SHINING LIGHT ON LIGHTING
The word photography is derived from the Greek words for "light" and "to draw". We literally create pictures from photons of light reflecting off of the world around us. Given that light is the most fundamental ingredient in a photograph, it's astounding how few photographers actually understand light and how to manipulate it to their advantage. Those that do often rise to the top of their field, when coupled with creativity and artistry. Those that don't remain in obscurity, snapping away in the hopes something magic will appear on their LCD screen every once in a while. They learn the camera operating basics, exposure variables of aperture, shutter and ISO and maybe touch upon aesthetics with the rule of thirds. Generally that's about as far as it goes.
For example, a photographer may see a gorgeous landscape, sets his or her camera up on a tripod and takes a picture. The next day they photograph a model and concentrate on pose, expression, makeup and attire. In both scenarios it's very easy to get solely engrossed in your subject matter and completely ignore the main ingredient, which is somewhat absurd when you stop and think about it.
Sure it was a picturesque scene of a mountain lake but, it was shot under a bland, grey sky. The model was beautiful and performed brilliantly but, she was facing directly into the Sun, squinting and had dark shadows under her eyebrows, nose and chin. The result was lackluster images in both cases. Why? The photographer didn't pay attention to or understand light.
Had they have gone to the mountain lake at dawn or dusk, they could have had atmospheric light. Perhaps some sunbeams breaking through patchy clouds over the horizon, bathing the scene in warm rich tones. Reflections dancing on the surface of the water. The dawn of a new day captured on camera. The result, a dynamic and impacting photograph.
Likewise, had the model had been placed with her back to the afternoon Sun, she wouldn't be squinting. She wouldn't have hard shadows under her eyes. Instead she would have a halo of rim light on her hair, giving the image an almost ethereal feel. She could have been silhouetted. She could have had fill flash put on her to balance the exposure or over even power the Sun. A reflector could have been used to bounce back some of the ambient light. A multitude of options were there and could have resulted in a dramatically lit image.
So how do we begin to understand light? Well, first we have to see it. It's something we have to consciously observe and scrutinize. As we are so used to seeing light in various forms every day, most people don't pay any heed to it save for noticing it's a nice sunny day or dull cloudy one.
Let's start with the main source of daily light, the Sun. On a clear day we have strong, definitive shadows cast upon the ground. On a grey day, our shadows are virtually non existent. I can tell that some of you are thinking "ahh, that's because on a grey day the clouds are diffusing the light. It's making it softer hence no shadows!" ... And you'd be wrong!!
If we could place a bit of diffusion material in the sky to just cover the Sun exactly, we'd still have hard shadows. You can try it for yourself on a smaller scale. Using a desk lamp with a clear bulb, place your hand between it and the wall. Observe the shadow generated. Now replace the clear bulb with an opaque one. Your shadow will be virtually identical and still clearly defined.
In the 3 examples above, I shot the first with a naked flash. The second I covered the flash with some diffusion material. The third was lit using the same flash placed inside a 70cm beauty dish. All at the same distance and approximate exposure. It is evident that despite diffusion material being placed directly in front of the speedlite in the second photo, there is virtually no difference between the first and second images. There is a significant difference in the third image. So if it's not the cloud's diffusion of the light that is causing the lack of shadows, what is? The answer is their size. Yes, its really is that simple and is pretty much the key to understanding all light sources.
Small sources create hard shadows and high contrast lighting. Big light sources create very soft shadows and low contrast. "But wait, the Sun is like a gazillion times bigger than the Earth. Its huge." Yes, it is but, relative to us it's a small dot in the sky. And that is the key word I omitted above. Relative size. That 50w light bulb will cast a shadow of our hand against the wall but, place that bulb next to an ant and you will get very soft shadows underneath it because it's huge compared to the tiny insect.
So if we take these principles and looked at the equipment commonly found in a studio, what do we see? Umbrellas, softboxes, octabanks, beauty dishes, reflectors, grids, snoots and barndoors to name but a few. 7ft octabanks down to 3 inch speedlite heads and everything in between. All serving their purpose to help achieve the multitude of lighting styles and contrasted looks we could ever hope to achieve. It is when we understand these basic principles of light that we can play with different sources, manipulating and shaping them to our will.
Hand-in-hand with seeing light, shaping it and the difference between hard and soft sources, comes the Inverse Square Law. Yes, I'm afraid you need to get a bit sciencey and technical. Actually, you don't as I explain it in the diagram below. Essentially, the further you move your light source from your subject, the more it spreads and the weaker it becomes in intensity - quite dramatically so. It also becomes harder too, as relative to your subject, it decreases in size. The reverse of this is also true. The closer it gets, the softer and more concentrated it becomes. This is why you will often see beauty portrait photographers getting their large light sources as close as they can to their subjects, as it offers what is regarded as the best quality of light. Still, what works for one image doesn't necessarily work for another. Light should reflect the scene and suit the subject matter, helping set an ambiance to both. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all cap.
The trick essentially, is all in the light modifiers that photographers use. We can transform a 3 inch flash head into a 6ft light source by firing it into a large umbrella. We can use grids, snoots and barn doors to focus the light and contain its spill, so as to direct the viewer to an area of the photo or simply to create an interesting effect. The more attention you pay to light and spend time finessing it, the greater the results will be in your photography. At first it takes time to learn the craft, especially if using manual flashes. However, once you have that fully cemented in your brain, it becomes second nature. After you have the technical understanding you can combine it with artistry and begin creating subtle or dynamic looks to suit. Always aim to get exposures and light shaping right in camera. What might take 30 seconds to slightly adjust a strobe to contain the spill of light and retake the photograph can take you 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes to correct in post production.
I should mention that there is this misconception that shadows are the devil and must be avoided at all costs. No, no, no, no! Shadows are your friend. They add depth and drama to an image and play as equal a role as light itself. What you want to avoid, in general anyway, are the shadows commonly associated with holiday snapshots and their ilk.
The reason newcomers are told to avoid shadows is that they pay no attention to what light is doing. They photograph friends and family outside in direct sunlight. This often results in the problems I eluded to near the beginning of this post. Shadows under the eyes, nose and chin and everyone has a screwed up face from squinting. Yes - those shadows we typically want to avoid but otherwise, play with them as much as you would light!!
So before you start clicking away on your next shoot, whether that is in your studio or out on location somewhere, look at what the light is doing. Make it suit the mood of the image and then finesse it. You'll be rewarded by more compelling images if you do.