If photography is about light, then why do so many photographers ignore one of the most crucial aspects of their craft? Modern photography seems to be about ‘capturing the moment.’ That reduces the average ‘photographer’ to merely pushing the button at the right moment.
Or, if you allow a tiny bit of cynicism, get a camera with a high enough frame rate, a fast enough autofocus, then choose (and fix) the image in post.
Henri Cartier Bresson (look him up) is celebrated as the father of modern photography. The inventor of the ‘decisive moment,’ he danced, 'fleet of foot,' around Paris with a tiny wind-up camera. I think of him as the progenitor of the point and click brigade. There is a place for that. Photojournalism, particularly news journalism, owes a considerable debt to his observational approach. Remove the celebrities from Bresson’s catalog and you have a master of composition.
What about Ansell Adams? If ever anyone embodied ‘light on paper’ the truest meaning of photography, then we clearly see why Adams’ work continues to outsell almost every other photographer in history. Not only a master of composition, and a pioneer of darkroom artistry, Adams’ above all patiently waited for the light. He raced the light with a huge camera and relatively low-speed film. He had to be at the right place, at precisely the right moment and had often less than two chances at making an exposure.
Ansell Adams’ quest for the ‘decisive’ moment may have been at the speed (and size) of an oil tanker compared to Bresson – but they were both at the mercy of the light.
A current champion of this methodology is Ken Duncan (look him up), the highly successful Australian panoramic photographer who describes himself as “an average photographer with an awesome God!” Duncan returns again and again to the same locations observing different light every time. It’s his commitment to waiting on God to provide the right light that has been his success. He knows how light works, and what influences it. It’s not as passive as it sounds.
Waiting for the light, or shooting regardless of the light is not only acceptable – it’s an art all in itself. It is to be commended and celebrated. But it’s not the only approach. And a photographer’s ignorance of how to create/control light is a limitation. A large number of ‘natural light’ photographers are often masking a lack of skill.
There has never before been a moment in history where knowledge and technology have converged to create such wonderful opportunities for even the neophyte photographer to seize control of such a powerful set of tools as lighting offers.
I’ve observed that those dedicated enough to truly ‘master’ their cameras have enough skills to embrace and exploit lighting as well. It’s not a complicated subject to grasp the technical essentials of.
The real joy for me and many others is the serendipitous results of spending a lifetime learning the nuance and subtlety of light. You’re always discovering. Well, nearly always. If you’re merely copying, you’re not necessarily learning. Allow a brief history lesson to explain.
At the genesis of photography as an art, American pioneers such as Alfred Stieglitz and his protégés Weston, Strand and Steichen had the patience to look for and wait for great light – using tone and shadow as a feature of the composition. They moved around or moved their subjects around. They might have had very few tools to control light – but they sure as heck did what they could to understand light.
Sure, flash powder could be used to illuminate the dark confines of poverty housing, but the subjects in such photos all looked exactly like an explosion had just gone off in their faces. Natural light was the practical approach.
But another nascent art form was, through popular culture, to have a profound effect on lighting for photography. The Movies needed light – and they had the money to improve the situation.
Hollywood (the place) grew out of filmmaker’s need for plenty of sunlight to illuminate sets built outside with translucent calico ceilings that bathed everything with enough illumination.
Hollywood (the business) then decided that even California sunshine was too fickle to rely on. This problem was overcome by financing the designs of many lights still in use today. And somewhere around the late 30s and 40s, the ‘Hollywood’ look was in, and many portrait photographers followed suit.
Lots of hard light sources were carefully directed, flagged, dimmed and scrimmed to paint every available surface. And not a lot changed for decades.
A couple of well-known Hungarian cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Szigmond, had a huge impact on Hollywood around the 80’s introducing soft light. Not only did their gorgeous swathes of softened illumination make everyone look like a painting (we still use painting terms today to describe lighting) from a Dutch master, it was faster and cheaper to light a set this way.
Suddenly everyone needed softer light and shadows were ‘unfortunate.’ And photographers leapt on this bandwagon with a little too much gusto.
Technology in the shape of small battery operated ‘speedlites’ (flash) arrived shortly after, and now 90% of photographers have a strobe (flash) going through a translucent or reflective umbrella (or a softbox which is the same thing with more control).
We finally ‘get’ light and, sadly, we all make the same kind of light. We follow Vermeer’s painting trick of having a little triangle of light under one eye. We put the light 45 degrees off the face and looking down at 45 degrees. That little recipe almost always works. But it’s a bit like a cheeseburger. Everyone is doing it. And it gets to be ‘same old, same old’ very quickly.
Take it back to the 70s through early 90s when softboxes were harder to come by. So were strobe lights for photography. They had cumbersome power packs and were outrageously expensive. The few brands that still exist in that space today are still outrageously expensive.
So if you’ve forked over several thousand dollars for some lights, you jolly well tried to make the most of them.
But as the barriers to entry lowered, we all rushed backwards to a single type of lighting (soft) and we seem to have lost other approaches. We may have settled for the easy approach.
By the time I was learning lighting as a cinematographer, we were suddenly getting video cameras with high ISO (400, LOL) and we were using less light – you know 3 800-watt lights at a time. But we were all excited by ‘soft light’ or natural (looking) light.
One cameraman I apprenticed with always rolled out a couple of 1000-watt flood lights shooting through umbrellas. If he was in a good mood, we’d add a single backlight. It didn’t matter where the talent stood, they were evenly illuminated. We shot hundreds of TV programs like that. The same flat, dull, lifeless but ‘quick and safe’ lighting.
Those two Hungarian guys I mentioned earlier? They were doing a lot more than just putting up one soft source of light – but in our eagerness to copy them, we missed the part about all the other little eye-lights and ‘kickers’ and things they were doing to sculpt the light, not just shower the set in soft light like the Hollywood of 100 years ago.
Now that stills and video cameras are more sensitive than the human eye, the trend is ‘I can shoot in any light!’ The light may be available, but it might not be appropriate. And if you have bad light, and don’t know how to improve on it?...
I personally believe art is intentional and you should work to make it as good as you can. Not knowing how means you have to learn – it’s not an escape clause.
If you are going to light, even if you don’t use it every time, you should know how to light. A good chef has many recipes and can work with many ingredients. At McDonalds, where it's boiled meat out of the freezer every time, they don't call them chefs.
You should understand how hard light creates depth and contrast. Hard light brings colour to life and makes it leap off the print or screen. You should no longer fear what lives in the shadows, but walk the tightrope between what is seen and what is obscured.
Could you imagine ‘The Godfather’ being lit like a sitcom? What you don’t see is just as important as what you do see. Gordon Willis, DP on “The Godfather,” bucked the trend of bright and colorful and created a masterpiece that every other living photographer / cinematographer admires to this day. We still laugh at the stories of Hollywood executives panicking because they couldn’t see Marlon Brando’s eyes!
Don’t follow the herd. Even if you love natural light, you should have a basic understanding of how light works, and what you can do to shape it or record it intentionally (that means not putting the camera in full auto and hoping for the best).
And, now that you can take a small light or two with you, don’t fall into the trap of using the same recipe for every shot. Move the light. Use hard light. Learn to understand how light can be created from scratch.
Look back to the days when movies and photos were made with hard light. See the drama and glamour that only a few today try to replicate.
It really seems to be laziness on the part of many. They don’t know how to light – or if they do, they’re taking the easy way out. Light takes years to master. The technical basics you can master in a day – but the art of light takes a lifetime to master. And that’s the reward – constantly stumbling over new ideas, and pulling off new approaches. It’s terrifically rewarding.
Once you start to get serious about light, you’ll forget all about spending money on a camera every year – you’ll instead be spending your time being rewarded with each new discovery about light. And, my wife will tell you, buying lights.
The great thing is that lights are cheaper and don't go out of date.
There are many wise teachers out there extolling the virtues of just one light. “Grasshopper, first learn the infinite number of uses of just one light. You may never need to purchase a second one.” Ok – don’t make a religion of it, but yeah – you can spend a long time having fun with just one light. That just proves my point that there’s a lifetime of exploration awaiting you.
Even if you’re chasing the light – seeking out the convergence of time and space for the perfect landscape, for example – knowing how it works makes for a richer experience.
And if you need some extra help with that, try one of our fun photography workshops where we help you fill in the blanks of your photography understanding.
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