How to deconstruct light (Part one)
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then photographers could well be some of the world’s best flatterers. Most of us love the challenge of recreating a photographic idea that we might have seen in a magazine or online, and while some photographers want to recreate an idea to make it their own, others want to mimic ideas just to learn from the inspiration of others.
One of the biggest challenges in recreating any photo, though, is getting the light right. Given enough resources, almost anyone can find a location where an image was made, or encourage a model to strike a similar pose, but understanding how the light was used to create an image can often be the hardest challenge of all.
A Mind Exercise
To understand just how complex lighting can be,imagine for a moment setting up a giant chequerboard in a studio, and then placing a subject in the middle of the board, with your camera somewhere along the edge.
Now place a light source on any one of those 64 chequerboard squares. As you move the light from one square to another, the light on your subject will change. In fact, the light on your subject will be different for every one of those 64 squares that you move the light source to.
As you move the light from left to right, or behind the subject, the modelling (the effect light has on your subject) will change, and as you move the light closer or further away from the subject, not only will the intensity of the light change on your subject, but so will the contrast in the overall scene.
The above example assumes we are keeping the light on the same level, but as soon as we begin adjusting the elevation of the light source, things get even more complicated.
If we were to assume our giant 8 x 8 chequerboard also had eight levels of elevation from floor to ceiling, and we could move our light up or down between these levels, we now have more than 500 different positions where we could place our light in relation to the subject – again, every one of those 500 different positions would have a distinct effect on the lighting of the subject.
Now give thought to the quality of light source you are using. Is it a hard light, as in a bare light bulb, or a soft light, such as a large soft-box most professional photographers often use? That choice has just doubled the options again!
This chequerboard example is a fair depiction of the decision-making processes many skilled photographers regularly explore when creating a photograph, but what is even more fascinating is that many of these photographers will often use two, three or sometimes even a dozen or more lights to create a photograph, and as you might guess, the more lights that are added into the equation, the more variations you can have on the outcome.
For any given photographic scenario, there can literally be dozens, if not hundreds of different ways to light a subject, and in every instance there will be a different look and feel to the image.
Now herein lies the key to becoming a good photographer. While almost everyone in the world can see, most people only ever see objects and scenery, they don’t actually see the “light”. The defining skillset of any good visual artist, photographers included, is that ability to see light, to understand what effect light has on an object or scene, and, ultimately, to manage light to the best benefit of that object or scene.
In fairness, this ability to see light can take time to learn. Many years ago I asked my mentor, Richard Poole, how long it takes to understand light and he told me it was 10 years. A few years later I reminded him of that comment and he replied, “I've changed my mind, it takes a lifetime.”
For any photographer wanting to improve their skills though, learning to master light is no different to a young musician learning to discern sounds, or a junior chef developing their palate. Without an understanding of the basic materials we are working with, we are merely enthusiasts, tinkering.
Clues in the Shadows
There are several ways you can begin your study of light, but one of the best is to spend time deconstructing how the world’s best photographers and classic painters use light.
When looking at a good photograph or painting, one of the first questions to be asking yourself is: where is the light coming from? One of the simplest ways to answer this question is to look for shadows within the scene. If you can find shadows, and most are falling on the same side of objects, you can assume the main source of light is coming from the opposite side of the shadows.
Shadows can also hold clues as to the exact location of a light source. Just as a sundial displays time by revealing the angle of the sun against a known scale, we can also use shadows to determine not only the direction light might be coming from, but also the elevation of the light. Sometimes shadows are not falling to the side of a subject, but below the subject, which would imply that the light source is directly above the subject in relation to the viewpoint of the camera.
Aside from revealing the direction light is coming from, shadows can also reveal to us the type of light that is illuminating a subject. Experienced photographers usually describe light as either being hard light or soft light – hard light is like direct sunlight on a clear day, while soft light is like the diffuse light we experience on an overcast day.
What is useful to know is that hard light produces hard, well-defined shadows while soft light produces soft, diffuse shadows.
So by looking for shadows within a photograph we can often estimate the direction and elevation from where a main light is coming, and determine whether the light source is hard or soft.
Look out for part two of Anthony McKee's desconstructing lighting feature next week.
About the author: Anthony McKee is a Melbourne-based writer and social documentary photographer. In 2014 he was named AIPP 2014 Australian Documentary Photographer of the Year. He has also won awards for his landscape photography. He has judged professional and amateur photography awards on both sides of the Tasman, and in 2013 was made an Honorary Fellow of the NZIPP for his services to photography. He is a regular contributor to Australian Photography magazine.