Beginner's Column: Focusing Your Lights

When working with small flash, many people become concerned with their ability to control the overall power of these compact units. In the quest for the perfect picture,they move the lights closer to or farther from their subjects, working hard to make the inverse square law work for them. However, one often-overlooked component of the flash can really take your photos to another level—the flash zoom.

Most small flashes have the ability to focus the beam of light that they emit through a smaller area, allowing you to get the light a little more concentrated into a space. The level at which the light is focused is usually expressed in terms of millimeters, similar to lenses, and represents the area that the light can cover (the smaller the number, the wider the light coverage; the larger the number, the narrower the coverage). By focusing where you’d like to place light, you can better sculpt your subject.

Controlled Light Examples

The following three pictures show the differences in flash zoom. In this series of examples, I placed a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight about 5′ in front of a black background and aimed the flash head at it. In the first image, I have the flash zoomed at 50mm. While there’s a pronounced white area in front of the flash, there’s quite a bit of light to the left and right of it, as well.

flash zoom

In the second photo, I have the flash set to about 85mm. Notice that the edges to the left and right of the flash are a bit darker and you can really see a difference above and below the flash.

flash zoom

By the time you get to 105mm, the beam is more concentrated and the edges are near black. In an instance like this,I wouldn’t necessarily have the flash so close to the subject. It makes more sense to back the flash off a bit and have the narrow beam hit the subject, akin to a spotlight. 

flash zoom

Real World Results

Now, let’s take a look at how this applies in a photo shoot. Here, we have a photo of the newest Photoshop Guy, Pete Collins. He’s lit by one Nikon SB-800 flash placed camera left, with the zoom set about 50mm. While this gives us acceptable lighton the subject, I think it’s a little too ordinary. The shadow that’s being cast on the side of his face gives me the idea to make the shot a little more dramatic, without spilling too much light onto the scene. 

flash zoom

To create a more dramatic scene, I pull the light a little further back from Pete and zoom the flash in to about 105mm. With the light being more directional and focused, we don’t have too much spillover onto the background. We can also isolate which portion of the face we want to light, giving us more of a dramatic effect. 

The problem in this scenario is usually the lack of light when you zoom. While you can pinpoint the light into a given area, zooming it almost guarantees that you’ll need to use a second light to serve as either an accent light or a kicker. (A “kicker” is a light that’s used to light the subject from behind, creating a separation between him and the background. In this respect, the light “kicks” the subject off the background.) 

flash zoom

So, I set up a second light to the right of Pete and zoomed it to about 85mm. By zooming the light in this manner, I can focus the light to hit Pete in the back of the head, and not spill over onto the background or onto the other side of his face. By doing this, I can create a photo with a similar shadow as the one-light example, but with a greater amount of drama and detail. 

flash zoom

One of the most important skills you can develop as a photographer is the ability to tell a story with your camera. To do that, look at your lighting in a very precise manner. Instead of lighting an area with a floodlight, focus on using your lights like a laser. By only focusing the light where you need it, you’ll tell a great story.