Understanding light – an introduction
May 29, 2019
Understanding light – an introduction
This article aims to look at how we as photographers ‘understand’ light. It may seem obvious to many of you, but to a vast majority of us, it’s simply not quite that easy. But what does it truly mean to understand light? Do we really need to understand light to take great photos? The simple answer is no…. but I guarantee it will help.
A self-taught generation
Many of us have opted to be very heavily invested in our passion for photography. Some of us want to make our passion a full time career and some of us are simply more than happy to derive great pleasure from creating beautiful photographs. Whatever out intentions or aspirations may be, we as photographers are very fortunate to have that choice. After all, there are very few hobbyist surgeons or lawyers. They have to undergo many years of training from the previous generation before they can even think about making a living from it.
But we as photographers don’t need to do that. In fact there are a huge number of very successful professional photographers working today that were never directly taught by their more experienced peers. They never pursued further education in photography and instead they opted to teach themselves the craft. But again, we’re very lucky that it’s even possible to do this.
Like I said, it’s probably a lot harder to learn to be a surgeon from YouTube.
I also think this self-taught approach is becoming more and more popular now given that further education is become so prohibitively expensive. But what does being ’self taught’ look like? Where do you begin?
What does a self-taught art education look like?
I’ll just add that although I received a formal education in the form of BA Degree in photography, I’ll be using myself in the following steps because since I graduated back in 2001, I’ve been learning and therefore….. teaching myself.
Step 1. Spray & Pray
As soon as we get our hands on our first camera, our first step often sees us photographing anything and everything that crosses our path.
Look at any new photographers portfolio and you’ll see that it contains photos of landscapes, portraits, flower pictures, still life, animals… the list goes on.
For example, 25 years ago I started out shooting black and white landscapes in Canada, before graduating up to exploring black and white ‘artistic’ still-life. View my portfolio today by comparison and you’ll see that it takes a very long time to find out what any of us really want to photograph.
Step 2. Focus Up
So after we’ve photographed everything that was foolish enough to get in front of our lens, we’ll gradually begin to be drawn to one particular aspect that excites us. That could be portraits, landscapes, really anything at all. The point is that we will slowly begin to see more focus in our work.
For me, I was continually drawn to photographing people as I enjoyed the interaction and spontaneity of working with subjects. Plus, I nearly always preferred to take control of the light via studio lighting.
Back in the early 2000’s and as a camera for hire, I shot everything from corporate headshots, portraits, hair competitions and campaigns and even the occasional wedding early on.
Step 3. Getting Inspired
After we’ve become fairly confident with our current craft, we very often begin to look at other artists work within our field.
We look at their work and we know that we like it. Perhaps we’ll follow them on social media and occasionally we may see an image of theirs that we absolute love and wished we’d taken it.
At this stage, we really don’t know how they shot that image because as a self taught photographer we don’t yet have the skills to completely understand it, but we wish we could recreate it.
Note: There is a large gap in my photography timeline as I dropped out of the field in around 2003 due to the digital revolution. It became very tricky to find work when so many owned a camera and my failure to adapt to a changing industry ultimately soured my love of what I had enjoyed for so long. For a few years I worked in a climbing and outdoor store and spent my time traveling and mountaineering before I ultimately returned to my passion in around 2007.
As I started to realise that mountaineering was likely to get me killed before too long, I started to get drawn back into the world of photography. But although I remembered photography being tough to make money from, it had to be easier than trying to get paid to climb really big hills.
Back then (and to this day) the work of photographers like Bruno Dayan, Nick Knight and Nadav Kander were truly inspiring to me. Their passion for creating breathtaking and visual arresting images is what ultimately made me want to start shooting again, regardless of whether I made a successful career out of it or not.
I saw their images and I wanted to take photos like that. The colour and interest they were creating at the time was incredible and certainly a very far cry from the stagnant high-key fashion imagery that had reigned for so long.
It’s probably worth pointing out here that I personally did not want to copy their work, but instead I wanted to take what I saw and loved about their work and inject it into mine.
Step 4. Evolving Inspiration
One great way to learn how an image was shot, is to copy it. But stop for a moment and think why are you copying it? One reason may be because you simply want that shot in your portfolio. Another reason (and likely the real reason), is because you want to know how that image was shot.
If you look at a photo and don’t know how an image was created, you often jump in with both feet and try to recreate the basic elements. You might think ‘I could get a model to stand like that and I could use some coloured lights to light her’. And off you go to recreate/copy the image.
Now I think you all know how that turns out. At this stage you have no idea what modifiers were used, you may not even be sure how many lights were used and that’s not to mention you no clue on the post-production treatment and colouring used. As a result, you will most likely be sorely disappointed by the results.
So instead, how about you focus on what you really love about the image and try and use those elements into your own work. For example, I loved those colourful shots from Bruno Dayan, Nick Knight and Nadav Kander, but I didn’t try to copy their images directly, so instead I took the elements of crazy colours that made no sense and brought that into my own work.
This inspirational process was a fundamental turning point for me and my work. No longer did I have to light something ‘correctly’. If I wanted to bathe a portrait in yellows and blues, then I could do. If I wanted to wash a dining room in neon pink then I could do. The inspiration I took from others was the kick I needed to be truly creative again and from here things snowballed as my veracious appetite to continually create something new took hold.
Step 5. Understanding & Crafting
This is ultimately the final step in our creative journey. We now know what we want to shoot, we also know what we love, so now all we need to do is get good at shooting what we know and love. Simple right?
This is by far and away the hardest part of course. You’re now a fully fledged creative and so now the burden of being truly creative sits upon your shoulders. But how do you become truly creative? How do you create what has not been created before? What is it that truly defines you as an artist and do you really posses a unique vision and style?
Of course, many non-creatives will tell you that it’s all been done before, nothing is truly unique and everybody is really just copying each another. This is certainly one school of thought, but I honestly think you have far more to gain from believing you can create something unique, than not.
How many generations of artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, (insert any artist that is a household name) believed it had all been done before. It’s always impossible, until it isn’t.
So how do we get here? Well first and foremost you need to start believing you can create something unique….like, NOW! The sooner you believe you can do that then the easier it’ll be. Next up, we’re going to need to look at what we love and then we’re going to have to look at how we can incorporate that into our own images….without strictly copying them.
Look at some photos that you truly love, and think about what the individual elements are that is making you love that shot so much. From here we can begin to take those elements and use them in our own shots.
This is where we begin to truly create, not by copying, but instead by learning to understand what we love about other art and incorporating it into our own and with our own voice and vision.
Learning to understand what we love and why is one of the hardest things an artist can do, but to move forward and craft something new we have to master it.
Where being self-taught falls short
Unfortunately, having the ability to read an image is hard and this is often a stumbling point for many self-taught artists. Up until now, many of them will have simply copied others work and so understanding elements that they love is actually tricky. When I say copy, I mean that they have watched YouTube videos, seen the modifiers used and the lighting angles and then copied that verbatim into their own work.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this style of learning. But it will only get you so far.
I was taught what light did, how it reacted and why, long before I ever switched on a strobe. This is not a better way of learning, but it did equip me with the ability to read and understand light, something that I see many newer, self-taught photographers struggling with.
Last week I shared some images of another photographers work on my Facebook Page and asked the community to explain the lighting that was used. The lighting itself was fairly simple, but even still, we saw a whole host of varied responses. Here’s some of them below. I’ve also blurred any names as there is simply no need to include them.
If you didn’t take part in this on my page, then I highly recommend you try and analyse the light in the images below yourself, before continuing.
How do you think the images below were lit?
Above are the beautiful images from Chris Nicholls we were looking at and below is some of the interpretations of them.
Like I mentioned, what individuals thought isn’t relevant. Some people nailed it, others were a little ways off. But either way, I think this was an interesting exercise as it shows that even with very simplistic lighting like this, there are many, many ways to seemingly read it.
Note: If you’re interested in the actual answer, you’ll unfortunately have to wait until next week as I’ll try and recreate this classic lighting then and show you the results in next weeks Technique Tuesday.
Also, please go check out more incredible work by the photographer Chris Nicholls
How do we get better at understanding light?
So how can we improve? Like I said, this is not designed as a snobby jibe at self-taught photographers, quite the opposite in fact. As I mentioned at the top, it’s very rare to come across a photographer that isn’t self-taught today so this exercise is squarely aimed at the vast majority of photographers.
My goal and aim is to formulate a criteria for us all to use so that we may better understand the things we love in other images by extracting how each image was crafted.
Light is thankfully constrained and controlled by the very understandable laws of physics. It travels in the same straight line and at the same speed it always has done. It reacts and responds in exactly the same way it always has and this makes it very predictable and understandable.
It is my aim to clearly outline these characteristics so that we may better understand them when we see them in other images. Elements that affect the light in our images like:
- Shadow density (how dark the shadow is)
- Highlight size (this will be relative to the object it’s on)
- Shadow edge transition (how a shadow transitions into midtown or highlight)
- Highlight brightness (how bright is the highlight relevant to the object it’s on)
- Angle of shadow (where exactly is the light in relation to subject)
- Distance from subject (how far is the light from the subject)
- Height in relation to subject (how high is the light in relation to the subject)
With these and likely more elements in mind, I believe any lighting is understandable and therefore open to us being able to implement a similar look within our own work and style.
This will be a fairly comprehensive project and a large undertaking, so unfortunately I do not have all of these answers, examples and results to share with you today. It is my aim to truly compile a list of elements that will help all of us to better understand any lighting we see. No more blindly guessing or even simply copying. If we can unlock and understand the exact properties of light then I truly believe we will all benefit from it.
Note: Of course I also fully appreciate that lighting is not the only factor to understanding an image, but I think it’s at least a good place to start.
What can you do?
The next step for me is going to be testing this list of lighting elements. Can I use this current list against any image right now and unlock its secrets? Unfortunately I highly doubt it, and that’s where you guys come in. If you have anything to add to this then let me know. What other elements do I need to be considering to fully understand any lighting situation?
Either let me know in the comments below or reach out to me personally. I would greatly appreciate the help.
Thanks as always for reading this. I know I didn’t share any actual content with you this week and this was more of a ‘Dear Diary’ entry than an actual technique. But I do think this project has a lot of potential.
More and more of us are self taught now and with no formal understanding of light, it makes it far harder for us to develop our own look and style outside of repeating and copying what we’ve seen on YouTube.
I look forward to keeping you in the loop on this as I learn more and feel free to sign up to my newsletter to stay up to date on what I find JHP Newsletter.
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page, follow him on Instagram and sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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