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Ed Shapiro 03-11-2012 10:58 AM

THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting An
The Truth About Photographic Lighting

An article by Ed Shapiro

Preface: This article is intended for folks who are serious about their photography such as avid amateur photographers, those aspiring to a career in professional photography and practicing full or part time professionals. People who just want to have fun with their photography might find this article boring, too complex or even mildly arrogant.

A famous heart surgeon said that becoming a heart surgeon is a matter of controlled arrogance because any doctor who feels that he can take a knife to someone’s chest, cut it open, saw open the rib cage and actually stop the heart, repair it within less that an hour and the start the heat beating again has got to have some arrogance or at least a high degree of chutzpah. When, however, the arrogance goes out of control; people die.

I thank goodness every day that photography is not a health profession and we are not involved in life and death issues. The “arrogance” issue, however, does factor in when we practice as professional photographers and undertake assignments that involve substantial amounts of money changing hands based on our performance, success, client satisfaction and critical deadline fulfillment. When photography is our livelihood, it takes on a different degree of importance in our lives. One must have the skill sets, personality attributes and confidence to go out there knowing one can do the job without terrible ramifications such as client disappointment or even law suits that can bring a photographer’s career to an abrupt end along with his or her livelihood. Anyone who is dismissive of this philosophy better be intrinsically great as a photographer or willing to play Russian roulette with their family income.

So… what does this have to do with lighting?- you may ask! The word “photography” means the process of recording images by exposing light-sensitive film or an electronic digital sensor or array to light or other forms of radiation. Amateurs make images for their own edification and professionals sell images. Scientifically speaking, every photographer should be aware of the physics of light and how it is generated and how it works and every professional should be able to utilize this knowledge in an artistic and creative manner in order to accommodate his or her clients’ demands and desires. If all the scientists out there will forgive my waxing poetic “The film (sensor) is my canvas, the light is my brush and the spectrum is my palette”. Although there are specialized lighting techniques for each field of photography, the basic principles are the same right across the board. Important sets of guide lines are the same whether we are photographing a person or an object in the studio or photographing an airplane in flight or a building. In the studio we have total control of the lighting and placement of the lighting apparatus. When we leave the confines of the studio we have to find the light and if we can’t find it, we have to come back when the natural lighting is more suitable or somehow augment or modify the existing light, or hang in there and do the best we can under less than ideal conditions, especially if we can not return the location or when we are photographing a non-repeatable event. When we SEE THE LIGHT we then have to know how to utilize it. There is an interesting transposition of concepts in this philosophy. If you are well versed in studio techniques you can train yourself to fine “studio lighting” in out-of-doors and indoor existing light conditions and if you are proficient in finding good light in natural lighting conditions, you can simulate various kinds of available light in the studio by diffusing and modifying hard light to synthesize open shad, hazy light, or north light. If harder light is needed you can use raw light or post light to imitate the sun. If you have no proficiency or luck with lighting in general it is time to hit the books and learn about the basic theories of photographic lighting and begin to practice them.

Why is the theory and basic rules of lighting so important- why can’t we just wing it? Well- there is nothing wrong with trial and error learning- hopefully, most of us will learn from our failures and mistakes and eventually arrive at solutions to problems. On the professional side, however, time actually IS money and there is no room for failure! We oftentimes have small windows of opportunity to complete an assignment and clients can’t and won’t pay for too much experimentation in a specific assignment. If problems occur when you are on the job and you really understand all of your theory, troubleshooting becomes quick and easy. You can see a Polaroid test (in the olden days), chimp, or look at the image on a tethered laptop and know immediately what to do about any problem. An unwanted shadow can be tracked back to the position of a certain light; a bad reflection may be and angle of incidence issue or a flat result may be caused by an unseen secondary lighting occurrence. There are hundreds of theses issues and unexpected problems that can be resolved in seconds of you really know your technical theory. Even the sequence in which the light are brought in and turned on in a studio shot can be critical. If you have 4 lights going in a portrait sitting and you turn all of you lights and modeling lights on at the same time it is probable that total confusion will set in. Firstly the accent light should be turned on and placed because those light can spill, seem too strong and create all kinds of problems from flare, spill, burned out highlights and more. Then the main light should be roughed in to sculpt the face or the item being photographed because the modeling lights in the fill light may cause difficulty in the precise placement of the main light in that they may dilute the shadow density as seen by our eyes even if the ratio is right in for film or sensor. If a fixed fill system is in place, no modeling lights are needed in that fill source is always there and the ratio is adjusted via the output of the main light and exposure from the main light. When one uses a mobile or form-fill setup, again, the placement of the fill light is critical as to its position, the degree of feathering, the distance from the subject and the output of your fill source. The mood of the image can be lost without strict control of the main light. Incorrect usage of the fill light can also cause problems in the direction of lighting. The fill light should only be visually noticeable in the correct or desired shadow density and shadow detail. If it has its own set of highlights and shadows or is recorded in the catchlghts in the eyes it becomes distracting and confusing to the viewer’s eye. In most cases all the important lights should appear to come from the same direction or a problem known as disunity of lighting occurs. Those who are well informed in lighting theory avoid this problem in setting up their lights right from the get-go. Folks who complain to the effect that “I don’t know what is wrong with an image- I can’t put my finger on it” usually have a case of lighting disunity of lighting on their hands. All the lights need to be subservient to the main light in terms of visual effect. The kicker or accents lights should come from the same side as the main light. This applies to portraiture as well as commercial work where hard/soft lighting is utilized. The kicker light that is used to create sparkling highlights and texture needs to come fro the same direction as the main light source. When the main light source is and overhead soft-box setup that light actually becomes the fill source and the kicker becomes the main light and determines the direction of the lighting as to the use of other lights and reflectors.

In portraiture, the hair light usually should come from the same direction as the main light and continue the glow of the main light into the hair to glamorize the hair and help with background separation issues. There are cases where multiple hair light and kickers are used (from different directions) as a glamorizing special effect and there is nothing all that bad about this technique unless it is overused to the point where the additional kickers or hair lights become distracting.

Some of the problems that occur in learning and mastering lighting is that there are so many “old wives’ tales” OK “old husbands’ tales” and serious misconceptions, misapprehensions and half truths handed down from generations and they simply never seem to go away and clear the path for precise learning. Examples: many photographers believe that all you need for a real low key portrait is a black background and all you need for a high key subject is a white background. A real low key rendition requires a subject with a medium to darker complexion and eyes and wearing darker or black clothing. Higher ratios and more depth of shadow usually work best in this technique. As for backgrounds; I never use or advise the use of jet black seamless material for low key background usage because it tens to look like a cut and paste job. The problem with that is the image will lack color or tonal mass in the background and lack depth and realism in the final image. You just need a hint of this tonal mass to create the 3 dimensional illusions that you can walk into the image and walk around the subject. Tonal mass is created, by proper background light usage according to the kind of background material is utilized. One can use either a slight lighter and contrasty painted background and under light it or use a darker background and carefully apply the background light until just a touch of color or tone appears. Some of the background light will come for your main and fill light as well so just a small boost from the background light may become necessary. The net result of theses suggestions is a low key portrait where the only highlighted subject is the sitter and the motif of the portrait becomes the sitter face and possible the hands to a lesser degree- the eyes take the path of least resistance.

In a high key portrait The ideal subject is a person with a fair complexion, blond hair and blue or hazel eyes wearing white or very light pastel colors. The background should be pure white, ivory or very light pastel colors with just a hint of chroma. Here, the inverse of the low key theory applies. The face of the subject’s face is now the darkest element in the composition and therefore stands out as the motif of the image. If a white background is desired even and adequate background lighting is essential. The exposure of the background, depending on your system and the camera room layout, can be anywhere from 2/3 of an f/stop to 2 full stops more that the subject very much depending on the unseen secondary (bounce) light which exists in the room and such factors as the distance from the subject to the background. When there is a greater distance between the subject and the background, the background becomes more isolated for the spill from other lights and some of the unseen secondary light and more of the inverse square law becomes apparent and the background my become muddy do the falloff. When this happens more separate illumination of the background becomes necessary.

The truths about lighting are as follows: One can not create fine photography on demand without a through knowledge of lighting. There is no such thing as a one kind of lighting that fits all subjects and assignment especially if the photographer practices more that one field or specialty of the craft. Those who think that there should be no rules applied to art are only fooling themselves because it is basic elements and knowhow that enable creativity. If one is going to alter the basic rules and principles for creative purposes it is all the more important to fully understand the basics.

There are great musicians who can’t read music but are geniuses nonetheless, however, they are not going to get a seat in a major symphony orchestra or play in a night-club or a Broadway show band where sight reading is imperative. There are great photographer who know nothing about theory a can produce their work strictly by instinct. Theses folks are thereby limiting the scope or potential of the jobs that the can do. They would also have a heck of a time teaching their staff to accommodate the growth of their businesses.

By reading many posts on this forum, making critiques in the Professional Portrait Critique sub forum and analyzing the questions that folks are asking, I get the feeling that LIGHTING is not in the forefront and many photographer’s quest for learning and improving their craft.

What is written here is only the tip of the lighting iceberg, there is much more in that lighting must be studied and applied to other skill sets such as posing and composition. Scientifically speaking, light creates the physical image and aesthetically speaking, lighting sets the mood of and motif of the image.

This article is not written to discourage anyone- just to put thing in the right perspective. I have met many photographers who are dismissive of the importance of lighting management and love to say that “lighting is not rocket science”. I, for one, beg to differ with that attitude. Lighting is indeed complex but it can be learned through study and practice. Although it is a hackneyed phrase “Rome was NOT built in a day” and photography IS an ongoing learning process even for the savviest photographers. Even if one is actually a “rocket scientist” the principles of jet propulsion have very little to do with photography. A person, who is very intelligent, can indeed retain lots of theoretical data and regurgitate all this information on demand but there is the talent factor and everyone has their own aptitudes and talents.

I sincerely hope this helps. Feedback- comments and flack warmly invited!

Ed :afro:

Bobby Deal 03-11-2012 01:27 PM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
Well written piece Ed. There is A LOT of truth in here and most will still miss it but for some it will serve as a reminder and others a tome to learn from. I agree with you that many here and in other photo communities seem to think there must be a one off trick that we use to get the results we show. They are the same ones that think we can simply hand it to them in an hour or too and make them PHOTOGRAPHERS.

Understanding the principlas of light can allow one to do more with a single light then most can do with 3 or four. Learning to understand light can be simple in prinicpal but it is one of those situations where putting understood prinicpal into practice is still more then a little challenging.

At the core of the issue white to black, black to white is all a matter of intensity and perspective. People generally tend to get the intesity side of the equation it is the perspective side they most often miss or omit. For most simply understanding these pricipals is more then they seem able to grasp let alone using shadow density, fall off and direction to help create dimension, and define shape and texture goes beyond the thought process of the masses.

It all comes togehter though when one suddenly awakens a true desire to be better, to excell at a technical level as well as a creative level. Having the creative vision is obviously no more a gaurantee of technical proficancy then is holding technical mastery a gaurantee of creative vision. However I feel that many true creatives have the native advantage going in and will instictively feel the technical aspects even if they dont understand them.
However these individuals are anomolies and not the rule.

Conversly holding technical mastery of light may allow a not so creative individual to produce the creative vision of another yet it may come to be that the result while technically perfect is lacking the instictive creative influence that brings the technical to life.. Thus in the end it is a balance of insticnt and technical mastery that set the truly great protographers apart from the crowd.

When teaching I often liken the movement of light to the flow of water in a stream. It moves along smoothly with minimal disruption until it encounters an obstruction and while its base reaction to the obstruction is predictible in that it will divert its direction, wrap around it and eventually coming back together further down stream there is a lot of turmoil and change within the diversion.
Failure to understand this turmoil is where folks go awray. Not understanding what happen inside the turmoil as a result of the diversion kills them. Learning that they can control the chaos and bend that turmoil to there own creative needs is when the understanding suddenly kicks in.

quantumhelp 03-12-2012 11:44 AM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
Very well put, Mr. Ed. I am lucky that we grew up together, both as friends and photographers. Some of today's " shooters " don't seem to care if they know about lighting. They have cameras that can go to ISO 32000 and f/1.2 lenses. They try for "natural light", really meaning whatever ambient light is around. They shoot wide open to blur out the background completely while also accomplishing the fact that one eye is in focus and the other eye is out of focus. Then, there is the subject of the weird color balances they are getting.

Some do try flash, but wonder why the speedlight will not provide any fill light when they are shooting in a church or Temple with 40 foot high ceilings and they are bouncing.

Just make me laugh or cry depending on the mood I'm in.

wolfd 03-12-2012 12:24 PM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
Well written Ed. A lot of good information here. Thanks for sharing your lifetime of experience.

Brooks 03-12-2012 12:45 PM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
It's always amused me when people, with cameras and lenses that cost literally thousands of dollars, decide they want to do portraiture, product, food, interior or any type of professional photography that requires lighting without spending more than $300 for lighting equipment.

I'd much rather have a $500 dollar camera and several thousand dollars in lighting equipment.

Sailor Blue 03-13-2012 01:29 AM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
Kudos Ed.

As a rank beginner at lighting I couldn't agree more with you. I have a scientific background so understanding the physics of light came naturally to me. Putting that understanding into practice in photographic lighting is something else again, but I'm slowly learning. I would be totally lost if I didn't have that basic understanding.

I will disagree about one thing. Everyone says you have to learn to SEE THE LIGHT. I say you have to learn to see both the light and the shadows. I love Rick Sammon's way of putting this, "Light illuminates, shadows define.".

Ed Shapiro 03-13-2012 02:13 PM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting

You and Rick are correct! I took it for granted by way of another old axiom "Where there is light, there is shadow". I can add to that... even if the camera does not see the shadows. A ring light, being a co-axial light source, is said to be a "shadowless" light source, however, if we look at such as setup from the side, we will see a shadow on the background. As soon as the co-axial relationshop between the lense and the ring light is gone the shadows will appear on the image. In portraiture- highlights emphasize features and shadows hide the ones we don't like to see.:-)


Mel 03-14-2012 11:40 AM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
As always, I will come back to such great articles and advice!:afro:

WesternGuy 03-14-2012 08:01 PM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
Ed, thanks for this. It will take me a couple of readings to take it all in and to understand the implications/ramifications for my future work with flash and lighting in general.


zitilites 03-18-2012 09:40 PM

Re: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHIC LIGHTING- new!The Truth About Photographic Lighting
This is great! I could not agree with you more about its importance.

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