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Light—Science & MagicAn Introduction to Photographic Lighting
By Fil Hunter Steven Biver Paul Fuqua
Focal PressCopyright © 2012 Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow to Learn Lighting
Light—Science & Magic is a discussion, not a lecture. You bring to this discussion your own opinions about art, beauty, and aesthetics. We do not intend to change those opinions and may not even influence them very much. We will be more bored than flattered if reading this book causes you to make pictures that look like ours. For better or worse, you have to build your own pictures on your own vision.
What we do have to offer you is a set of tools. This book is about technology. Science. Brass tacks. It is information for you to use when you please, if you please, and how you please. This does not, however, mean that this book is not about ideas, because it is. The basic tools of lighting are principles, not hardware. Shakespeare's tool was the Elizabethan English language, not a quill pen. A photographer without mastery of lighting is like a Shakespeare who could speak only the language of the people in the Globe Theatre pit. Being Shakespeare, he still might have come up with a decent play, but it certainly would have taken a lot more work and, very likely, more blind luck than most people are entitled to expect.
Lighting is the language of photography. Patterns of light convey information just as surely as spoken words. The information that light conveys is clear and specific. It includes definite statements, such as "The bark of this tree is rough" or "This utensil is made of stainless steel, but that one is sterling."
Lighting, like any other language, has a grammar and a vocabulary. Good photographers need to learn that grammar and vocabulary. Fortunately, photographic lighting is a lot easier to master than a foreign language. This is because physics, not social whim, makes the rules.
The tools we have included in this book are the grammar and vocabulary of light. Whatever we say about specific technique is important only to the extent that it proves the principles. Please, do not memorize the lighting diagrams in this book. It is entirely possible to put a light in exactly the same spot shown in the diagram and still make a bad picture—especially if the subject is not identical to the one in the diagram. But if you learn the principle, you may see several other good ways to light the same subject that we never mention and maybe never thought of.
WHAT ARE "THE PRINCIPLES"?
To photographers, the important principles of light are those that predict how it will behave. Some of these principles are especially powerful. You will probably be surprised to find how few they are, how simple they are to learn, and how much they explain.
We discuss these key principles in detail in Chapters 2 and 3. They are the tools we use for everything else. In later chapters we put them to work to light a wide range of subjects. At this point we will simply list them:
1. The effective size of the light source is the single most important decision in lighting a photograph. It determines what types of shadows are produced and may affect the type of reflection.
2. Three types of reflections are possible from any surface. They determine why any surface looks the way it does.
3. Some of these reflections occur only if light strikes the surface from within a limited family of angles. After we decide what type of reflection is important, the family of angles determines where the light should or should not be.
Just think about that for a minute. If you think lighting is an art, you're exactly right—but it's also a technology that even a bad artist can learn to do well. These are the most important concepts in this book. If you pay close attention to them whenever they come up, you will find they will usually account for any other details you may overlook or we forget to mention.
WHY ARE THE PRINCIPLES IMPORTANT?
The three principles we have just given are statements of physical laws that have not changed since the beginning of the universe. They have nothing to do with style, taste, or fad. The timelessness of these principles is exactly what makes them so useful. Consider, for example, how they apply to portrait style. A representative 1952 portrait does not look like most portraits made in 1852 or 2012. However, and this is the important point, a photographer who understands light could execute any of them.
Chapter 8 shows some useful approaches to lighting a portrait. But some photographers will not want to do it that way, and even fewer will do so in 20 years. We do not care whether or not you use the method of portrait lighting we chose to demonstrate. We do, however, care very much that you understand exactly how and why we did what we did. It is the answers to those very "hows" and "whys" that will allow you to produce your own pictures your own way. Good tools do not limit creative freedom. They make it possible.
Good photographs take planning, and lighting is an essential part of that planning. For this reason, the most important part of good lighting happens before we turn on the first lights. This planning can take many days or it can happen a fraction of a second before pressing the shutter release. It does not matter when you plan or how long it takes, as long as you get the planning done. The more you accomplish with your head, the less work you have to do with your hands—you can think faster than you can move.
Understanding the principles we presented earlier enables us to decide what lights need to be where before we begin to place them. This is the important part. The rest is just fine-tuning.
HOW DID WE CHOOSE THE EXAMPLES FOR THIS BOOK?
The portrait is but one of the seven basic photographic subjects we discuss. We chose each subject to prove something about the basic principles. We also lit the subject to show the principle, regardless of whether there might be other good ways to light the same thing. If you know the principles, you will discover the other ways without any help from us.
This means that you should give at least some attention to every representative subject. Even if you have no interest in a particular subject, it probably relates to something you do want to photograph.
We also chose some of the subjects because they are rumored to be difficult. Such rumors are spread usually by people who lack the tools to deal with such subjects. This book dispels the rumors by giving you those tools.
In addition, we tried to use studio examples whenever possible. This does not mean Light—Science & Magic is only about studio lighting. Far from it! Light behaves the same way everywhere, whether it is controlled by the photographer, by the building designer, or by God. But you can set up indoor experiments like ours at any hour of any day regardless of the weather. Later, when you use the same lighting in a landscape, on a public building, or at a press conference, you will recognize it because you will have seen it before.
Finally, we chose each example to be as simple as possible. If you are learning photography, you will not have to leave the setup in your living room or in your employer's studio for days at a time to master it. If you teach photography, you will find that you can do any of these demonstrations in a single class session.
TO DO, OR NOT TO DO?
If you are learning photography without any formal instruction, we suggest you try all of the basic examples in this book. Do not simply read about them. What happens in your head is the most important part of lighting, but the eye and the hand are still essential. Guided experience coordinates the three.
When we talk about soft shadows or polarized direct reflections, for example, you already know how they look. They happen in the world, and you see them every day. But you will know them and see them still better once you have made them happen.
If you are a student, your class assignments will keep you busy enough without any further demands from us. Your teacher may use the exercises here or invent new ones. Either way, you will learn the principles in the book because they are basic. They happen in all lighting situations.
If you are a professional photographer trying to expand your areas of expertise, your judgment about what exercises you need is better than ours. Generally, these will be those that are least like the things you are already photographing. You may find our basic examples to be too simple to be an entertaining challenge. Try complicating things a bit. Add an unexpected prop, an unusual viewpoint, or a special effect to our basic example. You might as well get a striking portfolio piece out of the effort while you are at it.
If you are a teacher, you can look at this book and see that most of the exercises show at least one good, simple, easy-to-master way to light even those subjects with reputations for maximum difficulty: metal, glass, white on white, and black on black.
Notice, however, that although we've done this in almost every case, we weren't able to do it in absolutely every one of them. The "invisible light" exercise in Chapter 6, for example, is pretty difficult for most beginners. Some students may also find the secondary background behind the glass of liquid in Chapter 7 to be beyond the limit of their patience. For this reason, if you find anything in this book that you haven't already done with your own hands and eyes, we strongly encourage you to be sure to try it yourself before deciding whether it is appropriate to the skills of your students.
WHAT KIND OF CAMERA DO I NEED?
Asking "What kind of camera do I need?" may seem silly to experienced photographers. But we have taught this material. We know how many students ask it, and we have to answer it. There are two good answers, and they contradict each other slightly. The weight we place on each answer matters more than the answers themselves.
Successful photographs depend on the photographer more than the equipment. Inexperienced photographers work best with the camera with which they are familiar. Experienced photographers work best with the camera they like. These human factors sometimes have more to do with the success of a photograph than the purely technical principles.
Ideally, people learning photography should shoot digitally for the instant feedback this approach provides. Shooting digitally is far less expensive, and the quality that many of today's digital cameras provide borders on amazing. Of the many photographs in this book, we made all but a handful digitally.
Just which digital camera you should get is up to you. Fortunately, most manufacturers offer a number of reasonably priced cameras. Check out the many reviews that you will find in photography magazines and on the web. Talk to other photographers and, if possible, deal with a camera store whose sales staff knows what they are talking about. Camera clubs are also another good source of information, and if you are in school, your instructor will also be able to help you select the camera that best fits your needs and budget.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Any way you look at it, the advent of the digital world has been a wonderful thing for students. It is not, however, a totally win–win situation. Any digital camera is, at its heart, a computer. Because of this, the camera maker can program the camera to alter the image without the foreknowledge or consent of the photographer! This is often a good thing. The camera's decisions are, in our experience, more often than not correct. Sometimes, however, they are not.
A still bigger problem is that it is harder for the student to know whether what's happened, for better and for worse, is because of the camera's decision or because of the photographer's decision. You may make mistakes that the camera fixes, costing you a learning experience, or the camera can make a mistake and you innocently blame yourself for it.
In light of the preceding paragraphs, we offer two suggestions:
1. Develop at least a minimal competence in postproduction skills. You do not have to be a whiz-bang Photoshop genius to be an effective digital shooter. You do, however, need to learn at least the basics of one of the numerous (and now often amazingly inexpensive) digital editing programs that are now available.
Excerpted from Light—Science & Magic by Fil Hunter Steven Biver Paul Fuqua Copyright © 2012 by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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