How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography

The post How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

The morning sun shone through my kitchen window, catching the vase with a rose in it on the window sill.  A low cross-light highlighted the texture on the rose, while the purple glass vase cast a pattern of colored light across the counter.  The photographer in me studied the light, saw the potential for a photo, and went to get the camera.

Image: From observing the sun shining through a vase on the window sill to the finished image, this...

From observing the sun shining through a vase on the window sill to the finished image, this idea started with simply seeing the light.

A simple observation of light.  That’s how a photo can start – learning to really see the light. Understanding its properties, knowing how to control and shape it – those are the things that will take you from a casual snapshooter to a creative photographer. It’s a matter of crafting photographs rather than simply taking snapshots.

George Eastman helped bring photography to the masses with his development of roll film, simple cameras, and readily available processing.  You’ve certainly heard of the company he founded – The Eastman Kodak Company.  Eastman understood the importance of seeing the light.

He put it like this:

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman

Image: The vase set-up led to experiments with glasses, colored water, and more exploration of light...

The vase set-up led to experiments with glasses, colored water, and more exploration of light.

Harnessing the light

The rest of the photo session explored the interplay of light, color, shadow, texture, shape, and pattern.  From shots of the glass vase and rose, I switched to glasses and vases filled with water dyed with food coloring.  I experimented with different camera angles, positioning of the subjects, and different background objects. I shaped the light with cardboard “flags” and the Venetian blinds through which the sun was streaming to allow different looks.
The low angle of light also provided ways to cast shadows and projections of color.
How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography

In this case, the light source was simply the early morning sun.  I could have created other effects had I used artificial lights, say a snooted Speedlight to cast a beam of light right where I wanted it.

Studio photographers become masters of light manipulation by using their knowledge and a variety of lights and light modifiers.  Their skills draw upon understanding the properties of light and how to harness it.

Landscape photographers may not be able to create their own light, but they also understand its properties. They know when, where, and how to make the most of the light presented to create the look they seek.

Light Physics – the properties of light

You need not become a physicist to be a photographer, but a little understanding of the properties of light can be beneficial to your work.  So, a little science knowledge can help your art.  Left-brain, right-brain – good photographers use both sides.

What is light?

Light is photons of energy.  It has both wave and particle properties.

Electromagnetic spectrum

Human eyes can only see a very tiny portion of what is called the Electromagnetic Spectrum.  Some photographers use Infrared photography to go a little further past the red end of the visible spectrum, and ultraviolet light sources can take us a bit further past the violet end.  Specialized cameras can also capture X-rays.

How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography

Human eyes see only a tiny portion of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, that portion we call Visible Light.

(transferred by Penubag (talk · contribs) on 05:04, 15 May 2008 [CC BY-SA 2.5 (]

Properties of light

When speaking of light, we often refer to its properties.  These are:

Quantity – (Also called Intensity or “Brightness”)

Quality – Photographers will use the terms “Hard” or “Soft” light.

Technically, these refer to the shadows cast, not the light itself.  The hard or softness of a shadow (a place where the light is blocked), depends on the size of the light source relative to the subject.  Thus the sun, which is, in reality, huge, can cast harsh shadows (hard light). This is because as a pinpoint of light in the sky, its relative size to the subject is small.

On an overcast day, the whole sky may be the light source – nature’s giant softbox – and the shadows are soft or non-existent.

Direction – Light waves travel in straight lines.  They can be redirected however through Reflection or Refraction.
Reflection – Light hitting an object can bounce off that object.  In fact, anything we see is a result of light bouncing off that object.  The apparent Color of an object is due to what colors (wavelengths) are absorbed versus those reflecting.  A red apple is that color because it absorbs all other colors in the spectrum and reflects only the red wavelengths.
With highly reflective objects, the angle the light hits an object will be the same angle it is reflected. The angle of incidence = the angle of reflection.

RefractionLight can pass through some objects and be refracted or redirected.  Put a pencil in a half-full glass of water, and you will see how the light is refracted differently as it passes through the air versus the water and the glass. Camera lenses shape light through refraction. The image projected on the camera sensor is actually inverted. It is the same as it was when view-camera photographers threw a cape over their heads to see the image on a ground glass before making their photo.

Image: Dewdrops act as tiny lenses refracting the light passing through them.

Dewdrops act as tiny lenses refracting the light passing through them.

Light waves can:

Pass through transparent or translucent objects.

Transparent objects – little if any light is scattered as the light waves pass through – i.e window glass.

Translucent objects – Some light passes through the object but waves are scattered and objects on the far side are not clearly visible.

Reflect or bounce off an object  – We call highly reflective objects “shiny.”  They will often produce Specular highlights.  Objects which break up and bounce light in many directions have a matte quality and Diffuse the light.

Be scattered – Light waves are bounced in different directions

Be absorbed – As discussed, objects have color because they absorb some (colors) wavelengths and reflect others.  Because light has energy, the more light energy an object absorbs the warmer it will be.  This is the reason black, (which absorbs most of the light energy), warms faster than does white, which reflects most of the light.

Be refracted (bent) as light passes through.  Denser objects refract light more (pencil in a glass of water shows example air vs water vs glass).  Diamonds have a very high “index of refraction” and thus are sparkly.

Shadows – Shadows are formed where light is blocked.  Photographers seeking to understand light can learn much by studying shadows as they will give clues to the other qualities of the light.

Image: This abstract image is all about the light and shadows

This abstract image is all about the light and shadows

Dispersion – Visible light can be separated into its component colors due to different degrees of refraction through an object. (This is how prisms work and how rainbows are formed)

Image: A rainbow is an example of white visible light being split into its component colors when the...

A rainbow is an example of white visible light being split into its component colors when the raindrops refract the light and disperse it.

The Speed of Light – Light travels faster than sound at approximately 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/s).  Sunlight takes 8 minutes, 20 seconds to reach us.  From the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, light takes 4 years to reach us.  At night we see the light from stars that took hundreds of thousands of years to reach us.  Currently, the most distant star observed by astronomers is over 9 billion light-years away.

Photography and light

We know that without light there is no photography.  Building on the basics of light physics, we photographers have further ways to define light and how we use it.

Photography and color

General photography works within the visible light spectrum.  We use the Kelvin temperature scale to describe the color of light.  For example, a candle’s flame is 1,200K, which is towards the red-orange end of the scale, and a cloudless day is 10,000K, which is at the blue end.

White balance

The human brain is good at correcting colors under different light so that we usually see “correct” colors. Cameras need some help.  Using White Balance, we can index the color we want to be white or neutral in color, and all other colors in the scene will use that as a reference and adjust accordingly.  Thus images shot in daylight, with flash, or under tungsten or fluorescent lights can all be adjusted for “correct” color.

A huge advantage of saving images in the Raw format is you can correct this later when editing. Unfortunately, .jpg images lock the white balance in during the capture.

Image: The color of old tungsten light is quite warm, about 3200K on the Kelvin scale. This could ha...

The color of old tungsten light is quite warm, about 3200K on the Kelvin scale. This could have been white-balanced to be more neutral, but for this image, the warm light added to the antique look desired.

Image: With light, all colors combined equal white. With ink, all colors combined equal black.

With light, all colors combined equal white. With ink, all colors combined equal black.

Color models


Your camera can interpret the world of color and reproduce it on a color monitor, but in reality, it really only “sees” three colors, Red, Green, and Blue (RGB).  All other colors are created from these three.  Use a magnifying glass to see the pixels on your monitor, and those are the only colors you will see.

Your camera sensor can also only capture those three colors.

If all three of those colors or light combine at full intensity, the result would be pure white.  Because colors record by adding one to another, the term “Additive” is used.

Any of over 16 million colors can be defined using the RGB model, which has 255 steps of each color.  So, white would be 255, 255, 255.  Black is no light and therefore has an RGB value of 0, 0, 0.  Pure red would be 255, 0, 0.  A mixed color like pure yellow is 255, 255, 0, and something like a deep purple shade might be 113, 58, 210.

Image: Pure Red is a primary color in the RGB (Light) model with an RGB value of 255,0,0 but in the...

Pure Red is a primary color in the RGB (Light) model with an RGB value of 255,0,0 but in the CMYK (Ink) model it’s a mixture of Yellow and Magenta.


The RGB model works fine in cameras and monitors where we add light to the blackness to create color.  When printing, however, we are starting with a white piece of paper and subtracting from that white to create color.

Instead of red, green, and blue being the primary colors, printers use Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black  (CMYK)  to create all other colors.  (“K” is used for Black because it is the last letter of the word and not used by any other color, i.e. (B)lue).  To save costs on ink, and to produce deeper black tones, unsaturated and dark colors are produced by adding black ink instead of just the combination of cyan, magenta, and yellow. So, while in the RGB model, pure red is defined as 255, 0, 0 the same exact color in the ink printing world of CMYK is something like 0, 100, 100, 0.

So as not to make your head hurt any further, I will not get into the complexities of color spaces, printer profiles, gamut and how we can be sure what we saw is what the camera captures and finally appears on a print.  That’s a whole other and a quite complex subject.  For now, know it is a lot of science and a perhaps a touch of magic.

Instead, you can read more about those topics here:


How photographers control light

As photographers, especially in studio photo work, we have the tools and the means to control the light.

Here are the basic things we can do:

Transmit – Using lights of various kinds we can transmit light onto our subjects.  We control the quantity, direction, and color of the light source.  By changing the relative size of the light source to the subject, we can also control the hardness/softness of shadows.

Reflect – All objects reflect light to varying degrees (which is why we and the camera can see them).  How that reflected light plays off of objects, or how we might use other objects, (reflectors) to bounce light into a scene is one way we shape and control the light.

Image: Many of the principles of light discussed in this article are present in this shot. Can you i...

Many of the principles of light discussed in this article are present in this shot. Can you identify them?

Diffuse –We can cause the light emitting from the source to scatter to varying degrees, (diffused), by shining it through translucent materials.  This how softboxes and other light modifiers work.

Block – As light travels in a straight line, anything between the source and the subject blocks the light and creates a shadow.  How and where we create shadows is as important as where we allow light to cast.  Photographers use things like Flags, Gobos, and Cookies to cast and control shadows.  An example, a “barn door” on a lighting instrument is a type of flag.
Image: This image is all about the light. The backlit leaves are translucent and pass a portion of t...

This image is all about the light. The backlit leaves are translucent and pass a portion of the light striking them, filtering out some colors and passing the golden parts of the spectrum through them.

When nature lights the scene – Landscapes Landscape photographers and those using only natural light sources don’t have the same controls over the light, but they still need to understand it to become master photographers.

Learning how light works, how direct sun, diffuse light, time of day, season, angle, diffusing factors like fog, smoke, rain, and other “atmospherics” affect the image are all a huge part of becoming a student of light.  A skilled studio photographer can create light.  A skilled landscape photographer knows when and where to be and then very often, simply “waits for the light.”

Image: A smoky sky filters out many of the colors of the light and passes the warm yellow and red to...

A smoky sky filters out many of the colors of the light and passes the warm yellow and red tones. The side of the wheat facing the camera receives no light and so is silhouetted against the sun. Learning to see the light is key to becoming a good photographer.

Becoming a student of light

Sure, you can just get out some glassware, fill it with colored water, place it in the sun and make some pretty pictures.  I encourage you to do that. It’s fun and you will likely make some nice images.  You need not know the physics and terminology to make nice photos.  But I encourage you to take it a step further.  Use it as an exercise to further your understanding and become a trained observer of light because I really believe George Eastman had it right –

Know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.



The post How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

How to Make the Most of Hard Light with Black and White Photography

Black & white photography

The quality of light is an important aspect of successful photography – good photographers spend hours chasing the most suitable light for the type of photography they do. That usually means working at the beginning or the end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky and the light has many beautiful qualities.

But what about the middle of the day? Many photographers avoid shooting in direct sunlight in this period, especially in summer, because the light is so hard and strong. You can’t use it for portraits (unless you use flash, which is the subject for another article) or find a place in the shade for your model. It’s nearly impossible to use it for landscapes, because they always look so much better in the softer light, characteristic of the the day’s end.

Perhaps the problem is not so much bad light, but a poor match of light to subject. So the question becomes, is there a subject that you can successfully shoot in strong, midday light? I believe there is. I like to use this part of the day for photographing a subject comprised of strong lines and graphic shapes – architecture.

Black & white photography

Two photos of the same structure (Monument to the People’s Heroes in Shanghai) taken moments apart. In both cases I was exploring the shape of the structure against the blue sky, shooting with a wide-angle lens from ground level looking up. The first image concentrates on shape and line. The second is more abstract. I used a polarizing filter to darken the sky, and photographed the sunlit monument against it for maximum tonal contrast.

This may seem a little strange because buildings are often best photographed during the golden hour, but there is no reason why you can’t shoot during the middle of the day as well. The only drawback is that colour photos of buildings taken at this time of the day, often with a deep blue sky in the background, are usually not very exciting.

But switch to black and white photography and it’s a different story. Without colour, and the strong distraction of a deep blue sky, the photographic possibilities change entirely. Suddenly you’re not looking at the colour of a scene. Instead you’re exploring line, shape, texture, form and shadow. Then, take those photos into Lightroom and there’s all kinds of wonderful, creative things you can do in post-processing to enhance the image.

Black & white photography

Details like this sculpture can work very well in midday light as the hard shadows suit the material it is constructed from. I enhanced the black and white version of this photo in Lightroom by using an Adjustment Brush to increase Clarity and Contrast on the metal surfaces in the image.

Learning to see in black and white takes time, but there are a couple of things you can do that will help.

The first is to shoot in your camera’s black and white mode, but with image quality set to Raw. When you play back your image on the camera’s LCD screen it is displayed in black and white, yet because you are using Raw you have the full colour file to work with in Lightroom or Photoshop.

You will probably find it useful to spend some time looking at your photos on the camera’s LCD screen during the shoot to see how the colour scene in front of you translates to monochrome. As you gain experience you will need to do this less and less, but it can be incredibly helpful the first few times you try.

If you have a camera with an electronic viewfinder, the camera displays the scene in black and white in the viewfinder. This is even more useful because you don’t have to visualize how the colours in the scene will convert to black and white. The camera does it for you and you can concentrate on creating beautiful compositions.

The second is to use a polarizing filter to turn the already blue sky an even darker shade of blue. This can look fantastic in black and white. If you enable the red filter setting in the camera’s black and white mode options it will make the blue sky darker yet, and it may even turn black. Position a sunlit, light-toned, building in front of that dark sky and you have some amazing tonal contrast and the basis for a dramatic black and white architectural study.

Black & white photography

It is easy to be seduced by colour, especially when presented by colour buildings such as these ones in Burano, Italy. This photo was taken around midday, but because the sun was overheard it cast a raking light over the front surface of the buildings, bringing out the textures in the wall. I increased Clarity in Lightroom to emphasize the texture in the black and white conversion.

I’ve concentrated on photographing buildings in this article, but I’d like to hear what other subjects you shoot during the middle of the day. Please let us know in the comments.

Black & white photography

This photo, also taken in Burano, is a study of the shape of the house against the deep blue sky (emphasized by a polarizing filter). The symmetry of the house is broken by the chimney on the left.

The Mastering Lightroom Collection

Mastering Lightroom ebooksMy Mastering Lightroom ebooks will help you get the most out of Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 5. They cover every aspect of the software from the Library module through to creating beautiful images in the Develop module. Click the link to learn more or buy.

The post How to Make the Most of Hard Light with Black and White Photography by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Step By Step How to Do a Head Shot on a White Background

Today you are going to come ride along with me as I shoot head shots for a client in San Diego, California. I was hired by a company to create simple head shots of their instructors in the San Diego area.

There is a very big market for head shots and quite a few people want them shot on a white infinity backdrop. There are many ways to do this but I’m going to take you along on a shoot with me and show you how I do it:

Step by step how to do a head shot on a white background


First off, what is a seamless backdrop?

It’s a giant roll of paper – thats it! I used an 8-foot long roll in ‘alpine white’ color. Again, it’s just a big white roll of paper. When properly lit, this roll of paper gets ‘blown out’ or overexposed, so it appears as a perfectly white void on which your subject sits/stands in the middle. This white void makes the viewer focus on your subject rather than a cluttered background.

Setting up the seamless backdrop

As you can see in the animated GIF below, I start by finding an open area at least 8 feet wide. This is easier to set up with two people, but on this corporate shoot it was just me.

To make this easier to set up by yourself just lay the roll of paper on the ground and position the light stands on either side of the end of the roll of paper at their lowest height. Make sure the paper is set to unroll from underneath the back of the roll ,and not over the top and front of the roll.

When you pull from the back of the roll the natural curl of the paper will let the paper roll straight to the floor then curl toward your camera  into the room. This will provide a smooth curved transition from the vertical roll of paper into the floor and toward you so the background and floor will appear seamless. If the paper is pulled from overhand when it hits the floor it will want to curl backwards toward the back of the room. This won’t create seamless transition as you pull the roll into the room.

Run the cross bar through the center of the paper roll – the cross bar will stick out about 2 inches on either side of the roll. The cross bar has 2 slots at each end and the light stands have two vertical screws. Lift up the roll and place these two slots into the two vertical screws and then screw in the included wing nuts to secure the roll onto the light stands.

Raising the seamless backdrop

Now that we have the paper roll secured on the light stands at their lowest height, it’s time to raise it up. The light stands have two sets of clamps and two sets of vertical poles that raise up. With two people you can simply raise the paper roll at the same time to the desired height and lock the clamps down to secure the paper roll at your desired height. With only one person you have to slowly raise one side, then the other, until you get the roll to the desired height. Check out the GIF below and try not to laugh at the CEO jumping in during setup.


Unrolling the backdrop

Now that we have the bar to the height we want it, we can unroll the backdrop. I always keep little clamps on each end of the roll to keep it from unrolling on its own. Unclamp the little A-clamps on either side of the paper roll and slowly pull the roll down. If you don’t pull slowly the roll can gain momentum, unroll really fast, and go much further than planned! Since we were only doing head shots I just pulled the backdrop down to the floor. Once the roll is at the desired length clip the A-clamps back in place to keep the roll from unrolling further on its own like you see below.

seamless backdrop, studio lights, corporate headshots

Lighting the shoot

The way to make lighting easy is to light in layers, one step at a time. In this case I’m going to light the backdrop first. Once I get that done I’m going put a subject in front of the backdrop and light them separately. Once that is lit correctly we are ready to rock!

Lighting the backdrop

Now that the backdrop is set up properly we want to light it so that it appears solid white. I placed an Alien Bees 1600 studio strobe 3 feet away from the backdrop on the left side and angled it to shoot across the backdrop. The light had a reflector on it to contain the direction of the light. This will make the light rake across the middle of the backdrop to light it up white.

Dialling in the camera settings

I set my camera to f/8 aperture as it’s a good middle ground depth of field to start. The studio lights will give me all the light I need so I set the ISO low at 200. I then set the shutter speed to 1/160 which is the maximum shutter speed sync my camera allows. In this room a 1/160 shutter speed is fast enough that none of the lights on the ceiling would register – essentially I’m killing any ambient light in the room so the only light that shows up in the photo is from the studio strobes.

I take a guess and set the studio strobe light at 1/4 power. I do a quick test at f/8, ISO 200, 1/160 shutter speed and get this:

corporate headshots, white seamless backdrop, studio strobes, lighting setups

Looks pretty good to me! You can see the area closest to the light is perfectly blown out white, but as you move to the right the light is becoming weaker and the white backdrop appears more grey. Because the light is weaker on the right side it’s also showing the wrinkles in the paper. Because I’ll be placing people several feet in front of the light stand and zooming into the middle of the backdrop I’m not concerned with the right side of the backdrop. If I were shooting a wider shot I would add another light on the right side of the backdrop to light up that side, but that isn’t necessary for this shoot.

Lighting the subject

Now that we have the backdrop dialled in it’s time to light the next layer – the subject. I place an Alien Bees 800 studio strobe to the right of the backdrop, about six feet in front of the first light. I put an umbrella on the light which spreads the light out (diffuses it) as it passes through the umbrella and gives it a nice, soft appearance. I set the light at 1/4 power, at a 45 degree angled downward, and raised to about 8 feet high to test it out.

I step in front of the backdrop like the goofball that I am and get this:

studio lighting, seamless backdrop, corporate headshots

The backdrop still looks good, but I (the subject) am overexposed. This means the umbrella light is too strong. I reduce the power from 1/4 power to 1/8th power, have the CEO grab two nearby Nerf guns, step back in for a test, and get this:

seamless backdrop, studio lights, corporate head shots

Looking much better!

The light hitting the white background is bouncing onto the back of the subject and wrapping around his body too much. To correct this I need to move the subject a few feet toward the camera so the light bouncing off the background falls off before it reaches him. When I do this I also need to move the umbrella light the same distance toward the camera to keep the same exposure.

I also want more room to the right to compose my subjects so I move the umbrella light two feet camera-right, and one foot toward the camera. I then have the subject move two feet camera-right and one foot toward the camera so the background light won’t reach the subject as much.  I take another test and get this:

seamless backdrop, corporate headshots, digital photography school, seamless backdrop

This looks great to me. The background layer is blown out white, the subject layer is properly exposed, and as a bonus just enough light is bouncing off the backdrop to give some backlighting to the subject. Here is a closer crop to see what we are working with:

studio lights, seamless backdrop, corporate headshots

The only thing I should do to improve this is have the subject turn his body to face the umbrella so there isn’t so much shadow on the camera-left side.

Positioning the subject

headshot, seamless backdrop

The client wanted simple head shots of their instructors for use on their website profiles. I had the subject stand in the same place, square up their shoulders to face the umbrella light, and smile. You’ll notice that the umbrella placed up above the subject and pointed down at 45 degrees leaves a nice catch light (the white reflection of the light) in the top right corner of the subject’s eyes. When you can place a catch light at the ten or two o’clock position (like on an analog clock) in the subject’s eyes it brings them to life. Here is what we end up with:

 Quick positioning tip

To keep everything consistent, place some tape on the floor where you want people to stand. I didn’t have any tape with me but I did have an extra umbrella. I simply placed the umbrella at a diagonal angle and told the subjects to place their toes against the umbrella. This squared them up with the light so each portrait was consistent.

Wrapping it up

Overall it was a very quick setup, shoot, and breakdown. We shot 45 different instructors in about 45 minutes! Once everything was dialled in we just photographed one instructor after the next. The shoot was fun, the client was happy, and the instructors loved their head shots!


Would you like to see more real shoots?

Did this post help you and did you enjoy seeing some behind-the-scenes info on real client shoots? If so sound leave me a comment below. If it would help I’d love to start sharing more live client shoots to show everyone how they come together!

For more portrait tips using a white background see these articles on dPS:

The post Step By Step How to Do a Head Shot on a White Background by Mike Newton appeared first on Digital Photography School.

The MagMod Speedlight Modifier – a Review

The MagMod speedlight modifier solves several problems and challenges posed by other systems.

The MagMod speedlight modifier solves several problems and challenges posed by other systems.

Until now, most speedlight modifiers on the market have been pretty inconvenient to use. I’m not talking about the quality of their output– just the lengths we’ve had to go in order to attach them to our flashes, and– perhaps more importantly– get them to stay on our speedlights over the course of a photo shoot. If your flash has a permanently attached strip of Velcro, or you have a collection of assorted straps, bands, tapes, attachment accessories, and other DIY solutions for your modifiers, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever had a gel break, tear, bend, or just blow away in a stiff breeze, you’ve probably found yourself wishing for something better at least once or twice.

Enter the MagMod system. Made from high-quality silicone rubber, each piece of the MagMod system is compact, easy to attach, and gets the job done with minimal hassle.

The MagGrip

The MagGrip is the foundation of the MagMod system. Designed to fit virtually any hot shoe flash available, the MagGrip fits tightly and securely around the flash head. Despite my best efforts to shake it off or “accidentally” dislodge it from a Nikon SB800, it wouldn’t budge. At all. It’s easy enough to remove when you want it off, but there’s no need to worry about it while on a shoot.

Another key feature of the grip are the two neodymium (rare earth) magnets that hold the actual modifiers in place. I won’t bore you with the research I did into the science of these magnets. All you need to know is that they are the strongest type of permanent magnet commercially available, which means they’ll do their job without losing any of their magnetism over time.


The MagGrid

The basic purpose of a lighting grid is to give you more control over where the light falls, either on the subject or the background. It can be a useful tool for highlighting the subject, a specific part of the frame, or for creating interesting background effects. The MagGrid attaches magnetically to the grip in pretty much the blink of an eye. With no need for attachment straps or bands, I was able to spend more time on shooting and less on managing the equipment.

The single grid included in the basic kit casts a -40° beam with minimal spill and hot spots. The beam can be narrowed even further by attaching a second or third grid to the first. The grid is made from the same silicone rubber as the grip, which prevents the grid cells from cracking or chipping–a fairly common problem with hard plastic grids.


The images below illustrate how stacking multiple grids affects your ability to concentrate the light precisely where you want it.



The MagGel Kit

Let’s face it–gels are awesome, but they are also a pain. They help you fine-tune your lighting, but they are also flimsy, often difficult to attach, and need to be replaced fairly regularly. The rigid sheets of the MagGel Kit, however, are made to last and are held securely in place through tension and friction. They are also stackable, giving you more freedom to create different lighting effects.


The Basic Gel Kit includes one of each of the following:

  • Full CTO (Rosco #3407)
  • 1/2 CTO (Rosco #3408)
  • 1/4 CTO (Rosco #3409)
  • 1/2 Blue (Rosco #3204)
  • 1/2 Tough Plusgreen (Rosco #3315)
  • 1/2 CT Straw (Rosco #3442)
  • 3-stop Neutral Density (Rosco E-211)
  • Opal Frost Diffuser

Gel sheets from the Basic Gel Kit. The MagGel can hold multiple sheets at once. In this photo, it’s holding three warming gels.

The Creative Gel Kit includes one each of the following:

  • Purple
  • Blue
  • Teal
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Red
  • Magenta
Probably not the smartest idea to use a speedlight as a refrigerator magnet, but you get an idea of how strong these magnets are.

Probably not the smartest idea to use a speedlight as a refrigerator magnet, but you get an idea of how strong these magnets are.


Speedlights have become more powerful and versatile than ever before. When combined with a solid grasp of off-camera lighting techniques, speedlights can often narrow the technical and creative gaps between small flashes and their bulky studio counterparts. The MagMod system closes that gap even further, simply by making some of photography’s most basic lighting modifiers easier to use. Obviously, it doesn’t address every lighting scenario or every type of modifier. While the gel kit does include a diffuser, for instance, it’s certainly not going to address the needs of the photographer who relies heavily on softboxes or umbrellas for casting a wide spread of light. It does, however, address some of the most common lighting challenges facing photographers who depend on speedlights to tell their stories.

For more information, check out the MagMod website.

The post The MagMod Speedlight Modifier – a Review by Jeff Guyer appeared first on Digital Photography School.

“The Language of Light with Joe McNally” – a Review

language-of-light-digital-photography-schoolOn the one hand, I could make this article one of the shortest I’ve ever written– a rousing recommendation of only three words: “It’s Joe McNally!”

Thank you. Good night. Drive safely.

Okay…I get it. Some of you may not be convinced. I respect that. That’s why we’re going to take a closer look.

For those who may not know, Joe McNally is one of the very best in the business. In a career spanning 30 years and 50 countries, his work has appeared in National Geographic, LIFE Magazine, Sports Illustrated, TIME, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and a host of other magazines you’ve probably read. Even if you’ve never heard his name (where have you been hiding?), I’m pretty sure you’ve seen his work. If you are ever able to attend one of his workshops, I highly recommend it.

Joe is a master (a word I don’t use lightly) of at least two things–lighting and teaching. As a photographer, light defines or plays a part of everything you do. Regardless of whether you are talking about speedlights, studio lights, street lights, or sunlight, it’s a given that every light source has three attributes–color, quality, and direction. Since every photograph requires light, it stands to reason that having a firm understanding of how to control, manipulate, and manage light would be an important step towards raising the bar on your photography. As he puts it himself in the intro,

“Light is how we speak as photographers.” - Joe McNally

A typical Joe McNally seminar or workshop tends to be filled with sentences that begin with things like, “The photo editor at National Geographic once told me…” or “My editor at LIFE Magazine used to say…”  These are your cues to start feverishly writing down every word that follows.  The Language of Light lets you put the pen down and take it all in–a three-hour guided tour through the how and why of Joe’s “big world of small flash.”

There are a few things that really stand out, separating this DVD lighting class apart from the rest. For starters, it’s conversational. To the extent that this language of ours has words and concepts that need explaining, who better to do it than the man who’s written some of the best books on the subject? The other huge advantage to The Language of Light is the ability to watch as Joe starts each shoot with a basic premise, then explains and demonstrates each step in the process–walking you through from concept to finished image.

Remember that old line? “Those who can, do. Those who cant’ teach?” Well, here’s a guy who does both and doesn’t hold anything back. If he knows it, he wants you to know it. It’s not just about the “how.”  It’s also about the “why.” And that, my friends, is worth the price of admission.

Here is a basic breakdown of the set.

Disc 1 – the Language of Light

They say the best place to start is at the beginning, and The Language of Light takes that to heart. Disc 1 gets you going, explaining light and why it does what it does in simple terms. Prepare to be blown away by what he can do with a single speedlight. Topics include:

  • Turning one small flash into one big light
  • Controlling harsh natural light
  • Dramatic one light portraiture
  • Tour of small flash light modifiers
  • Light placement

Check out the Disc 1 preview in the video below:

Disc 2 - the Language of Light

Disc 2 moves out of the studio and goes on several location shoots, with lighting setups ranging from the basic to the complex. Topics include:

  • Location assessment
  • Basic strategies for one and two lights, as well as three or more
  • Getting the most out of a location
  • Environmental portraits
  • Conquering the sun with high speed sync
  • Mixing color temperatures
  • Athletic portraits
  • Lighting in small places
  • Group portraits
  • Engaging your subject

Take a look at the Disc 2 preview:

The three hours of photographic education contained in this set is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Knowledge, talent, energy, and passion come together in what I can only describe as a moment of enlightenment (no pun intended), where all the pieces seamlessly come together– and it all makes sense. It’s perfect for beginners just learning how to get the flash off the camera, as well as seasoned veterans looking for a refresher.

The Language of Light is available on Amazon.  Still hungry for more? Check out our very own e-book, “Portraits- Lighting the Shot” in the Digital Photography School Bookstore.

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Accent Lighting for Portraits

accent lighting

Tthanks to the wonderful Bridgette for her work as the make-up artist in this image

Studio lighting continues to mystify and bewilder many developing photographers. The intimidation of lighting ratios, modifiers, set-ups, etc… often seems as complex as deriving the quadratic equation or suffering through an explanation of Michaelis-Menten enzyme kinetics. Oh yes, for those of you biochemically privy folk, I did just go there! Well, one does not have to get lost amidst the photonic chaos if they understand how to interpret and understand the meaning of light.

Wow! Meaning of light? Sounds kind of deep and metaphysical doesn’t it? Please don’t worry! The only thing you need to remember about light is that it illuminates and creates shadows. Fairly simple, huh? We all know that when we shine a light onto something it allows us to visualize whatever is illuminated by the light. That is simple enough, right? Now, consider that behind every good light is a shadow waiting to give shape, form and dimension to your subject. This intricate interplay between what you illuminate and what you keep in shadow is what brings visual interest and creative acuity to your images. In studio lighting, this is your raw material with which you have to work and create.

There are many articles and books that describe studio lighting and as the student you may tend to focus on that main key light with simple one or two light set-ups, so we can dip our toe into the pool, so to speak, and see if the temperature is warm enough for us to dive in. A main or key light is simply the light source that is providing the primary illumination for our subject. Now, don’t get me wrong, one can create some amazingly, captivating portraits with a single light, but what if you want to add a little something extra? A little hint of spice to get some unique seasoning and flavor?

This is where accent lighting comes out to shine.

What is an accent light?


Accent lighting is typically a very controlled light source that highlights specific areas of the subject. It can be a hair light that gives you some separation from a background, or a side light that illuminates the drops of sweat on an athlete after an intense workout. It gives some shape or form to elements of the photo allowing your eyes to experience the different dimensions of the image. Now, there are two important things you want to remember about accent lighting:

  1. The source should be very controlled and only hit the areas you desire
  2. It should be brighter then your main light to create a proper highlight

Easy ways to control accent lights are with modifiers such as barn doors, spot grids or small strip soft boxes. Basically, anything that will narrow and direct the beam of light coming form the light source. Heck, it could be a flashlight beam, the sun shining on the back of a subject’s head, or even the bright screen of a tablet or computer in the right conditions (yes, the eye fatigue from staring at the LCD screen is setting in). Add some colored gels to the accent lights to really make your images pop or bring some warmth into the mix.

Personally, I love adding side accent lighting to my portraits by firing my strobes into narrow V-flats (two large pieces of foam core taped together to form a v-shape) directed at the subject on either side to highlight the cheekbones and neck and really sculpt out those beautiful forms in light and shadow. The possibilities with accent lighting are truly endless, and the luminous results are absolutely stunning.


For more on portraits and lighting check out these articles:

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Balancing Color for Flash and Ambient Light using Gels

Flash with 1 CTO plus 1/8 CTOIn the last article Balancing Flash and Ambient Light Using an Incident Light Meter I did not mention color temperature or any correction for the colorcast in the background. There were however requests for it in the comments section, so in this article we will cover three ways of balancing color for flash and ambient light (tungsten yellow/orange which is approximately 3200°K, flash which has a color temperature close to daylight or 5500°K).

Color Temperature Explained

Before you go into the process of correcting color imbalance you will need to understand color temperature. A basic description of color temperature is based on the color characteristics of visible light from warm (yellows) to cool (blues) and the ability to measure this in degrees Kelvin (°K). Degrees Kelvin is a numerical value assigned to the color emitted by a light source. Visualize a lamp filament that is heated using an electric current. It starts off as black and starts getting hot. At a particular point it will become hot enough to start glowing, typically a dark red. As it gets hotter, it will change from dark red to orange to yellow to practically white. It is important to understand that technically, red light has a lower color temperature but is described as warm, while blue light is a higher color temperature but is described as cool. So remember that the terms warm and cool describe color, not temperature. This is a fairly extensive topic but for a quick explanation this should help.

Read more on White Balance and color temperature:

Since warm and cool are colors, we can change their characteristics by modifying color. In lighting we achieve this modification by using various colored gels of varying densities. Lets examine the first and simplest method.

Method One – Using Color Gels on the Flash

Here are two images of the same scene, one using Auto White Balance (AWB) and the next using Daylight White Balance (WB). The daylight WB is 5200°K while the AWB applied 3200°K. Clearly the Daylight WB is too yellow.

Auto WB

Image captured with camera set to Auto White Balance (AWB)

Same scene as above captured with the camera set to Daylight White Balance

Same scene as above captured with the camera set to Daylight White Balance

The Problem

The background room is lit by tungsten bulbs (typically around 3200°K). We will use a flash to light the main subject (approximately 5500°K).  This is a considerable difference that you will need to resolve. So if you can make both the light sources match in color temperature, you can then set the WB on your camera to that, and get a perfectly balanced image.

The Solution

To achieve this balance, you will use a color correction gel on your flash, to match the orange color of the tungsten bulbs. Theoretically both sources will now produce the same color. So if you set your camera’s WB to “tungsten” you will capture the background without any colorcast and it will look neutral. What about your primary subject? Since the flash output has been color modified to “tungsten”, the entire scene will look natural and devoid of any colorcast as long as the lights are close to the color temperature of tungsten.

Color correction is achieved using gels. These gels are manufactured by companies like Roscoe, Lee and ExpoImaging. Gels come in all sizes from large rolls to precut sheets. My preferences are the Rogue Gels made by ExpoImaging as they are the perfect size for flash heads and are attached using an elastic band. Each gel is marked for its strength and light loss. As a starter, for under $10 you can buy sample packs from most lighting supply stores.

Gels that create yellow/orange light are known as CTO gels (Color Temperature Orange). These gels are available in various strengths as follows:

  • 1/8 CTO Converts 5500°K to 4900°K
  • 1/4 CTO Converts 5500°K to 4500°K
  • 1/2 CTO Converts 5500°K to 3800°K
  • 3/4 CTO Converts 5500°K to 3200°K
  • Full CTO Converts 5500°K to 2900°K

I recommend you start with a full CTO and adjust by adding or reducing the color temperature correction by either combining gels or using gels of lesser strength. Since these gels add color they also reduce the amount of light transmitted. Based upon the gel that you are using, you will need to compensate for the loss of light. The typical light loss is mentioned in “f” stops with each gel strength. This information is typically imprinted on the gel or provided on a backing sheet of paper. You should use this information as an initial guideline for compensating your exposure.

This method will work reasonably well. However, it is not the most accurate, as it relies purely on a visual color correction. See the result in the following image:

The camera White Balance is set to Tungsten and the flash is gelled using a Full CTO

The camera White Balance is set to Tungsten and the flash is gelled using a Full CTO

Notice that the color of the subject is fairly accurate but the background is still a bit yellow/orange. The color temperature of the lights in the background may not be true 3200°K.

Method Two – Gels on the Ambient Light Source

In the second method, you will use gels over the offending lights if at all feasible. In this example consider it not feasible. However, you can use additional flash heads to overcome the problem of the tungsten colorcast. You do this by applying an opposing color gel to one or more flash light sources to fill the background. Keep in mind that based upon the size or the area and the intensity of the ambient light in the background, this too may not always be feasible. Take the additional flashheads (make sure they can be fired as slaves) and put a CTB (Color Temperature Blue) gel on each. What you are attempting to do is to negate the effect of the Tungsten by adding blue light to the ambient environment. Test your exposure and set the camera to “flash” white balance. Once again, you may need to add or subtract the gel intensity.

The set up. Note how the flash heads are concealed from view

The set up: note how the flash heads are concealed from view and pointed into the room that is the background

The CTB gels like CTO gels are available in multiple strengths as follows:

  • 1/8 CTB Boosts 3200°K to 3300°K
  • 1/4 CTO Boosts 3200°K to 3500°K
  • 1/2 CTO Boosts 3200°K to 3800°K
  • 3/4 CTO Boosts 3200°K to 4100°K
  • Full CTO Boosts 3200°K to near daylight

Once you are satisfied with the background color, go ahead and photograph the primary subject. Do not gel the main flash and leave the white balance on “flash”.

Color Bal

Color Correction using blue gels in the background

In each of the cases above there is still some color cast in the final image. This is because the lights in the background are not true 3200°K and we have been relying on tungsten color temperature for our corrections.

Method Three – Custom White Balance for Background and Matching Gels on Flash

Here you use custom white balance to establish an exact white balance setting for the ambient light. It is best to use a “white balance card” or a device like the X-Rite Color Checker Passport.

Color Checker Passport in Ambient Light

Image captured of  a Color Checker Passport in ambient light

Zoomed in for creating a Custom White Balance

Color Checker Passport – Zoomed in for creating a Custom White Balance

Image of the Color Checker Passport after Custom White Balance was established

Image of the Color Checker Passport after Custom White Balance was established

If possible, bring that image into Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw and determine the actual color temperature. In this case, it is 2400°K, which, as you can see, is vastly different from the 3200°K tungsten. No wonder there was still a yellow colorcast in the first method. Use this measurement to establish the gel strength needed for the primary flash. If you cannot use Lightroom or any other software to obtain an accurate color temperature reading, you will need to do a bit of trial and error to determine how much CTO to use. In this case we need to get to 2400°K. A full CTO will drop 5500°K to 3200°K and a 1/8 CTO will drop an additional 600°K bringing the correction to 2600°K which is fairly close to what we need. Leave the camera set to the custom WB and gel the flash with one Full CTO gel and one 1/8 CTO gel to get a well balanced image.

The correct White Balance for the background

The correct White Balance for the background

Using a Full CTO on flash head

Using a Full CTO on flash head

Flas with 1 CTO plus 1/8 CTO

Flash with a Full CTO plus a 1/8 CTO – a well color balanced image

One full CTO and one 1/4 CTO – the subject is a bit warm

One full CTO and one 1/4 CTO – the subject is a bit warm

In Conclusion

Always keep a set of color correction gels in your bag if you use flash on location.  Not only will you need them for indoor flash photography but the CTO gels are a ideal when using flash for portraiture at sunrise or sunset.

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Trade Secret Cards by Nice Industries – a Review

What’s the Most Important Part of Photography?

The Chase Jarvis Portraits set takes you behind the scenes on the lighting solutions for several national and international campaigns.

Trade Secret flash cards by Nice Industries – lighting tips on the go! 

If you talk to five different photographers, you’ll get five different answers to the question, “What’s the most important part of photography?” One might tell you proper exposure, while another might insist that it’s composition. Numbers three and four might debate the need to connect with the subject, but as the self-appointed fifth photographer in this roundtable, I’ll have to insist on lighting.

Obviously, there is no right answer. The truth is, they all play a vital role in successful photography. We can debate the meaning of “successful” another time, but for me it really does come down to knowing how to see the light and make it work for you.

Lighting is Key

As both photographer and photography teacher, I’ve reviewed a lot of books on lighting over the last several years. Some have been amazing and truly elevated my photography, becoming well-worn friends on the shelf. Others have been epic disappointments. Regardless of success or failure, though, I applaud them all for the effort. They all tried to bring something new to the conversation.

An unfortunate reality that all of these books share, however, is that you really can’t take them with you on a shoot. Think about it. The very last thing you need is to be standing there in front of a client, basically saying, “I’ll be with you in a minute. I just have to look something up.” Secondly, even if you’re experimenting on your own for future client work, dragging a lighting book along with you out on location is just plain cumbersome and inconvenient.

That’s why I love these Trade Secret Cards from Nice Industries.

trade-secret-cards-001These books we’ve been talking about are full of helpful lighting diagrams, set side-by-side with anecdotes and instruction from the photographers about how they set up the shots. But what if you could have all that great information in a more convenient, user-friendly package?

Trade Secret Cards provide just such a package and are available in two sets:  Strobist or Chase Jarvis Portrait Sessions. Each contains 24 high-gloss “trading cards” with a photo on one side, along with the lighting diagram and a “How-They-Got-the-Shot” story on the other.

The Strobist set runs the gamut from portraits to products to landscapes to light painting, and lots of cool stuff in between. Each of the 24 photographers’ lighting diagrams and tips were carefully selected to help take your lighting to the next level. The Chase Jarvis set gives you a front-row seat, as he walks you through a collection of portrait sessions he designed and shot for both his personal work, as well as several national ad campaigns, including the Hasselblad Masters Series.


Each deck of 2.5″ x 3.5″ wallet-sized cards gives you instant access to quality tips and information aimed at a single goal– making you a better photographer. Printed on thick, semi-durable card stock, each image has been reproduced with a high-quality resolution and UV finish. With the photo on one side and all the info you need on the other, these easy-to-follow cards are also perfectly portable, making it easy to drop a card or two or ten in your bag and head out to tame the lighting beast.

If you’re a photographer who really knows your lighting, these trading card-sized refresher courses are a great way to stay sharp. If you’re still learning, these images will inspire you to experiment and see why lighting really is the most important element of photography.

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Trade Secret Cards by Nice Industries – a Review

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tfttf614 – The Mysterious World of Fashion Photography

In this episode Chris tries to answer Gil’s question “How do I shoot in the style of Vogue?” – he takes you on a journey through what is important when shooting fashion: hair, makeup, posing, lighting, composition and post production. … Continue reading

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Fro Knows Photo Beginner Flash Guide – Review

It’s a little past 4:00 a.m. and I just finished watching all three hours of the just-released Fro Knows Photo Beginner Flash GuideA lot of photography-related books and videos come across my desk, and my favorites are always those that have something to offer not only the beginner, but the advanced photographer as well. This is absolutely one of them. In this follow-up video to his Fro Knows Photo Beginner Guide, Jared Polin (the aforementioned Fro) leads you on an off-camera flash adventure, taking you from hopelessly intimidated to supremely confident in a style all his own. Not bad for a three-hour tour.  With expert assistance from friend and professional photographer Adam Lerner, viewers have a front-row seat to everything from breaking down the contents of an affordable-but-effective light kit, to a behind-the-scenes look at six professional-grade photo shoots, all lit with a single speedlight and a convertible umbrella.


The Beginner Flash Guide starts literally from the ground up, planting a light stand firmly on the floor and explaining not only the contents of the light kit, but how those five or six pieces all work together to achieve professional-quality lighting without breaking the bank. Jared launched in 2010– a brand and a website that quickly became synonymous with making advanced photography techniques accessible not only to professional photographers, but also to beginners, hobbyists, and enthusiasts. The Beginner Flash Guide maintains and elevates that educational philosophy, taking what can be the confusing language and landscape of photographic lighting, and essentially handing the viewer a dictionary and a road map.

Among the nuts and bolts laid out are: The Lighting Kit Explained, Four Ways to Trigger Your Flash, Flash-to-Subject Distance, How Shutter Speed Affects Ambient Light, Understanding Flash Zoom, and Quality of Light. Plus, thirteen “Quick Tips” interspersed throughout the lessons cover some minor and some not-so-minor details on topics ranging from which rechargeable batteries you should use (lithium) to how best to interact with your subject. Word to the wise– make sure you take notes– they’ll make retaining and applying the information to your own photography much easier. An additional, non-video element is the included Flash Photography Field Guide– a six-page PDF designed to be printed and tucked away in your camera bag for quick, easy reference. The field guide does a great job of summarizing the basics covered in the videos, as well as offering suggestions for overcoming some real-world lighting challenges.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mentor or someone to show them the ropes when they are first trying to learn this stuff. The BFG can and will fill that void. But even if you already have a firm grasp of off-camera flash principles– or just need a refresher– the lessons in this video guide can enhance and build upon what you already know. There will always be trial and error when it comes to learning and experimenting with photographic lighting. The Beginner Flash Guide, though, can help you minimize the error.

Get your copy of the Fro Knows Photo Beginner Flash Guide here.

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

Fro Knows Photo Beginner Flash Guide – Review

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