Still Not Using Off-Camera Lighting? It's So Easy a Seven Year Old Can Do It

There was a time early in my photography career that I bought into the idea of becoming a natural-light photographer. In secret this idea manifested because using off-camera lighting to help shape my images meant learning about all of this crazy lighting technology. I’d rather just stick to what I was comfortable with forever and just not use it. Sound familiar?

Thankfully, I eventually expanded my knowledge of lighting equipment and by doing so, the tools available at my disposal also increased. Yes, that meant buying more gear, which was costly (and an initial deterrent), but much of that gear I still have and use during nearly every shoot that we do to this day.

It's So Easy a Seven Year Old Can Do It

Perhaps you have the dinero to put down on some fancy new lighting equipment, but aren’t confident in your ability to use it. This particular article isn’t meant to tell you what lighting equipment to purchase, instead the intent is to urge you to just purchase it. In fact, it’s so easy to use that my seven-year-old son can do it.

My son is incredibly inspired by articles about superheroes. Any time he looks over my shoulder and spies any of the cool articles that I often stumble across featuring some of his favorite action figures, he lights up and begs me for days to work with him to create new images of characters from his own collection (which has expanded in to vast array of superhero action figures that collectively add up to a value I’m not willing to think about).

SHFiguarts makes realistic figurines that articulate for life-like positioning.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, he and I decided to set up on a table in the house and take some photos of his heroes, only this time I thought it’d be a good idea to introduce him to the off-camera lighting so many are intimidated by, and I’m glad that I did.

Using Speedlights

I invested in speedlights before any other type of lighting. While doing so I spent hours researching the latest Nikon speedlights of the time which ultimately led to me purchasing a Nikon SB-700, then two SB-910s before being introduced to Yongnuo Speedlites for a fraction of the cost. While both brands of speedlights have their advantages (price being the most obvious), the Yongnuo Speedlite proved to be much more usable for a seven year old due to the layout of the buttons. It was just easier for him to understand.

After adjusting the camera settings for him, I had him take a few shots with his subject overexposed so he would be able to dial down the power on both the speedlight and the AlienBees ABR800 ring light. It took about three times going back and forth to make adjustments before he and I were happy with the exposure and from there we didn’t need to touch the camera or light settings for the rest of the afternoon.

He’s become a bit of a creative director by now and really enjoys setting up his characters in ways he thinks are cool. Much of the time spent discussing lighting was consumed with talk of where he wanted the shadows, and how to move the lights to achieve the look he was after.

Equipment Used

The truth is, images like the ones above don't take a lot of special equipment to create. Below is a list of the gear we used on this day and why, but it's important to note that it can be done for a lot less.

What's Stopping You?

My advice to anyone interested in dipping their toes into off-camera lighting would be to purchase a single speedlight, like the Yongnuo YN-560-IV, and start experimenting. You'll be able to trigger the light using its slave function and you'll quickly learn the advantages and limits to using speedlights. From there, you'll be able to determine if it's something that you want to invest more in.

Off-camera lighting can add the dramatic and creative flare to your portraits, product photography, or wedding photography that will set your images apart from those natural-light photographers out there. So what's keeping you from learning how to use it?

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20 Comments
Caleb Kerr's picture

Whenever someone says they're a "natural light photographer" it just means they don't know how to use a common and basic photography tool (lights), but somehow turn it into a point of pride, which always strikes me as weird.

Anonymous's picture

I know folks who are proficient with artificial lighting but prefer natural light. I understand your point but you're overgeneralizing.

Caleb Kerr's picture

I think we're in agreement here though for the most part. But to say that person is proficient with artificial light, but prefers natural light tells me two things: they prefer the *look* of natural light, and they prefer the simplicity of shooting natural light. Sometimes I (or a client) wants a natural light look but we're in a warehouse with no windows. Knowing how to create the light you want and not being at the mercy of the environment is 100% the reason to be good with lights. Not everything with artificial lighting is about hard rim lights, it's about control.

Anonymous's picture

I can't speak for anyone else but I don't always find shooting with natural light, simple. While it obviously requires less gear, getting perfect light without artificial lighting (as your example demonstrates) is often far from simple! :-)
Being a control freak, my tendency is always to reach for artificial lighting and fall back on natural lighting if necessary.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I think a lot of that is spinning it to make themselves feel more comfortable. Most of the people I've met and actually talked to who call themselves "natural light photographers" are usually intimidated by artificial lighting and haven't taken the time to learn it yet. That said, there are tons of photogs out there who prefer natural light (as Patrick said). The thing is, when you're confident in your abilities, there's no need to go around explaining what kind of photographer you are.

Caleb Kerr's picture

Yes, you articulated that better than I did. The same way someone who prefers an 85mm lens for portraits don't lead off with "I'm an 85mm photographer..."

user 65983's picture

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Deleted Account's picture

That's painting with quite a large brush. Speaking for myself I have years of experience working with multiple lights in the studio and on location but I've left all of that behind. Creating something doesn't always have to be about using every tool in the box. I've found that I get the most satisfaction from making something nice out of the least amount of ingredients.

Jeff P.'s picture

What's the black material in the first image? It bends but it looks like it stays up by itself in the back. Is it the black poster board? Does it bend like that?

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Yes, it's two pieces of black poster board. It's flexible and easy to work with.

Jeff P.'s picture

Good!
Thanks a lot!!

Jeff P.'s picture

I bought the black foam board from your link. It doesn't bend at all. Useless.
What did you use?

Dusty Wooddell's picture

I fixed the link. It was linked to foam core board, which while handy, isn't flexible like regular poster board. Apologies for that. I purchase mine at my local Walmart for a couple dollars per sheet.

Jeff P.'s picture

I finally went to Staples and found some. Yeah you should have seen my face when I bent the foam board and heard the cracking sound ;)

Keith Hammond's picture

so good to see younger people into photography, if he stays interested and with your guidance i bet he has a future in the business

Dieter Stalmann's picture

How did you trigger the off-camera YongNuo? My Canon 7d mk2 does not have wifi, and the on-camera flash doesn't trigger the off-camera flash. Are you using a YongNuo controller?

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Using the flash's optical slave mode, the speed light was triggered by the ring light (which was triggered by a pocket wizard). Alternatively, you could trigger the speed light (and ring light) using your on camera flash set to remote or slave mode.

Dieter Stalmann's picture

Thanks

Jim Cutler's picture

Dusty, good article. Cool you two could share this.

Michael Murphy's picture

I shoot natural light but I can also use my studio lighting and just my speed-lights to over-power and over-run the natural / existing light. I've studied lighting, color theory and composition among other subject while obtaining my Associate Art Degree in Industrial Design Technology with a minor in Computer Animation. You would be surprised how much of that useless stuff that I learned but thought I will never need or use that I actually use on a daily basis now. I try to use the line of sight to the Model / Subject from Camera as my line (0 degrees) and use my lighting at 30 degrees, 45 degrees and / or 60 degrees off of that to either side as needed to fill the natural light or existing light. Hair lights and what I call 'shoulder lights have turned out to be invaluable in my Portrait, Glamour Portrait and Fashion Portrait shots. Even my Glamour Lingerie, almost Boudoir but not by definition have benefited from my lighting knowledge. Two days ago I learned from another photographer about using a small 'fill' light from the floor to fill out the eye socket shadows and under-chin area just to get a neat effect. Definitely worth learning and experimenting with to get 'good at' just in case one would like to 'use'; that type of gear one day. I thought I had a decent grasp of my lighting knowledge but just goes to show you you can never learn everything; just keep your eyes open and a notepad handy.