Learning About Lighting

When I first started out in photography one of the foundations of the craft I set out to learn was lighting. So I went out to my local camera store and bought a set of metal reflectors with clamps, and, aided by the storekeeper, got me a pair of blue, daylight photoflood bulbs and a few rolls of color film. Those hot lights wilted subjects, both human and otherwise, and the harsh light they threw presented quite a challenge. So I went back to the store and purchased some flame-resistant, spun fiberglass diffusion material, clothespinned them to the lights and learned about soft lighting. I studied the inverse square rule, moved the lights all around my subjects and slowly got the hang of what a key light and fill light could do. I even went out and bought some clamp-on barn doors, background paper, a pole, and a set of 2x4 wedges, which I stuck into the ceiling and floor of my apartment to convert the living room to a studio.

I graduated to monolights and various types of strobes and slaves eventually, but only after visiting a pro studio later in my education did I learn what true photographic lighting could be and how it could transform a studio into a playground of light. One of the best I saw at work was Ken Marcus, who worked with snoots on tiny strobes, mini-continuous lights, and all the gobos, large diffusion panels, and strategically placed mirrors one could imagine. I had never seen so much lighting, and so many cords before.

The point of this meandering down memory lane is that all of us go through a fairly steep learning curve to get a handle on lighting. These days you might not need to go the reflector, photoflood route, what with the many affordable strobe packages now available. But regardless of the gear you begin with you might find, like me, that lights were only the beginning of the gear required. Along with the source of illumination comes a raft of light modifiers, those accessories that help you refine your lighting to match the subject at hand.

While digital has changed many things it has not eliminated the need to understand how to work with lighting. Regardless of your skill with Photoshop or other image-editing programs, getting the light right when you make the picture will make your postproduction work so much easier. Really mess up and not even the most skillful Photoshop operator will be able to save the shoot. Deliver a well-balanced and properly exposed shot and your software will help you refine the subject even more. If there's anything I've learned from my lighting education it is that photographic lighting is all about enhancement and balance. While there may be times when you want to create special effects or extreme high contrast, for the most part your lighting aim should be to emulate the one true source of illumination--the sun--and to make the subject, and not the obvious use of artificial light, the main attraction.

All of us have to go through a learning curve with lighting. It's a subtle art, one learned from experience and having secrets shared and revealed by our peers. I'm proud to say that each issue of Shutterbug contains its fair share of lighting tips, techniques, and product reviews, with masters such as Monte Zucker, Jay Abend, Jack Neubart, Joe Farace, and Steve Bedell keeping us all up to speed. Happily, four of our lighting craftsmen are with us in this, our Lighting issue. In addition, we've got Joseph Dickerson, a master of lighting in the field, helping us to read the light with his survey on spot meters.

Another great resource you can use to learn more about lighting is our web page. If you go to our homepage at www.shutterbug.com and type Lighting into the Search field you'll find over 500 archived articles on everything from lighting techniques to product reviews. That's more than a complete course onto itself!