Monday, October 26, 2009

Introduction to Basic Lighting for Family Photographers

(version: 1)

Lighting is critical to producing a quality photograph of any genre, including family photos.  This intro to lighting is intended not as a tutorial in itself but just to let you know the photographic possibilities from lighting.

1. What do you mean by "lighting"?
In photography, lighting is the artistic use of light and shadow in the photo.

2. Why is lighting important?
Here are some ways lighting affects your photo:
  • Volume: A photo is flat. Proper lighting helps create the illusion of three-dimensionality.
  • Emotion: the lighting in a photo by itself can have a powerful impact on the emotion or feel of the photo, even when other elements (such as composition and color) are unchanged.
  • Beauty: some ways of lighting are more flattering for the subject than others. This applies not only to portraits but also to objects.
  • Color: knowledge of proper lighting can help you to emphasize or deemphasize colors in the photo.  For example, colors are generally more washed out in bright, direct sunlight.
  • Composition: the patterns of light and shadow in a photo can themselves be elements of composition.
Because of the immense impact of lighting on a photo, for many photographers, the lighting of a photograph is at least as important as (and sometimes more important than) its composition or subject matter.  Lighting can make or break your photo.  To summarize: lighting is a BIG DEAL.

3. What are the basics I need to know about lighting?
For family photographers, you should at least know concepts about the characteristics of light (see #4), portrait lighting (see #5) and the overall lighting scheme of a photo (see #6).

4. Characteristics of light itself:
  • Intensity - the brightness of the light source.
  • Quality (hard vs. soft) - hard light casts high-contrast shadows with clear edges. Soft light is scattered and produces blurry or no shadows.  Example: direct midday sun in summer without clouds produces hard light.  An overcast day produces soft light.   The larger the apparent size of the light source to the illuminated object, the softer the shadows will be.
  • Direction - self-explanatory.
  • Shape - is the light beam wide or narrow?  Does it cast a pattern (for example, when you shine the light through the leaves of a plant or through a glass of water)?
  • Color - the obvious examples are when gels or filters are used.  But different sources of light also have different color temperatures.  Extreme examples are candlelight (warm colored) or old fluorescent lights (greenish).  Less obvious examples are shade (bluish) and flash (slightly bluish).
  • Number of lights - actually increasing the number of lights or simulating such an increase (through time controls or reflectors or v-cards).
5.  Portrait lighting
Portrait lighting is distinct from the lighting of other subjects (such as in product photography).  Although family photographers on the run rarely have the opportunity to prepare the lighting setup for proper portrait lighting, family photographers can benefit from awareness of portrait lighting concepts to use more flattering light on subjects.

a. Light positions and functions in portraits.
  • Key or Main - the light that produces the dominant highlight on the subject.  The position of the key light varies depending on the lighting scheme (see #6 below).  Note: in a few lighting schemes, there is more than one key light.
  • Fill - illuminates some or all parts of the subject that are in shadow from the key light. Fill light may be omnidirectional, from the same direction as the camera (on-axis fill) or an extension of the key light (in which case it's about 90 degrees from the direction of the key light).
  • Rim or kicker - a highlight on the contours of the subject generally used for subject-background separation.  Rim light is generally behind the subject, and either above, to the side, or both.
  • Background - light(s) illuminating the background.
  • Hair - used to add a highlight on the subject's hair.  Generally positioned above the subject.
  • Catchlight - the pattern of light (if any) reflected in the subject's eyes. Not really a light position itself but something to be aware of in portrait lighting.
b. Basic portrait lighting schemes:
  • Broad vs. short: when the subject's face is on a three-quarter view, broad lighting is where light illuminates the side of the face that is closer to the camera.  Short lighting is where the light is illuminating the side further from the camera.  If the subject's visible ear is on the illuminated side, it's broad. If not, it's short.
  • Split: the subject is facing the camera and the key light comes from the side and illuminates only one side of the face.
  • Loop: light comes from around 45 degrees from the subject's face. The nose casts a shadow pointing toward the corner of the mouth, in the shape of a loop. Can be broad or short. A fairly common portrait lighting scheme.
  • Rembrandt: similar to loop, except the light is coming from a higher angle.  The nose's shadow merges with the shadow below the cheekbone. There is a tell-tale upside down triangle highlight below the eye in the side of the face that is partially shaded.
  • butterfly / paramount: subject is facing the camera. Light comes from above and in front of the subject. The resulting shadow of the nose is shaped like a butterfly.
6.  The overall lighting scheme of the photo:
  • Shadows and chiaroscuro: In lighting it's important to pay attention not just to the highlights but also the shadows. Chiaroscuro is the artistic technique of using highlights and shadows, often with strong ("dynamic") contrast, to create the illusion of three-dimensionality.  Caravaggio's works exemplify chiaroscuro.
  • High key vs. low key: high key photos use tones that are mostly brighter (think of those mac vs. pc ads) while low key photos are darker and have lots of shadows (as in the matrix trilogy).

    • Specular - diffuse - shadow - transfer: in the real world, the highlight and shadow areas are not of even brightness and can be further differentiated.  Specular highlight is the bright "shiny" part of the highlight.  Diffuse is the rest of the highlight.  Shadow is self-explanatory. Transfer is each area between each of the foregoing areas (specular-to-diffuse transfer, diffuse-to-shadow transfer).  Check out the late Dean Collins' theory of 3d contrast.
    • Motivation: the logic for the direction, intensity, quality and color of artificial light so as to appear as if the artifical light is natural.  For example, if the sun is camera left (as evidenced by shadows in the background), adding light that comes from camera right will look unnatural.  Here is a good explanation of motivation.
    • Background vs. subject vs. foreground: the lighting of the background, subject, and foreground are often distinct and can be analyzed as separate elements of the photo's lighting scheme. Generally, to emphasize the subject, a common technique is to underexpose the background. Alternatively, the subject might be underexposed relative to the background for photos with strong backlighting (as in many of Rarindra Prakarsa's amazing photos).
    • Light ratios: the difference in intensity between two areas of light in the photo (usually comparing the highlight and fill). If the highlight is 1 stop brighter (i.e., 2x brighter) than the fill and the fill light is omnidirectional and illuminates the entire subject, then the fill is 1 unit of light, while the highlight is 2 units of light (from the highlight) plus 1 unit of light (from the omnidirectional fill) for a total of 3 units, thus the ratio is 3:1.  If the fill is not omnidirectional and illuminates only the shadow (this is less common), then the ratio is 2:1.
    • Tonal range: the difference between the brightest tone and the darkest tone in the photo. Qualities to aim for (note: I'm still trying to figure this out): full range of black to white represented in the shot; a smooth transition between tones in the photo; a balanced distribution of tones that is neither dull ("A"-shaped histogram) nor contrasty ("U"-shaped histogram).
      7. What can I do to control lighting?
      • Observation: in my opinion the most important lighting technique is observation of existing light -- observing its characteristics, imagining ideas for using it, and determining whether and how to enhance it.

      • Choice of time and place for the photo: you can increase the odds of having lighting conditions that match your intended lighting scheme by being mindful of the pattern of light at different times of the day, weather, and seasons.

      • Positioning the subject: sometimes, you can control the position of the subject - in the shade, in the light, or somewhere in between, plus the direction they are facing, thus changing the direction of light relative to the subject.

      • Choosing the shooting angle and direction: you might not be able to move the sun, but you can choose your shooting angle and direction to change the relative direction of sunlight.

      • Light modifiers:  all sorts of gadgets are used to alter the quality of existing light (e.g., a white bedsheet to act as a diffuser for sunlight) or artificial light (e.g., a portable softbox attached to a flash to soften its light). Check out to get a glimpse of some creative modifiers.
      • Flash: by giving you other sources of light besides existing ambient light, flashes can help you gain more control of the lighting in your photo. See TTL Flash FAQ.
      • Exposure: exposure controls (shutter, aperture, ISO) can be used to alter the impact of the light on the photo.  For example, a very fast shutter with shallow aperture and low ISO will virtually eliminate ambient light.
      • Postprocessing: PP can be used to enhance, mitigate or simulate lighting. For example, dodging and burning techniques can make hard light look soft.
      8. Where can I find additional resources on lighting?
      • Strobist Lighting 101 and Lighting 102 - lighting concepts and techniques by professional news photographer David Hobby.  David's shots often require set up (thus can't be as easily used by family photogs on the run) but the logic he uses is often applicable to on-location family photos as well.
      • Neil van Niekerk's On-Camera Flash and Flash tutorial.  Neil is a wedding photographer.  His lighting techniques are often applicable to family photos.
      • Bob Krist's Secrets of Lighting on Location. Shows how renowned photographer Bob Krist lit some of his on-location (as opposed to studio) shots. Many of the techniques and logic he uses are applicable to family photos. Although the book was written before the advent of digital cameras and modern flashes, digital technology has only made the techniques more usable and easier to apply.
      • Allison Earnest's Sculpting with Light.  A guide for portrait lighting.
      • Light: Science and Magic. Lighting concepts.  Much of the book deals with reflection and controlling how the light appears in the photo.  Most lighting techniques are for product photography but some concepts can be applied to family photos.
      • Dean Collins' videos ( Dean was a master of lighting. Like Bob Krist's book, Dean's videos were produced before digital era. However, the concepts and ideas are still applicable.
      • - discusses a variety of lighting techniques.
      • This blog. Search for the tag "lighting."


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