Making Subtle Light

Problem: I think a lot of photographers (myself included at some point in the past) pour too much strobed light into an image out of technical misunderstandings rather than stylistic choice. Under-exposing 2 stops and then popping your subject from 5 feet away with a direct shot from your strobe is certainly a style, but unless it’s done deliberately as a style, it often distracts the viewer from the image rather than adding to it. I’d say it’s the most common mistake that plagues photographers new to off-camera strobes: just because some is good, it doesn’t mean more is better.

I’d encourage you to think of artificial light in a photo more like good service at a restaurant: it’s often best when it’s there, but you don’t notice it at all. Thus, enter what I’d call subtle light. And the beauty of making subtle light is that it doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, most shooters I know over-think it. At it’s root, it’s really about just a few things: your ambient exposure, bouncing and/or diffusing light.

Balancing your strobes with the ambient exposure (the natural exposure of the light in the room/location) is the first key. Simply put, if your goal is to make some subtle light you shouldn’t really be able to “see” that light source. And if you’re subtle light is adding to light already in a scene, you shouldn’t be able to see a difference between the value (brightness) of the light that’s already in the scene with the light that you’re bringing in.

To illustrate this concept, I’ll use the really simple editorial-feeling image atop the page that I shot just a couple weeks ago…[click the ‘continue reading’ link below – more pics, lighting diagrams after the jump…]

…as an example.

First, I set the exposure to get a nice bright, natural feel out of the windows behind my subjects. My next goal is then to match that exposure gently with the lights that I’ve brought with me. A mistake would be to blast model Rusty’s eyeballs outta his head with 1200 watt seconds of flame-thrower-bare-naked-flashtube aimed right at him, revealing all my artificial light. Instead, the AD and I agreed that a simple, more subtle light–one that looked like it was from big set of wrap-around windows, with a similar light value to what’s happening outside–would be the ticket to drop into this scene and brighten our happy travelers. Nothing extraordinary, just something that looked natural.

The most common way to make a big, soft, artificial light is to have a big, soft source…a 12’x12′ silk that you can shoot a bunch of light through, a big 8-foot wide Para umbrella, or similar. The only problem with this is that we photographers quite commonly find ourselves in need of such things, but without them (through lack of planning, laziness, or needing to stay light and fast…). Enter stage left, the secret weapon of any good photographer: the ability to think on your feet…which is exactly what I did when I found myself in Colorado on this particular day in a mostly dark room, sans 12 foot silk, without giant umbrella, but with my trusty 1200 w/s battery powered strobe kit.

First, the bounce. In order to make the light falling on this scene seem like it was from a big wrapping set of windows, I wanted to create the biggest light source I could – something much larger than the 2’x3’ softbox that I had with me. And so I created that source by bouncing light from a single head fired off my 1200w/s Broncolor Mobile kit right off the 14-foot ceiling. Like magic it turned my 2’x3′ softbox into a 20 foot wide source of light just by firing it at the ceiling. (Note: the deed was further amplified by the fact that the ceiling was made up of reflective metallic tiles – keep your eyes peeled for such things that can play in your favor).

I was instantly in a much better place. Once I got the “right” amount of light coming outta the gear and bouncing around–actually the right amount for the dark wood all over the bar, and for the other model, Chris’ dark skin color–I noticed that Rusty was getting overpowered. His red jacket and fair skin needed less light.

Enter subtle light technique #2: Diffuse. Diffusion can look like a lot of different things. You can shoot light thru a milk carton, a sheet, a silk, some clouds, whatever. The principles are all the same. Your goal is to knock down light pouring on the subject. Since we had the entire scene looking good with light except for our featured talent, pulled back the light falling on Rusty using the one partially opaque thing we had on hand – my PhotoFlex Translucent Lite Disc. My second assistant, Mario, simply held that disc between Rusty and the lit-up ceiling, and we nailed it. You’re no doubt picking up what I’m putting down: subtle light is about adding light gently (big light source, bounced, etc) and take it away in the same manner (diffusing hard light with scrims and silks).

Here’s the top view, sketched out:

And here’s a shot that Scott snapped with his iphone to illustrate what’s going on from the side. Note that I drew in a tripod on my sketch. This image was snapped moments after deciding not to use the tripod so I could tweak my camera angles a little more freely…

Now, as we’ve said before, there’s a million ways to skin a cat. Because of the limited amount of gear I had with me, I chose to light the whole room for the darkest bits and then scale back the things that were a little to hot with some additional diffusion. I could have done just the opposite–lit the overall room for the base value I wanted and then brought in additional light on the dark bits with some more light, but given the lack of gear I had because we were in a pretty remote location, I chose the latter. It worked in my favor here.

The long and short is that we ended up getting the subtly lit shot we were looking for, with keeping just a few simple things in mind: exposure, bounce, diffuse. Whether it’s with specialty light modifiers, or with do-it-yourself stuff, dialing in your ability to partially- and subtly light your subjects will drastically help your photography.

[A vid of the gear we had in the back of the truck with us on this shoot can be found on my Facebook Fan Page. Become a Fan if you’d like to check it out.]

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80 Responses to Making Subtle Light

  1. H August 5, 2009 at 9:06 am #

    Great blog by the way, moved me on in my photography incredibly :) The great thing about these blogs is your ability to share your info and so to see such a set up so simply drawn makes it much easier to picture in my minds eye. Perfect…

    Helen Turton…avid reader and sponge

  2. xequals August 5, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    This ROCKS! Thanks for open sourcing your approach!


  3. carlos benjamin - August 5, 2009 at 9:28 am #

    For a moment I thought your sketch said "broken tripod"…..

    Nice post…. as always.

  4. hedward August 5, 2009 at 9:32 am #

    Great post Chase, it is exactly for this reason (balancing ambient and flash light) that I bought my very first flashmeter today.

    I think a handheld flashmeter is an essential tool for quickly balancing ambient and flash light in any lighting situation / setup.

    Keep up the great posts dude!

  5. A little bit about me... August 5, 2009 at 9:34 am # gives more ideas for setting up a set…hope you'll share more like this…

  6. Glyn Dewis August 5, 2009 at 9:37 am #

    Simple wins every time.

    Nice one Chase and thanks for posting.

    Regards, Glyn

  7. Shelby White August 5, 2009 at 9:43 am #

    Oh nice diagram! Thanks for posting this.

  8. Jon Tiffin August 5, 2009 at 9:47 am #

    Great post and so easily explained. Interesting that you've moved to the Broncolor. We've always known that they are the Cadillac but not too unlike Profoto as how they like big fat wallets. Were the new Elinchrom Lithium Porty's ever on the check out list?
    Much appreciation for sharing like you do.

  9. Alan Matthews Photography August 5, 2009 at 10:00 am #

    I've always wondered how the professionals at your level do that. I have bounced softboxes at the ceiling to get that softness as well ( and think it works fine but always thought maybe I wasn't doing it "right." Good post thank you.

  10. Michael August 5, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    thanks for that subtle lesson! the iPhone photo really helped put your diagram in 3D perspective, glad you thought to document using redundant documentation formats, like your HD backups. 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'. sorry, Mom waged a lifelong battle against the decay of the English language and it's rubbed off on me ;) of course if it was meant in the context of lolspeak, teh language of teh intertubes, then all is forgiven.

  11. Kevin August 5, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    The behind the scene photo really nailed the visual as to your lighting setup thank you. I think for most starting out a before adding light photo and after adding light photo would knock it out of the park so that they can really see how much a subtle light setup makes a huge difference.
    Thanks again Chase your work keeps me shooting.

  12. taylom29 August 5, 2009 at 10:04 am #

    Thanks for this Chase

  13. Stan August 5, 2009 at 10:07 am #

    Nice job, Chase. Whats nice about this set up is that with the D3/D700 you can pump the ISO up to 1000-1600 and rely on ambient light as his main source AND not worry about noise. Sheesh, he could have even shot this with the SB900 placed in the softbox. but I digress. With Bronny's in the house, why bother! W.W.J.M.D.? (What Would Joe McNally Do)

    Keep em coming, Chase!

  14. Robin August 5, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    More of this my friends, more of this! I really like to read how-to-stuff in this way. Great work guys!

  15. David Lara August 5, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    Awesome insight Chase… always love behind-the-scene info and shots. Very informative.

  16. Tim Camuso August 5, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    Super informative, as usual.

  17. Zapplegate August 5, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    I love the tips, that is extremely helpful for someone with an extremely low budget. What is your opinion on a flashmeter? Is it worth investing in?

    Thanks, Zac.

  18. Matthew Blassey August 5, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    that's a simple yet great technique. often times i over think lighting and make strobe light in an image more saturated than it really needs to be.

    thanks for sharing your technique

    Matt Blassey

  19. Matt Swalling August 5, 2009 at 10:29 am #

    Best post in some time.

    Simple light done right.

  20. Carlos Guerrera August 5, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    Thanks dude! This rocks!

  21. Ian August 5, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    Hey this is great thanks!

    Mcnally calls himself"Numnuts" in his napkin diagrams, whatcha gonna call yourself? :-)

  22. Anonymous August 5, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    Oh man, that's so smart! I all ready used subtle strobe light, but I would never think to point a soft box at a celling and scrim the bounced light… Its like a triple diffusion!!!
    Thanks chase!

  23. John Batdorff August 5, 2009 at 10:43 am #

    Thanks for sharing this…John

  24. Mark Howells-Mead August 5, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    @Stan: WWJMD: wait until nightfall and then use a bank of floodlights outside to create the feeling of daylight? :-)

  25. Ghislain August 5, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    Great post Chase, I love the little drawing you made. So cool to share all this!

    Tks a bunch!

  26. Lester August 5, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    Yes! Reminds me what Joe McNally said in one of his videos ( and it is something I try to live by ), "Don't overpower or destroy the essential flavor of a scene, but tailor a light so that it fits with a scene and it speaks in a way that your imagination is telling you the direction you want to go photographically."

  27. Chuck Espinoza August 5, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    Great article. My question is how did you compensate for or account for the change in color temp coming from the ceiling? Can't tell if the tiles are green or gray. Is it just a matter of a custom WB? Or if in fact the tiles were green and the window light is "blue" does this become an entirely different shoot when you are introducing a giant light source that no longer matches the ambient you are trying to compliment?



  28. Kris Stone August 5, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Thanks for this great post. This is a subject I think about often. I really desire to get a more softer light when I use my strobes! :D

  29. TC August 5, 2009 at 11:20 am #


    I think we all (eh, well, us lowly beginners in the art of adding light), go through a period where we experiment with the more dramatic effects of dropping the ambient a couple of stops (right after we find

    It's a good way to have your eyes opened and learn the limits of the gear and basic methods. Play around and get results that has a big wow-factor (which makes it easier to explain all the new gear to the SO ;).

    Personally… I've been back to natural light for a while, maybe with just a bit of added fill.

  30. ThatcherDorn August 5, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    High five! BAM!
    You got mad skills. And a good head on them shoulders.

  31. Jeremy August 5, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing your thought process along with the diagram and behind-the-scenes photo. It was all very helpful.

  32. Ricky Lew August 5, 2009 at 11:53 am #


    Thanks for sharing


  33. Eileen August 5, 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    Great piece. I really liked the light in this picture to begin with, and it's so helpful to see how you got there. That extra level of diffusion is a really cool tip that I will definitely copy.

  34. Adam August 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    You are a friggin' gold mine for teaching aids in my classroom for high school kids! Thanks. I've been studying light lately, two people I've gained a lot from are Zack Arias (OneLight) and a 24 year old rising star Benj Haisch. The opposites. Motto from OneLight "People are happier when they are lit", love it. Benj Haisch works natural light like the sun was his personal strobe. He rarely shoots with a strobe, he simply works the angles of sun and refections that are there, is not too worried about high ISO's and uses a lot of tilt/shift to blur away out-of-exposure stuff. He works available light and makes a style of it. He spoke and demo'ed for my high school class and they were mesmerized! Check him out at:
    Thanks again for sharing. 300 kids a year in Buckley, WA know exactly who Chase Jarvis is. I call you the "Rock Star of Photography". Later.

  35. Phil August 5, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    Haha, Love The iPhone Dude Location.

  36. Mark August 5, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Thanks for the insight…really helpful mate!

  37. Kurt Stenberg August 5, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    Great Post Chase,

    I love all the detail and how-to you included. I would love to see more posts like this one!

    Take Care,

    Kurt Stenberg
    Edmonton Alberta Canada

  38. Ian Worthington August 5, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    Many thanks for this great article.

    I'm curious though what you would have done if the ceiling had been so cooperative — had it been red or brown for instance.

    Was there a plan B?


  39. Mark August 5, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    So when I get to be as big a photographer as you, can I get away with wearing what you were wearing too??? : )

  40. Mike August 5, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    "…blast model Rusty's eyeballs outta his head with 1200 watt seconds of flame-thrower-bare-naked-flashtube…"


  41. Matti Vaittinen August 5, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

    Thanks for the post.It's very educational as I'm just moving into flash+ambient lighting :)

  42. Eduardo Fuentes August 5, 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    Wow thanks chase, so simple yet so great!!!

  43. Nick Masters August 5, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Chase – would love to see more posts like this. Thanks!

  44. JVL August 5, 2009 at 7:44 pm #

    Exactly the head-space I'm in tonight. I've been asked to go into a children's hospital and take a family portrait. Limited time = limited gear and I'll be thinking on my feet. This is a great reminder to look at more than just what I bring with me.

  45. Isaac August 5, 2009 at 8:58 pm #

    Great stuff as always. You're the one fella I can constantly rely on for inspiration. Thanks Chase.


  46. Graham Wallis August 5, 2009 at 11:40 pm #

    Thanks Chase, great shot. Is there any chance you can share the video on itunes as I'm a facebook avoider and twitter dodger. Thank you.

  47. Electronick August 6, 2009 at 12:19 am #

    Very interesting article. Thank you Chase!

  48. Jeryc Garcia August 6, 2009 at 1:11 am #

    Well said, Chase! I totally agree. When I was creating my portraits of Filipino WWII veterans for my exhibit, one of my rules was that none of my lighting techniques should distract viewers from my main subject. Sure, I wanted the lighting to bring out details and create shape and mood, but I also wanted the images to be honest. My solution was to always first work with whatever light that was already in the scene and just throw it here or there with reflectors. Whenever I had to use strobes (when existing light levels were too low inside the veterans' homes, for example), I used them as motivated light and modified them just like I would any other source of existing light.

  49. Benjamin August 6, 2009 at 2:17 am #

    And again, a very interesting post in a very interesting blog

  50. Eric August 6, 2009 at 6:30 am #

    Thanks for this Chase. Really appreciate what you are doing here.

  51. Chris Kuhlman August 6, 2009 at 6:40 am #

    My approach philosophy also, there is only one sun, everything else is reflected…unless the AD wants party gels.

  52. jerseystylephotography August 6, 2009 at 7:10 am #

    This is great, Chase. I struggled last night with a photo problem and now I know why.

    And thanks for the McNally-like sketch (not that he has a corner on that market, though). This whole post…and blog…is very helpful. And as someone in "corporate" who often hires photographers, we go more for that natural or subtle look, even if lighting is used.

  53. James August 6, 2009 at 7:53 am #

    Great post Chase. One quick question – did you use any gels or such to change the white balance of the light from the strobe to match the light from the windows?


  54. Chase Jarvis August 6, 2009 at 8:54 am #

    @ james: i didn't use gels to balance the light temp. outside was bright overcast, and since the ceiling was made of metallic silver tiles, I was able to get a pretty good balance without 'em, although i recall tweaking the temp a little in aperture.

  55. Mark August 6, 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    Nice post Chase. One question: Do you consider where or how the image is going to be used when you decide on a lighting technique?

    Here's what I'm wondering:

    Printing that image on a 160 lpi halftone reproduction press will hold the detail in both Rusty's face and Chris's head, but on 85 lpi newsprint, both those image areas previously mentioned may block up the shadows areas and cause the loss of the subtle facial details that you've captured.

    In the newsprint case, wouldn't you want a bit more light to fill those areas to hold the detail?

    Or maybe in your world you don't need to worry about crappy newsprint. :)

    Best regards.

  56. Mike August 7, 2009 at 5:13 am #

    This is great guys! Would love to see more of this type of post. Thanks for sharing.

  57. Ben Zvan August 7, 2009 at 7:41 am #

    I'd love to see a photo of the room without the strobe just to get an idea of how subtle the light is.

  58. Jason Lindsey August 7, 2009 at 9:08 am #

    Exactly. it is what i strive for in most of my lighting! I consider it a compliment when new clients ask if I use any lighting.

  59. Car Blog August 7, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    Woooow you actually drew it and showed it to us, now thats what i call have a deep look.

  60. mposeyphoto August 7, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    It's about time somebody said this.

  61. Stephen Karlisch August 7, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    Nice post, and I agree your light is subtle, but totally lacks the look of "big wrap around windows" that you mentioned you were going for.
    Ceiling bounce and window light come from different directions. Your light looks completely artificial to me since it comes directly from the ceiling, as opposed to from low to high which is how light comes through a window(unless you were thinking skylights).
    Good shot, I thought it was with a 580 bounced into the ceiling, which would have worked just as well.
    Thanks for posting these "BTS" shots, fun to watch a pro at work.

  62. Motorcycle helmets August 8, 2009 at 2:49 am #

    its very nice posting. you have done a good job.

  63. Bernhard August 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    Thanks a lot for setting up my mind again to re-think my common practices using flash lights. Reviewing some of my latest pictures of people taken outside in heavy sunlight the pictures taken with "low-level" fill-in flash looked the best.

  64. A Photo Assistant August 9, 2009 at 12:58 am #

    Thanks for the post Chase. I'm always an advocate of less is more, but of course that doesn't mean it's necessarily easy. It definitely takes some thought, creativity, and resourcefulness, especially on location. Recently, on a location shoot, we discovered we didn't have anything on hand for a large fill-card. We stole a bed-sheet from the hotel and hung it from the gobo arm of a C-Stand. Not pretty, but effective.

  65. the-su August 10, 2009 at 6:31 am #

    thanks for sharing!
    cool shot!

  66. R. J. Kern August 10, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

    Well-stated. "Salting" to taste with strobes is something I find no different than cooking: a little can be good and add enhancement, yet too much can ruin a perfectly good dish. I never thought cooking 101 and lighting 101 could have shared such a similiar cross-over. Then again, nothing like a dose of salty McD's french fries every so often :)

  67. phunkypharmer August 10, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    "Under-exposing 2 stops and then popping your subject from 5 feet away with a direct shot from your strobe is certainly a style,…"

    heh, it's the look most of us have come to hate, as it's been overdone to death. thanks to strobist for providing the formula… ahem… i mean "style" to the sheepish masses.

  68. karmajohan August 11, 2009 at 2:02 am #

    Long time reader firs time poster..

    Just wanted to say I love this post. Been quite uninspired with the "strobist" movement for a while. Of course there is a lot of good photos out there but many (including my own) add to much light just because we can. I guess this is just part of the learning process.

    This just resonated a lot. Love the photo as well.

    thanks for sharing

  69. Victor September 1, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    This is so very true :). Must say i've been guilty of that far too often. Destroying the natural quality of a scene with my little strobes :P.

  70. Chase Jarvis September 13, 2009 at 3:47 am #

    @ RJ Kern: "salting to taste" is a great way to think about lighting…

  71. Blake October 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm #

    Hey! I was just flipping through my REI catalog and saw this pic in there. I knew I saw it on your blog a few months back… and here it is. Awesome work, Chase. Love your work!

  72. Derek Poore December 14, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    Balancing ambient with flash is always a struggle for me. Chase's approach makes perfect sense. Of course I have to put it into practice for it to truly work for me.

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