Five Lessons For Better Lighting

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. Not just the art I’m trying to make when I’m getting creative with my camera, but the works of art that I’m occasionally hired to photograph. I recently wrote about photographing paintings for a museum collection, and that same assignment had me photographing sculpture too. As I moved my lights around these beautiful three-dimensional objects, I was struck by how well the process illustrated the importance of deliberate lighting and how small changes can make a big difference. To that end, here are five lessons for better lighting that I can put to use the next time I’m lighting a portrait, still life or practically anything under the sun.

1. One Light Might Be Right

There’s just so much you can do with a single light source. It’s easy to think you’ve got to use lots of lights when they’re available—a key, a fill, a hair light, a background light—and easier still to forget that a single source can do some really great things. Which, of course, reminds me of all the beautiful lighting we’ve seen produced from that singular source in the sky. Sometimes a picture looks great after setting up only a key, which I think can be attributed to the theory of “less is more.” Too much light can flatten a scene, and a single source with a strong shadow makes for dynamic, dramatic shots.

So, the real one-light takeaway for me is that I shouldn’t feel like I need to use more than one light just to do it. Start with one single light source, see what you can do with it and if it looks good, proceed! Only add more lights when it’s necessary.

2. When You Do Need More Lights, Use Them

The other side of that coin is that sometimes one light isn’t enough. In some cases, adding a second light can be helpful. Most commonly, if the shadows are too dark a second light source is the perfect way to fill them, lowering the contrast ratio and bringing in detail. Another great use for a second light is if you need to separate the subject from the background. In that case, I’ll add an edge light or hair light to create separation via illumination. I’ll sometimes place an edge light on the shadow side of the subject, positioned behind and out of frame in order to enhance the edge and show any texture or detail that may otherwise disappear in darkness. If I’m working outdoors, even if the subject is a landscape or scenic, I’ll often shoot toward the sun for this very same reason, then use a bounce card, reflector or flash to add light to fill shadows and create a new key.

Whether you need the background to be brighter, a spotlight on some scene element or a frontal fill light to keep the contrast in check, when the scene is calling for additional lights, don’t hesitate to use them.

Tips for better lighting

3. Placement Matters

Photographing sculpture is the perfect educational opportunity to study how the position of a light source changes the look and feel of the photograph. This holds true whether you’re thinking about a landscape made with the sun at your back or a portrait of a living, breathing person photographed in the studio with strobes. Light is light, and how it’s positioned means everything. With the sculpture, the process is one of trial and error. The ideal position for the light source will enhance the shape and texture as the artist hoped to show them. This same thing holds true for faces, buildings, landscapes and more.

Once you find an ideal position of the light, you’ll enhance shape and texture—or minimize it according to your creative approach. The carved folds on a marble statue, for instance, could completely disappear if the light is positioned on the wrong side or from too frontal of a position near the camera. Raking light across texture is the ideal way to produce shadows that show the texture. The same light will produce beautiful shadows from one angle and unappealing or invisible shadows from another. The nice thing about a stationary subject like this is that you can really study how subtle changes in light position have a big impact on the overall look and feel of your shot.

4. Match the Source with the Surface

Particularly when it comes to the quality and texture of the subject’s surface, the type of light you use matters. A softbox, striplight or light bounced off of a white wall or large reflector works especially well for shiny surfaces, while a hard-edged specular light source might work better for a dark, matte-finished surface. The example here illustrates the progression from an unappealing direct light source—diffused by an umbrella though it may be—to a broad, indirect light that is created by bouncing a light off of a large white reflector.

This change in approach requires no different equipment, simply a change in technique by which the light is applied. This is illustrative of the importance of understanding how small changes can produce big results. And remember that shiny surfaces want diffuse lights, and diffuse surfaces might work better with specular sources.

Tips for better lighting

5. Make Use Of What’s Available

Sure, you’ve invested in some expensive and fancy lighting equipment, so it’s natural that you want to put it to use. But don’t forget that sometimes the best light is the illumination that’s already available. Take the marble bust image shown here. It’s illuminated by a large, diffused skylight directly overhead. Not only is the quality of the light flattering on the subject, but also the position of the light really accentuates its shape and texture. I started the shoot feeling I should use my strobes and light modifiers to give my client their money’s worth. But remember—the important part is the result, not the technique used to achieve it.

After experimenting with different sources in different positions, if you find that nothing looks quite as good as the available natural light, swallow your pride, turn off the strobes and make the necessary adjustments to your camera settings to employ the great natural light that’s already available.

Featured artwork is from the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL. See more online at www.umsl.edu/mercantile.

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