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The Simplest Lighting in the World

Is there really such a thing as the “simplest lighting in the world?”

Yes, there is. It has many names, but I’ll call it SOFT SIDE LIGHTING (SSL) for the purpose of this lesson. SSL is very plentiful. Of course direct sun is even more plentiful, but SSL is much more attractive. You can find SSL very easily, or you can make it with diffusion material using a LitePanel or a SoftBox, and the results will be wonderful.

Let’s begin by showing how to find and use SSL outdoors. The photo below is a quick shot of my uncle taken with naturally available SSL. He’s sitting under an overhang in my backyard, being lit by sunlight bouncing off a nearby wall. This arrangement is often called OPEN SHADE, which is one type of SSL that we’ll describe in detail later in the lesson.

Can this photo be improved? I rather doubt it. The mood was right, the expression was honest and I only did one click of the shutter. I never even bothered to review the shot on the LCD because I knew it was good. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

Camera data: Nikon D-300 w/85mm lens. Shot at f/3.5 @ 1/200 sec. using ISO 640.

Irv Goldman-305332

Open shade describes the lighting situation where a subject is illuminated by reflected light from sky, trees, walls, sidewalks, etc… but NO DIRECT SUNLIGHT FALLS ONTO THE SUBJECT.

In the shot of my uncle, sunlight is bouncing off a retaining wall and hitting him from the side as he sits underneath a patio structure. In this set up, he gets the benefit of being in the shade and the additional soft side light that bounces off of a concrete wall. As we’ll see later in the lesson, you can use a reflector (LiteDisc, MultiDisc or LitePanel) in place of the wall to get the same effect.

Uncle Irv diagram open shade

Open shade is a great place to get a quick portrait if you don’t have the time or equipment to set up complex lighting schemes. Eventually you’ll want to keep changing and improving your results, which will lead to more complex lighting challenges, but basic open shade will always be useful.

The following photo of jazz musician Velzoe Brown, taken on the occasion of her 98th birthday, shows her standing in the shadow of her log cabin home. Note how soft the lighting is and how it gives her fair skin a luminescence without washing out her skin tone.

Velzoe open shade sm

There are many ways of achieving a photo of a person in open shade, but the easiest is by placing your subject in the shadow of a building. YOU CAN’T GO WRONG WITH THIS SET UP. The light is even and the contrast is greatly reduced. Open shade may not be the most dramatic light, but it allows you to concentrate on getting great expressions and poses from your subject without worrying about technical issues.

Velzoe open shade diagram

Open shade, or any type of soft side natural lighting, isn’t superior to meticulously staged electrical lighting, it’s just another stylistic choice. I like to think of all lighting, regardless of it’s source, as an important building block of a final image. In that way, we should feel free to create studio lighting with strobes or tungsten lamps that simulate natural lighting conditions.

The following portrait of a 6-year old girl has the identical quality of open shade lighting, but it’s created with a StarFlash® 150 watt second strobe positioned behind a 39”x39” LitePanel with translucent fabric. This method of achieving SSL with a diffusion flat (and an artificial lamp) has been used for at least 100 years and is ideal for creating portraits with a vintage feel.

This approach falls in line with the core message of this lesson – it’s simple. Camera data: Nikon D-300 using ISO 200. F/7 @ 1/60 second. Converted to sepia tone in Photoshop.

Katie Vintage_D305885

Soft side lighting isn’t just for creating vintage portraits. This next photograph of a young woman was taken only moments after the previous shot. No changes at all were made in the lighting set up or exposure. There is a little softening of the background in Photoshop, but no other adjustments were made. Note how beautifully the skin tones and textures are modeled in all of the photos lit with SSL.

Rachelle litepanel 700

In the diagram below we see how the 39” x 39” LitePanel with translucent material was used to create the soft side lighting for the two previous photos.

litepanel setup portrait 700x

The obvious question is, “Why would you use a LitePanel instead of a LiteDome® or an OctoDome®?” The answer is convenience.

If I want to change the quality (contrast) of the light, I can move the strobe closer or farther back from the LitePanel to vary the size of the spot of light on the diffusion material. A smaller spot of light increases contrast by reducing the wrap-around effect. Making a larger spot of light increases the wrap-around effect and softens the overall contrast. See the examples below and notice how the smaller light source makes a harsh shadow from the model’s glasses.

LitePanel sean compare

It’s true that this method isn’t quite as efficient as using dedicated soft boxes for each style of shooting, but it’s a great technique for achieving the ‘simplest lighting in the world’ in a very short amount of time.

If I’m going to use artificial lighting to simulate soft side lighting, I find that a LitePanel or a MultiDisc® with a flash unit enables me to produce numerous lighting setups with very little gear. I keep a small lighting kit in my car at all times. The investment is small, compared to how much I depend upon it.

When I’m doing simple photos, like the ones in this lesson, I travel light. In fact all the photos in this lesson were done with just a few items from the lighting kit I keep in the trunk of my car. My favorite lighting accessories are MultiDisc® 42” and the LitePanel 39” x 39”. These accessories are absolutely essential for basic lighting control.

kit stripped out 500px

Using LitePanel to create super simple lighting is easy, and it’s one of the best ways to turn harsh direct sunlight into soft sidelight. This set up took about 2 minutes. I just assembled the LitePanel 39×39 with the diffusion fabric and attached it to a stand using the GripJaw®.

Sean litepanel setup 500px

Sean litepanel w wo 700px

The beauty and simplicity of single source SSL is quite satisfactory in the ways shown in the previous photos, but I have an alternative approach using open shade combined with a reflector (MultiDisc®, LiteDisc® or LitePanel) that I know you’ll like. This method is a favorite of commercial photographers and filmmakers because of the way it makes the subject seem to glow in a naturally lit environment.

Sean shade w litepanel

Why does the subject seem luminescent in the previous photo? The answer lies in the fact that we’re adding more light energy to them than would normally exist in the shade. It’s one of the tricks that wedding photographers routinely use for bridal portraits. It is also a very similar result to the shot of my uncle that we saw in the beginning of the lesson.

The ‘simplest lighting in the world’ can be achieved outdoors or in the studio in minutes. It’s the perfect lighting for some subjects, and a great starting place for others. I hope this lesson has inspired you to explore these concepts and create memorable images.

Have fun!

Jeffery Jay Luhn
Thanks to Photoflex