Tips + Techniques

10 Ways to Create Stylized Light

April 19, 2019

By Seth Miranda

Last month, Rangefinder featured my shutter drag technique, photographed for an in-camera creative exposure demo at Adorama in New York City. This month, I define more ways to play with light to create unique, salable imagery.

1. Drag, Pop and Blur

This method allows you to show motion through a drag technique without it becoming a total mess. The key to pop and blur is realizing you’re creating a multiple exposure from different light sources but in one shot—using one instant source (strobe, speedlight, etc.) and one constant source (controlled tungsten, LED or even the ambient light in some cases). The instant source will provide an anchor point for the viewer with the addition of motion, whether it is from the subject or the camera. Having both move at once will lead to something way more abstract and usually counterproductive.

2. Streaks

If you’re in low light and can drag that shutter longer than you’re used to, then look for light sources to make some streaks to fill the dead space. Often used during a wedding (where those DJ lights are usually flying), you can cause a light bulb to shoot streaks around the frame. Think of it this way: If you’re in a blacked-out room and you open your shutter and there’s no light to record, then you’re really not making an exposure. But  if in that same room you get in front of the lens and shine your phone’s flashlight, that’s the light that will be recorded. Now take that same light and walk with it while the shutters open and boom, you have a streak, making an exposure as the light travels across the frame with your movement. 

The other way to do it is to move the camera and keep the light stable. If you want a quick creative background, take a string of LEDs, get a friend to whip them gently behind a subject as you shoot with a strobe on your subject and you’ll get some streaky lighting patterns behind your subject (as opposed to just a black, unexposed background.

3. Gels

In my opinion, gels are one of the easiest ways throw a quick wild card into your image. For around $30, a pack of colors and calibrated gels thrown on some lights can quickly open up your viewer’s imagination or just give an overall feel far from the vanilla white light you started with. Backgrounds can become whatever color you have on the stack, mixing colors can change the mood, and messing with your white balance can cause things to pop while keeping other aspects of the frame stable.

4. Multi-Pop

This is another way to get a multiple exposure in one frame but instead of blurs in the motion, you’ll get a frozen image every time your strobe fires, creating more of a silo to each image in the frame. One subject appearing multiple times can make for some fun effects when used cleverly. 

5. Rear Synch

Often used in conjunction with pop and blur, this can be a fantastic technique to show the course of motion as the freezing point is at the end of the exposure, meaning the shutter opens, the motion blur takes place and just before the long exposure is over, the strobe fires, freezing your subject in its final position and showing where the range of motion came from. This is also a setting you can just leave on and be conscious of to show a more natural look to on-the-fly shots. Subtle blurs in things like hair or wardrobe add a lot to an image without it being all about the effect. Consider it a form of pop and blur but not as drastic.

6. Bouncing It Back

With intense sources coming toward the lens, bend it by getting a lot of light coming behind your subject to bounce back. Shoot between two pieces of white foam core, place a well-angled bounce board overhead, cut a hole into a reflector—there are a ton of ways you can take a single light source and get multiple directions from that light. Having a lot of power coming from the light behind your subject may lead to some hard or overexposed rim lights, but it’s certainly a look. Cropping in tight will make the light seem like a large source washing softly on your subject while the harsh light subtly peeking through from the back can hint at an environment, rather than a sterile studio setup.

7. Playing With White Balance

Using an array of CTO (color temperature orange) and CTB (color temperature blue) gels while using a mix of light temperatures can help create some ways to snap that subject. Using a temperature-calibrated gel on your lights while having other sources still as daylight (and shooting in the white balance of the gel) will cause both white balances to be in your exposure…what? Yeah, if you shoot your key light with a CTO gel on it and you shoot in tungsten white balance, that light exposes as daylight balanced. But, if you have other lights in the mix that are just white light—say a background light—they will become blue because you are shooting in a blue white balance and that, along with an orange key light, will lead to a neutral color key light on your subject (while that background will be a really cool blue). This can also help create the feel of an atmosphere like moonlight while in bland environments to change the whole feel of your image. 

You can also use calibrated lens filters with green and magenta, then use lights with tough green (mimics green in white balance like fluorescent lighting) and minus green gels to cause whatever you expose with those gelled sources (if initially daylight balanced—don’t try gelling a tungsten light and shooting in daylight balance for this effect). For example, a CC30 green lens filter used while shooting strobes on the subject with a minus green gel causes that strobe to be neutral but the ambient light still filters in as green due to the lens filter, thus creating two colors at once in camera.

8. Sculpting

When it comes to creating your own light, you must keep in mind that you’re creating a pattern. For every light, there will be a shadow, and once you realize that pretty much everything acts like a sundial, you can create shadow directionally where you want and how you want.

 If someone has prominent bone structure, like Vanessa Joy here, a harder source can cast a shadow to emphasize that bone structure. For example, an overhead light can cut those cheekbones and jaw line out very strongly, while a flat, dead-on light will lessen the appearance of her cheekbones. How far you want the shadows to stretch and how much information we want to have in those shadows to show details is up to you. You could also go into negative space by zeroing out to a black shadow. 

The closer a light is to a subject, the faster it falls off (that’s known as the Inverse Square Law). This goes for facial features as well, not just the image as a whole. That being said, light falling off faster will affect all of the shadow pattern in the image.

Mastering fill light can elevate your game from just getting a shot to really refining that shot. Look at and control your shadows just as much as you do your light. With highlights and shadows, one will always affect the other.

9. Flares

Flares are a fun, fast and usually “never-the-same-twice” type of phenomenon. Often used for that sci-fi feel or to give a sense of power, this is usually created by reflections of the light off the elements of the glass inside the lens and the iris itself, causing those circles and polygons. Intense sources like the sun are often required, but strobes can get you there just the same; you can even go as extreme as throwing a speedlight right next to your lens across the front element. 

But not all lenses flare easily. In fact, higher-end glass is engineered to reduce this from happening. You might have better luck with wide-angle lenses, and some work better at certain apertures, but the more you close down, the more defined that flare will be. Want a glint off that shiny chrome bumper to look like a pointed star? Crank that aperture down. 

Another fun way to get flare effects is by using vintage glass that may have breakdown on the glass coatings. While this may affect sharpness, you can get some really nice looks to your images. 

10. Smudges

Speaking of breakdown, you can always just smudge the lens to create a different type of flare. DO NOT SMUDGE YOUR ACTUAL GLASS! Get yourself a nice UV filter and let that be your smudge plate. Using your fingers to actually map out where you want the image flared gives you a little more control, but it definitely doesn’t have as much of an organic feel as flare does; this is more a refraction of light similar to shooting in fog. 

Seth Miranda’s career in photography has been as unique as his images. Having publications under his belt at age 15, he sculpted his lighting technique day and night in the fast-action world of BMX and skateboarding. With experience running the spectrum of all formats of film, experimental/older forgotten processes all the way to today’s digital medium, his versatile style has been featured in several publications as well as billboard and print ads. He has assisted legendary photographer Joe McNally on set and has also been featured in galleries covering subjects such as punk and alternative lifestyles.

Related: A Complete Guide to Color-Effect Gels in Portrait Photography

Your Illustrated Guide to 5 Strobes and When to Use Them

3 Ways to Photograph with Purposeful Lighting in the Photo Studio