Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Two approaches to conceiving lighting, part of Advanced Photography: Flash.
- The technical process of lighting is tricky, and it's a real obstacle to overcome. It's technical enough that you can get distracted from the fact that lighting is a creative process, you've got to have a creative vision. You got to have an idea of what you want to achieve with your photo before you can begin to design lighting. There are two ways that you can develop a vision for an image. I mean, two ways that I know of, maybe there are more. The first is to actually have a vision, and that may happen more often than you think. A lighting vision can be as simple as, I want this to be a dark, moody image. There's a lot you can extrapolate from that simple sentence. For that situation, you're probably going to have low ambient light, maybe none at all. You're going to have lots of shadows. You need to know, are the shadows going to be hard-edged, will you need to light anything in the background? Suddenly we've got questions to work with and ideas to explore. Maybe your vision is, I want this to look like a fashion photograph, or I want a hard-boiled film noir look, or I want this to look like daylight coming through a window. Those are all visions that will give you a lot to work with. The vision might sometimes be more abstract. I need the subject to look friendly or playful. Sometimes your subject will dictate the vision. I'm shooting a corporate CEO. In that situation, maybe you want strength and dependability and fiscal responsibility. That might mean constrasty lighting and a dramatic-looking background. Or maybe it's a corporate CEO with a PR problem, and so you want transparency and trust and relatability and puts their pants on one leg at a time. That's probably going to be softer, more natural lighting. As soon as you can put words to things, you've got ideas to work with. Think of an adjective, like trust, and consider how you visualize that idea in terms of lighting. If you don't know how an idea might be visualized in terms of lighting, then go look for examples. If you're working with the idea of trust, then go look at ads for insurance companies or a savings and loan or an HMO, or anyone who tries to sell you on the idea that they're trustworthy. Look at the lighting in those ads, and build your own ideas from there. The other way to design lighting is simply to explore. Maybe you have no concept or vision at all. Maybe you have a nice model or a scene but no idea of where to begin. In that situation, you need to start exploring, and the easiest way to do that is by setting up a light. So I'm here right now with a nice model. I have Natalie, and I put her on this stool. And I've got a single light set up, a single continuous light that is set up as a key light. Now, I'm really going to shoot this with a strobe, but for the sake of this example and for you to be able to see what I'm talking about, I'm using a continuous light. So what I'm going to do now, I have an idea for what I think the good lighting is going to be. So we're going to look at that first, and to get help, I've got Jacob on camera, and he's going to kind of follow me around as I do some things. So what I was thinking with this lighting was this. This nice lighting from a roughly 45 degree angle, kind of typical, one light set up here. I'm going for kind of a harsher lighting. Now, again, this is a continuous light, so I don't know what the ambient is going to look like. This is a strobes course, of course, you would probably be doing this with the modeling light on your camera. So I set this up, and it's pretty good. There's some nice shadow under here. I can just barely see a triangle, a Rembrandt light kind of triangle behind her. So that's what I was thinking. Now I've got this visualization of it. Before I shoot that, though, I'm going to walk a full circle around her. Jacob's going to follow me. And I'm just trying to see what I can see. Because your ideas are one thing, but maybe there's something you missed. Now, you're going to be seeing, we're kind of breaking the fourth wall here, so you're seeing some of the studio that you normally don't see, just ignore that. Look at this. There's a backlighting thing that's really nice. I'm not saying I'm going to shoot the back of her head, but I'm just saying, oh, this light is interesting, coming from behind. If she were turning around, this might be something I want to work with. I like the light on her shoulders, I'm going to file that away, maybe, for something to do after I take the other shot that I was thinking of, and that back lighting continues all the way around here. There are a few angles, actually, maybe now, Natalie, could you just turn and look towards me? Oh yeah, look at that, that's interesting. That gray rim light around the edge of her face, that's going to be something to work at. Okay, back where you were, Natalie. I'm going to keep going. I get around here to a stark profile, and that's pretty nice, if I were going to shoot a profile, that could be a way to do it. Let's keep going. And, oh my. You know, this is something that's much better than what my original idea was. This is a much nicer, more dramatic light, letting her lead with the shadow on this side. Here, you can really see the triangle. I get more of, more modeling on her face, I get to see more of her features, a little more depth than I was before. My original idea was pretty flat, this really has some contour to it. So I think I might actually end up starting with this. I'll shoot my original idea, but I think I may have found, actually, the shot, and I got a couple of other ideas along the way. Now, my eye sees things very differently than the camera does, my eye sees full dynamic range, the camera sees a much more limited dynamic range, and of course if we're lighting with strobes things are going to be even more different, 'cause I could knock the background down to nothing. So when you're doing this exercise, it's not a bad idea to walk around with your camera and shoot some frames and see what they look like, or put your camera in live view mode and walk around, because then you'll be seeing something closer to the camera's dynamic range, or even put it in video mode and shoot a video walkaround. This is a very easy way to just explore the light and your subject and see some things that you might not have imagined in the first place. Ultimately, as you explore your subject this way, you will hopefully come up with some kind of vision that you want to try out. Whether your process is to start the first way, with an initial vision, or the second way, by exploring until you find a vision, once you have that vision, you're ready to start placing some lights. The easiest way to begin placing lights is to go back to that first question, the idea of roles. You know you're going to have a key light, so start with that. Where you place it will be dictated by the vision you've had. If film noir was your vision, then you know that you want hard-edged shadows, so that means a small light source maybe placed far away. So that might mean that the key light's going to be far away shining through some window shades or something like that. Place the light and use your modeling light or take a shot so that you can see the effect of that light and decide what you might need in the way of a fill light, if anything. Then make decisions about back lights, hair lights, rim lights. One of the most important decisions you'll need to make will be ambient light. This is because you're working with strobes. Are you going to completely overpower it or use it? If you've watched any of my other courses, then you might have already experienced me nagging you about the importance of working a shot. You have to move and explore and try different things when you're shooting, and the same is true when you're lighting. You have to move lights and change modifiers and experiment. Lighting design is not rocket science. Once you know the technical bits, it's not a hard process, but it can be an overwhelming process, especially if you don't know where to start. Start with a vision, then work through the basic lighting roles one at a time, guided by that initial vision, to build up your design.
- Why use strobes instead of continuous light?
- How to think about light
- How light bounce works
- Learning lighting from existing photos
- Using a flash meter
- Simulating sunlight with shadows
- Using softboxes and umbrellas
- Calculating and using lighting ratios
- Shopping for studio strobes