People watch my studio tutorials and many viewers find them to be helpful.  Often, people will thank me for transferring my knowledge and then ask where I acquired my own knowledge. People assume that I learned studio lighting techniques in books or took formal classes in studio photography. I did neither.

In 2004, I purchased two Alien Bees B800 strobes, two umbrellas, a backdrop stand, a white fabric backdrop and a black fabric backdrop. I had no idea what I was doing.

The equipment arrived and I quickly learned how to trigger the strobes optically after first fussing around with a PC-sync cable and a Wein Safesync connected to the hotshoe of my Nikon D100. 

My first images were badly underexposed. I was shooting at narrow apertures and running the lights at full power. Not only was my lighting poor, but I could see every wrinkle and fiber in the backgrounds. I was having my subjects stand just a few inches in front of the background. My white background also looked medium gray.

At this point, did I turn to books, videos, and classes? No.

Stubborn as I am, I decided that I would first solve the basic mechanical problems that I was having and then figure out how I would get results like those I saw online and in magazines.

The first thing that I did was unplugged one of the two lights, placed it aside, and started with one light and a shoot-through umbrella.

Next, I started with the camera settings that I wanted to use. Using the camera's flash sync speed for the shutter speed, I would minimize ambient light. Then, I set a desired aperture that would put the background out of focus. Part of achieving this is to increase the separation between the subject and the background. My first home studio was a small room, but only with three walls, which opened up into another room, so I could easily put the subject 10 feet in front of the backdrop, if necessary.

Once I had the camera settings that I wanted, I then adjusted to strobe output to create an acceptable exposure. My first shots were pretty bland, but by isolating the camera settings from the light settings, I was able to achieve proper exposure. My white backgrounds were still grey, but I was making progress.

I moved the single light everywhere - in front of the subject, behind the subject, to the side, pointing away from the subject, pointed at the ceiling, pointing at the ground, behind the camera, in front of the camera, and everywhere in between. I also changed the power output while doing this. Pointing at the ceiling? I would need higher power but I would achieve a wider spread of light. Remove the shoot-through umbrella? I would get very focused light, but I would have to lower the output power significantly.

Soon, I could review my test images, and without thinking, I would know exactly where the light had been positioned for each image.

I continued to leave the second light unplugged and I experimented more and more. I experimented every single night... for months. Soon, I could find a photo online or in a magazine, and get most of the way to the particular "look" with a single strobe, an umbrella, and settings on my camera. In fact, I began to see the entire world differently. I could look at photos around me - on billboards, hanging on walls, etc... and using the lighting on the subject, and even the catchlights in the eyes, determine the lighting setup, even though I had only been shooting with one light.

Only when I got to that point did I use the second light at all. My first attempts with two lights were boring. Instead of the shadow and dimension I was achieving with a single light, my two-strobe images were flat and "deer in the headlights." My second light, used for fill, had a reflector umbrella, which was forcing a ton of light on to the subject.

I went back to the drawing board. I would set up a shot for one light and then would add the second light and slowly and methodically would change the position and use very little power. I realized that in my initial efforts with fill lighting, I was overpowering the subject with light. By using significantly less power on the fill light than the primary, I was able to create subtle fill and highlight effects while maintaing the dimension of the image.

I spent months working with various two light setups... every single night.

After an entire year (perhaps more), I was able to light the subjects the way that I wanted in a short period of time. I never worked from a formula. With each subject, I would position the lighting in a custom way at custom settings that would most flatter the subject and achieve the look/mood that they sought. I was able to start shooting and adjust settings 1 to 3 times before I had everything how I wanted.

Now, I was ready for more. Using my SB-800 speedlights, I am able to set them to Nikon's SU-4 mode, which turns them into "dumb" manually adjustable strobes. I began using these both as a 3rd and 4th light on the subject and also pointed at my white background to completely blow it out to white for high key work. Additionally, I began to create my own custom modifiers for each of the lights to direct light exactly as I wanted.

I will always consider myself to be a student of photography and lighting. I will never, ever achieve a level of satisfaction... I am always searching for "more and better." I am glad, though, that I did not learn what I do know about studio lighting from books, classes, and videos. The way that I did learn was time consuming and painful - BUT, it allowed me to develop "lighting intuition" that I will always have.

In my own teachings, such as my eLookBook, I do provide light positioning, lighting settings, and camera settings. However, these are just a starting point to help you save you some time in the early stages. They should only be a starting point! Explore and experiment. Say to yourself, "She did it like this, but I want to do it this other way" and go for it! Your mistakes will teach you far more than I ever can!


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