Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review: Neil van Niekerk's Direction and Quality of Light

I'm passionate about lighting, and when I started learning about lighting, one of the most helpful resources for me was wedding photographer Neil van Niekerk's Tangents blog.  From Neil's tutorials, I learned about TTL flash and innovative bounce flash techniques, techniques that I have applied since then and continue to do so today.
In this post, I review Neil's latest book, the Direction and Quality of Light, which Neil describes as his magnum opus. Well he doesn't use literally those words but he's very enthusiastic about it and calls it essential.


When I first learned about lighting, I stumbled upon and saw the impressive lighting examples there and in the Flickr strobist group.  I tried to emulate that style (dramatically underexposed skies, etc. etc.) but what was missing was a certain logic to the lighting.  When I later found Neil's website, I saw that he had a different approach -- and his goal was often to make the shot look like it was not lit by flash.  That 'invisible' lighting style became my preferred approach.  

The subtle lighting style used by Neil is an ideal starting point for lighting, and offers a very strong and solid foundation, even if you later prefer a more aggressive lighting style.


The book's organization follows exactly that path.  It begins with basic lighting concepts (such as what looks good and bad in terms of lighting, quality of light, etc.), exposure, and flash basics (flash exposure, sync speed, etc.).

After the introductory parts, the other parts of the book focus on specific lighting tools, beginning with ambient light, then proceeding to fill flash, bounce flash, and then progressively to more conspicuous lighting techniques -- off-camera flash, multi-flash setups, using gels, and video light.

With respect to his techniques, Neil is a wedding photographer, therefore many of his solutions are applicable to family and candid photography.  They do not assume that you have access to a lighting crew or have multi-thousand dollar lighting gear.  The shots don't take days to setup.  Most use 1 or 2 lights, mostly speedlights, although for some examples he uses strobes and of course video lights for the chapter on that.  Only a few examples involve 3 flashes, and they can probably be setup in several minutes.  In short, the techniques are accessible to the rest of us who simply don't have time for elaborate setups.  He does use an assistant for a number of the shots -- but they could also have been done with another light stand or better, a boom stand.
Partly as a consequence of the quick setup, the lighting is often relatively simple, not over-the-top like those of an editorial fashion shot or a Joe McNally photo.  The hardcore strobist lighting crowd would probably not be excited to read anything here, except perhaps to be impressed by the simplicity and elegance of his solutions compared to the 5- or 6-light setups sometimes used in the more explicit lighting style.  Again, however, I believe Neil's approach is a better starting point to learn lighting.


Neil's writing is, as always, clear, straightforward and down-to-earth.  No fluff.

Each chapter is broken down into subsections for various techniques.  For example, the chapter on bounce flash has a section on indoor portraits and another for outdoor portraits.

In each section, he starts by describing a typical scenario for that kind of lighting setup.  He then discusses his thinking process systematically to achieve the final result.


If you are new to lighting, then this book offers one of the best introductions to lighting.  If you have not used these techniques before, they would have a huge impact on your photography, and can take you to from novice to intermediate lighting techniques rapidly.

For lighting veterans, especially regular readers of Neil's Tangents blog as I am, then you probably know most if not all of the techniques in the book.  Actually, on that point, I found that all of the sections in the book have been discussed in the Tangents blog at one time or another.  In some cases, the discussion in the book is an abbreviated version of the blog article on the same topic.  However, the book ties those many techniques and examples together and provides a coherent narrative.  And although I've seen and read all the examples before, reading them together helped me to see subtle points that I have missed before.  I