I guess I’ve had lighting on the mind lately. Except for a select few, I don’t think anyone ever truly “masters” photographic lighting. As I said in another post on the topic recently, mastering light — or even just taming it– is one of the biggest and most difficult challenges facing any photographer. For me, I find that my lighting technique continues to evolve as I continue to grow as a photographer. Lighting for portraits is different than lighting for food. Lighting for products is different than lighting for fashion. And don’t even get me started on the chasm between studio and location lighting.
And yet, when it comes to lighting, all of these genres do share some very significant similarities. The bottom line when it comes to any lighting situation is that you have to get a handle on two very important things– how the light behaves, and how to make it behave for you. To that end, I’ve pulled together a sampling of 15 of some of the best lighting books available. Not e-books. Not apps, Not videos. This week we’re going old school. Photographic wisdom printed and illustrated on actual pages and bound together into a single, hand-held volume. No batteries required.
I’ve tried to include a little something for everyone, regardless of specialty or skill level. To find out more about any of the books listed, click on the title above the cover photo. This is not a ranking– just a list of suggested reading. So, in no particular order, I give you…
It almost goes without saying that any discussion of quality lighting books has to include at least one book by Joe McNally. I actually have four on my shelf. I’ve included “The Moment it Clicks” on this list because it was Joe’s first book and it had a deeply profound impact on me as a photographer. At a time when I was convinced that I couldn’t be a professional photographer without big, expensive studio lights, this book fell in my lap and showed me some of the truly amazing things that could be done with small, off-camera flash. I work well with all kinds of lighting now, but from the moment I picked up this book, photography for me was never the same.
Let’s just say that I might have borrowed this book from someone and never returned it. Maybe. And IF I did it was only because they couldn’t possibly have appreciated it as much as I have over the years. This book covers everything from the principles of portrait lighting (the nature of light, the equipment, light ratios, and classic lighting styles) to dozens of different practical applications of portrait lighting (business portraits, publicity headshots, high-key, one-light glamour, etc.). Written by Christopher Grey.
This is one of those books that doesn’t care if you’re a pro looking to up your lighting game, or an amateur ready to take your photography to the next level. As it says on the cover, James Cheadle and Peter Travers have put together a book full of recipes for lighting and composing professional portraits. Every image is broken down with a lighting diagram, posing and exposure information, as well as the story behind the shot. Besides all of the valuable lighting information, the book also includes post-production sections on topics such as RAW file processing, HDR, and digital makeovers.
Sometimes you have to think on your feet and turn bad light into good light. In “Direction and Quality of Light,” Neil van Niekirk walks you through seven distinctly different lighting scenarios– available light, exposure metering, a touch of flash, bounced on-camera flash, off-camera flash, video light, and hard sunlight— to show you how best to manipulate things like the direction and quality of light, the subject’s and photographer’s positions, and numerous other variables, all aimed at turning a bad image into a high-quality portrait. In addition to dozens of instructional photos, you’ll get a BTS look at ten sample photo sessions, showing you how the theory becomes the practice.
I mentioned before that sometimes you have to know how to turn bad light into good light, but what do you do when instead of bad light you have just plain sh*tty light? That’s when you reach for this book by Lindsay Adler and Erik Valind. Like the subtitle says, this book aims to be your one-stop shop for identifying the top ten worst photography lighting situations, as well as multiple suggested solutions for overcoming them. Mid-day sun, fluorescent lighting, low light, mixed light– it’s all here. This book does a great job of showing you how to not only overcome the challenges, but to do so with confidence.
If you are the type of person who likes to follow a checklist, this book on studio portrait lighting is probably for you. Walking you through the process from start to finish, Jeff Smith covers both the artistic and technical sides of achieving positive results. Short lessons, accompanied by diagrams and examples, guide you through each step of the process–creatively and practically– without dumping too much information on your head at once.
This book, from Syl Arena, is geared a bit more toward the intermediate photographer– the one who’s had their DSLR for a while and is feeling comfortable with it, but might be ready to sink their teeth into a new challenge. Light. Hoping to “increase your ability to see, influence, modify, control, and create light,” Arena begins with a discussion of the characteristics of light (e.g., color, quality, and direction), using it as a springboard to the specifics of indoor vs. outdoor lighting, as well as natural or man-made light.
Regardless of whether you are a commercial photographer doing catalog work, or a hobbyist with stuff to sell on ebay, having a firm grasp on the fundamentals of lighting and how they apply to product photography is vital to the success of your images. Starting with the basics for creating professional-looking product photos, Allison Earnest walks you through the qualities of light and rendering texture, as well as how it all comes together in a step-by-step lighting setup. The second half of the book brings together images from actual assignments, detailing a wide variety of products and settings, as well as lighting diagrams and setup shots.
In another useful selection for product photographers, Cyrill Harrischmacher teaches you how to use small, compact flashes, as well as inexpensive tricks to create professional-looking studio images. Clearly demonstrating that you don’t need a full-blown studio filled with every expensive light or gadget to achieve professional-quality results, this book takes you through all the steps of creating your own tabletop studio without breaking the bank. A variety of lighting and exposure techniques, combined with inexpensive, compact flash units, clearly show how you can achieve professional results without a professional budget.
I started shooting food professionally about a year and a half ago, and this book has quickly become one of my favorite resources. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, everybody thinks they’re a food photographer. Professional food photography, though, definitely falls into the easier-said-than-done category. You can’t just put a nice plate of food on the table and expect everything to magically fall into place. It doesn’t work that way with a pretty model, and it doesn’t work that way with pretty food. The best food photography evokes a sensory response. The viewer can practically smell and taste the food when it is photographed well, and Teri Campbell shows you how to do it– not only by sharing his detailed lighting setups and shooting techniques, but also by offering solid advice on setting up a studio, using the right gear, marketing your work, and more. Geared more towards the intermediate-to-advanced photographer, Campbell also takes you inside his commercial shoots, as well as his post-processing techniques.
This book isn’t just a guide– it’s a manifesto. While the world is full of photographers searching for a fresh point of view, Brooklyn-based Joey L. found it…and then some. With commercial clients as varied as Coca Cola, National Geographic, The History Channel, and others, he’s made his mark partially with the help of dramatic, highly stylized lighting setups. This book features more than 85 portraits, detailed lighting diagrams, and a forward from The Strobist himself, David Hobby. If you’re looking for a new perspective on compelling, high-quality portraits, this is definitely the place to start.
I don’t shoot much fashion. Okay…I don’t shoot any fashion. But if I did I’d make this required reading. Not necessarily because it’s the best book out there, but because I like the format. For a photographer trying to tackle lighting a new genre, diagrams and step-by-step instructions, as well as photographer insights, can be extremely beneficial. Like I mentioned above regarding food photography, fashion photography is one of those areas that I’m sure looks easier than it actually is. That being the case, this book by Chris Gatcum can be a great resource if fashion’s your thing.
The gear we use is constantly evolving. Sensors get bigger while cameras get smaller. It’s no surprise, then, that our lighting is going to change as well. LED panels have become a new mainstay in photographic lighting in recent years. While portable, powerful, light-weight options can bring a big boost to our lighting arsenals, they can also bring new challenges. Breaking it down in a way to help professionals and hobbyists transition from traditional strobes and hot lights to LED (Light-Emitting Diode) lights, author Kirk Tuck explains how changes in technology affect our views of traditional light theory, as well as how to select the right LED lights and how to use them for still-lifes, portraits, and even video.
What I like about this book is that it does not presume that every client or every subject should be lit in the same way. Calling it a “subject-centric approach for digital photographers,” lighting expert Don Giannatti shows you how to make better decisions about both the technical and artistic aspects of lighting. Recognizing that different subjects have different attributes that need to be lit differently to achieve positive results, the book explains how to approach each image and photo shoot from the “perspective of controlling the subject’s appearance to match the photographer’s vision for the picture.” In other words, that killer light setup you used for last week’s client may not be right for this week’s. You need to know how each subject is going to react to the light and adjust accordingly. Written for the intermediate-to-advanced photographer, this book helps you do just that. Topics include: the benefits and drawbacks of various lighting tools, the effect of light placement, and lighting ratios.
For our last entry, it’s time to unleash your inner geek. A lot of the books on this list include lighting diagrams and step-by-step instructions for recreating already proven lighting solutions in your own studio or on location. While some of them have spent time discussing the properties of light, this book’s main focus (no pun intended) is everything you need to know about WHY light does what it does. If you look at the work of photographers who are known not just for their images, but for the lighting of their images– Joe McNally, David Hobby, Zack Arias, and others– you’ll see that they all have a strong, almost encyclopedic knowledge of why light does what it does. Don’t let the science part of the title scare you. There is also magic in the title– the kind that can help you learn how to light some of the most difficult subjects, including metal, glass, liquid, and extremes (black-on-black and white-on-white).
Light impacts everything we do as photographers. How much light we let into the camera and for how long are two of the most important and basic building blocks in any kind of photography. It’s Photography 101. But while we consider ourselves to be artists, it is also necessary that we have some working knowledge of the science behind what we do, regardless of your genre or photographic specialty. Any of the books on this list can help you with that working knowledge. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to leave any titles and authors you think we should know about in the comments.
What books have we missed? What helped you to learn how to light?