Photography students often ask me what the secret is to my lighting, or in some cases, how it is my images don’t look like they were lit at all. Throughout the different genres I shoot, be it interiors, food, or portraits; many of my images have a consistent natural daylight look to them. Sometimes this look is accomplished easily, but often it involves using a considerable amount of artificial lighting to get the right look.
I usually shoot about 160 days worth of commercial jobs each year. Given an average shooting day of 9 hours, that’s about 1485 hours a year I spend shooting. If you multiply that over the last 5 years, I have spent 7500 hours working with light over that time period. That’s a lot of hours! So what have a learned from all this time spent shooting? What is the golden rule of using artificial lighting? Could it be that I always keep my fill light behind camera? Is it that I keep main light 2 stops brighter than my fill? No, it’s nothing like that at all. What I have learned is that there are no golden rules when it comes to working with artificial lighting.
What do I mean when I say artificial light? I mean any kind of light source I can use to expose a picture that isn’t the sun or moon. It can be a single 60W light bulb, a 18k HMI light, mono light flash head, fluorescent light fixture, or even an on-camera flash. Obviously there is a time and a place for everything: It’s doubtful I would use an 18k HMI when shooting on a dingy or I wouldn’t try to photograph someone who is a hundred feet away with my on camera flash.
Just as it took years for me to really understand how to use daylight to make great pictures and how to modify it to achieve different looks, the same goes for using artificial light. It is a long process, a learning process, and there is no formula or golden rule that can be applied to bypass this learning process. If you give 10 different photographers a simple 3-point portrait lighting diagram, and have them each shoot a portrait of the same person, their images will look drastically different. Lighting diagrams are just the beginning, kind of like an owners manual. Would I be an amazing marksman just because I read a book about how to shoot guns? I think not.
In order for me to make great artificially lit images, It’s important I first understand and study the light I want to create. I do this by studying daylight everywhere I go. For example, how is window light different from a North, East, South, or West-facing window? How does the light look from a window look at 5pm versus 10am? How does it look if I’m right next to the window? What if I’m ten feet away? The same thing goes for understanding the lights I work with. What does the light from a strobe attached to a white umbrella look like up close? What does a head with a 5-degree grid look like from overhead? How does the light a 8-foot octabank look? Is it a better main light or fill light?
This study of light is a constant learning and evolving process. Just like most photo students or young photographers, when I first started using artificial lights I would just go into the studio and aim lights all over the place until I got the result I was happy with. That worked ok some of the time, but I needed to have a better understanding of how different artificial lights work in order to work as a commercial photographer. When there is a client on set, I can’t be there playing around with my lights hoping I get the lighting right.
A great exercise I do when trying to figure out how to work with lighting is to have a subject sit still for me while I moved a light into lots of different positions and shoot pictures to see what effect the light angle has on the shape of the subject. I look at the highlights the light creates, and the shape and deepness of the shadows. When I am done with that, I also play with bouncing the light onto different surfaces and shooting the light threw different kinds of light modifiers to see what effect that has as well. It is a great learning exercise and like to do it when I get a new light or find I am having a hard time understating the qualities of a particular light I want to use.
So much about what makes artificial light look like natural revolves around fill light. If there is anything that resembles a golden rule when it comes to artificial lighting, it’s that the fill light should for the most part come from behind camera. One test I do to learn what effect fill light has is to setup a hard main light to the right of camera, then turn on a big soft box behind camera as fill. I start with the fill light at the lowest possible power, and then slowly increase the intensity of the fill until it’s at equal power with the main light. I then play with using different main lights in different positions and do the same routine again with the fill. I also try different quality fill lights varying between hard, soft, small, and large. I feel this is time very well spent for someone trying to learn how to use artificial light, particularly if they are trying to shoot daylight looking pictures.
Occasionally photographers ask me questions about how I think they should light something in particular such as a glass vase on a white background, or a purse on a black background. There are no simple answers to their questions. No such magic formula exists that will work perfectly for all glass vases shot on all white backgrounds or for all bags shot on a black background. I feel one answer is to have them go into the studio, start with one light, and try every possible combination with that one light, then try adding a second light. But only real answer is for them to learn how to be in control of their light. Photographers who are obsessed with using other photographers lighting diagrams and formulaic lighting rules will never really learn how to light for themselves unless they deviate from this approach. Light has such an important impact on the images we make and as photographers we need to be in control of that light. If you’re not comfortable with your lights, go play around with them until you are.