Small Budget Photography Lighting: The iPhone Photo Shoot

As photographers, we’re always trying to create an image that speaks to our viewers with a distinct visual voice. Luckily, that viewer doesn’t have to know that you created the dramatic visuals of your high end model shot with two flashlights and some wax paper… or do they? Yes, some would laugh if they walked onto a location and saw two assistants strategically holding iPhone’s as light sources, but with photography, put your image first and leave brands, reputations and preconceived notions behind. After all, even the biggest and “best” lighting equipment in the world can produce undesirable results without attention to the shape, direction and quality of the light being output. (Read about how to start a photo studio for under $750 here)

Photography and Writing by Ryan Weiss


In addition to a camera and a lens,

(2) SmartPhone with Flashlight App

(1) Wax Paper or some kind of reflector

If you’re a seasoned strobe user, I dare you to leave your radio triggers and hot shoe flashes in the bag. Likewise, if you’re a new flash user I challenge you to trade in your gear lust for a productive trip to a local hardware store or just reach in your back pocket. I did the latter and here are the results.



For this shot I relied solely on the LED “flashlight” mode on two iPhone 4’s. Due to the low output of these lights, I needed a location that didn’t have much ambient light for my cellular light sources to have to overpower. So I used a dark basement. I mounted my camera, a Nikon D700, on an inexpensive tripod which was used to stabilize the camera since I would be shooting at shutter speeds of 1/16 or longer. My final camera settings were a combination of a long shutter speed (1/8s), wide aperture (f/1.8) and a high ISO (1600) to successfully turn that tiny light source into a large, pleasing, soft light. To tone down the harshness from the bare LED lights I used an inexpensive, transparent shoot through reflector in between the light and the subject, that effectively turned two narrow beams of light into a 42” soft box. The end result is a photograph that is lit with a soft and beautiful light that wraps evenly around our subject.

I myself was surprised at how, essentially, a flashlight and white bed sheet were able to produce quality light that easily rivals that of my expensive flashes and soft boxes. If nothing else, use this as a lesson on using what you currently have available. Although It’s safe to say that you won’t find me attempting to overpower the sun with my cell phone, it’s nice knowing I can travel light and still get great results. Also, If you’re part of the small percentage of population that doesn’t own a smart phone or device, try buying an inexpensive LED flashlight, which can be purchased from almost any retailer for less than $10. Likewise, if you’re strapped for cash and can’t afford a collapsible reflector, try a roll of wax paper.


Lighting Diagram

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