Making Use Of Unconventional Light Sources


No longer a newbie, moving up!
Feb 1, 2015
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Kent, United Kingdom
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Hi folks. With Hanukkah almost over and Christmas nearly upon us, there are so many additional lights hung in and around homes this time of year. As I haven't written one for a few months, I decided to compose a quick article on this theme. It's aimed at beginners, based upon an image I shot a few days ago. For a lot of newcomers to photography, lighting is either about camera gear, such as speedlites, or natural light. Here I encourage those people to think a little more outside the box and utilize atmospheric light when they recognise it.


Light is always around us in one form or another. As discussed in many of my other articles, we often overlook every-day light sources because they are virtually omni-present. For many beginner photographers, light either comes from the Sun, or purpose bought sources like flashes or CFL units, which are adapted with various modifiers. Little, if any thought is given to things like lamps, torches, candles, TVs, Ipads or other common household sources.

Of course, absolutely any light source can be utilized successfully, depending upon the application. Indeed, many of these widely available items can provide the best "mood lighting", because they generate it automatically, rather than a person having to emulate it with a flash, gel and/or softbox. There will always be limitations, like inability to control the power output, action-stopping ability, light angle or shape but, that's part of the challenge of good photography - problem solving.

Whilst at my sister's house the other day, I was sat in the living room watching TVwith my 4 year old niece. The ceiling lights were off and the room was dimly lit by the Christmas tree and some decorative gift boxes near the fireplace, which contain similar bulbs that adorn the tree. It was very atmospheric and cosy and I loved the ambiance that was created. I had hoped to photograph my niece but she was a bit poorly and thoroughly engrossed in a Disney movie, so I gave up on the idea.


After a while, Dave, the family dog, had decided to slope off the couch and lie on the wooden floor to cool off. He was positioned close to the light-up gift boxes which cast a nice warm glow upon him. Being relatively small, they were quite high contrast but as there were 3 of them, they were acting as a soft fill too. I grabbed my camera out the bag and crawled across to Dave to photograph him. My presence disturbed his slumber and intially he wouldn't co-operate. He kept standing up and wandering off. Typical!

I opted to take some of his dried food from the kitchen and lure him back to the light boxes. Being hand fed, Dave thought he was getting something special and obediently sat awaiting his "treat". I would then grab shots as quickly as I could using my Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 VC, before he lost interest and attempted to walk away. I will just add that this lens has been an absolute god-send to me of late. As I suffer with a benign essential tremor in my hands and arms, photography is more challenging and handheld, low-light shots are not even something I normally contemplate as the resulting photos are always ruined by motion blur.

I wanted to capture a festive scene and so elected to shoot at 24mm to take in as much of the room as possible. This allowed me to shoot at a slow shutter speed without having to ramp up the ISO sky high. It also added to the cuteness factor, due to the distorting effects of the lens. I framed the shot to place the tree with bokeh highlights in the background, to add depth and interest to the image. I also altered the position of the light boxes which were just to the right of the camera. I wanted them as close as possible to increase the exposure on Dave and ensure I had a nice catch-light in the eye.


After some colour grading inside Photoshop and introducing some addition background bokeh on the righthand side to break up the dark area, "Footsteps On The Roof" was the resulting image, from an impromptu photo shoot.

By simply identifying, utilizing and adapting light that was readily available to me, I was able to create a picture with a great deal of festive atmosphere. Dave could be sat by the hearth, lit by the smoldering embers of a log fire. The LED boxes were a similar size, hue and brightness, which lends to the feel of the shot.

With so many of these types of small, colourful light sources available this time of year, why not attempt something similar yourself ? They create an ambiance that is often very difficult to replicate with flashes, without additional modifiers and colour gels. Be sure to turn off all other lights, as being constant sources, they will get recorded onto the sensor and ruin the mood. If you have an uncooperative subject, vary your approach and be sure to have some treats ready to hand, to entice them with!

Good luck!!
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Woah! I haven't seen you in a while! How's it going dude?
Hey Amigo! I'm not too bad thanks. Depressed about being back in the UK after my 6 month excursion in Canada. Weather here sucks. Wet, windy and rainy - pretty much like our summers, haha! Been ditching most of my prime lenses over the past few months. Finally got a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC. The tremor in my hands and arms caused me to lose so many hand-held shots this year that I decided that I can't be without image stabilization. Ideally I need to upgrade the 300mm f/4 to one with VR but not got the cash right now. I've still got the old 28mm f/2.8 Ai-s at the moment but debating whether to let that go too, as the focal length is covered by the Tamron but, I do enjoy the 20cm close focusing distance of the Nikkor. I took a close-up shot with that in Canada of some Richardson ground squirrels. Made the short-list for this years Comedy Wildlife Awards. Didn't make the final 3 but, was still chuffed to get selected. Crazy how many news outlets around the globe picked that up. Would have been nice to win it though. Some sweet new gear and an African safari! Nevermind!

Got engaged to my GF last month. Looking to get married next year and moving to Canada. So much wildlife out there and a lot of stunning looking women to photograph too! How's things your end??
Sounds like you been busy, haha. Congrats on the engagement. Sucks about your hand and arm, I hope it gets better someday.

It's been pretty boring here honestly...I'm not a huge fan of winter so I don't spend a lot of time shooting. But I want to get a speedlight so I can do some macro stuff inside this winter. Anyways, I ended up selling my 24-85 VR, 35 f/2D and the Sigma 28 2.8 AIS and picked up a 24-120 f/4 VR which I have really been enjoying. Awesome lens, not sure why a lot don't like it. I picked it up in new condition for $675...I can't really complain!
Thanks bud! Yeah my hands and arms shaking doesn't lend itself well to photography, haha. I've seen it treated where they put implants in your head during open brain surgery and you're awake. I think I'll just stick to VR lenses!! :p

I don't mind winter, so long as it snows and everything looks pretty. Here it's just grey and damp most of the time and tend not to get much of the white stuff. Nowhere near as much wildlife here either. I get fed up walking around the local nature park and spotting a single squirrel, if I'm lucky!

I hear ya! While I loved my primes, I'm really enjoying the versatility the zoom brings, with good image quality. The optical stabilization is bringing real-world benefits to me though. I've still got the 105mm f/2.8VR Micro Nikkor which is awesome for portraits, as well as a 50mm f/1.4D. That 24-120 f/4VR is a real nice lens. Very sharp and such a useful focal range too! At that price you definitely cannot complain!!
Yeah, I'd stick to VR too, lol.

Well here in Vermont, there is normally snow but it hasn't really snowed much. Today is 50 degrees and on Christmas day they expect to be 60 degrees! Hahaha. I don't mind a green Christmas, I needed a break from the excessive amount of snow we had last much shoveling and plowing. Its nice to have a short winter season this time around. So yeah, it's been wet and grey here too.

I still love that 35 f/2D because it was so light and compact...but I felt the 24-120 f/4 was far more beneficial for what I do. The 24-120 f/4 as a 9 bladed aperture and the 24-85 vr has the 7 blade aperture..what a difference that can make in the out of focus elements. I also got the 24-120 f/4 for better video..switching that VR mode to active during video supprisionaly makes a HUGE difference when hand holding than the normal mode.
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Haha, yeah. Shovelling snow off the drive to get the truck out, can be a PITA when you have to do it daily, even a few times a day. When I was in Winnipeg in 2013 the temperatures were routinely -30f to -40f. The novelty of that could wear off pretty quick, although I do love the crisp, dry, winter air!

I enjoyed the 35mm f/2D as well, although I only had it for a few months. Sold the 20mm f/2.8D too. That was a fun lens to use. Ditched my 50mm f/1.8D as well as some of my old Pentacon glass which I no longer used. Also sold my Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5. Loved the bokeh but it's such a specialized lens it was pointless me hanging onto it as a never really used it. If I want swirling bokeh, I have the 44-2 58mm f/2. There's a lot more room in my camera bag now, and it's a bit lighter too!

VR makes a huge difference when hand holding. Even when using a monopod I still got blur from my hand tremor. I would dearly want it on my 300mm f/4. Maybe Santa will be nice and let my lotto numbers roll in tonight so I can get a sweet 600mm f/4 VR instead. Would LOVE one of those bad boys!!!!
Thank you. Glad you liked it!
YES--a great write-up and lovely photos! WOnderful post, man, just awesome. Footsteps on The Roof cracks me up. Very good use of the lights.
Thanks, Derrel! Hopefully it will encourage others to look at and actually see light around them in a different... light.

Dave is a great little model. Both his ears are meant to be upright but, one never stood up properly. Now he just looks like he's constantly hearing random sounds, haha. It definitely adds to his character and can be exploited for certain things. Glad you enjoyed it!
Cool writeup. I'm always looking for cool ways to use super low mood light when I can. My fave scenarios in particular are whenever I'm with my wife at bars that usually has some fancy backlighting of the liquor bottles behind the bar I'll pull out my camera and try to get cool shots of her. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Still fun to try.
Awesome man, thanks for showing and telling. Awesome shot too.

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