Affiliate Disclosure: We earn a commission if you purchase through one of our links at no additional cost to you.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had some conversations online with friends who are taking some first steps into learning lighting for portrait photography. They run into issues, they pose questions, and a number of folks try to respond.  This kind of scenario plays out routinely on message boards. It’s not limited to photography, either.  There are a number of subjects where people can ask “how do I do this” or “what should I buy” type of questions. There’s a never-ending litany of people who will tell them specifically how to get the result using XYZ.  Basically, most of the answers I see coming back to the questions are like cooking recipes. They tell you how to get a look, but they don’t tell you why their solution works.

I’m not writing this post to teach you about lighting. Quite honestly, that’s something I’m still exploring myself. I’m writing about learning, and specifically how it applies to photographic lighting.

Mimicry Does Not Equal Learning

When I was about twelve years old, my parents decided to send me for piano lessons. I was up for it.  My older brother is an outstanding musician, so they sent me to the same woman who taught him. The problem is that it didn’t take.  Part of the reason may have been the difference in our ages. He was five years old when he started; a very malleable age. At twelve, my own ornery personality had installed itself. The teacher told me what to do and I was expected to practice until I could do it.

It bored the hell out of me. I wasn’t learning anything about music or how to play the piano.  I was simply being told what to do to repeat a result, much like following a recipe. Yes, I could read a few notes of sheet music, but that was the same as reading instructions to make tacos. There was no moment of epiphany where I suddenly understood why I played this note versus that one. It was just a rote performance, and not very good at all.  Ultimately, I quit. Years later, I took up guitar and sought out an instructor.  I stayed with it longer, but it was pretty much the same thing.  I’d go in, he’d work out the tablature of a song, and then send me home to practice it.  While I got very good at some of the songs (not all), it was just mimicry. Just like a parrot doesn’t understand the words it says, I didn’t understand the notes I was playing.

In order for me to learn a subject, it’s extremely important for me to understand the underlying relationships to the actions being taught. Without that, the best I can do is mimic a given situation. Throw me a curve and change a variable, though, and I have no basis to change with it unless I understand the foundations of the subject. That’s why rote rehearsal and teaching elements of a subject really don’t benefit me unless I know why those actions work.

Lighting Lessons

Over the past few years, I’ve spent an enormous amount of money on learning photography. I’m not saying that because I regret it. It’s been fun to discover little things along the way. Some very talented people have shared their knowledge with me, ranging from workshops with direct attention from instructors to online & DVD courses. A lot of them have said the same thing in different ways. A lot of them have also contradicted each other. I’m left to pull out the lessons and apply them to develop my own style. One of the things I’ve learned from these people is that they’re all right, from a given perspective. By that, I mean that they know what works for them and they have the photographs to demonstrate their success.

What I haven’t received from most of them – in fact, all but one of them – is a real foundation to understand the relationships that affect photographic lighting. Instead, I received little nuggets of the overall picture. It’s kind of like being given pieces of a jigsaw puzzle here and there, and each person who gives me a piece shows me a different picture. I could make some of the pieces fit together, but then another piece would come along and upset everything.  I’d end up confused and wondering why I wasn’t getting it.

This isn’t a criticism of the instructors, either. In many cases, I think they inherently knew the knowledge I needed, but were teaching on a level that I hadn’t yet reached. I could grasp pieces of their lessons based upon the innate intelligence bestowed by my giant, manly brain. Still, I wasn’t making much progress. I was jumping int practice of a field without a basic foundation to guide my decisions.

That basically turned into a series of demonstrations and happy accidents for me.  For example, I’ve watched Joe McNally teach live workshops and several course on He provided wonderful, useful information. Then I would go buy the gear he used, get a live model and start shooting.  Only, it didn’t work for me like it worked for him. I was scratching my head.  Joe shot a model with a Nikon SB-800 through an umbrella with a Nikon camera.  I have all that.  Why doesn’t my light look like his light?

I’ve since learned it’s because important pieces of information were missing, variables were different, and I didn’t understand how to compensate for it. Joe’s lesson was great as he described the decisions he made based upon the environment where he was shooting, but he started teaching at a level above the foundation I needed to adapt his lessons to my circumstances.

More specifically, I didn’t understand issues relating to balancing ambient light with flash light. My perspective of an exposure was simplistic. Look at the light meter and adjust Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed to get a “correct” exposure. I didn’t understand the relationship of multiple sources of light and how they were affected by changes in aperture or shutter speed, dependent upon whether the light was from a flash or an ambient source.

Working Lessons

I knew I needed help, but didn’t know how to ask for the right help. You don’t know what you don’t know. So I started going to workshops that covered various topics and lighting was a piece of most of them. What I didn’t find anywhere was a course specifically on lighting fundamentals. Instead, I took courses working with models and hoping to learn things as I went along. Those things were more than lighting.

  • How do you pose a model?
  • How do you compose portraits?
  • How do you look-out for background elements that screw up the beautiful model in the foreground?
  • Why am I shooting from my belly instead of standing up?
  • Who are all these goobers snapping shots behind me, causing my model to pay attention to everyone instead of me?

It started off as something very overwhelming. Add into that I was using new and strange lighting tools that were just supposed to magically work. The focus of most of these workshops wasn’t about lighting, but about glamour or portrait photography. The folk running the show set things up, said what aperture and shutter speed to use, and I clicked like a happy idiot. It’s not all bad.  I learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t with relationship to models, posing and composition. I also picked up little bits and pieces about lighting, but it mostly seemed like an afterthought. As a result, I came away with images like this one without really doing all of the thinking necessary to do it on my own.

Amanda Steelman poses for photo workshop
Amanda - © Copyright 2010 by William Beem

The Physics of Light

I’m quite fond of that photo, as you could guess, since it’s one of the images rotating on my web page banner. It brings together a lot of elements, starting with a beautiful and absolutely charming model. However, it also reminds me of things that I didn’t control in this shot. I didn’t pick the location. I didn’t pose her. One of the lessons I learned at this workshop about posing was “if it bends, bend it.” Amanda sat on that couch arm and just started striking stunning poses and I was in complete awe. She knew what worked. The instructors setup the light – a single Alien Bee with an Octa Box.  Yet, parts of this image are from me. I chose the composition and angle. I chose the moment to click. I did the post processing. It’s not a perfect shot, but it’s a happy accident for me.

What I didn’t understand at the time is why the light worked for her and fell to darkness. After all, this is just a recreation room in a condominium. Sun was shining in the windows and lights were on through the room. I didn’t understand light fall-off. I didn’t understand the relationship of aperture to flash power, flash distance to subject, or ambient light to shutter speed. All of those elements are foundations that work together to make this image what it is, but they weren’t taught at this workshop.

My friend John is actually the first person who started giving me these pieces of information at his workshops. In fact, he gave us exercises to demonstrate the effect of changes in shutter speed had on ambient light, while leaving the flash power, ISO and aperture alone. It was an interesting nugget, but still didn’t cover the entire relationship that I needed for a foundation. Again, that’s likely because the intent of those workshops wasn’t solely about light. They were as much about portfolio-building opportunities, but he definitely made a point to share lessons about these fundamental elements.

Light is just energy. Energy radiates and dissipates at predictable levels. If you understand how that radiation and dissipation works, you can use it creatively. That’s the lesson that I never learned, although many instructors talked around the idea. It wasn’t until someone mentioned the Inverse Square Law that I finally had something solid I could understand, rather than just trying to follow someone else’s recipe or mimic their actions. Why the hell didn’t anyone mention this sooner?

Apparently, it’s because a lot of people who teach photography absolutely hate the Inverse Square Law. They think it’s complicated and difficult to understand, hence they think their students won’t understand it. I wish that wasn’t the prevailing answer, though. A lot of people who attend photography workshops and seminars are engineers. This is something we can understand! Instead, they talk about effects, such as quality of light, harshness or softness, without giving too much information about the cause of these effects. Once I heard about the cause, almost everything else fell into place for me.

Where to Learn About Light

I’ve spent the last few weeks watching training about photographic lighting from people like David Hobby (Strobist), Joe McNally and Zack Arias. These guys all have excellent information to share. In many cases, they say the same thing, but each in their own way. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll give you my thoughts on the training they provide and how you can use it. I don’t have any relation to these guys, other than being a consumer of their instruction.

What I can’t do is review workshops. There are too many of them, so I certainly haven’t attended them all. For that matter, workshops tend to cover multiple tips and topics. What I can do, though, is try to share my thoughts on how to determine if a workshop is right for you. Many of them will claim to work for all levels, but I think that’s more of a marketing statement than a truth. Yes, you can walk right in with a camera and take pictures, but you have to decide if your objective is to walk out with more knowledge than images.

Another thing I can do in future posts is talk about some of the absolutely stupid products and ideas out there about light. I walked through two of my local camera stores this past weekend and was amazed by the amount of “crap gadget” products that supposedly solve the mystery of lighting for you. I wouldn’t say the products are always completely useless, but some of their uses have absolutely nothing to do with the claims they make. Once you understand the physics of light, you can immediately spot this crap-gadgets and save yourself some money.

Think about it this way. Photography is like cooking. TV commercials are filled with magical slicers, dicers and tools that do the things that you’re too stupid to do because you aren’t a professional chef. Well, I’m not a chef, but I spent a couple of years working with them at a culinary school. Here’s what I learned. They use a chef’s knife, not an array of gadgets. I can also tell you that, while I respect more than a few of them, there are chef’s who aren’t quite as sharp as their knives. If they can learn to work without the latest Ronco tool, so can you.  The same is true of lighting tools.

For now, I’ll leave you with one parting thought. If you can only afford to buy one training DVD to understand the foundations of photographic lighting, get the OneLight Workshop DVDs from Zack Arias. In my next post, I’ll tell you why. After that, I’ll share my thoughts on the Strobist DVDs from David Hobby and the courses provided by Joe McNally. It’s all good, but for different reasons.

Similar Posts


  1. There’s 1 thing that scares me away from the Zack Arias stuff. The price tag. $250 for a DVD, and his workshop is coming to Denver, at a cost of $800 for 1 day. Even though you’ve told me over and over his stuff is magical, I just can’t justify that cost, unfortunately. I look forward to your reviews of the Strobist DVDs. Of course, maybe I can get Zack’s DVD for Christmas or something, but doubtful since I used up that “karma” on the lights. 🙂

    1. Well, it’s not magical. The thing I like about Zack’s DVD is that it’s very useful information presented in a clear manner and reinforced with many examples. When I think about the money I’ve spent on various workshops and crappy gadgets, $250 for the DVD is pretty cheap.

  2. Excellent series of posts on lighting so far. I have been curious about the Zack Arias DVD. And the information I have found on strobist seems above my level or too specific like you mentioned. I just bought a speedlight and want to get a basic lighting setup in my house to practice shooting portraits and still life. Your posts are helping to point me in the right direction to get started.

    1. Thanks, Drew. I’m really glad to hear it. I’m going to write up my thoughts on the Strobist DVD for Thursday’s post. However, I really do think that Zack’s DVD is the best resource I’ve found to give someone the foundation they need for lighting. From there, a lot of the other sources start to make sense.

Comments are closed.