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Using light to set yourself free.

I’m back. Sorry for the brief absence, I was shooting quite a bit, was waiting for something to be released from an embargo (I’m still waiting…) and got sidetracked creating the first couple of online courses – which you can check out at Teachable if you’re interested. For now though, I’d like to talk about light.

I love light – I love the drama I can create with careful use of lights, and I love gradually crafting a perfect image in the studio or on location – slowly layering up the light piece by piece until I reach what I think is perfection. I firmly believe that an understanding of light is one of the basic foundations of success as a photographer.

Joel Snape
From a personal shoot with my good friend Joel Snape. The setup shot gives you an idea how complex the light was – great for the effect I was after, not great for anyone who doesn’t enjoy sitting still!

However, sometimes light can be a trap, and a straitjacket. It can be very easy to a) assume that you must always use a certain light, otherwise your work will look flat, and more frequently b) end up in a situation where yourself and the subject can’t move because the light you’ve created is very restrictive.

Anthony Joshua
Anthony Joshua’s impressive back. The lighting is very precisely set to show off his muscles right at the top of a pull-up, if he dropped lower, he’d be in the dark.

An elaborate lighting setup can look fantastic, but in some cases your subject only has to move by a few inches to alter the look dramatically. With a professional model or experienced celebrity, this isn’t a big deal – they’ll usually be experienced enough to use facial expressions and may be OK holding uncomfortable poses. For almost everyone else, sitting in a rigid pose will be very unnatural, and will probably create expressions that look awful, and shots that aren’t great.

Natural Light
3 shoots where using just natural light allows me to focus more on what’s happening in front of the lens, and react to the situation.

If you’re able to move around more, and are working with lighting that gives you more room to manoeuvre, the subject is much more able to express themselves. Not only that, but both of you will probably spot other things to do, and rather than have to stay put where the lighting is, you can follow your inspiration. True, you might be able to move the lighting, but if it’s complex, then by the time you’ve set it up again, the “moment” may well have passed.

Natural lighting setup
The same effect can be achieved using lights – you just have to think carefully about where to place them to allow room to move.  On the left, 2 heads were firing into the exterior white wall behind the window, and a 3rd light was firing through a 7ft parabolic to camera left.  The right hand image is 3 heads – one bounced off the ceiling, one filling in from camera left, and a 3rd tucked away down the right hand corridor.

Essentially, what I’m getting at is something which has cropped up in my Logbook time and time again when I write my “lessons” or “conclusions” – Narrative. What’s actually happening in the frame is more important than what light you shot it in. It’s certainly more important than whether you used a Profoto, a Bowens, a torch, or an open fire. If you light something perfectly, but the subject is sitting very uncomfortably with a face that’s dead behind the eyes, then you’ll have succeeded in making a very competent technical illustration. Well done you – get some practice with these, so you can reproduce them when requested, but keep them out of the portfolio, eh?

If you engineer a lighting situation that allows you more freedom, you can concentrate more on the performance within the frame, and you stand a much better chance of capturing a memorable shot, without the constricting feeling of knowing you and your subject can’t move very far before ending up in the dark! You can often use ambient light for this – open shade or overcast being some of the best options – or design a lighting rig that allows you to move around within your set. Either way, remember that the lighting you choose to use is just one part of the image you’re creating, rather than the sole reason for shooting in the first place. Apart from sunsets – you can just go and shoot the hell out of them for no good reason – just don’t add too many filters, OK?


Interested in learning more about lighting?  I have a full course right here that walks you through everything you need to know to understand lighting in photography.

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