2.1 – Lighting – Overview

How important is light to photography?  Well, I have a quite famous historical example I’d like to submit for your review..

Genesis 1:1-3

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

If God thinks that light is a good thing, I sure do.  In fact, as a photographer, you will both learn to love and sometimes hate light.  It is the two-headed beast that you’ll wrestle your entire life.  On the one hand light is good because it is what we use to sculpt our subject and to tell our story.  On the other hand it can really kick your butt when you lack it or don’t have it in the right places.  Light is dynamic and instant.  You will receive instant feedback if you move a flash or the sun pops out from behind a cloud.

This might surprise you, but on a shot in a studio, I rented approximately $75,000 worth of lighting gear.  That was more than 10x the cost of the camera, lenses, and other gear I had with me.  The great photographers will obsess over things that you don’t even see as the casual observer, such as the way that a shadow drops off of the model’s nose.  All of this becomes important when you’re trying to emphasize certain elements of the model or background.  Painters have always understood this and were the original light obsessers.  For instance:

Rembrandt - Self Portrait

Rembrandt - Self Portrait

Rembrandt had a distinct look that he was known for.  He painstakingly worked on positioning his subjects to catch a certain combination of lights and shadows.  Do you see the semi-circular shaped shadow below his nose?  That’s actually called “Rembrandt Lighting” in photography.  It’s very pleasing to the eye for various reasons that I won’t get into.  It’s said that his light was drawn from a window high above in his studio.  Kind of a skylight.  Anyway, he was fond of this setup and many others have worked hard to replicate it over the years.

Depending on your subject, you will want to consider various lighting setups.  Women look better in some setups than men.  Heavy-set people can be “thinned” out a bit by a well placed shadow.  This subject can go REALLY deep, but there are some things that we’ll get you working on that will make an immediate impact.

Here are some good rules of thumb to begin with:

1) Shadows are just as important as light.  It’s the combination of light and shadows that make the image.  Deliberately calculated light and shadow “ratios” are the key to professional images.

2) “Bounce flash” is your friend!  Direct flash is not.  I’ll get into this more in this section.  Here’s a teaser article: LINK: Bounce Flash

3) A good flash is the first thing you should buy after you get an SLR.  Don’t ever use the pop-up flash that comes with your camera.  Why?  See #2 above.  If you have a compact or “point-and-shoot” you’re out of luck.  Just kidding, but not really.

4) Don’t make people stare into the sun.  They’ll hate you and your pictures won’t look good.  The best light outside is in even shade.  Side of a building or something.  Pray for cloudy days, not sunny days.

And here’s the greatest tip I can give you.  LINK: www.strobist.com .  Go ahead and bookmark it right now.  This guy, David Hobby, has become the world’s expert on photography lighting and has built the best community on the web for the subject.  I pretty much don’t need to write a single word more about lighting if you’ll go to his site and take his Lighting 101 and 102 courses.

And my personal favorite instructor on the subject is Joe McNally.  His blog LINK is outstanding.  But this book, I promise you, is the best book out there on using small “strobe” flashes to get professional lighting results.  This is my other “must-buy” book recommendation.

My favorite lighting book

My favorite lighting book

In this lighting section, we’re going to get into available lighting, flash lighting, multiple lighting setups, white balance (this has nothing to do with my bad dancing), and creative uses of light.  Again, I promise you that if you practice these tips that we’ll talk about, you will get better FAST.

ASSIGNMENT: Take a picture of a flower out in the middle of the day with the direct sunlight hitting it.  Now take a picture of the same flower from the same position  when it is in the shade or when there is no direct sunlight.  Look at both pictures and observe how the shaded picture is more even and allows you to see all the detail of the flower.  Whereas, the direct sunlight picture has “blown highlights” or areas that have no detail.  This is called contrast.  We’ll discuss in depth in subsequent posts.

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