How Do I Get a Laptop Screen to be a Main Light?

Tax Refund

Wow, look at that hansom man doing his taxes and it’s just incredible how well that laptop lit his body, it’s almost unbelievable. Well as it is said on Looney Tunes, “Don’t you believe it.” What we have going on here is actually a slightly clever off camera flash, on camera pop-up, and continuous light setup. Notice I left out the laptop, it’s not even on (key element. I’ll get to this later).

The premise for this shot is a man doing his taxes finds that doing online is easier than by hand. Issue #1 was that the light from a laptop screen is far to low for fast shutter speeds and also not white balanced to 5500K (white strobe color). Issue #2 was if I went without lighting from the screen then the whole scene falls apart because it would be obvious that I was pointing and smiling at a dead computer, “oooo! Look at the amount of black on my screen, I must be getting a great return!” Time to bring in the off camera flash.

How I set this up is simple, to my left I have a continuous light with umbrella on, with a 150 watt CFL 5500K balanced bulb in it. This gave me my fill light and was lower in brightness than the main flash so I would define the shadow areas better. On the laptop keyboard setting on the little flash stand that came with it, is my remote triggered flash. I set it at it’s lowest power setting since I was so close to it. Anything brighter would overexpose the shot. Finally, on the camera I opened the pop-up flash and placed over it a paper towel to lower the amount of light that is thrown on the scene. I wanted it to trigger the main flash and light the front of the tax book, but not light anything else.

Once everything was in place, I set the delay timer, tripped the release, ran over to my spot, and smiled. Yes, I did this alone. This was done on the same day I actually did my taxes and the wife and kids left me completely to myself the entire day. Anyway, everything worked great. All the flashes fired and the scene is color balanced as opposed to the blurry yellow tungsten type lighting I got with the laptop screen. Total time for shoot, about 1 hour but only because I never did this kind of setup before.


About Mark Birks
Professional photographer specializing in fine art photography and portraiture.

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