Portrait Photography Challenge: Shoot with a Flashlight and Phone

There can be much gear envy among photographers when they look at other expensive equipment like lighting equipment and modifiers. You can also easily say you are unable to be creative because of your lack of access to certain equipment or lights.

Usually, however, that mindset is unrelated to gear and is in fact a justification to stay in the comfort zone. To escape my comfort zone and try to capture creative images of fashion, I set off with my iPhone and a flashlight.

Anything can be a Light Source

It is common belief that dedicated strobes are necessary to make the most of the light available to photographers. The more expensive lights will also have a better quality.

I remember one photographer telling me that they use Profoto because the light coming out has a different quality compared to other strobes. When I looked up how much Profoto lights cost, I almost fell into a photographic depression thinking that I will never become a good photographer because I can’t afford the “magic” Profoto lights.

The truth is, saying a particular brand of light is special or better than another is incredibly ignorant. The light that comes from any source of light is basically the same as a bunch photons. Without getting into the physics argument behind what light is, let’s agree that the only thing a flash does is pump out a load of photons.

A flashlight can also pump out photons.

With this in mind I decided to take a flashlight out for a test drive. You can also use any flashlight that has a light-focusing lens.

Why Flashlights Are a Neat Option


As you may or may not know, light behaves very differently when it is passed through glass lenses. This is what I am referring to. Usually, when you shine a light through a softbox, you will have it fall off in an inverse square pattern. This isn’t exactly an accurate way to calculate light falloff.

We are used to the idea that in order to focus light we simply reduce light spread with grids. Grids are great, but they do “eat up” a lot of light. Depending on the grid angle, it can reduce the output by anything from 0. 5 to 2 stops of light. This can adversely affect the creativity possibilities.

Optics are a better way to focus light. The physics behind optics and light is fairly complex, and to be honest I can’t say I’m an expert on every little detail there. My knowledge is that optics can focus light more and dramatically increase its throw. You may have experienced this in action if you’ve ever worked with Fresnels or optical snoots. But both are rather expensive and can be hard to come by for some brands.

Flashlights are a cheaper option to get optical light modifiers to your lights. Many flashlights come equipped with a lens that allows for the beam to focus from spot to flood. Even if they don’t, they still will come with a lens that will focus the beam to make the light more efficient.

Light Patterns

The reason I care so much about the focusing lens in flashlights is that it can actually be used to produce incredible light patterns. Aluminum foil may be a light modifier that you’ve tried. While using grids can be one way to get beautiful reflections from foil, a much better way to get them is by using optically-focused light.

Since we are dealing with direct reflections using aluminum foil, in this case we want to increase the number of them to achieve our desired effect. This is why flashlights are ideal: they will guide the light in a direction that directs it towards the foil and ensure that the beam is narrowly directed. Here is how this looks:

While not shot on an iPhone, this image is a perfect demonstration of the patterns a flashlight can create.

Gel Patterns

Another reason to use flashlights for your photography is because of the patterns you can create with gels. Again, being an optically focused beam it will be fairly easy to create fine patterns because of the light that travels in one direction. Working with gels may seem complicated at first, but I can assure you that it is actually fairly intuitive in this application.

What I’m talking about is creating line patterns with gels, for example, like in the picture below:

I made this image by covering a portion of the lamp with color gel, then using barn doors to spread the light and lighting the model with just a little bit of light. The same effect can be achieved with simple black paper or cinefoil.

Another idea is to put pieces of stained glass in a stack and let the light shine through. While I haven’t done this myself this time, I think this will work because stained glass interacts with light in a similar way to colored gels.

Focusing the Beam and Using Barndoors

Lastly, you can also use flashlights to focus beams and create interesting spots on your overall image. The image above shows how I focused the beam on the face of the model, which gave it an additional dimension.

In a different image, I used the flood function to create a more even light spread on the model. The flood function also creates a circle. It can be used as a flashlight gobo by placing barn doors, or just plain black paper before it. You can actually place a gobo-mask.

A Word on Image-Capturing Devices and Phones

I did this photoshoot with the default camera app on my phone, almost on auto mode. The images have not been retouched, only color-adjusted to fit my liking. Anyone with a smartphone has a camera. It is not necessary to know that any type of light can be used to create creative images. You can use even your sunglasses to take photos!

Naturally, there will be some limitations including the image quality, the default cropping, the file size, or the ability to bring back overexposed or underexposed images, but there is still an impressive amount of work that can be captured using nothing but a smartphone and some good light.