When I started photography, strobes were like a daunting obstacle that needed my attention but I was without a clue on where to start. What does a soft box do? What is a beauty dish? Which umbrella should I use, how many of them and what the heck is ring light? I would stare at beautiful magazine photographs and have no clue how they achieved it. I did purchase books on it, but the examples were hideous at best. Ever see the catalog of hairstyles at your local Super Cuts? Yeah, the photography books mirrored the same production value and the examples served no good purpose.
Like most overwhelming projects, starting was the hardest. If I had just one clue, I could build on that and know where to research. Every new photographer knows this dilemma.
One day I flipped through a magazine and an advertising caught my eye. In fact I focused directly into the model’s eye and noticed a peculiar shape reflected. It was the reflection of a soft box, a nice rectangular shape on one side of her eye.
Like a mad man, I started flipping through the magazine again and then another after that. How did I just learn this? I can see the light(s) they used by the what was reflected on the model's eyes. They are more than windows to your soul. They are little windows for the new photographer to cheat with! Not only could I see which light diffuser they used, but likely the number of lights and positioning. This was a game changer and always right under my nose.
From there I realized a pattern. Anytime I saw a certain shadow it was likely a soft box. When I saw a vibrant light without a shadow present, it was the ring flash. I made a file folder and collected images of eye reflections. I used a magnifying glass to see the reflection on smaller magazine photos. And like anything else I studied, I was obsessed with learning different shapes of the light.
About a couple of weeks into this stage, I began to reverse the process. I would go into a bookstore (still a few of them left) and pick up a new magazine. The best learning material were the ads, especially cosmetic or anything with a tighter frame. I’d flip through the magazine, find an image and quickly cover the eyes to avoid cheating. I would sit and stare at the shadows and quality of light.
Did the shadow wrap around the face with a soft gradient or was it a harsh distinct line? Where was the shadow? Underneath the chin, above the model, or to either side? You can tell which type of light diffuser was used just as much by studying the shadow as you would the light quality. Imagine me sitting at the coffeeshop inside of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. I’d quiz myself… OK is there a shadow at all? Which direction is the light and shade? OK so the light must be in this position here. THAT is how I introduced myself into photography lighting.