How I got that shot!

Dark & Moody

Dark & Moody. Nikon D750; 24-70 mm f2.8 lens at 70 mm; 1/400 sec at f/2.8; ISO 100

I’m not writing about this photo because I think it’s a great shot. In fact, I pondered about putting on Instagram for quite a few days. Finally I did because as most creatives know, validation from others is not required, just what the photo means and the story it tells, if it actually tells one.

That aside, this post is about how difficult it can be to compose and light a subject, even one that seems simple. What rules do you follow? What rules do you break and why? How do you light the scene to make it look the way you picture it in your mind’s eye.


Simple, right? Three objects. Whatever is closest to the lens is in focus,: in this case the candle, specifically the flame reflecting softly into the orange pail and giving off enough light to show a little detail of the candle and melted wax. The flame also lights the petals of the peonies above it. The flame is small so the light softly falls off and the flowers and  pail fall into darkness. The flame also lights the right (camera right) edge of the white frame.

All 3 items are actually positioned behind each other-the candle, the pail of flowers, and the frame-although the flowers and frame are almost in the same plane. The frame, because it is furthest from the lens, falls out of focus. For a soft focus effect, aperture was set at f2.8.


Speaking to a friend, I attempted to describe lighting this scene. She said, “You forget, I know something about photography. That little flame couldn’t light that scene.”

Camera right was a Youngnuo 560-IV speedlight with a Magsphere (Magmod sphere) to help diffuse the light. Camera left, a piece of white 2′ x 3′ foam core board positioned to bounce the light onto the pail. The speedlight was set at 1/128. There were no other sources of light in the room. When triggered, the light traveled above and across the scene, bounced off of the foam core, and onto the 3 objects in the scene. If you know lighting, you know that as dark as the photo appears, that little flame could not possibly light that much of the scene. In order to get just a hint of light the shutter speed was set to 1/400 sec.


Still, the scene is not perfect. The reflection of the frame into the black marble is too strong as is the color of the wall behind that scene: that too should appear darker. I’m too embarrassed to say how many shots and how much time it took to get this scene to this point. On the plus side however, if I had to do it all over again, I now have a much better understanding of what it takes to produce a scene like this and how I should light it.


Everyone sees a different story in a still life photo. In this photo, I see two. The first is of a time long before cameras and speedlights; something from a Jane Austen novel in which soft candlelight is the only source of illumination.

The other story is more compelling: an out of focus frame without a picture sitting next to a burning candle almost as though someone keeps a light burning for a loved one’s return.

What do you see?


Camera: Nikon D750

Lens: Nikon AF-S Nikkor24-70 mm F2.8G ED

Speedlight: Youngnuo YN 560-IV Speedlite & Younguo YN 560-TX Manual Flash Controller for Nikon 

Modifier: MagSphere

Modifier: Foam Core board-Available at Michael’s or almost any art supply store



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