My First Light

Boudoir portrait of a woman photographed by master photographer Mark Laurie who specializes in female nudes and boudoir images.

I was mentoring a beginning photographer yesterday with his lights. We thought it would be more useful if we trained him on working with what he had, rather than the lights I had grown into over 34 years of photography.

They were simple units, low power with a modeling light. Two translucent umbrellas and a reflector for one, with a connecting trigger cord for one unit, which the other slaved to.

He apologized for what he called his low-end gear. It’s not what you have or what you start with, but where you take it.

I told him about my first light setup.

It was pretty simple. Jerry-rigged to a flimsy light stand were two scavenged flash strobes. One had a sensor trigger dangling from the short cord plugged into its trigger socket. The other was a bit stronger with the flash cord plugged in. Between them was a bare light bulb so I could create a modeling light. I had found a cheap clamp that one flash sat on, with a hole below it for an umbrella.

My umbrella was a 13-inch translucent. I can’t recall if it was a castaway from a photographer clearing out his storage shelf, or if I bought it at a photographer’s flea market event.

Attached to the point of the umbrella was string and yellow masking tape holding it in place. Along the string every foot out, was a knot with a piece of tape with an f-stop written on it. I had borrowed a flash meter, taking readings at each knot, noting the f-stop setting on the tape.

When I setup my lonely light, I would move it close into the subject until the knot with the f-stop I wanted touched her nose. Then I was ready to create my masterpieces.

It was not much, but I loved it. Back then,  DIY (do it yourself) was the way. There were books on light modifier hacks.

While my masterpieces set the bar to my learning starting point, the light was great. It was beyond my skill set at the time.

Light is light. Once it leaves your modifier, it’s all the same. How it behaves when it arrives on your subject, splashing over their face and body, is predictable. What it looks like before it hits your modifier is just packaging. It’s a bit like the Iron Man transformation. He started with an outfit that got the job done, but did not look like much. Later, the gold and red looked pretty cool but basically it did the same thing, just more of it.

Here is my lesson learned. It does not matter what tools you have right now. Whatever light source, modifier, lens or camera. If you are starting out – even if you have been doing it for a while – what you have in gear capability will far exceed your ability to maximize what it can do for you.

Cool packaging or cobbled together bits… it will all make amazing images.

What you need to do to is spend time mastering what you have, finding its limits. When your creativity keeps bumping into those limits, then get what you need to remove that limit.

For now, it’s probably knowledge and experience that is your boundary factor. Look after that and your masterpieces will really become your Master Pieces.

By the way, the image above is created with an exotic Fresnel Lens Norman flash head, it’s huge. It’s one of my favourite lights sources, yet we were able to reasonably recreate the light quality with my student’s basic lights and a gel.

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