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Simplify Your Lighting

I recently received a call from a commercial photographer who was to visit my city on assignment. Along with recommendations for assistants, digital techs and hairstylists, he also inquired about renting a basic lighting setup. "Only four or five packs," he said, "and maybe just eight or 10 heads." He would be bringing some more of his own, after all.

Much to my chagrin, I had to confess that the thought of taking that many lights on location didn’t often occur to me. Thinking of them as "just eight or 10" made me feel that surely I must be a miserable failure. After all, I had seen this photographer’s portfolio of product and lifestyle photographs, and he did good work. What must I be missing if I don’t use a dozen lights by default?

As it turns out, I’m not missing much at all.

While there’s a growing trend in high-end advertising and editorial photography to use lots of lights, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that just a few sources—maybe as few as one or two—can be all a skilled photographer needs to craft a polished picture. So before you remortgage your home to acquire enough strobes to hop on the bandwagon, consider reverting back to the basics by simplifying your lighting.

Sharpen Your Lighting Skills With Our Portrait Lighting Essentials tutorial


It used to be that photographers would stage lots of lights just in case they eventually were needed to refine a shot. But more often than not, assistants are busily deploying double-digit sources in every setup as a matter of course. Perhaps it stems from our collective desire to put on a show for our clients; that’s certainly a good enough marketing reason to use several lights. Location portrait photographer Seth Resnick told me a story a few years back about using lots of lights for that very purpose.

"I was doing an advertising shoot," Resnick explained, "and the art director starts out by telling me that essentially they’d done the same shot last year with somebody else. I decide that I really want to light the shot with one light, and it’s gonna be awesome. I’m going to go with a longer exposure and flash fill. The art director decides that the only way this can be done is with lots of lights. We get to a point where I realize this guy’s got his mind set, it’s a big budget at stake, there’s another shoot coming up, and I know no matter what I do, unless there’s a lot of lights, he’s not going to be happy. So I instruct the assistants, we set up 16 heads, and I put everything on a tenth-of-a-second delay. And the art director says, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this because it can’t be done any other way.’ It’s pointless to say to someone like that, ‘Well, you’re wrong.’ I show him the image, he’s thrilled, it’s my kind of lighting, it works, and it’s a show. If they want the show, they can have the show."

Theatrical agendas aside, isn’t there room to buck the trend and go for simplified lighting while still producing polished, highly refined images? The evidence points to yes.


Take action-sports shooter Scott Markewitz. "I was driving across Utah earlier today," he tells me, "and I was thinking about exactly this. I like to work efficiently, and I usually bring a minimal amount of lighting on a shoot. My goal is to minimize the setup and keep things rolling, and still get great lighting results. I’ve always thought of it as painting light into the shot, but I just thought of another analogy. It’s like some great rock bands that have only three members, but still put out an incredibly rich, full sound. They get sound out of just three people; the White Stripes did it with two. It’s the same thing with lighting; it’s all waves. Light waves, sound waves—you use too many instruments, or too many lights, and it can start to become noise."

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