Philosophical and Practical Approaches to Using Light Sources
By Rick Trottier
Light is the incontestably essential commodity of photography. Light reflects, refracts and is absorbed by what is around it, creating opportunities for colors to be more vibrant, shadows to be stronger, textures to be clearer and all lines, curves and angles to be resolved into composition that delights the eye. Light can be soft and diffuse or it can be harsh and unrelentingly intense. It can add warm and energetic hues to the photographer’s palette or punishingly wash out all color with its fantastically complex nature. Light can be utilized to bring an image to the level of masterpiece, or it can leave grievous marks that diminish the integrity of an artistic dream. Light rules all of what we do, how we think, the emotions we feel and even how we dream the artistic dream.
Just as the river fisherman must learn all he can about the waters in an effort to master his craft, but at the same time listen to what those same waters tell him and adjust his approach to gain success, the photographer must have a truly balanced Philosophy of Using Light. Mastery is often the goal of any professional and while it is a worthy objective, therein lies the stealthy snare that can lead to a stultifying relationship with Light. Most photographers would agree that in the Great Outdoors, light is a changeable and inconstant variable, almost impossible to control. Such is really not the case. The nature of light is never-varying; it is weather that creates the presence of variables. However, even inside the studio, light is not the servant of our whims and wishes and must be carefully understood if its mysteries are to be truly followed.
Whether you are indoors or outdoors, there are very simple tenets that must be considered if you are to not fall into the arduous trough of trying to master light but rather to follow it and receive the blessings it bestows.
What most photographers never stop to consider is, what the sources of light are that will be part of the image composition. Almost ALL images have more than one source of light; primary, secondary, incidental, accidental and the list goes on. The best places to start with understanding how to follow the light are by asking as many questions as possible. If the answers are not readily available or ones you even are willing to answer, Light will Master You and Not Serve Your Desires. First you should ask yourself, what is my primary source of light? What direction will it go? Do I have other sources of light such as fill, hair or rim lights or is it ambient light that will act as such? What will be reflecting your light sources in the tableau and what will absorb light? All of these questions have to be answered if you are to firmly grasp what the outcome of clicking the shutter will be, for to think that we can control light is actually absurd. However, to know what a likely outcome will be and to prepare for that outcome is how a photographer learns to follow the light. For example, when setting up studio lights, one must consider if the lights will create a lot of or very little “spill”. The more spill, the more the background will be illuminated and there will be less separation of subject from background. Another example is the degree of ambient light that is present, what color that light is and how that will affect the temperature of the image. A further example is the level of the sun and how much shadow it will create on your subject causing you to engage the use of fill light to negate harsh shadows. Lastly, what kinds of reflective qualities or non-reflective qualities does the subject, the background and any of the props have, for light reflected will have to travel somewhere, and knowing where it will go will aid in predicting the outcome you so greatly desire. These are just some of the questions about light sources a photographer must ask. Finding the answers is both rewarding and deeply comforting like the time I realized that light pouring through old leaded glass windows behind my model was highly diffuse, BUT fill light bounced off a reflector added to the sunlight bouncing off the fall wall of my office would provide enough front light to adequately illuminate my subject with a beautifully luminous and glorious spectrum of energy. The strong but diffuse back light acted as both rim and glamor accent light while all that ambient light haloed the model in a nimbus of splendor. This was a question of direction I had only played with on occasion before but am now passionately devoted to.
In the studio, a photographer can and should be able to control light intensity to a large degree. Outside the studio, control gives way to acceptance of knowing what forces affect light intensity and working with those forces to create the shot. If you’re in the studio and using ambient or mainly natural light, or you’re outside and sourcing your light entirely or almost entirely from the sun, it is not just the time of day that dictates the intensity of light. Season also has a measurable impact on how strong the light is. The Sun rides up the sky in much more shallow arcs in the Spring and Autumn, reducing the intensity of light and allowing the intrepid photographer to venture out at times of the day that might have been “verboten”. Cloud cover is another obvious arbiter of light intensity, but few people stop to consider the impact of humidity on the strength of sunlight and how it will change shadows, hues, and the reflective/refractive nature of light. It is often seen that a cloudless but exceedingly humid day can create more diffusion of light than a mostly cloudy day with lower humidity. Another important factor worthy of consideration is calculating the reflective nature of large stretches of water, sand, metal/glass or other types of materials that bounce light prodigiously. But even inside the “safe” bounds of the studio, shooting “low key” in a room with no windows and one closed door, there are intensity factors that must be considered. Photographers must balance the strength of the light produced from a strobe or “hot light” with its distance from the subject and the nature of the color of the garment or skin of the model. For example, a darker clad or darker-skinned model is one whom you might bring a light closer to, using a slightly higher strength and even cut down on spill as much as possible to more brightly illuminate the subject and separate them from the background. Having the light farther away will add to the levels of spill and can possibly lead to a less dynamic composition and less interesting final product. A photographer must do all in their power to either control or ameliorate the impact of light intensity so that an image has precisely the desired characteristics in the end as it was in the imagining.
The one factor in all of the equations governing “following the light” is how a photographer allows the camera to interact with all available light sources. Assuming that the primary setting is the camera being in MANUAL mode (this gives the photographer the MOST freedom in working with variables), from there the tools that can and should be utilized are Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. Certainly image quality, picture style and white balance are worth thinking about. Of them all, white balance is most important, but all quirks of temperature can be addressed in post-production as long as they are not egregious. Undoubtedly it is best to get the white balance right, but a slightly cool image can be warmed, just as the converse is true. However, it is mastering an understanding of what each of the Big Three Variables can do to the image that is essential in following the light. Simply put, the greater the light intensity, the more light sources available and the larger capacity for light reflection, the less wiggle room for play with your settings you will have. Your ISO will likely be at its lowest setting, your aperture will likely drift upwards, and so will your shutter speed. There is such a thing as too much light. This is where choosing your light sources carefully and manipulating the light intensity with equal care will allow a photographer to experiment with their camera and its variables. For example, on a bright late afternoon in the light Spring, when the Sun is fast approaching its annual zenith of power, I chose to eschew my use of fill light and go the path of “following the light”. I found a leafy background that was fairly shady and many yards distant from the model. I placed her just within the area of sun, literally standing only feet from the shade behind her. The sun was over her left shoulder to camera right but outside the reach of my field of vision. I opened the aperture wide, to F3.5, dropped my shutter speed to 1/160, advanced the ISO to 200 and working with a 70-220mm lens, shot from 190mm focal length, all of which required both me and the model to be fairly still. The result was a depth of field that created a background that was both impressionistic and gentle, a lighting composition that was bright and yet delicate and a color scheme that was dreamy and ethereal. It was a result born of a desire to try new techniques, see new outcomes and letting go of my need to adhere to rules of order I had to often and for too long set for myself.
Since then, whether in the studio or outside, I have been playing with little or no artificial front light and relying on ambient light to illuminate the front of the subject. That doesn’t mean I am forgetting my other loves of strong natural light or complicated studio arrays. I am simply “following the light” and seeing where it takes me. Even when photography bends in the direction of commercial demands and the needs of the client, as artists we must grow and thrive or the path downwards to decline and dissolution is a steep one. Learning to find a balance in listening to how light speaks to our souls and harnessing light’s power and profundity is the path of progress and the journey of joy. There is merit in mindfulness when it comes to art and knowing the limits of our power and our reach. The wise artist works within the framework of the elements, controls what he can, manipulates what can be influenced and then engages their intellect in accepting what tools and gifts are being offered. It is a trade worth making and one that can be a winning.