Needless to say, light is of paramount importance in photography. The word photography is translated from the Greek as “writing with light.” Without light, photography would be most difficult indeed.
Light does a lot for us in our image making. It allows making the very basic exposure itself. It provides shape, form, texture and dimension. The management of light helps us to render our subject with the most emphasis where desired. We’ll look at these ideas in a moment.
To further understand light we need to remember that it has several vastly important characteristics:
- Light has intensity, or the characteristic of brightness. That characteristic requires us to produce a proper exposure using our camera meter, setting shutter speed aperture and ISO.
- Light has color, the inherent wave length or color temperature of the light as it illuminates the subject. This color requires us to manage White Balance.
- Light has direction, the angle that it strikes the subject. Front light, side light and backlight all have important uses in rendering our subject with the best results, and finally,
- Light has quality. This characteristic is perhaps one of the most important. Light may be very soft and pleasing or hard, high contrast and very unflattering. Of all the light characteristics, the management of this quality of light requires our utmost effort.
Of all the light characteristics, the camera can manage intensity and color, but we need to be careful to manage light’s quality and direction to achieve the optimum reproduction of our subject. Unfortunately, I see a lack of lighting management in these two areas quite frequently. Let’s look at some ideas.
First let’s understand that light in itself helps us produce a shape but shadow helps us create form and dimension. We really need to manage both in the creation of quality images. I know that shadows are often bad; they may block up detail and detract from the image. And, often we appreciate images that are virtually shadow-free. I have written a piece for a shadow-less light application for small close-up and macro subjects. You may read it here.
Lighting direction is important to use in making our images. Front light gives us shape and form. Light from over our camera or shoulder can reveal a lot about our subject. As light wraps around the subject features, the variations in intensity, or falloff, tells us a lot about the features of the subject. But this comes with a price. Front light is often flat, that is, lacking in contrast. This low contrast lighting fails to give adequate details of the subject surface.
Therefore, lighting direction is most important when attempting to bring out the most subject details. Three lighting techniques are important to learn: Axial (Front), Side and Back.
With axial lighting the light source is at the lens or close to it and illuminates the subject directly on the front surface. (See Diagram Below) The image of the Overcup oak acorns below is lit with an off-camera Speedlight flash in a small softbox right up against the lens. While it produces a nice image, it is somewhat flat and lacks the contrast to illustrate the detail at its best.
Side light, corrects this failure of front light. In fact, to visually achieve maximum surface texture, extreme side light is the answer. Texture is that all-important tactile quality of what the subject feels like; as in does it feel smooth or rough.
The image below is lit with the same Speedlight and softbox to the far right of the subject. This image produces maximum detail and texture of the acorn and the surface of the caps.
Backlight, while sometimes difficult to work with because of little definition to front details, provide a maximum understanding of shape, a two-dimensional quality. Backlight can separate the subject from the background and produce a striking edge-light or “halo” around our subject for maximum definition. In the image below, the single Speedlight and softbox is placed behind the acorns. The image illustrates maximum shape and edge detail, but is lacking in front surface detail due to insufficient light from the single source.
Now, as it turns out, we may use more than only one style of lighting direction; a mixture is frequently best. Here the lighting is predominant back light with a front fill card. This image provides more information, better illustrating the acorns and the detail of the caps.
In addition to direction, lighting quality is vastly important as well. Small point light sources create hard, high contrast light. A point light source is very small in relation to the subject and directional. The light from our sun is actually small (you can cover the sun with your thumb at noon) and directional, creating lots of unflattering, dark shadows.
On the other hand, large and broad light sources are much softer, especially when close to the subject. An overcast sky is a perfect example of a large light source; the clouds themselves act as the large source of light. Let’s look at some specific examples.
In the first two images below the light is a single off-camera Speedlight flash both at the same distance (2 ft.) from the subject. In the left image the flash is unmodified and the right uses an 18 inch diffuser in front of the Speedlight. The first has considerable more specular reflections and sharper (harder) shadows; the next with the larger light source is more diffused, both in the highlights and shadows. The larger the light source, the softer the light and less contrast.
The quality of the light is also subject to the size of the light source relative to the subject as a function of its distance from the subject. In the four examples immediately below, the light source is the same exact fixture — an eight-inch softbox on a Speedlight. In the top examples the light source is six feet from the subject. In the lower images the light is only one foot away.
When the light source is at a distance it seems small as below, shadows are at their maximum and spectral highlights are small and hard. Look at the detail of the reflection from the light source. (Closeup second below).
When the light source is large (closer) as below, shadows are at their minimum and spectral highlights are large and soft. (See the next closeup.)
The images below are shot with a very soft lighting technique making use of a large light, close to the subject with reflectors and diffusers, resulting in less contrast, less shadows and more diffused highlights. This is a technique used frequently for shadow-less lighting with diffused specular highlights, like shiny metal or glass objects.
So after all that, let’s take a look at some examples where direction and quality play an important role in making or breaking an image. The images below are of the skull of a white-tailed deer. This animal was probably killed by being hit by a car resulting in the crushed skull as shown here.
The first image is taken with the light suggested for everything. Near axial, front lighting with a softbox on an off-camera Speedlight flash. The enlarged detail shows the image is well lit and exposed and illustrates the subject and the trauma.
The image below however, used side light with the same Speedlight and softbox. This image illustrates more detail than the first as the sidelight creates more texture, giving more definition to the bone and its structures. This is clearly visible in the enlarged detail.
Copyright © 2015 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.