The Gear Trap 2 – Lighting

In this second post on gear I am going to look at lighting because after lenses, lighting is another very common question on the Facebook group. They normally run along the line of ” I have a group of people coming in for a shoot. What lighting do I need?”

Unfortunately in all honesty this questions is almost one with the same answer as “how long is a piece of string” because quite frankly the answer lies in what you want to achieve. Lighting is actually more of an art than a science, and the ability to see and manage light is what sets the great photographers apart from the average masses. So in this post I am not going to provide a lighting solution, rather I am only going to look at the types of light available.

At the simplest level you need to have enough light hit the sensor of your camera to provide the level of exposure that you will need. This will either be from a natural source (ie Sun) or some artificial source, or a combination of both.

So the very first thing that you need to decide upon is what sort of shooting you predominately do. If it is mainly outside, or where there is a lot of light, then you may not need any additional equipment other than something that can reflect light. However, if you predominately shoot people or events that occur inside then some form of artificial lighting may be needed. I say “may” rather than “will” because it is possible to shoot inside using the light that is available if you shoot close to a window, or at a very wide aperture or use a longer shutter time.

Assuming that natural light is not available then you have three possible main light sources. These can be classed as

  1. Ambient Light
  2. Continuous Light
  3. Strobes

I will look at each one in more detail. I am going to split the strobes category into speedlights and studio strobes because although they are essentially the same light source there are important differences between them.

Sometimes any light source will suffice.

Ambient Light
This is the light that is available in an area. Inside this would mean any light coming in from outside or from standard room lights. I would not immediate discount the effects that be gained from what we would consider to be normal house lighting.


  • Does not need any additional gear, other than a reflector to use.
  • You can see what the light is doing.


  • Not necessarily available in the quantity, or location you need. You need to be very careful because our eyes see in a much wider exposure range than the camera can.
  • You can end up with big differences in the colour temperature of the lights. Our eyes will adjust for this but the camera cannot. Therefore it is vital you always take a grey card image to get the white balance correct.

Continuous lights
These are lighting that are turned on and stay on until turned off. Some are fitted with dimmers or have multiple bulb arrangements that enable the light output to be adjusted. For some you can also purchase light modifiers.


  • You can see the effect that the light is making on the subject.
  • You do not necessarily need to buy specialised gear, and as such the price you pay for them can be a lot cheaper. For example you can use the type of halogen work lights sold in hardware stores as cheaply as $20.00. For further information there is also quite a range of do it yourself projects on


  • The major disadvantage with continuous lights is heat. The units tend to get very hot, which can make them dangerous especially if you are working in an environment with small children around. Note however that in recent year LED panels have come available that get around the heat issue.
  • The light output will not be as powerful as that delivered by strobes.


Speedlights provide very portable lighting

These are the small external flash units that can sit in the flash adapter on your camera. There are generally models made by the camera manufacturers as well as cheaper models make by third party suppliers. The more advanced units can access the metering systems of the camera and adjust the flash power accordingly. I should say that you get the best lighting out of speedlights when you couple them with a trigger that enabled them to be fired when not mounted on the camera. Most have a manual mode that lets you adjust the power output in a range of six stops.


  • Very portable lighting solution especially when used in Off Camera mode.
  • Generally more powerful that continuous lights.
  • Can access the metering system on the camera.


  • Not as powerful as studio strobes, and you can run into colour issues once the batteries run down. This can also affect the recycle rate (the time it take for the flash to recharge)
  • You do not see the effect of the light until the flash fires.

Studio Strobes
These are the big brothers of the speedlight which were generally used in a studio, hence the name. They come in a wide range of power output from 200watts up to 1200 watts. Apart from the very cheap models most units come with a second light referred to as modelling lamp, because its purpose is to give you an idea of how the light will fall.


  • Most powerful of all the light sources
  • Provided the units have modeling lamps them you can see the effect of the light.
  • Generall consistent light output and colour each time they are used.


  • Unless you buy very expensive units that have batteries most studio strobes need a power supply available.
  • They can be expensive if you buy well known brands rather than “Trade-me” models.

Hopefully this information is useful to you. Light modifiers will be the topic of the next post in this series.

4 thoughts on “The Gear Trap 2 – Lighting”

  1. Paul a little added comment with Strobe lighting could be if going down that track woud be to invest in a Flash meter ie the Minolta Flash Meter II is a good example I still have mine and its 30 years old dont know what brands are currently available but allows you to take readings from the subject and also has a variety of attachments

  2. Many speedlights have a “modeling light” mode which allows one to preview the effect the light emitted by the speedlight will have. This solution is not ideal due to the need to emulate a continuous light source through a series of short strobes, but it is better than nothing and may help to reduce the number of trials one has to attempt to get the flash settings right.

  3. The ambient photo that you have here appears to be lit by a flash, she has lovely flash like catch lights in her eyes, and the shadows on the model and from the door frame do suggest a flash, can you prove this is lit by ambient light. I use flash often for shots like this so have seen many.

    1. Jane, you are quite correct in that I made a mistake on that image. It was quite true that there was a lot of light in the stairwell, but when I checked the exif data it did show the flash had been fired. The image has been replaced

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s