Between Light and Shadow

As photographers, we are an interesting bunch of people.  We tend to disagree on just about everything in terms of what makes a great picture.  We all have opinions on image content, composition, what we like and dislike in an image and the choices we each make in terms of equipment and post processing.  But we all agree when we see a great image.  Even if it is something we don’t usually do in our own work, we know a good picture when we see one.  And one of the main characteristics present in every great picture is great light.  And light is, well, everything.  An image without good light may be interesting and it may be a good record keeping documentation of someone or some thing or some event. But unless there is great light present it tends to fall a little short and not stay in our own personal image memory bank.  You all know the image memory bank I speak of.  We all have one.

I like movies.  I mean really like movies and see more than most people I know.  I study the work of great cinematographers and listen to their interviews and techniques of lighting they utilize.  While they all tend to agree with photographers on how light can most effectively be used, they almost all agree across the board that they place as much or more emphasis on shadows as they do on light.  As we discuss light heavily in this post let’s also try to keep in mind the importance of shadows and how they play an important role in the making of an image.

By its nature light has to exhibit sufficient illumination to record an image and it has to direct the viewer’s attention.  It has to provide depth and dimension.  What it can do is make the viewer feel a certain emotion, tension, warmth, and more.  Coupled with composition, camera technique and subject matter, light helps to tell the great story. Let’s take a close look at the foundations of light.

I generally tend to begin my workshops discussing the three specific things I call the “Elements of Light:” Light Quality, Light Quantity and Light Direction. Creating a systematic way to approach these elements is key to creating predictable results.  Clearly I am not talking about removing anyone’s creativity in the face of image making.  But I am talking about a quick sort of mental checklist of all the things you have available to use in making a great image.

Light Quality

Light quality can be summed up quite simply if you break it down to the lowest common denominator.  For example, to me light quality is usually about selecting the right lighting tool and the right lighting application for the job or task at hand.  In every picture I have ever seen or have ever taken there is always one of these following tools used along with one of the following applications.  Think of it as “one from column A and one from Column B.” I have found that it breaks down to a 4 X 4 thing.  There are four Tools of light and there are four Applications of light.

Lighting Tools

  • Sunlight
  • Speedlight
  • Studio Strobes
  • Ambience

All of the lighting tools available fit into one of these four categories.  Once we understand what these tools are we have to master their use.  Of course, as working photographers we need to know not only what each of these tools can do for us but also what they cannot do. For example, I would not suggest photographing a group of 300 people with a single speedlight.  But advancements in speedlight technologies have pushed their capabilities further than some realize and if you haven’t used them lately, give them another look.  At the same time, studio strobes coupled with sunlight can yield amazing results. And certainly my tool of choice in the studio for a headshot will tend to always be the studio strobe with the appropriate light-shaping device for the job.  I added ambience to the list as a catch-all of things such as the light reflecting off of a warm toned building, light bouncing off of a projector’s screen, mini-spots in the ceiling in a hotel bathroom, soft window light on a rainy day, or light from a computer screen, lighting the face of an office worker.  Each tool of light has a right to exist and it’s own specific need and has a proper time to be used.  Understand each and know not only when it is appropriate to use each one but just as importantly, when not to use each one.

Lighting Applications

  • Additive
  • Subtractive
  • Transmission
  • Reflective

These applications of light are plugged into my head and when I get onto a location for a shoot I know I have these four to select from.  As the location, client’s need and opportunity is revealed I then make the decision on which application to couple with which light tool from above.

Additive is the use of flash in an ambient situation.  In my world this is most effectively used when I need to change the brightness of the ambience, specifically the background, to add drama and to overcome the limitations of the dynamic contrast range of today’s digital camera.

Subtractive refers to the technique of removing light from a specific area of a picture to either create more drama or improve the light quality, such as on a face.  A good example would be to move a portrait client under a porch or doorway in order to redirect light falling on the face to less top light and more front light in an ambient situation.  Subtractive can also define or describe the use of a black panel to redirect light away from a face on an overcast day.

Transmission might describe any light that travels through an interruption of some type, such as a diffused material.  Transmission light is best used in high-contrast lighting conditions and while improving on the light quality on a face by making it appear much softer, will change the light quantity on the face and in the background.

Reflective light ideally is used when strong directional light needs to be redirected back to the subject or object of a picture.  A strong backlit subject will often need a reflector to bring the dynamic range of contrast under control to prevent the clipping of highlights from strong backlighting.

Light Quantity (the appropriate exposure)

To my way of thinking light quantity is the most elementary aspect of what we do in the world of photography and knowing how to effectively utilize exposure to help tell the story is of critical importance in our image making.  Its not the easiest thing to master but we have to be able to place an exposure correctly in an image to record reality or create a stylized look. And the more we can do this at the time of capture the better off our lives will be.

The Light Meter

As we made the transition from film to digital we were faced with an interesting situation.  For those who were working with color negative film the transition was much more difficult.  Working with the less forgiving range of exposure in digital capture created clipped highlights, blocked shadows and lots or problems for many.  However, for those who were working with transparency film the transition was much easier.  The tighter exposure controls were a given and easier to understand. They were also use to working with a light meter more effectively or more accurately, based on need.  I remember hearing a well-known photographer state that he was so glad digital came along so he didn’t have to use a light meter anymore.  I happen to disagree.  I feel we have never needed a light meter more.  The use of a light meter can save so much post-production time if the photographers of today would just settle into to using it as a discipline.  Think of a carpenter using his or her measuring tape for every thing they do throughout the day.  We should treat our important exposures no differently.  I know we can see the back of our camera, I know we have the histogram there to aid in getting it right and I know we have the flexibility with shooting RAW to bring exposure up and down depending on the need.  But the fact is that all of this takes time.  And of all the things I possess, additional time in my world is not one of them.  The closer I can get to getting the exposure correct, the closer I can come to getting out from in front of a computer and back behind the camera.  Understanding correct use of the light meter is paramount to the successful photographer.

The Histogram

Of course we all know the importance of the histogram and the role it plays in getting us on track in terms of our exposures.  The histogram on our camera, the histogram in our post processing software.  They both allow us to know where we are in terms of relative brightness levels throughout our image.  So allow me to simply say that since the early inception of digital capture I have thought of the histogram and more importantly the window in which it is displayed, as a rectangular tube or pipe.  Anything within the tube will print properly.  Anything outside of the tube will not.  This is how I tend to think of the histogram as I see information slammed against the right or left of the representative window of the histogram.  Whatever is inside, GOOD.  Whatever is outside, BAD.

Light Direction

Light travels in a straight line.  Yea, I know how basic that sounds but it might help to dispel the rumors and myths about light wrapping around a face.  Light doesn’t wrap and in fact doesn’t bend unless it goes through water.  But the direction from which light strikes the surface of a subject has a lot to do with creating impact in our work.  I know that early on most of our photographic careers we learned the old rule that says “the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflectance.”  Basically light comes off of a surface at the same angle it hit the surface.  The efficiency of the surface to either absorb or repel light has a lot to do with how we perceive it.  A highly polished black 8-ball has a completely different way of returning light than the porous of an unpainted ceramic mask.  As the surface changes so do the angles we can “get away with” in terms of light direction.  In addition, we learn through trial and error that as a given light source travels further away from the camera, more towards the background, it becomes more efficient in terms of its brightness as seen from the camera. Therefore as the direction of light changes, even if the distance does not change, the exposure can be affected.

I have learned over the years that anytime I use an accent light, hair light, “skim” light the exposure of that light as measured with an incident light meter aimed at the source from the subject, should read at least 1-2 stops BELOW whatever I am shooting at based on the key light on the subject.  This will prevent clipping the highlights of the accent and light and provide a big difference in image quality.

Light direction is a big part of the controls over which we have command Understanding more about the things we can do with light direction can keep you testing a lot but can also result in great creative work.

The Wrap-Up

Light can be controlled, enhanced and even created during post-production.  All who know me know how much I live and die by the use of Nik Software.  When I discovered Color Efex Pro in 2004 it literally changed the way in which I work.  And of course today I work with Nik Software in their San Diego office and understand the tools better than ever.  Within these tools I can create light effects and paint them in certain areas, I can also utilize very specific control points to apply an effect to a specific subject or object and generally optimize my “look.”  But to best understand the appropriate use of the software I must start with the best quality image possible and that takes discipline.  I can apply an effect to any image.  But to enhance an already top image is far more rewarding than to try to save a bad picture in post-processing.

Spend time learning light.  Watch it, read about it, test it.  Oh, and don’t forget the shadows.  Anytime there is a great light, there will also be a great shadow waiting to be explored.

Tony Corbell is a 32-year Veteran Photographer and Sr. Manager of Industry Relations and PR at Nik Software, Inc. You can see more of his work at at CorbellProductions.com