Bare Bulb Technique

By Jeffery Jay Luhn Back to

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There was a time from about 1930 through 1958 when flashbulbs ruled the world of candid photography. Without the necessity for hot lights, cumbersome fixtures and long extension cables, almost anyone with a camera and a flash attachment could sell a photo. The rule of the day was, “F/8 and be there.” Newspaper and magazine photographers showed up at events and proudly announced that the subjects could “act naturally” because the flash would freeze the action. Publicity photographers swarmed to places where movie stars could be snapped as they passed by. Freelance photographers came out at night, overcoats bulging with flashbulbs, searching for action on their police radio scanners. They crisscrossed the mean streets of big cities to get shocking photos of homicide and car crash victims for front-page headlines.

A medium sized flashbulb used in a polished reflector could throw a powerful beam of light over 100 feet, allowing pictures to be snapped from behind police barricades. It wasn’t pretty, but you could make out the details. Weegee, the first photographer in NYC to own a radio scanner, boasted that he could get upwards of 50 bucks for a good picture of a stiff. A gang war could mean a pretty good month for photographers like that. On the occasions when photographers needed very broad light coverage for wide angle lenses or interior shots, they removed their flash reflectors and went with a bare bulb. Their techniques can be applied to modern day electronic flash.

Bare bulb lighting is exactly what the name implies: a bare light source with no modifier. Nada. No reflector, no focusing lens, no umbrella and no softbox. This differs from camera-mounted “direct flash” because a bare bulb sends the light out in all directions. In addition to striking the subject, the light bounces off the floor, ceiling and walls. A flash with a diffuser dome is a useful tool, but it’s not bare bulb. Let’s remain pure on this point for the purpose of this discussion−the light must be bare.

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(Left) Bare bulb with bounce (Right) Bare bulb with no bounce

The result of a bare bulb used indoors is a defined key light and a soft fill light at the same time. Bare bulb is strictly an indoor technique, because the benefit of the bounce light is lost to the outdoor open air. The technique can be used with both flash and continuous lights, but flash is ideal for still photos of moving subjects. For the example in this article I used the new battery powered Photoflex® TritonFlash. If you have a similar fixture with a fully exposed flash tube or filament, you’re ready to start experimenting.

Bare bulb sprays the light everywhere, so it’s not the best choice when precise control is needed, but I find it to be the best solution for some specific situations. I use it exactly like off-camera open flashbulbs were used in the 1950s for wedding receptions, indoor sports, retro portraits and architectural interiors. Because the bare flash tube is small in relation to the subject, the shadows are sharply defined. There is an unexpected benefit to this because the noticeably unpleasant specular shine on faces from direct flash is replaced by highlights that are too small to see. The result is hard lighting that’s a dramatic contrast from softboxes or umbrellas, but much improved over direct flash with a reflector. One would expect the light to be too harsh, but it isn’t. In fact it often looks like the photo was taken with ideal ambient light.

Jeffery Jay Luhn, bare bulb photography, photographic lightingWhen bare bulb light is bounced off a wall, with a bit of the light allowed to strike the subject directly, the quality is more articulated than plain bounced strobe. If there isn’t a neutral colored wall nearby, I use a Photoflex® LitePanel, LiteDisc® or piece of white board as my bounce surface.

All light fixtures have their own characteristics. The quality of light from bare bulb also varies greatly, depending upon how close it is to the subject and the bounce surface. For soft directional light, I place the bare bulb near the intersection of two walls and a ceiling. If I want a wider dispersion with lots of fill light, I place the fixtures six or eight feet from any wall.

In the portrait of graphic artist Ray Bojorquez, I had one TritonFlashTM about three feet from a white surface on the left and the other about two feet from a black background on the right slightly behind the model. Both units were about five feet from the model. Each unit was able to bounce off the walls and ceiling, but the one on the left is providing the fill light because it’s near a white surface. With this setup, shooting is almost foolproof. No matter what way the model turns, you’re going to get interesting light with a manageable contrast ratio.

Jeffery Jay Luhn, bare bulb photography, photographic lightingSide note: If you want to make your photo look like it was taken 50+ years ago, change the spectral sensitivity of your “film” by using Photoshop. Choose IMAGE> ADJUSTMENTS> BLACK AND WHITE > then use the sliders to boost the blue/cyan/green and reduce the red/yellow. This makes the image look as though it were taken with orthochromatic film, not the more accurate panchromatic films introduced in the late 1950s.

In the photo of the gymnast and coach, I’m using one flash on each side of the subjects at a distance of 20 feet. A third TritonFlashTM is five feet to the right of the camera, which is 30 feet from the subjects. All units are eight feet high. There’s very little bounce from the 25-foot ceiling, so the light is very hard, but the contrast ratios are working well. The background is a blue wall, and by dropping the blue channel I was able to darken it to achieve better separation.

Jeffery Jay Luhn, bare bulb photography, photographic lighting

Commercial photographers will appreciate the results that bare bulb technique can deliver at indoor events. Safety concerns require you to keep your lighting well away from the action, and in this case, my three TritonFlashTM units were at the edges of a 42×52 foot floor mat. The flash units were set on 1/8 power because the short flash duration helps to freeze the action. The ISO was at 800, and the camera was set on a manual mode setting of f/5.6 at 1/125 sec. This situation is similar to the challenge you’d face at a concert, wedding re- ception or basketball game. Bare bulb flash is the only way I know to fill the entire space with interesting cross lighting.

Jeffery Jay Luhn, bare bulb photography, photographic lightingBouncing flash off the ceiling would have produced flat results, and direct flash would have made some areas much brighter than others. With three bare bulb flashes on 10-foot stands I was able to roam around right in the action and get lots of dramatically lit shots. Many shots look like window light or ambient incandescent, but the images are tack sharp instead of the results you’d get from long exposures. The lighting was perfect for both wide and telephoto shooting. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

Other examples of bare bulb are shots taken before a wedding ceremony, which is always a rushed situation. At times like this you’ll be concentrating on directing the subjects quickly, so a light setup that’s simple is great. On-camera bounce flash is often the choice, but the results are too flat for me. I use umbrellas on occasion, but if there are windows, I have to deal with large umbrella reflections. With bare bulb you get a very tiny hot spot, which is easy to place in a window frame and spot out later. In most cases the bare bulbs give me a soft result that looks like no light was used at all.

So, there you have it, an old school technique that can be used with modern equipment in current situations. Once you become familiar with how to use bare bulb technique, you’ll find many uses for it.

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Product Resources: Camera: Nikon D-300, Lenses: Nikon 12-24mm f/4, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8; Lighting: Photoflex® TritonFlashTM strobes, Photoflex® StarFlash 300 strobe; Other: Photoflex® 39″ x 72″ LitePanel reflector, Photoflex® LiteStands.


About the Author

Jeffery Jay Luhn
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Jeffery Jay Luhn began his career as a small town newspaper photographer while attending the photo program at Laney College, Oakland, CA. He later graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography and shot for United Press International in Asia and Latin America. Jeffery founded a studio in San Francisco and for 30 years did studio and editorial shooting. Client list and photo galleries can be viewed at www.LuhnPhoto.com.