Learn to Light: Conclusion

So, there we go – that’s what light is, and how you use it. We’ve covered a huge amount, and gone into some very specific details in a few areas, but I want to bring us right back to the beginning and stress the importance of those 4 characteristics – Direction, Quality, Quantity and Colour. We know what they do, how they interact with each other, and that we can’t escape them no matter what we shoot. The only thing that you really need to consider is:

“Is the light doing what I want it to do, to create the image I want?”

If it isn’t, what can you do about it? Can you change where you’re shooting, add light, change the quality of the light, change it’s colour, come back at a different time of day? Those 4 facets will always be there, and your knowledge of them allows you to make the right decisions to ensure your images look fantastic.

Let’s have a final example of how those characteristics play out before we sign off. Here’s an image I shot a couple of years ago of Yoga teacher and fitness guru Cat, hanging from some fluorescent tubes:

Cat Meffan hanging from flo tubes

Looks quite simple, but examine it more closely. First off, I’m playing tricks on you – she’s not actually hanging from those flourescent tubes, that would be impossible – she’s lying on her side, and I’m a gantry overhead. Now let’s look at the 4 facets:

  • Direction – light is obviously coming from the tubes themselves, but it’s not the only light, there are some highlights and shadows that don’t quite match up. The behind the scenes shot shows us that in fact there is a large parabolic umbrella at the top right corner of the shot, a gridded softbox top left, and another gridded softbox bottom left.
Setup shot for tubes image
  • Quality. The light from flo tubes is very soft, but since they’re “below” Cat, I’ve added those extra lights. This ties in really closely to direction – if the only light was coming from the tubes, then the “top” of Cat – the side of her body facing the camera, would be quite dark and shaded, and I don’t want that. I also don’t want to simply flatten any and all the shadows, as they show off her athletic figure. So, I add soft light from the flashes, but I control where it’s falling with grids on the softboxes, and polyboard reflectors around the sides of the perspex with the black sides facing in.
  • Quantity. This is really crucial, since we’re mixing light sources. If Cat was just lit with the flo tubes, exposure would be very long, and there would be a risk of Cat moving (although she is lying on her back!) However, if I just used the flashes, I’d overpower the flo tubes, and you wouldn’t see their light, so I need to choose an exposure and set the power of the flashes carefully to ensure that I get the best of both. Of course, I also want to keep my ISO nice and low so my image is high quality. So, I ended up with quite a slow shutter speed of 1/30s at f5, ISO 100.
  • Colour. This one’s interesting, as although these are flo tubes, which traditionally are a funny colour balance, they’re actually expensive, film industry ones which are daylight balanced. The top one actually has a blue translucent sleeve on it to change its hue. The flash is pretty close to daylight white balance, and since I’m going with a very cool look, I’m happy to set the camera to daylight white balance, which means the areas lit by the flash are neutral, and where the light from the flo tubes shows up, it goes quite cool and blue.

Now, this wasn’t just another exercise in reverse engineering, although that’s always a good skill to practice. What I want to stress is that no matter how complex or how simple your shot, you’ll have to consider those 4 characteristics of light, as they’ll all play a part. In some cases one or two of them may be very simple – great! In other scenarios you’ll have to think very carefully about how they interact and affect your shot. Once you grasp how they work together, you can effectively solve any lighting problem. Granted, you may need to buy or rent some more equipment in rare circumstances, but part of understanding how all this works means that you may make choices ahead of time based purely on what equipment you’ve got and what the conditions will be like.

I’ve deliberately avoided making this a specific “portrait”, “glamour” or “still life” lighting course, as I believe that once you understand light, there are really only a few differences from subject to subject. Get these 4 characteristics locked in, and you can light any situation, with the caveat that you may need to buy or rent some specific tools if you’re attempting anything really complex!

Going forward, I’d suggest you shoot a lot, and study your images closely – really examine where the light falls, and if it’s doing what you want it to do. Start reverse engineering as much as you can when you look at other people’s work, and search out as many behind the scenes and setup pictures online as you can – my flickr stream isn’t a bad place to start! You may want to start buying lighting kit, but I’d suggest you take that nice and slowly – start with something simple like a reflector, then maybe a flashgun and a way of triggering it off camera, before moving on to modifiers like brollies and the rest. Whatever you do, don’t head straight out and spend a fortune on equipment – take your time, and remember that the more elements you add to a shot, the more things there are that can go wrong. Keep your eyes for more courses I’ve got coming, as I’ve got lots of ideas in the pipeline. Above all, get out, shoot some great pictures, and enjoy yourself!

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