Today I present an excerpt from my book, “Lighting Essentials: A Subject-Centric Approach for Photographers” now available from Amazon and fine book retailers all over the world! Whew!

It is really interesting that yesterday I got a knock on the door and was handed the ‘galleys’ to book number two, while I furiously finish writing/shooting book number 3.

To those of you in America, Happy Thanksgiving. I am taking some family time this weekend and I wanted to have something on the blog that would be fun for you all to read. I am including a chapter from my book, and then heading out for some holiday adventure.

Before we jump over to that chapter, I would like to remind you all of ongoing things and contests and other ideas coming your way.

As many of you know, I will not be teaching as many workshops next year as I have done previously. Lots of reasons, but mostly it has become quite difficult to fill the classes without people on the ground doing the booking. I know that may change next year… especially after the first weekend in April (heh), but for now I am planning some very special, quite interesting new workshops – one for beginners, and a few for more advanced shooters.

The website that is currently housing the workshop scheduling will continue to do so, but it will also become a resource for learning to light (the name of it is “LearnToLight” so that is what I am working on. Loosely based on the Project 52 idea, it will have weekly teaching, weekly assignments and more.

Project 52 starts again fresh on January 1, and we will have two tiers to it… the current free model and a premium that will only be available to a few students. Keeping the number down will ensure more one-on-one work.

I hope you are thinking about entering the “Wacky, Winner Gets ME” contest. I will fly to you or fly you here for a one-on-one workshop tailored especially to what you want to learn. You can even bring three buds (sorry, I only pay for you) to my studio, or you can have them join you in your town. See this page for more details.

If you have ever attended a Lighting Essentials workshop, or are participating in the current Project 52, you are invited to Phoenix for the Lighting Essentials Appreciation Weekend and BBQ. It is the last weekend of January. We have some small workshops, a few local trips to do and photograph, but mostly it is a social event here in my studio. More information here.

So Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers, and have a great weekend to those of you not in the states. Enjoy the excerpt of the book after the jump. I will have dinner and then start proofing book two.

Take the jump for the article.

Designing The Image You Want.

Previsualizing an image that conveys the intended message about your subject is the beginning. This process, and its fundamental importance, was covered in chapters 1 and 2. Knowing what type of lighting tools you are going to need is the next step; this was covered in chapters 3 through 7. With these concepts in mind, we can now move forward and see how everything comes together in actually designing a shot.


Many variables come into play as we transform our three-dimensional world into two-dimensional images. In and of itself, the process will change the apparent relationships between the space, the light, and the subject. If natural light is being used, this can change from minute to minute. In the days of film, we could only preview these relationships using Polaroid film. Today, we can capture test images for review. I call this process “sketching.”

Sketching reveals the subject and scene as they will appear in your final photograph. More importantly, it allows you to make sure that the tonalities, relationships, and values you saw in your head are all represented in that final image. You can shoot from different angles and with different lenses. Add a light, then add another—or maybe a fill board or a shiny reflector. As you adjust the highlights and shadows, you’ll be creating a “road map” to the actual exposure.

I often work with the sketching to find an angle that I want to explore or to evaluate how the foreground works in relationship to the background. When shooting outdoors, I will also see where my exposure choices will place the sky within the limits of the capture.

SAMPLE SHOOT: Portrait of Katlyn. For this shot, I found a cool place to work and knew I wanted to shoot Katlyn here with her gray wardrobe. Although it was a sunny day, I knew the light would be around f/4 on the shady side of this building. That meant I started at f/4 and ISO 100 at 1/100 second. I shot an initial “sketch” image to see the ambient exposure.

This is the first shot I did of Katelyn: Exposure is right on – and it is boring.

I decided to place the ambient light at a stop under, so the light I was adding would be more interesting. I used the shutter speed (rather than the aperture) to make this adjustment so I would still have plenty of flash power and recycle time if I needed it. If I had decided to lower the aperture to f/5.6, I could have accomplished the same one-stop-under look, but I would have had to increase the flash power (maintaining the distance I wanted) to bring the flash up to f/5.6.

Underexposing by one stop made the background more dramatic—and would provide better contrast with the light I planned to add on the model.

I placed Katlyn in the position I liked and added the strobes. In front of her, I placed a small softbox with a speedlight. One bare speedlight was added behind her. Because the ambient was not very bright, the power of the lights was very low for this shot. I matched the back and the front speedlights to f/4 and did the next sketch. I noticed the reflection in the window behind her caused by the back speedlight. The easiest way to hide that was to put her in front of it. I also noticed that the light was very gradient in its presentation and quite bright in front. I moved the light away from the building and angled it away from the wall to get less light spill on it.

By underexposing the ambient by a stop, I ended up with a much more grittier looking scene. I now had the exposure for my image.

After adding the speedlights, my text sketch revealed a reflection of the backlight in the window. The easiest way to correct this was by repositioning the model.

For the final image, you can see that I chose to do a horizontal composition instead of a vertical shot. This allowed me to include more of the wall and the texture. You can also see that I got down a bit lower to add some height to the subject.

You can see that the exposure of the strobe was set to reveal the subject in a brighter light than the ambient exposure had rendered.

The final image was achieved after shooting several sketch images.

SAMPLE SHOOT: Portrait of Stephanie.

I found this cool little place where they use chainsaws to cut artistic things out of palm tree trunks. I wanted to put Stephanie in the mix of it, so I began to sketch the scene. I don’t worry about exposure on the subject at this point in the sketching. I want to simply see the shapes and items as they play out through the lens. I already knew that I wanted her near the tall sculpture, so I played with the foreground approaches.

The light was fairly flat and uninteresting on this overcast day in Florida – I knew we had to do something cool with the set, so lighting was the way to go.

I knew I wanted to place Stephanie near the tall sculpture, so I began the sketching process by experimenting with this relationship.

I had my friend Bill step into the shot to get an idea of the lighting and decided to underexpose the ambient light by one stop. Adding the speedlight in a small softbox gave me a good idea of the exposure and how Stephanie would look when the flash lit her.

The shot with the added lighting was much more interesting.

The sketching process helped me to determine how I wanted to record the ambient light and how much light was needed on my subject.

For the final shot, I added a bare strobe from camera right aimed at her midsection and set to expose at 1/2 stop over the ambient. This light, a 1/2 stop under the main light, added a little fill and highlight on her camera-right side. The sunlight added backlight and kept the foreground interesting.

SAMPLE SHOOT: Desean in the Lobby.

Every time I come into the lobby of my studio, I admire the lighting from the clear skylight and bright white ceiling. For this portrait of Desean, I sketched the image out with my camera to find the ambient level that made sense to me. The ambient was very important; I didn’t want to change the ambiance in the lobby, I wanted to capture it.

You can see the placement of the light for this shot of Dasaun. A single shoot thru umbrella flooded the hallway with light.

Once I had the ambient setting, I knew what I needed to add to the subject. I placed a single head into a shoot-through umbrella and set the power 2/3 stop brighter than the ambient. I shot at the ambient exposure, letting the light from the hallway glow brighter than the lobby.

The resulting image precisely captured what I saw in my head, with light from the hallway flooding in subtly to provide some depth.

The final shot of Dasaun matched exactly what I had seen in my mind’s eye – visualizing the shot makes the process go much easier

This is the final image of Desean. You can see the feeling of the light from the hallway, which was a little brighter than the light from the skylight.


I have a method that has served me very well for over thirty years: I build each shot one light at a time. In the studio, I get the main light ready, and then add the secondary. If I’m working outdoors or in a daylight studio, I find the placement of the ambient light and decide what I want to do with it. Perhaps the image calls for the background to be a bit overexposed. Or maybe dropping the ambient light down a couple of stops will add a dramatic flair to the image.

When making these fundamental decisions about ambient light, there are some important settings that must be taken into consideration, of course. If you are going to use only the ambient light and fill cards, you must remember that there is no way to overcome the ambient light—no way to make any kind of light that will be stronger than the direct sun. You also have choices to make about your aperture and shutter speed. Why? Because they can be whatever you want. With natural light, you are not limited by anything other than your lens’s widest aperture and your camera’s fastest shutter speed.

If you will be augmenting the ambient light with strobes, you’ll need to have an idea of what you want to do before you begin to sketch. For example, if I know that I am going to be bringing in my large strobes, I will set my camera to aperture priority (Av on my Canons) and choose the aperture I want to work with. My first consideration is aperture, but there is a real concern about the shutter speed, as well; I know that I cannot sync at shutter speeds faster than 1/200 second. If I chose f/8, then saw that the shutter speed dropped to 1/400 second, I would need to rethink my aperture—so the exposure might be made at f/11 at 1/200 second. Most of the time I will walk the scene with my meter (set within the required parameters of the camera and sync speed) and make notes of the highlights, shadows, and midtones in the scene.

SAMPLE SHOOT: Stephanie on the Docks.

I saw this image as I walked up onto the covered dock. I loved the incredible sky, the boats, the way the light was playing off the water, and the different shapes of the buildings around the background. I wanted to do something dramatic, so I sketched in a shot while we were setting up the boomed softbox.

This shot in ambient light shows where the lights were being placed to create the shot of Stephanie on the docks.

I started by considering the ambient light. This seemed to be sufficient for the background feel I wanted. However, I needed more light on Stephanie, so I added a softbox on a boom to illuminate her face and jacket. With the ambient light on the background and the main light on Stephanie in place, I determined that the light from camera left was a little lacking. Adding some light from that side would create a more dramatic, three-dimensional feel in the shot. Therefore, I placed a bare strobe at a low angle to camera left. I wanted the light to seem like a reflection on her, not a “full light” as from an instrument.

The final shot shows how the ambient was blended with the strobe for a much more interesting photograph.

The direct strobe from the left adds some nice highlights and the softbox from the right gives her face the soft light I wanted. The sun gave me some wonderful shadows coming in from behind, and the look was what I saw in my head when I walked up to the scene.

SAMPLE SHOOT: Jazmin and Column.

Jazmin was posed on a column at a beach house we used during a workshop in Mexico. The sun was on her face and I knew the light would be a perfect “Sunny 16” on her. But that also meant that the shadows would be too dark for what I saw in my head.

Knowing this about the ambient light, I added a speedlight at f/11. This was aimed it at the shadow side of her. I immediately saw that I needed another light to add something to the ceiling; it was going far too dark. I aimed this speedlight at the ceiling but away from the camera. I wanted it to produce an “open shadow” feel, not look lit, so I settled on getting an f/8 on the ceiling—two stops away from the f/16 ambient level. The resulting image has a nice feeling of light to it, with just a little drama. Jazmin added the wonderful pose and I got the shot in only a few exposures.

Adding some pop to this image of Jazmin in Mexico was achieved with speedlights

Building one light at a time allowed me to design the image of Jazmin I envisioned when I saw this location.

The point is this: Don’t try to get it all at one time. Building the image one light at a time lets you see the possibilities—and alerts you to places to improve. After you do this for a while, it becomes second nature; while you may be building the setup one light at a time, you are thinking so far ahead that it feels seamless to those around you.


I have a method that works pretty well for me. It is based on the Sunny 16 Rule that we looked at in chapter 5. These values are based on shooting at ISO 100 (and, accordingly, a shutter speed of 1/100 second). (Note: What is in the scene all around can make a difference as well. Lots of bright buildings and a bright sky can open up the shadow exposures by 2/3 to 1 stop in some conditions, but these values offer a pretty darn good starting point in most situations.)

in direct sun: f/16
side light in direct sun: f/11
backlight in direct sun: f/8
on the shadow line (within 2 feet of edge): f/5.6
5 to 7 feet into the shadow: f/4
8 to 12 feet into the shadow: f/2.8

From here, it is a process of elimination. Looking into a shadow scene you know that at ISO 100 and a 1/100 second shutter speed, the exposure will be somewhere around f/4 or f/2.8. You know for sure it isn’t going to be f/11. If you are in the sun, you also know for sure it isn’t going to be f/4 or f/5.6. You know not to even start there as you’re sketching the image. It helps to know that stuff. You can achieve your vision so much more quickly when you know where to start.


When asked why I chose a specific light modifier for a shot, I can answer with all kinds of technical and artistic reasons about 70 percent of the time. The other 30 percent of the time, the selection was the result of me playing—mixing up the vision I have in my head with newer visions that pop in while I am working. (That “what if?” voice can be a true pest or incredible muse depending on how you hear it.)

Shooting in the alley behind my studio, the sun was very low on the horizon. While it was not directly on this little nook in the wall, it was plenty to bring in soft lighting for the shoot. I used a long lens and a shallow depth of field to allow for the fastest shutter speed I could get. Handholding a long lens is something that I was able to do with complete confidence for a long time. Lately, though, I am more often seeking the control of a tripod.

Sometimes I grab a beauty dish just to see what it will do. Sure I can imagine it, but occasionally I want to see it—I want to play and let the fun lead me to new things. What would it look like to have the beauty dish as a bright sphere in the background? Let’s try it. What about a grid spot on the hair? Sounds cool. Do one.

Certainly I want you to be able to visualize the image in your head before you go to create it, but at the same time I encourage you to take advantage of serendipitous moments and whimsical fun. The results can be pure magic.

© Don Giannatti

I hope you enjoyed that little bit of the book. There is, as they say, a lot more where that came from.

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