devices powered on with numbers and letters all of these LCD screens. There buttons on both with various labels on them. It can be really confusing and overwhelming.  

Right now your objective is to use the controller to make the flash fire.  Every controller has a test button that can be used to do this. On the Godox XPro controller it is the button on the lower left that has a little lightning bolt kind of symbol by it, a symbol that is pretty universally known to represent flash.  Push the test button on the controller and see if the flash fires.  

If the flash doesn’t fire, we already have to troubleshoot and figure out why.  Actually not a horrible thing because I guarantee you are going to face this not working as you work with flash in your photography on a regular basis.  You may need to pull out that manual in order to troubleshoot what is going on. But let me give you a couple of things you will need to check routinely.

First, we need to take a quick break here and thank the sponsor for this episode…

Flash Channels

First thing to check if the flash doesn’t fire when you push the test button on the controller is that controller and the flash are set to the same channel.  Channel is a pretty important concept with off-camera flash. The flash is triggered by a radio signal emitted by the controller and if they are on the same channel it should fire pretty reliably.  If the controller is set to send that signal out for channel one but the flash is on channel two, the flash isn’t going to fire when you push that test button on the controller.

It isn’t always clear how to change the channel on the controller or the flash.  As I have helped photographers with various brands of flash equipment over the years, I have had a big struggle to find which button does this at times.  You may have to resort to that manual or you may try to find a guide on YouTube for your specific band and model of your flash equipment.  

On the Godox XPro controller there isn’t a button labeled channel.  You can see in the upper left of the LCD screen it has CH, which is short for channel, and then a number.  I think that by default when you first turn on the XPro controller it is set to channel one, so you will see a CH1 in the upper left.  How to change that is not self explanatory or very simple with the Godox XPro controller. There are four flat looking buttons under the LCD screen with big white lines across them.  

With the LCD on there are labels just above each button that tells you what that button does.  The furthest left of those four buttons should have a label above it on the LCD that says “Zm/CH”.  The “Zm” stands for Zoom and that is something for you to experiment with later. The CH stands for channel and it means that if you press and hold that button you can change the channel setting on the controller, the channel number at the top of the LCD gets highlighted when you have pressed the button long enough.  Now you can change the channel button by rotating the dial that surrounds the set button on the controller. With the Godox Xpro controller you have your choice of channels from 1-32. When you have the channel set you want, you press that Set button.

The channel setting on the Godox TT600 flash is shown in the lower middle of the LCD screen.  There is a “CH” and a number there. Again, I think it defaults to “CH1”. To change the channel you press and hold the button on the lower left that is labeled “Gr/CH”.  “Gr” stands for group that we will go through in just a second. You press and hold that “Gr/CH” button until the channel number starts flashing then use the dial surrounding the Set button to change it and press Set when you have chosen your channel.

A couple more points on the channel.  There is no standard with channels and flash equipment.  Channel one with the Godox equipment is not necessarily the same as channel one on another brand of flash.  This can be really frustrating if you are trying to work with another photographer and you have different brands of equipment set to the same channel but the flashes aren’t firing.  

It can also happen to work out that equipment from two different brands overlap enough that the flash will fire when on the same channel.  I have had this happen as I am shooting with clients out in a popular area where my flash will suddenly pop when I didn’t trigger it. A photographer near me was using a controller set to the same channel I was using that made my flash pop and I had to choose a different channel so that we wouldn’t interfere with each other.  Good thing with Godox you have 32 choices for channel.

Flash Group

There is also the concept of a group setting on the controller and the flash.  The group setting doesn’t have anything to do with the flash firing, that is all the channel.  The group setting is used when you change the settings of the flash using the controller. This is one of the most powerful things I love about off camera flash and using a controller.  The ability to change the power level and zoom of the flash by changing those settings on the controller is incredible.

Groups tend to go by letters instead of numbers.  Group A, B, C, etc. You set the group on a flash but you can use all of the groups on the controller, you don’t set it to just one.  Let me try to explain. The Godox XPro controller supports five groups, A-E. There are five buttons along the left of the LCD that help you to change settings for those five groups.  The top-most button is for group A and it goes down groups B through E for the bottom-most button on the left of the LCD. If you push the top-most button you are selecting group A and if you rotate the dial around the Set button the controller wirelessly communicates with all of the flashes set to the same channel as the controller that are also set to group A and tells them to change the power settings.

Let’s walk through setting the group the TT600 and then I go through a more specific example that I hope makes the group and channel more clear.  The group setting is shown on the TT600 in the upper middle of the LCD. THere is a “Gr” followed by a letter. I think the default is group A. To change it you quick press, meaning you don’t press and hold, the “Gr/CH” button and you cycle through the groups.  Changes to group B with one press of the button, then group C with another press of the button, etc.

Just to try and make this concept of group and channel more clear, let’s walk through an experiment you should try.  I know I said to only use one flash as you get started, and I really think you should limit your experimentation to a single flash at first, but this is a quick experiment to go through just to make sure you totally get the channel and group settings.  

Tanja said she has three TT600 flashes.  She could turn on all three flashes and validate all of them are set to the same channel.  Can be any of the 32 channels but to keep things simple lets say they are all set to the default of channel one, which you validate by looking at the lower middle of the LCD and see that it has “CH1” there.  Validate that the controller is set to channel one as well by making sure you see “CH1” in the upper left of the LCD.  

Now Tanja could put each flash in a different group.  All three flashes by default are probably in Group A which could be validated by looking in the upper middle of the LCD and seeing “Gr A”.  She could pick one of the flashes and hit the “Gr/CH” button once and see that in the upper middle of the LCD it changes to “Gr B”. Then she could pick another flash and press the “Gr/CH” button two times until “Gr C” is shown in the upper middle of the LCD for that flash.

With the flashes and controller set this way if you push the test button on the controller all three flashes should fire at the same time.  If you press the top-most button on the left of the LCD and then rotate the dial around the Set button you should be able to watch the LCD on the flash that is set to group A and see that it is changing the power settings as you do that leaving the others doing nothing.  If you press the button just under that you should see the controller change so that it is now adjusting the settings of group B and as you rotate the dial around the Set button the power settings on the flash set to group B is changing while the other two are not.

Experiment with these settings.  For example, try changing the channel on a flash so that it no longer matches the controller and see what happens.

Two Flash Communication Gotchas!

There are two more things I want to mention about the communication between the controller and the flash that you should know before we go on to actually triggering the flash using the camera.  Two things that can go wrong and be really frustrating as you are shooting.

First is sleep mode.  These flashes run on batteries and to save battery they can be configured to go to sleep if they haven’t been fired for a while.  The default setting for the Godox TT600 is 10 minutes, which means if you don’t fire or update the settings on the flash for 10 minutes it will go to sleep.  I have had it happen a lot where I will be working with a client and we don’t shoot or make any settings changes to the flash for more than 10 minutes, maybe something like a wardrobe or prop change, and then was frustrated because the flashes didn’t fire.  The only way to way the flash up once it has gone to sleep is to physically go to the flash and press a button, I usually press the Set button. I don’t like having to do that in the middle of a shoot, so I personally have set my flashes to not go to sleep so that I don’t have to worry about it, but you will want to think about what you want to do there.

The second is flash cycling.  We talk about this a lot as we talk about lighting and evaluate flashes, how fast the flash recycles.  I won’t go into the technical details here, but to oversimplify things with every flash powered by batteries, after every pop of the flash there is a certain amount of time it needs to pull energy from the batteries before it is ready to fire again.  If you have the power settings pretty low, like 1/128, this time can be really fast even when the batteries are getting low. If you have the flash set to full power, the 1/1 setting, then even with completely fresh batteries it takes some time for that flash to be ready.  With the Godox TT600 and fresh batteries, the recycle time at 1/128 power is 0.1 seconds and at 1/1 is 2.6s. Those times will get longer as the batteries get weaker.

If you trigger the flash to pop before it has recycled it might fire but it won’t put out the level of light you have set it for.  This is why most flashes have some kind of audible noise they make indicating they have recycled. Some kind of a beep usually. You can turn it off but I prefer to have that on so that I can know as I am shooting the flash is fully ready to work how I have set it up.  I bring this up here to make sure you think about this because it could look like the controller isn’t communicating with the flash when the problem is just that the flash hadn’t recycled and you only have to wait for a couple of seconds for it to work correctly.

Practice With Camera, Controller, and Flash

Now that you have learned how it is the controller communicates with the flash you are ready to put that controller on your camera, the flash on a light stand, and start learning where to position the flash, what power level to use, and what modifiers to use to get the look you want.

Starting Camera Settings

I recommend your goal with your initial settings on your camera being whatever it takes to get a really dark frame when you take a shot without the flash(es) being on.  When you are first getting started here and experimenting with things I think you should remove the ambient light from affecting anything. You want to see the light your flash is producing and as you are getting started it can be hard to tell that from what ambient light you have.  It will be easiest if you do this indoors. Doesn’t matter if it is day or night really, though if it is day you may want to limit how much natural light is coming in through the windows.

Put the camera in manual mode. Set the shutter speed on the camera to 1/160, the aperture at f/8, and ISO 100.  Nothing too magical about those settings other than the shutter speed. You have to make sure your shutter speed is below something called the max sync speed of the camera. Not going to go into what that is now but if you want more information about max sync speed check out this episode.  If you don’t know what the max sync speed is for your camera, you need to go and look that up so that you will always know that upper limit as you are working with flash.  With only one exception for a feature called high speed sync mode on some controllers/flashes, you should never go above that max sync speed when you are shooting with flash.

The Godox XPro controller is smarter than some controllers and helps you out here.  It won’t let you use a shutter speed that is over that max sync speed of your camera unless you have the controller set to use high speed sync mode.  By the way, high speed sync is an experiment you absolutely need to try after you feel comfortable with positioning, powering, and modifying your flashes.  If you start out with 1/160 of second you should be good for nearly every camera and flash combination.

Put the controller in the hot shoe of the camera then turn it off to make sure your flash won’t fire.  Take a test shot. If you are indoors you likely get a mostly dark frame with those settings. If you don’t get a totally dark frame then raise your shutter speed first.  I haven’t come up with a good way to help photographer remember this, but understanding how changes in the camera settings affect the light with flash is important. This is the first pearl of wisdom I mentioned at the beginning and something every photographer needs to take away to help them with flash photography.  Shutter speed does not affect the light from your flash.  I know that sounds strange to say because you are so used to dealing with too much light in an exposure by using shutter speed, but it is true.  The shutter speed only controls the amount of ambient light that is in the photo and not the light coming from your flash.

Aperture on the other hand changes the impact of both the ambient light and the light from your flash.  Same with ISO, increasing the ISO will affect both the ambient and the light coming from your flash. With the goal of getting a pretty dark frame as you are getting started, if you need to cut out more ambient light you can raise that shutter speed up to the max sync speed and you should set it there if you need to further reduce the ambient light.

You can stop down the aperture more (increase the aperture number) as well, but as you do that it means you will need to raise the power of the flash.  Remember that recycle time we talked about. If you have to put the flash on full power it is going to chew through those batteries more quickly and take longer for the flash to be ready again.  It also means you can’t experiment with increasing the power of the flash as one of the things to change to get the light you want unless you can add another flash to the mix. Try things at f/8 and if you get a pretty dark but not totally black frame go with it.

Experiment With Positioning, Power, and Modifiers

Now is where the real experimentation starts.  Put that flash on a stand and start out with no modifiers and set it to the lowest power setting.  Take a shot and see what happened. Turn up the power setting, take another shot and see what happened.  Move the light closer and take a shot to see what happened. Move the light further away and see what happened.  Put a modifier on the light and see what happened. Just don’t change more than one thing at a time for a while so that you can mentally track what each change you make is doing to the light.

As I have said already, I recommend you start with just one light and try all of these things enough to feel comfortable that you know what happens with that one light.  There are a lot of photographers who use only one light in their portraits who produce STUNNING results. You can even play with adding a reflector of some kind to help bounce the light from that one flash back onto the model to even out shadows.  Don’t give up too fast on using the single light. In fact, I think you should spend a couple of hours doing single light work before you add a second light.

One bit of advice to guide your experimentation with positioning, power, and modifiers is something that felt entirely counter-intuitive to me.  It made absolutely no sense when I heard it and I still didn’t believe it until I did a lot of experimenting. Here is the second pearl of wisdom.  Light is more pleasing and softer the larger and closer you can get it to your model.  

If as you heard me say that you it doesn’t make sense to you then I challenge you to go and experiment with it.  The more you can do to get that light as close as possible to the model the better it will look. Give it a try. Now that doesn’t mean it will look stellar using a flash with no modifiers, because a bare flash right up next to a person is going to look pretty hideous.  That is where the larger part comes in and why photographers so often put modifiers on the flash. It is all to make that source of light as big as they can possibly get it. Try bouncing the light off a ceiling or a wall, something that changes the source of the light from the tiny little head on the TT600 to something that large has a really nice look.  Try doing that with the model closer and further from the wall and see what it looks like.  

Soooo many things to try and now I hope you are armed with the information you need to do that.  I hope that you will go and experiment. Experiment until you either get the results you are looking for or have run out of ideas of things to try and know what question you now need to ask other photographers about.  Your can ask much better questions after you have tried a lot of things and failed. Our Facebook group is a great place to do that.

Reminders:

Comments

  1. Very helpful episode Jeff! Thoughtful and comprehensive, yet concise.

    I very much appreciate your logical and simple (i.e., clear, not dumbed-down) approach and only wish I’d had this episode available when I began (and struggled) with this flash setup last year.

    One very minor nit (and I may have just missed it) – I think the flash unit needs to be set to “Slave” in order to connect with the controller.

    Incidentally, Adorama markets the Godox flash units under their Flashpoint brand. I have the Godox TT600s (the Adorama equivalent is the Zoom R2 Manual Flash), but use the Flashpoint R2 Pro II trigger), which has a slightly different layout that I prefer.

    I also find the Flashpoint manuals to be better written and far easier to use than the Godox manuals. All are easily available on the Adorama site.

    Thanks again for all you do!

  2. I wish I had heard your advice and tips a few years ago. I learned more from this episode. Thanks!

  3. Just listened to this one and just found these podcasts a month or two ago. Where this has been no idea but love the info.

  4. Thank you so much for putting this podcast together. I just purchased two TT600 Godox Speedlights and I was able to set it up easily while listening to your show.

  5. Jeff,
    Got all the eqpt. Listening now to settin up podcast.The lcd on the Godox tt600 does not show the channel, i.e. doesn’t look as you described. Pressing the Gr/CH does not do anything. Will research to find issue. But if you can tell me how to change the display I’d appreciate it.

  6. Ignore previous message. Research revealed it. Now they are on same ch & gr. Experiment!!! Got it 😉

  7. OK Jeff-
    Unlike your listener who asked a question about her new XPro trigger and 3 TT600’s I am a bit further along. I’ve used a Yongnuo System with 3 Yongnuo YN-560 Flashes and a YN-560 TX controller on both an Olympus and more recently a Sony with a hot shoe adaptor. Worked OK, but got tired of changing batteries and no TTL (occasionally need it) – was interested in the Godox system but the array of choices is confusing- AD200, V860’s or V1’s. I do a mix of event type photography and flash with modifiers-close up, portrait. I like the flexibility of 3 lights to use for portrait set-ups, money (if well spent not an object). Should I get a mix of lights or stick with 3 860′- Help a fellow photographer and long time listener/fan.

    1. Author

      @Daniel,

      Thanks so much for listening and for your question here. I would definitely go straight to the AD200s from what you have said. The v860s are really good flashes and they do indeed give you the TTL and the battery packs that will give you a few more pops than AA batteries (I want to test how many more) so you get the extra battery life you are looking for. However, the AD200 flashes give you so much more wattage that given your statement about money not really being a big object I would recommend going to the AD200 lights. The reality is that you may love the AD200 lights so much that you want to go to the AD400 or AD600 lights but I would start with the AD200 and see what they are like. I LOOOOVE them.

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