No more tears.

When I was a young tacker, my dad took umpteen photos of the family with my mum’s trusty Voigtländer Vito II, and dutifully followed the best outdoor photographic advice of the day – ‘put the sun behind your right shoulder’. The rationale for this is sound – the sun is your strongest light source, and thus effectively the Key Light, and so if you have it behind you, it will light your subject, and if you have it behind but off to the side a bit, it will create shadows, and give a better sense of depth – exactly what you would do with studio lighting. However – if you are standing there as the subject for any length of time, staring towards the sun… it’s very bright, and without sunglasses you may start crying. I am sure many in many family photos I look 85% sadder than I am (I had a lovely childhood!) due to the effects of squinting into the sun for photos.

I had always reflected upon this practice, and thought ‘there must be a better way’! Well of course there is, and it’s using artificial lighting – specifically FLASH.

Flash light (whether old school bulbs or electronic strobe) is moreorless instantaneous, which is of benefit in multiple ways:

• You don’t cry, staring into a bright light

• Your pupils remain larger – (people find larger pupils more attractive, like puppies and deer)

• For exposure purposes, the shutter speed of the camera doesn’t really affect the flash light (with caveats for synchronisation) so you can use shutter speed to control the exposure of the ambient light.

The subject of actual lighting technique with little flashguns is well covered by Strobist and other websites and books and everything, but what’s been of extreme interest to me is simply the ‘lack of discomfort’ factor, and super easiness of setup.


Consider this family snap I made at Werribee Mansion for my primary school chum Kate. I knew I wanted the Mansion in shot for context, so I asked them to stand in a spot shaded by a tree, and then shot away with two flashes (one low, camera left, and one higher, camera right, and at one stop higher power than the other). The ambient light of the sun lights the background, and the family is artificially lit, and hopefully smiling at my excellent jokes, rather than crying from the sunshine.


Similarly, this ‘still‘ from a little film shoot a few weeks ago, features my excellent brother pretending to plant a tree with his excellent partner – the lovely backlighting is the winter sun (a bit lower and softer than summer), and the front lighting is again from two flashes on stands. I could have asked them to go in a sunny spot, but even aside from the discomfort, the artificial lighting means almost any spot will do, and the sun becomes just another ‘lantern’. 

It will be a long while before I stop thinking this is all very cool indeed.

2 thoughts on “No more tears.

  1. Great advice and your examples illustrate beyond doubt the value of it. The only other thing, given I still use film and have to get it right the first time, is what distances are recommended for the flash from the subject.

    My other big issue is studio lighting. With a couple of strobe lights recently added to my gear I’m still working out how to get the best out of them, any tips on that would be welcome.

    1. Thanks Colin!

      Technology has come a long way in terms of helping: I have radio triggers for my flashes, and they all have manual power control. With a light meter that can radio-trigger them, I can take incident readings within the frame and get a nice contrast ratio, and balance to ambient (the sun) that way. Case-in-point, at Christmas and other events, I’ve been making 5×4″ B&W group portraits of the family – and my process is exactly that – I’ll face everybody with their backs to the sunshine, or in shadow, and then front light them with a couple of flashes, radio triggered from the Copal shutter of the Field Camera’s lens. There’s always the fear that I’ve done everything wrong (and won’t know ’till I’m in the darkroom!), but if you meter well, then you’re set. And with a leaf-shutter camera, flash-sync speeds are less of an issue (than with SLR’s), so it’s even simpler to balance everything.

      In the studio it’s the same, only ambient light is less of an issue, and it’s more about sync speed and quality of light. Experiment, and be your own fussiest critic. Look at classic portrait photography, reverse-engineer it, you’ll learn heaps.

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