A Revolutionary Approach to Lighting

Joseph Kane is an Editorial Photographer with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Joe has been with Mayo for 28 years, following 8 years with the University of Minnesota Hospital. Joe is a former president of the BCA.

Joseph Kane

"Don't shoot 'till you see the whites of their eyes" was a battle cry from the American Revolutionary War that provides me with a very distinctive approach and motivation toward lighting.

Today, the default approach to most event and other photography tends to be on-camera flash or crank up the ISO setting and shoot available light. But where does most of this light come from? One guess. It's from above. And if your light source is always coming from above your subject, and if you could actually see their eyes, what would they look like? Not very flattering is it?

Would you consider doing a portrait by using only direct on-camera flash or with only directional lighting coming from above? I hope not. If so, why then are there so many photographic events, shot by very intelligent pros, approached in this very same manner?

Take the typical scenario of an individual standing at a podium. If this person were your portrait subject, how would you approach your lighting setup? I tend to use a basic portrait technique. One small strobe to either the left or right side is my main light. Then 2-4 small strobes at the back of the room become my fill lights. Lastly, one small strobe is often placed behind the podium and becomes, to no great surprise, the background light.

Where to begin? While I utilize Nikon gear and Pocket-Wizard remote transceivers, my approach is not equipment-specific. In fact, it is possible to mix and match, so long as they all work in unison. In most cases I begin with all shoe-mounted flash units (Nikon SB-800), with the head pointed upward, a slight detent downward and built-in white card extended. Power settings are generally incrementally set between ¼ and ½ power. I refrain from full power usage to enable a more rapid recycle rate.


Podium photo with single on camera flash


Same subject with multiple strobe lighting set-up


Podium photo with single on camera flash


Same subject with multiple strobe lighting set-up

Color balance is crucial. I generally make a white balance check at my primary location using the approximate shutter speed and aperture settings that will be used. To no great surprise, most shooting is done from wide open to f4 or 5.6, thanks in part to the relatively low power output of these flash units, used in conjunction with improved high ISO sensitivity on newer cameras.

Some might say this is too much work. I contend that when we were hired to provide these types of photos for our clients or organizations, it was expected that we could provide quality images that simply "someone with a good camera" could not. Aren't we trying to place these people in the best possible light? And isn't lighting supposed to be what we do best?