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Artificial Light

Artificial Light

Photography lighting is an art, and to subscribe to the idea that there is one best type of lighting to use is to limit your expression of the art. There is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to lighting. The lighting you use comes down to what you want to achieve. Learning to use artificial light will open up your photographic potential in ways you may not have previously imagined. The degree of control offered by the use of artificial light is a distinct advantage over natural light and gives photographers the opportunity to express their creativity.

Unlike natural light, artificial light can give you full control over your photoshoot and it is available at any time of the day. When photographing with strobe lights or speedlights, you can control the intensity of the light produced, which enable you to have control over exactly how much depth of field (aperture value) you wish to have in an image, as well as the shutter speed you require. You also have control over the quality, direction and colour of the light.

Using multiple artificial light sources gives you total control of your lighting, and is ideal for product photography to produce consistent colour and contrast on all the items. Their intensity levels can also be easily controlled.

If you apply the three characteristics of light I discussed in a previous blog post (‘Light‘), you will be able to use any artificial light source to take beautiful pictures. Just remember to take care of your camera’s white balance for the different types of artificial light sources.

ARTIFICIAL LIGHT SOURCES

Artificial light is all lighting that does not originate from a natural source. Most of the time we think of the camera’s pop-up flash or a speedlight when we refer to artificial light, but any kind of lighting can be use for photography, even a streetlight or lamp. There are four types of artificial light sources used for photography today:

  • Incandescent lights
  • Fluorescent lights
  • LED lights
  • Flash lights (Speedlights & Strobe lights)

INCANDESCENT LIGHTS

Artificial-Light - Incandescent 1These are the light bulbs for everyday use in our lamps and fixtures at home. They’re inexpensive, easily available, and can create good photos if used properly. Incandescent lights ranges from the standard tungsten household light bulbs to large “hot lights” used in studios and on movie sets. Incandescent light bulbs come in many different types, styles, powers and colour temperatures. They produce harsh light and that’s why we usually use lampshades on lights in our homes. They tend to have a warm colour, which can be desirable depends on the look you want to achieve. Just keep in mind the colour temperature of an incandescent light can change if the brightness levels of the light are adjusted. They get hot to touch, so be careful around children. I once did macro photography on flowers with my hot lights, but after a few minutes the flowers wilted and my photoshoot was a failure. So be careful when photographing things like ice cream or plastic with incandescent lights. When shooting portraits, hot lights can also get uncomfortable for the subject and can result in the person sweating and not looking at their best.

FLUORESCENT LIGHTS

Artificial-Light - Fluorescent 2These lights have been around for decades. Traditionally they were greenish, and you had to have a magenta filter on your lens for colour correction. Now there is a new fluorescent kind on the market: the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL). They come in different colours: cool white, warm white and daylight balanced. As a result, it is hard to white balance for fluorescent lighting. Often you have a room with different colour CFL bulbs and then you have to custom white balance your camera. Unless you are intentionally going for a specific look, fluorescent lights are rarely used for photography.

LED LIGHTS

Artificial-Light - LEDLight Emitting Diodes (LED) is a relatively new technology and is becoming more popular for use in photography. One LED is very small, but they manufacture panels which can have as many as a few hundred LED’s mounted on them. LED lights also come in different colours (e.g. warm white and cool white), and it is important to set your camera on the colour temperature ratings given by the manufacturer. They are very power efficient and generate little heat which makes it suitable to do macro photography on heat sensitive subjects. They are also very popular to use on movie sets and makes life much more comfortable for the actors as they generate little heat.

The aforementioned three light types are also referred to as constant or continuous lighting. The benefit of working with constant lights is they allow you to see what the lighting look like as you move the lights, so when you take the photo you know exactly how the light is going to look on the picture.

FLASH LIGHTS

Flash lights can range from being a unit built into a camera to powerful strobe lights used in studios. They work by building up a high voltage charge, and then discharge to bursts out a huge amount of light in a fraction of a second (anywhere from 1/1,000th to 1/50,000th of a second). It is not continuous lighting like the other types of light, and it is a bit harder to visualise how the light is going to look on the photo. However, it is powerful and bright to give you plenty of light to work with. As the light is very harsh, you may want to use light modifiers such as umbrellas and soft boxes to soften the light. Flash light are about the same colour temperature as daylight, allowing you to mix these two sources of natural light and artificial light. The most common used flash lights in photography are speedlights and strobe lights.

SPEEDLIGHTS

Artificial-Light - Speedlight 1A speedlight, also known as a camera flash, is a portable flash unit that can be fired on the hot shoe of the camera, or be used off the camera with wired or wireless triggers. They are small, lightweight, usually powered by AA batteries, and are excellent for portability. You can control the output of a speedlight to give you more flexibility, and if you need more power, you can add extra speedlights to your lighting setup. The real advantage of a speedlight is that it can be less expensive; they are easy to use and so versatile that many photographers use them exclusively. All modern speedlights have TTL (Through-The-Lens) capabilities which allow the speedlight to get exposure information from the camera, to automatically set the power of the flash output for you.

Light from a speedlight gives hard light because it is a small light source, creates harsh shadows and often also distracting background shadows. There are however some light modifiers available for speedlights, but they are expensive and limited in softening the light. To soften the light of a speedlight you can use a bounce flash technique to spread the light evenly. Most external speedlights have the flexibility to turn and tilt the head, and all modern speedlights have a TTL mode to adjust automatically for extra power. Tilting or turning the flash head towards the ceiling or a wall will eliminate the shadows and give much softer illumination. In effect, the ceiling or wall becomes the light source, rather than the speedlight. The light can be reflected from any of the side walls or the wall in front of the subject. White walls or ceiling are ideal, but off-white will also do. Beware of coloured walls as they will create a colour cast in your light.

Artificial-Light - Speedlight 2Bounce flash techniques can sometimes look bland if the Artificial-Light - Speedlight 3light is just too even. People’s eyes also don’t have those small, bright reflections of the light they usually do with other lighting techniques, and results in a lack of sparkle in the eyes. Many speedlights have a pull-out ‘bounce card’ which directs some of the light straight to the subject adding ‘catchlights’ to give a sparkle in the eyes. Not all the speedlights have a bounce card to give frontal fill and catchlights, but to attach a white business card with a rubber band on the speedlight will do just as well.

STROBE LIGHTS

Artificial-Light - Strobe lightStrobe lights are generally much more powerful than a speedlight and can throw a lot more light when needed. Usually they come with continuous modeling lamps built in. This is a dim always-on bulb that allows you to approximate what the flash light will look like, and also give you an idea of how the shadows are going to fall on your subject. They also help your camera to auto focus, especially if the light in the area is limited. Since you have to plug them in an electrical plug they recycle very quickly and you can fire lots of consecutive shots, but you are limited to use them where electrical power is available. You can buy separate battery packs for strobe lights, but they are expensive and also big and heavy to carry around.

There are lots of light modifiers that are made for use with strobes to give you innumerable ways of creating a mood in your photographs through innovative lighting options. I will discuss light modifiers in the next blog post.

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