Whether you’re an enthusiast looking to sharpen your creative tools or a professional expanding your skills to get more gigs, off-camera lighting—that is, flashes or continuous lights not mounted on your camera—can be as daunting to master as a musical instrument or a language. Even for professionals, it’s a lifelong process. But with basic concepts and a few inexpensive tools, it can be surprisingly simple to begin.
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The first step is the recognition that lighting is at the core of this art form. “Photo-graphy literally means writing with light,” says photographer and lighting instructor David Hobby, who spent 15 years creating the online lighting education resource Strobist to help photographers around the world. “Learning how to create your own light is a critical foundational skill to becoming a capable and versatile photographer,” Hobby says. He adds that lighting allows you to solve technical problems, create an entirely new environment for your subject, and make your camera interpret a scene exactly the way your eye sees it. “Lighting is probably your most effective tool to shift the thought patterns of your viewer,” he says.
But it’s a journey more than a destination. “I am still learning about light, still trying new techniques, and still experimenting,” says Art Streiber, an iconic Los Angeles-based photographer whose portraits and editorial work reflect an astounding fluency with lighting. Streiber says you don’t need to apprentice as a photo assistant or even go to photography school. “But you have to be open-minded, and in constant pursuit of knowledge and experience,” he says. “I’m not done learning, and I don’t think any of us in the creative arts are, or should be.”
Our emotional responses to lighting are based on our lifelong relationship with sunlight. “We are working with emotion that is hard-wired,” says Karl Taylor, a UK-based photographer and photography educator and the founder of Karl Taylor Education, a global online photography platform. A low angle of light paired with a color and intensity reminiscent of a sunset triggers one emotion, while light suggesting a sunrise evokes another—be it nostalgia, melancholy, or hope. Shadows can create a sense of mystery and be ominous or inviting. Taylor uses the example of a child putting a flashlight under her chin: Because light is coming from a different direction than our brains are used to it seems uncanny.