The power of using flashes for your campaign photos

Tip 14 for Better Shoots by Heidi Rondak

“All you need is light”

PART 2: The power of using flashes for your campaign photos

In the absence of natural light, we are required to add artificial light to illuminate a scene, usually in the form of flashes. Clearly, this is mostly the case when we shoot indoors and don’t have enough daylight coming in through the windows or we don’t want to rely on it. Besides brightening the subject, flashes have another feature, which is the ability of “freezing” movement in a photo, because the period of time passing by during the lighting is very short. However, for super-fast movements special high-speed flashes AND cameras are required in order to capture the right moments with no blur. Flashes are either synchronised with the camera through a wire or radio, or they react to other flashes if they are in range. This is why e.g. a simple smartphone photo taken with a flash can at once trigger all studio flashes – so make sure to always take your making-of images without using the flash mode. 

A throwback to your schooldays

What’s our goal when using flashes? We’re willing to literally bring light into the darkness. Considering that, we need to know a little bit about the physics of light, but don’t worry, it’s easy: First of all, light rays are waves that are getting reflected namely at the same angle as they are hitting a surface and secondly, believe it or not, they do need a certain amount of time for that. Thirdly, the properties of the reflecting surfaces are crucial to the characteristics of the returning light. Have you ever been blinded by looking at a blackboard? – No, because it wouldn’t reflect the light waves well enough. Maybe by looking at a white paper? I hope not, because the rather matt surface is diffusing light pretty well. But what about a mirror? There you go! The brighter and sleeker a surface is, the better it’s reflecting light, which means that when the waves are very parallel to each other at first, they aren’t getting scattered very much. Not only the photographer is making use of these attributes, but also the make-up artist! While the former is shaping light beams with it (I’ll explain how that works further below), the products used by the make-up artist are either very reflecting or matting, due to their consistency. As you can see, this sounds fun, because all at once, we’re presented countless scopes for designing our images!

How to be the master of the images’ background

In small studios, it’s rather necessary to use a proper background tone because the lack of space can limit the possibilities of regulating the background’s look through light only

But let’s get started with the easiest part in the picture, at least when it’s about shooting in a studio: the background. You might already be picturing a white, grey or black backdrop or maybe even an infinity cove, which is usually white (and it repeatedly needs to get painted white again after every shoot by a studio intern or assistant – so please beware of stepping on it first thing in the morning). 

If the studio is rather small, using the proper colour of backdrop is necessary and the only thing that needs to be done to make it look right is to point the right amount of light on it. You can also knock out the whole background by adding “too much” light to a white backdrop, as it is often the case with product shots. The difficulty of a smaller studio is how to separate the light for the background from the main light on the model. Styrofoam walls can help shield it, which is actually recommended in any case, because it also shields other undesired flares. 

When the studio is rather large and you’re lucky to have an infinity cove available, this not only solves the problem of keeping away the lights from each other, it also gives you more options for giving the background the exact shade of grey that you want, or even to tone it with coloured foils. It might look like a miracle, but it’s actually also possible to turn a white background completely black on a photo (without having the poor intern painting it for hours) – the secret to that is the model standing off the background far enough, so the light used on her or him doesn’t reflect from the background fast enough to reach the camera before the photo is already taken. And perhaps you’ve always known this effect from your personal photos at events or at night:

When the background is far away from the model and light source, the camera shutter is usually quicker than the returning light (which is also too weak due to being scattered) –  the result is a seemingly black background.


Fashion editorial with model Erik Resinger from Kult Models by Heidi Rondak
This grey background evolved just from the absence of light. The main light hit it, so it’s not completely black.

From my point of view, the greys (including black) which you get from a white studio background – if it’s well-maintained – are more even and elegant than a grey paper roll. But when it comes to the decision whether to use coloured light on the background or an actual coloured wall or paper, there are other differences to ponder, because here we are dealing with different colour spaces. When you’re comparing a vibrant red on a screen with the seemingly same red on a colour chart, the digital red (RGB) will always appear brighter than the printed red (CMYK). The same applies to our scenario in the studio. Therefore, I would recommend coloured light for when you aim for bright and soft background tones like e.g. beige, light blue, slight yellows, etc. If that’s the case, you can spare the intern AND the money for paint or a paper roll. But if you want a darker and more muted background colour, I would say a physical one will offer the best results. For you as a client, knowing this beforehand means that you have better control over your vision and budget. You will be able to talk to the photographer and be on the exact same page. 

Spotlights on the foreground

When it comes to lighting the model, we need at least one light, which we call the main light. Depending on its position, we might need a second and maybe a third light to fill the shadows, if we prefer to show a rather lit up face and product. The mentioned styrofoams that shield unwanted flair are of importance here as well: in most studios, they are white on one side and painted black on the other so that we can decide whether they should reflect some more light on the model’s edges or not. The impact that those styrofoams can have on the image can be surprisingly high.

white styrofoams on both sides of the model are producing white edges because they reflect the light back onto the model

The light coming from a white reflector is called non-directional light because it’s not pointed at the model directly. We can work with that kind of light in many different ways and e.g. create photos that look like they were taken by a window because the reflecting surface is simulating a big light source. Non-directional light (coming from white surfaces) can be semi-harsh, but like in the white paper example above it’s getting scattered quite well. The main effect of this on the model will be softer edges of the shadows and a generally brighter image. If we aim for even softer light (also meaning softer shadows) there are different possibilities to create that look and basically, they all come down to the method of diffusing our light through scrims. Scrims are technically just white fabrics that are used in softboxes, umbrellas, and other studio gear. The light that shines through it distinctly loses a certain amount of its intensity and hardness. The more layers of diffusers we add, the darker and softer our light and shadows get on the subject. Please note, that in this kind of light semi-shiny surfaces like satin, or a glossy make-up will glare less due to the fact that the light waves neither enter, nor reflect very parallelly. Our results will be rather pictorial than crisp, which can be a very nice effect if wanted so:

very soft light (produced with several scrims in front of the flashes) makes very soft shadow transitions and less glare

The opposite of scattering or diffusing light and balancing the brights, the darks, and their transitions, is to bundle it. In other words, we’re helping the light rays to be more parallel, which we can achieve by using reflectors or umbrellas of different shapes and textures. Admittedly, it can be confusing, that we are talking about reflectors in both cases, plain surfaces, and funnel-shaped attachments for the flashbulbs. But eventually, the physics is the same with both, we just give the light waves different space to spread out. As a consequence, if a reflector is very tube-shaped, it’s creating a spotlight, and depending on how sleek its inner surface is, the light waves are more or less parallel within the beam, which again influences our shadows and highlights in the image. The same applies to umbrellas – they constitute a bigger source of light due to their wider shape, so our image gets overall brighter. At the same time, umbrellas can bounce quite hard light, if they are silver and sleek inside. A softer version would be one with a white inner surface, comparable to our styrofoams, but yet bundled a bit. However, if we’re seeking a solution with quite dark shadows, we’ll probably be happier with a narrow reflector than with anything else.

Why should the client know anything about light?

To reduce the risk of losing your interest in reading about so many technical details (if not too late), let’s see what this knowledge is good for. When you see an image and you know: “That’s what I want for my campaign”, it’s exemplary because having a template for your upcoming shoot helps the photographic team to fulfill your wishes. However, when there’s a variety of pictures building your mood board, which is necessary in order to visualise different aspects of your concept, it becomes more confusing which kind of light will be the right one in your specific case. Therefore it’s a great plus for you to practice your eye to differentiate light setups (on existing photos) which you can mainly identify by the characteristics of the shadows. And even if it’s just roughly, you will be able to recognise better what looks good on your fashion and what’s communicating its standing. If you can just see the differences this will help you talk to your photographer about it and therefore get what you want. With his or her help then, you can estimate better which kind of photo studio and light equipment your shoot’s going to require, which helps you calculate these costs in advance. And here’s a fun fact: this knowledge also gives you the ability to find out, when your photographer’s just adding random lights to make the setup look more technical and therefore expensive. Yes, it’s done – a lot.

Budget vs. premium

Quality flashes produce quality light – it’s scattered with better control, it has an even colour and the units are oftentimes more consistent and quick when it comes to the duration of firing and reloading. However, purchasing and maintaining these is expensive, and so is renting. Flaky equipment, on the other hand, can put your whole production at risk or cause a lot of post-production work. It’s not uncommon that you get a few blurry photos or different levels of brightness when it should actually stay the same all the time. Thus this can increase your expenses due to the necessity of more editing afterward. So if you’re planning a major campaign, please go for the good equipment. The same is true for when you’re planning to shoot a large number of photos on just one day because you’ll need extra fast lights which will not overheat too quickly. 

Yet, I’m not saying that you should definitely use the best and most expensive flashes in any case. As always, it very much depends on the needs of your production. If you’re flexible concerning the schedule (so there is some time buffer) and not too strict when it comes to small light variations, you can get beautiful results with budget equipment too, because it’s still just light and it follows the same rules like the one produced by more expensive devices. Your photographer will know how to handle and shape it beautifully according to your wishes, and also how to deal with technical issues if they occur. Of course, I hope they won’t and I wish you good luck!


If you enjoyed reading this article, or you found it helpful in one way or the other, I would love to know (reach out)! You are also welcome to support my work and writing by donating whichever amount this is worth to you. I will thank you with lots of telepathic love and more interesting journal entries.

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