Using Unconventional Light Sources to Create Beautiful Imagery

I’ve shared this editorial before, but not on Breed. And I think it’s worth sharing now because it still contains some valuable insight on thinking outside the box and using unconventional lighting to execute really interesting photographs.

By now most of you have had some experience in working with strobe light. And I’m hoping all of you are used to working with available light, especially the sun! But sometimes a shoot calls for lighting that isn’t mainstream or conventional. This was the case for this shoot I did for Kurv Magazine’s Spring Fashion Issue in 2012. I wanted to do a white story so I collaborated with my stylist on a concept using all white clothing. White clothing can be tricky to shoot, most particularly it’s tricky to light because it is easy to wash out the details. So along with paying close attention to your lighting, the exposure has to be right on to achieve maximum results.


I knew I wanted a soft lighting with this white story so I was hesitant to use traditional strobe lighting. I’ve always loved the look of Christmas tree lights so I decided to incorporate them into this shoot, without it looking trite. I had my best friend paint me a light pink canvas backdrop, and then I took two C-stands and draped parachute material over them, right in front of the backdrop. I placed the Christmas tree lights in between the backdrop and the parachute material. This way, you can see the lights, but it’s diffused, making it look a little mysterious.


My only key source of light was from a large window to the right of the set. There was enough light from the window to use the light from it as a key source but I also had to make sure that the Christmas tree lights would stand out. That meant taking multiple light readings and finding an exposure that captured both light sources. My F-stops were really wide open on this shoot-F2.8 to F3.5 max. My shutter was 1/125th. Sometimes I shot at 1/80th to get some intentional movement. I shot the whole shoot with my 85mm lens on a Nikon D3.


This shoot was first of a series of editorials that I shot using unconventional lighting. My assistants have always joked and called me MacGyver because they’ve said I can shoot using a flashlight and some duct tape and make it look somewhat beautiful, but that’s not really far from the truth. My ability to use unconventional lighting and be able to execute something interesting is from years of experience using conventional lighting and then knowing how to break the rules, so to speak. It also comes from years of just watching light and being very attuned to it.

Once you master exposures and settings, you can really extend your lighting repertoire to create some beautiful and dynamic photography. Watch the BTS of this shoot that Marty Martin shot for us that day. You can see how I directed the models and showed them poses that I wanted them to use. As you can see, the right team is just as important as the right clothing, lighting and camera! I can’t stress the importance of lighting. A great deal of my class is spent on lighting and I’ve created a lighting class download covering my tried & true techniques I’ve used over the years.

Melissa Rodwell