Bare Bulb Lighting Technique 101

Soft lighting – it’s not an easy ideal to achieve

Bare Bulb Lighting tutorial 101

Head to toe – full sized window – incandescent lamp – all included in the frame!

Is this a lighting problem that would make your head spin, or cringe away and avoid another approach because you feel you don’t have the gear? Read on, you may be stopping before you start!

We’re not talking about that faux, broad light look created by softboxes, that often leaves deep shadows. We’re talking about REALLY soft light.

How do you get it in a hurry, with minimal gear?

Think outside your gear.

Respond to your environment.

Realize the potential of all the elements you have been given.

Bare Bulb foreground background lighting balance

And then you’re free to relate to your subject for the most engaging expression.

Here’s how to simplify your lighting quest by understanding the MOTIVATION – of the light in an environment.  The lighting from the picture window is northlight – extremely soft.  So to match that, you need a very large light source.  The room.

Bare Bulb studio and location lighting technique diagram

What is the ‘working‘ light source?  We’ll call it the ‘hot zone’ and it’s anywhere light directly from your strobes open, naked, bare bulbed tube hit’s a wall.  The strobe is no-longer the light source – transfer your thinking away from that.  The light then bounces from the wall – onto your subject.  What this allows you is to control the ratios of light on your subject.  The ratio controls the shaping of your subject.

What’s wrong with this image?

What's wrong with this image... Bare Bulb wrong motivation

Canon 1ds 135mm lens – F/4.0 – ISO 320 – 1/250 second

Bare Bulb Lighting tutorial 101 by you.

Listen to the shadows!


The motivation is wrong – if there’s a picture window behind the subject, the eye nearest the window should not have a shadow on it! The MOTIVATION of the light is not right!

in the image above I’ve thought in terms of ‘fill light’ and put my strobe to the subject’s front (in diagram above it would be the bottom wall of the room) to generically fill the window light.

In the correct pattern as shown in our lead image (illustrated here again to the right) – rolls the light around the subject from the side offering a nice open and soft shadow toward the couch’s front and to the left of the subject.

Do you see the difference?

This is the difference between photographic lighting – and motivated and inspired lighting.  A fine distinction, but one that once pointed out – your realize your eye was giving you some unnatural feedback about. The unnatural feedback is an unconscious barrier to acceptance and understanding of your image by the viewer – remove it and you give them a better gateway to experience.

Trust the instincts your natural eye leads with as it has been trained by years of interpretation of it’s natural surroundings.

Changing the position of the light in the room, changes the Hot Zones

The result is a change in the amount of light on each wall – the amount is the ratio of light that will illuminate your subject.  So you can change the ratio and shaping of your subject by moving your light through the room.

Shadowless shaping

Bare Bulb soft light technique

The bare bulb technique is faster to learn than a softbox.

Produces more natural than owning a custom studio.

Bare Bulb lighting technique

Do you see any shadows you can learn from? Not really, but the subject is still nicely contoured by a very gentle cheek and eye shading.

The catch is that you’ll need a bare bulb so your average shoe flash won’t do it – you’ll need a Quantum Q Flash, Sunpak 120J, Alien Bee, Monoblock, or ProPhoto head without reflector.

Any of the classic lighting styles can be softly mimicked with very little effort in the same room by moving the position of the single bare bulb:

  • Short Lighting
  • Loop Lighting
  • Broad Light pattern
  • Closed Loop Lighting
  • Rembrandt light portraits
  • Side lighting
  • Butterfly – with or without lens flair
  • Dietrich – Paramount Portrait lighting
  • Backlight portait with hard light or soft
  • Wraparound lighting
  • Crossover lighting
  • Profile lighitng
  • Dramatic Overexposure

If you’re careful when you let a little direct from the bulb light spill onto your subject the list doubles.

I will cover these styles in future posts.

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