Lights! Camera! Ac–

Wait, where are the lights? No studio lights? No strobes or flash units?

It is not the end of the world.

“Ghetto lighting” as it is commonly referred to is the means of using alternative sources of light to direct light in a desired manner to help your images pop.

Now, when I say using alternative sources of light to studio lights or strobes, I do not mean just using available light. The sun does not count, nor does a street light, nor does just bumping your ISO to make sure your image is exposed.

I am talking about using various things to help direct light in your image. When we talk about alternative sources of light, I mean whatever is at hand — a phone screen, torches/flash lights, car headlights, laptop and computer monitors, television screens, night-lights or garden lights, or, no surprises for me here, fire.

Beyond this, I am a fan in using “ghetto modifiers” to help you with these lights: tissue paper to help soften a light; cellophane to change its colour; a collection of straws to create a grid or a beer cooler to create a snoot. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination and what you have at hand to throw into use while creating your image.

Now, I have not really done a lot of ghetto lighting in a while, not since I bought some strobes and triggers, but I am going to share some older work, and my entry for this week’s 52 Selfies challenge, and explain how I created each image. Not all the following are self-portraits, but all the same they may help! This will hopefully give you some ideas. Finally, I will share some great examples I have found from Flickr for you to gain some further inspiration from.

You’re Somewhere Amongst The Lights…

You're Somewhere Amongst The Lights --- Lit by mobile phone. (c) Peter Bower.

You’re Somewhere Amongst The Lights — Lit by mobile phone. (c) Peter Bower.

My weekly contribution to the VoTogs 52 for this week was tricky to pull off. While in Melbourne, I was down on the beach across from where I am staying waiting for the moon eclipse (it happened, somewhere behind the clouds). While waiting, my camera on the tripod, I looked out into the distance with the lights of a nearby suburb, and this image came to mind. A somewhat lonely, longing shot. I did not have my flash with me, so I figure I would use the light of the lock screen on my mobile phone to light my face. Since I wanted the bokeh in the background, I was shooting at f/1.4.

I did not want to bump my ISO too high, but, in retrospect, I really should have. Shooting at ISO500, well, with the way I processed the image I added some noise into it anyway, so shooting higher, especially on a 5DMkIII, well, it was not going to make a difference. As a result of me shooting at ISO500, I had a shutter speed of 1 second.

Now, have you ever tried standing perfectly still for 1 second while holding a phone in one hand, a shutter trigger in the other, and feeling the ocean breeze on your face? Well, it is not easy! Hence the slight movement in the image. But I still dig it. Not everything has to be crisp, clean, and noise-free.

After a number of subsequent shots, I kept going back to one of my first images — others had focusing issues or compositional issues, and, even those that were sharper and crisper, I did not like as much. Using a remote to achieve focus and trigger the shutter, and simply experimenting with how far to hold my phone from me, I created the image I was after.

My Body Clock…

Lit by computer monitor. (c) Peter Bower.

Lit by computer monitor. (c) Peter Bower.

Man, I wish my body clock was only kicking at 3am these days! Five years ago, 3am was bad. Now it is an early night…

This shot was relatively straightforward. I sat my camera on my bedside table, composed the shot with the clock in front of it. Then I sat my laptop on the chair next to the bedside table. How did I get the blue glow over the image? I opened MS Paint, created a new canvas full screen, and filled it in with a deep, rich blue. That simple.

Somewhere In The Night

Grayson lit by car lights.

Grayson lit by car lights.

When internationally touring artist Grayson came to me way back in 2009 wanting some photos done, we thought of what we wanted and how we wanted it to be different. All the images were to be taken around where he lived, and the life of the touring artist means he is always on the road. So, what did we do? Put him on the road out the front of his place!

We wanted some action. I made him sit relatively still with a 0.6 second exposure. We parked my car, turned the headlights on low, and waited until we saw cars coming from both directions to cross behind him. The somewhat long exposure with the light trails resulted in the final image.

A Simple Coin

Lit by TV and computers and chip packets?! (c) Peter Bower.

Lit by TV and computers and chip packets?! (c) Peter Bower.

A boring photo, yes. But just me experimenting with light and a long exposure.

I created this image by pausing a movie on my television just at the right point so the colours spilled out across the table correctly. I then light the front of the coin with my laptop monitor filled with green. And, finally, to add some fill, I manually popped a flash / strobe into a red and yellow Twisties chip packet. Why? Because reasons.

Golden Eyes Surprise!

Long exposure and a flash light. (c) Peter Bower.

Long exposure and a flash light. (c) Peter Bower.

The image that has been my Steam profile photo for many years, and has drawn horrified comments by people who play many hours of Left4Dead (a zombie first-person shooter), Golden Eye Surprise is one of my favourite images.

Perfect? Not even close. It was created with my camera on a tripod, a 10 second exposure, and me turning on and off a flash light that I held in my hands multiple times throughout the exposure, trying to create the demonic, horror-film-esque image. As I said, not even close to perfect. But just some of the fun you can have with ghetto lighting techniques.

Mr Fussy Has A Dark Streak

Lit by multiple flash lights, envelope reflectors, and tissues! (c) Peter Bower.

Lit by multiple flash lights, envelope reflectors, and tissues! (c) Peter Bower.

Yet another image created for an assignment, I was tasked with using ghetto lighting and a reflector. It was perhaps one of the most involved ghetto lighting set-ups ever. I had a black sheet down, with Mr Fussy sitting atop an overhead projector sheet to create the mirrored-reflection.

To light the image, I used two torches/flash lights, covered in tissues to diffuse the light, and then bounced onto the subject off white paper envelopes. It was fun to do, and shows you can use just about anything in your ghetto lighting set-up!

Some Further Examples

Simon Pollock

Photo by Simon Pollock. [Lit by computer monitor]. (c) Simon Pollock. Used with permission.


Alan   Nathan deGargoyle
Photos by Alan [Lit by lamp] (Left) and Nathan deGargoyle [Lit by lighter in shot] (right).


Gracie   Nathan deGargoyle (2)
Photos by Gracie Hagen [DIY Ring Light] (Left) and Nathan deGargoyle [Lit by 150W Clamplights] (right).


Juli   Al Ibrahim
Photos by Juli Shannon [Garden Lights] (Left) and Al Ibrahim [Light source in image] (right).


More examples can be found searching through the archives on Flickr.


Peter Bower Bio PicPeter Bower is a mixed bag of tricks. He is a professional photographer, published writer, English academic, award winning poet, hater of soup, website manager, social media guy, ginger, and creature of the night. He is the Founder of VOTogs. When he’s not working, he is a semi-serious competitive gamer and lover of live music, bad movies and action novels. You can find more of his work at his website and ‘like’ him on Facebook. You can also say hello to him on Twitter @OeterB.


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