Behind the Scenes – Group Lighting

May 5, 2011

For me, strobe lighting is an art as much as composition, timing and building a personal connection with the people you photograph. There is a fine line between knowing how to light and owning the style.

Strobe light is the most powerful and adaptable source but also the most elusive because you can’t really see it. Model lights are wholly inaccurate. Also, there is no way to determine how powerful pack-driven or mono heads are without a light meter. Oddly enough, since digital came into it’s own, most people I know stopped using the light meter and just started looking at the screen. Those of us who were schooled on chrome film learned to “see” the mood and quality of light based on f-stops and light modifiers. To this day, I still use a light meter because the level of detail and speed it allows, if you know how to use it, is faster than even the firewire 800 cable connecting my camera and laptop. The relative difference between 248 and 255 in RGB color is, these many years of tethered shooting later, still a bit abstract in terms of creating the right kind of lighting.

Beyond controlling the power of strobe lights is knowing where to put them, how to modify them and what head is doing what. Whenever I get lost, or a change I make doesn’t have the anticipated result I turn everything off and do a shot with each light individually so I really know what’s going on. The best way to own a style is by knowing how to (re)produce it. And that, brings me back to the most basic of all creative formats, pen and paper.

The following chicken scratch is a page from my journal. I have a lighting diagram from almost every shoot I’ve done in the past five years. Before I even arrived on location I had a really solid idea of exactly what I was going to do in terms of lighting. Before I took the first frame I had a really solid idea of what the light would look like and before I was done with the shoot I had taken a tape measure and done a detailed lighting diagram. Yeah, I’m the kind of uber-geek who measures every inch of my sets.

There are some really good resources online for creating detailed lighting schematics. A few years ago, a friend turned me onto Kevin Kertz who generously posted an online lighting diagram file (PSD Format) for posterity sake. There are other good sites to check out like Strobist and Quoc Huy’s blog if you aren’t a Photoshop user. I’ve learned so much about lighting by forcing myself to create a lighting diagram after every shoot. If you really want to go from knowing to owning a style then give this a try. The analytical process alone will force you to “understand” your lighting for the next time you want use it.

Despite being totally digital, I’m also a journal-type-guy and so I’ll share a page to illustrate how this group shot was lit. All photos by Michel Leroy Photographer.

Special thanks to Jonathan Orenstein, a guy who has taught me more about lighting than anybody… besides Gregory Heisler.

Michel Leroy
Michel Leroy is an award-winning photographer based in New York City. Working with a select team of professional creatives at 2X Productions LLC they create advertising campaigns and social media solutions for advertising, media and corporate clients. Repeatedly clients including The Food Network, Adidas, Nike, Intel, Lenovo, GE, Pfizer, Bayer and L'Oreal have trusted Michel Leroy to connect their brands to customers through photographs with insight and narrative. Michel Leroy is a brand ambassador for Manfrotto US, Lastolite by Manfrotto and the range of Vitec brands in the professional photographic community.

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