How to Use Your Tablet or SmartPhone as a Light Source for Photography

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In the early 90s I was just a kid, and I remember watching a VHS tape about photography lighting with the great Dean Collins. I was truly amazed with the way things were arranged in the studio and how he placed the light. This was magic to me, and Dean Collins was the magician.

I watched it over and over, trying to find the little tricks behind everything he was doing. Since that day, every time I see a picture, I try to understand how it was done and how the light was placed, the quality of the light, the reflections, and the shadows it casts. What I’ve learned along the way is that a lot of the commercial images you see are done with some really simple lighting setups, and not in the big studios with the big production sets that you might imagine.

The next image is an example.

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This image might look like a complicated and high-end lighting setup, but in fact, the only light sources used here were simply a tablet and a smartphone.

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This is a typical light painting image, where the camera is placed on a tripod and the image shot at ISO 50, f/5.6 and a 4 second exposure time. I used the lowest ISO so I could make the image as clean and noiseless as possible. F/5.6 was the chosen aperture to give me the depth of field effect I was looking for, and after a couple of test shots, I realized that 4 seconds was the correct exposure time for the light I was using. It also gave me a comfortable time-frame in which I could move the light around and create the desired effect. An infrared remote shutter release was used to avoid touching the camera and keep it as steady as possible.

Light painting is a technique I use a lot in my work. I used to do it mostly with small lanterns and led light panels, but I realized that a tablet screen light and a smartphone camera led light are fantastic tools to use as light sources in this type of images. There are a few apps that can help to control what shows up on the screen, and transform your device into a mean light-painting machine, but you don’t really need them.

What I’ve done is to create my own masks in Photoshop which I have in my iPad Mini Retina’s camera roll to use when I need. Here are some examples of masks I’ve created.

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These masks control the shape and colour on the screen, and the brightness can be easily controlled in the device’s screen definitions.

I took some readings with a colour meter. The iPad screen is around 5,500k and the iPhone camera LED light is around 6,500k, so it’s easy to adjust your camera to match the light source’s colour temperature or use different colours on the device’s monitor to create colour effects in the image.

The light from these screens is usually soft; you can make it even softer with some tracing paper in front of the screen and you can control the spread of light with some black card flags.

In this case I was holding the device by hand and moving it around, but you can buy cheap tablet and phone holders with ¼” thread connectors that can be mounted onto tripods, magic arms or even handles that make it easier to hold.

This particular image could have been done with only one exposure, but I decided to take it a bit further with a composition of three images with three different types of light.

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04a

The first image (above) was created with perfect light on the knife and fork, with the iPad positioned at an angle, and with a white screen for a nice light reflection.

The second image (below) has the perfect light on the steak, chilies and mushrooms, with a circular faded mask on the iPad screen.

04b

The third image (below) gives a vignette effect and some dramatic light with the LED camera light of the iPhone which is a much harder (smaller) light and therefore casts harder shadows.

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Now it’s just a matter of composing the final image in Photoshop using the best that each of these images has to offer.

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The idea here is to stack the three images and use layer masks to show the good light spots and hide the bad ones. Here is a closer look at the layers with associated masks for each one.

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These lighting and composition techniques are not exactly new. This was done long before Photoshop and digital photography were around. Film with multiple exposures or darkroom masking techniques were used with similar effects a long time ago. Nowadays, things are just a lot easier with the digital advent, but the fact is that the basics and references are still there, and understanding this puts you on the right path to be a better photographer.

Have you tried this technique before? Give it a go and post any comments or questions you have below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ivo Guimaraes is a Portuguese photographer and college teacher. His passion for lighting and image editing has gotten him to the next level in studio photography and led him to work with leading brands in the Portuguese market. You can check some more of his work on his blog and Youtube channel.

  • Nick

    Thanks Ivo – your enthusiasm is infectious, and spreads well beyond the limits of this excellent article.

  • witefeather

    Now this was great~a small idea but with a huge impact. Thanks for giving me another tool I don’t think I would have thought about on my own!

  • Oh, I never thought of my iPad as a tool of this type, now it has a purpose…lol! Great article! 🙂

  • Glenys Morgan

    Absolutely brilliant. I love this kind of imaginative information. Thanks!

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thanks a lot Nick!

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thanks a lot witefeather!

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thanks a lot Grisel!

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thanks a lot Glenys!

  • Thanks Ivo for this great article!

    I used to setup lights when shooting still life/product. But now, I only use my iPad and iPhone to light my subjects. I find it easier and quicker compared to setting up off camera flashes 🙂 Here are some that I created in the past: https://500px.com/JayCaps/sets/still_life__product_photography

  • Eduardo Aguirre

    Really good stuff, congrats. Could you please tell us how do you create the masks in photoshop?
    Thank you!! Keep up the good work.

  • Vishal Kumar Sharma

    thank yyou so much for this….. but can u explain abut HDR pics… coz that i donnow how to do it??

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  • We have many articles on dPS on that topic: http://digital-photography-school.com/?s=HDR

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thank you Eduardo. The easiest way to create a mask in photoshop is to make a new document of 1024×768 pixels and then you can fill de image with solid colours, gradients, stripes or whatever works for you. Then just save the document and send it to your device.

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thanks Jay, your images are great.

  • Ivo Guimaraes

    Thank you Vishal. The technique used in this article is not HDR, it’s just the use of masks to show the best of each layer.

  • Shammyd

    What a lot of fun! A creative new thing to explore and experiment with. Thanks!

  • Thanks for such an amazing technique..

  • John Caripa

    Wow it’s a nice picture!!! very brilliant man! with simple tool you can produce the great picture…
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  • Davis Karl

    Hi
    thanks for useful and applied techniques.you used an ipad as a softbox .I like this .I used this technique. But not liKe you professionally.

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  • German Seckel

    Look for some apps for the iPad or iPhone called “Photo Soft Box”…

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