Review: OneLight Workshop DVD


UnknownAt the end of yesterday’s post, I told you that this is the DVD to buy if you could only afford to buy one. That’s because this is the training material that I felt did the best job of presenting a complete guide to lighting and reinforced it with examples demonstrating the lessons. It was very well produced, well paced, clear in its purpose and teaches you how to think for yourself so you can solve lighting problems outside of the examples provided in the training.

That last line is what really matters to me. At the end of the training, can I come up with my own, original idea and know how to light the subject to capture the image I visualize without merely replicating a scenario that was presented in the training? That’s the test. Anyone can take a great picture using the “monkey-see, monkey-do” approach. That’s replication or mimicry. You know you’ve learned the material when you can use the knowledge presented to create your own, original pieces of work.

Setting the Tone

Zack starts off by setting expectations. He lets you know that there’s going to be a lot of technical information (flash to subject distance, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, flash power) and it can initially seem intimidating. Then he tells you that this kind of thing needs to become second nature. You don’t want to be “tweaking out” this stuff in your head while your subject (client) feels disconnected from you. Basically, he’s telling you that you need confidence and experience in the technical aspects of lighting so you can spend more time paying attention to your subject. The information he provides over the course of two DVDs delivers that capability so you don’t look like a fool in front of your client and you can earn their trust.

Once that introduction is over, he dives into the variables that affect your exposure, the kinds of indicators you should see to recognize a correct exposure. It can be a bit subjective, but he gives clear examples of skin tones, for instance, that are exposed correctly, over and under. The brochure inside the DVD case also provides examples of how changes in your exposure affect skin tone.

Perhaps most importantly, he stresses that everything being taught will be done in Manual Mode. You need to understand what is happening and why it’s happening. By setting both Camera and Flash into Manual Mode, you control every aspect of your exposure. Automatic modes take control away from you and make decisions without letting you know why something changed. When you work with an evaluative system like TTL, minute an imperceptible changes may vary the amount of light delivered from the flash. You use Manual Mode so that you know that the amount of light being delivered is consistent from one shot to the next. If you’re in control of your ISO, shutter speed, aperture, flash power and the relation of your flash to your subject, then you can expect consistent results.

What if those results are consistently bad? That’s why you need to understand the relationship each of these elements has with the others, and how they effect your overall exposure. The meat of the lesson is how to see changes in your exposure by manipulating one or more of these variables. Zack’s intent with this course is to show you how to think for yourself and manipulate these variables to get consistent and correct exposures.

The Lecture – Characteristics of Exposure

Zack Arias explains shutter speed
Screen Capture - OneLight Workshop DVD

As you can see from the screen capture above, Zack makes interesting use of his environment to provide the basic lessons. As he reviews each element of exposure, he drills down into the purpose of that element (e.g., in this example, that your shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light that enters your exposure) and factors the may limit or affect your use of the element. You may think that a lecture sounds boring, but it’s really not.

The thing that Zack does next is either brilliant or obvious – yet he’s the only instructor I’ve seen who demonstrates it so clearly. Photography is a visual medium, so you can’t really expect to use bullets to completely convey your message. That’s why he then shows a series of photographs that illustrates exactly how changes in shutter speed (and no other changes) make dramatic differences in the ambient light – ranging from pitch black background in the middle of the day, through to beautiful ranges of sky exposures, to completely blown-out skies. During these examples, he fires a flash against the wall. You can see that the amount of light from the flash remains consistent through each of the exposures, but only the surrounding, ambient light gets affected. This is the kind of clear presentation followed by a visual aid that helps drive the lesson home. Later in the course, he mentions and shows changes in shutter speed to reinforce this basic lesson.

Following the lesson and examples, Zack goes into a discussion of choices your get to make about controlling the ambient light. When and how does it matter to darken, lighten, or balance the light from your flash and the surrounding light? The answer depends on the creative choice you want to make. Would your subject look better on a bright, high-key background, or pop more from an under-exposed background? Do you want your subject to blend seamlessly in an environmental portrait? He explains how changes in your shutter speed provides these options to support your creativity.

Aperture is the next variable under discussion, and he drives home the message how aperture controls your flash exposure. Is the flash too bright on your subject? Close the aperture. Conversely, open the aperture if your subject is too dark. Now you have creative control over the light on your subject that is different from the creative control on the ambient light in your environment. If you’re scratching your head wondering why, he explains it quite simply. Flash happens faster than your shutter speed, so that amount of light isn’t entering your exposure over the same period of time.  The variable that allows you to collect more light from your flash (separate from ambient light) is the size of the whole allowing light onto your camera’s sensor (or film, if you still use it). That’s your aperture. A larger size aperture allows more light in the same amount of time than does a smaller aperture. If you need more light from your flash, lowering your shutter speed won’t help because the flash duration is shorter than the shutter speed.

The lecture continues with discussion of ISO and Flash Power, but I don’t want to recount those here. However, I do want to point out his method of teaching Flash to Subject Distance and how it’s affected by the Inverse Square Law. Like most instructors, he sort of whines about it, but I don’t see why.  He’s once again used the simply brilliant example of a photograph to illustrate what happens to light as it travels. You can find the image on his blog here. Go ahead, click the link and look at the image.

You can immediately see how the light changes in size and intensity as it travels along the distance of the wall. Zack marked the intensity changes to illustrate light fall-off. Notice how the distance between these marks gets larger as the light gets further away from its source.

Zack breaks it down like this. You lose 75% of your light when you double the distance from your flash to your subject. Now bear than in mind and look at the photo again. At its brightest point, doubling the distance is a matter of an inch or two and you’ve lost 75% of your light. That could have a dramatic impact on your exposure if your subject simply leans forward or backward. However, the nice thing about doubling is that it gives you an ever-increasing range of space to use. If you need room to move or have to group a few people together, you’re not going to place them an inch away from your light source. Place them a few feet away, however, and you have a larger range of space to accommodate your subject in a consistent amount of light. All you have to do is open your aperture for that range of distance in order to get a correct exposure.

Once again, Zack follows up with photos to illustrate the point. He shows a group of people standing in different relationship to the source of light. You can clearly see the range of contrast as the light travels and falls off. Since a single exposure is limited to a single aperture setting, there’s no way to properly light everyone until they get into an area where the variance of light occurs over a larger physical distance.

The photos that show light at different distances are helpful, but Zack keeps going to illustrate how this may apply in a real world scenario – like a wedding reception. There’s inevitably a dance floor and he knows he has to get a photo of the couple during their first dance. That’s not the time to be working out lighting ratios. However, he can setup his lights in advance in a single position, and then divide the areas of the room according to light fall-off. The dance floor will be at an area where the light fall-off is particularly wide. All he has to do is change his aperture depending upon the part of the room where he’s shooting. For the dance floor, he can go down to a lower aperture and get consistent light over the space of the floor. That allows him to be confident with the amount of light and exposure, so he can concentrate on getting images of the couple. You could light a basketball court with the same philosophy.

By the time this initial lecture and his examples are done, you’re only 27 minutes into the DVD. Honestly that was all it took to clear up all of the misconceptions I had about lighting, tie together the bits and pieces I’d learned in previous training efforts and workshops. That was the meat and potatoes lesson that answered how to creatively light and control my photographs. Pun aside, it was like a light went off for me. Epiphany. I had the information I needed and I could see examples of how it works. More importantly, I had a foundation to use to create my own images. Yes, I need to practice, but that’s expected. Think about this in terms of a parable:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Zack didn’t present any recipes for lighting.  He never told you to set your ISO here, your shutter speed here, choose this aperture, this amount of power on your flash and put your subject 3 feet away, then all of your pictures will be perfect. Such advice would only be useful under those specific circumstances, so why waste everyone’s time with a recipe? What Zack provided was clear instruction of how the variable perform individually and interact with each other to create an exposure.

The Gear

Photographers love gear. Every course, every workshop, every session I’ve watched has had some segment on gear. The advantage of performing in Manual Mode is that you can use a variety of different types of gear. However, there are four elements you need:

  1. A flash
  2. A support (e.g., light stand)
  3. A trigger (e.g., sync cable, Pocket Wizard)
  4. A modifier (e.g., umbrella, soft box, reflector – something to shape the light)

It doesn’t matter if you use a cheap flash you got on eBay or a studio strobe. You can use the elements he taught in the basic lecture to manually control the power of the flash. What you need from that point is a way to hold the light, trigger the light to fire, and modify the light. He discusses his thoughts on some specific brands of lights, pros and cons of different triggers, and how various light modifiers (e.g., reflector with grid, big softbox) modify the quality of light that falls on your subject. It’s useful information, but you don’t see much here in the way of examples. In the next segment, he starts shooting and you see how all of these elements come together during a session.

Live Shoot – Lessons in Practice

The rest of the first DVD gets divided into a couple of sessions – an indoor studio session where he covers examples of how to achieve a specific look by either changing exposure variables (e.g. darkening a background by use of shutter speed) or by using different light modifiers. Zack also gives his thoughts on how to work with models, composition and other aspects of photography. One of the interesting techniques I liked was when he placed a single bare-buld light behind his model and used the ceiling and walls to reflect light around. He mentions that he’s a fan of having movement in his photos. After shooting a few frames to cover the basics, his gets his model to start moving around, whipping her hair and creates some very energetic images – all with one bare bulb standing behind her.

The benefit I got from watching the live shooting sessions was to see how you can use the lessons to add creative impact to your images. You can see how he sets up his shots and he consistently tells you what settings he’s using. If he changes something, he mentions it and tells you why he’s making a change.  All of this adds reinforcement to the basic lessons provided in the lecture and you see the immediate results. The video post-processing team did an excellent job of showing the images as he clicks them, so you don’t have to wonder what’s happening on the shoot – you see every frame. If there’s a problem, he discusses it and how he changes something to remedy the issue.

The second DVD gives you the same kind of insight, but with a slight difference. Instead of using a model he hired for training, you go along with Zack on live shoots with actual clients. As much as this is a learning device about lighting – because he still reinforces everything by telling you what settings and changes he uses – you also get to see his creativity in action. You see how he deals with his clients, changing locations, using resources he finds along the way.

At the end of the second DVD, he covers a bit about his post processing in LightRoom. It’s not a LightRoom tutorial, but once again, it gives you insight to his vision and how he expects the resulting photo to look. For example, there are some shots he made where he knew he was looking at the result in Black & White.  He goes into his thoughts about the elements that help him decide what to process.


The DVD package is $250 plus shipping ($12). As I said at the start, this is the DVD I would recommend to anyone interested in truly understanding using flash for photography. It doesn’t tell you what to do, it gives you the tools to do what you want. For that reason, I view it as a completely successful educational package and a great value. Had I started here, I could’ve saved a boatload of money. Also, having this foundation helps me appreciate the rest of the training that’s out there, but doesn’t quite dive into exploring all of the information presented here.

I have one complaint about this DVD, and only one. The music absolutely sucks. Don’t let that stop you, though. It’s only a few seconds of some rap/hip-hop beat that drones on between segments. In fact, I’m giving it too much credit by calling it music. However, at least I can say that it fills the empty space between one segment and the other. It’s my fault for being raised with a talented musician for not appreciating this slice of Urban crap. Now seriously, if that’s my only complaint, I hope that tells you that the rest of the material works.

My little rant about the music aside, I’m absolutely thrilled with this DVD. I started shooting immediately after watching it and found myself completely comfortable with the lessons. While this DVD pretty much focuses on using a single light, I found it very easy to adapt the lessons to include multiple lights and balance different aspects of the exposure. That’s what impressed me the most. I got the foundation necessary to improvise, adapt and overcome my previous limitations. It’s not magic. It’s just good, on-topic information.

On Thursday’s post, I’ll dive into a review of David Hobby’s Strobist DVDs. Work beckons for a long day Wednesday, hence the delay to write-up the next review in the lighting education series.

You can order the DVD from this page:


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