The Light Fantastic

This issue is dedicated to lighting with reviews, how-to articles, and roundups of gear, all intended to get you thinking about the best way to illuminate your subject. At the most basic level exposure is about aperture and shutter speed--that's how light is controlled. But it is in shaping light, using modifiers for existing light and various types of bulbs, controlled explosions (flash) and levels of output that the craft of lighting comes into play. And of course it is how you see the light, the way it informs shape and volume, and imparts mood, that is the most important element of all. In many cases photography is as much about what is hidden as what is revealed, and it is in working with light that we make the choices that can enhance a photograph through the arrangement of shadow, mid tone, and highlight.

The lighting game has changed somewhat with the coming of digital and the wide availability of custom-processing programs now in the hands of the photographer. A "flat" exposure can become a patchwork of bright and dark values in the hands of an experienced "digital darkroom" worker. You can change the direction of light, play with highlight and shadow, and even add a spot-lit effect to any scene. You can clear shadows from under eyes and lips, redefine the depth of a shadow, and add texture to highlights through the use of various tools and brushes in your image-manipulation software.

These are magical tools that continue to redefine how we relate to our original exposure. Yet, even with all this post-exposure control in our hands, the way we expose, and set up the lighting in our images, still has a profound effect on the end result, and even in the selection of images we choose to process later. Yes, we can do "day for night" easily enough, but we still wait for the right light, or spend time learning about positioning and power in our strobes and continuous light sources to make the best images we can "out of the box." That might come from old habits, of still trying to get that one right shot on that one frame of film, or simply from the fact that the more time and energy (and experience) you put into the exposure the less time you have to spend fixing it later.

What would you rather do--spend time crafting the image with real live people in your home, studio, or on location, or fussing with the image on your computer screen later? Would you rather read the light right while in the field, with the sun beating down and the wind blowing through the trees and the stream rushing in your ears, or start doing selections and highlight/shadow balancing in your crowded garret, with the cat unfed and dishes waiting in the sink, later?

Most of us would opt for doing our exposure and light balancing "live" and avoiding the "fix it in Photoshop later" mentality. Yes, every image benefits from tweaking, sharpening, etc., but surrendering the craft of lighting to software seems to me like losing something that's quite wonderful about being a photographer. Let software do its thing...and you do your thing by learning all you can about exposure, lighting, and the crafting of highlight and shadow when you shoot. Hopefully, this issue will both inspire you with ideas and point out some of the tools of the trade that will help you along the way.