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Subject Hierarchy

Along with directing the viewer’s eye, lighting also tells us what is important in an image, or its hierarchy. It’s common to have multiple objects in a scene, but how does someone know what the main subject is? As photographers we have many tools at our disposal; we have composition, depth of field, and—sometimes overlooked—we have lighting to help control subject hierarchy. One of the more difficult tasks as a professional photographer is to guide the viewer to where you, as the artist, want that person to look. It’s important to use as many techniques as necessary to direct the viewer’s gaze.

An easy way to think about this concept is to relate it to contrast control. If everything in an image is neutral gray, then nothing shows dominance. However, if one object is brighter, or sometimes darker, than the rest, it will stand out. The middle tomatillo (FIGURE 3.7) isn’t the largest, but because it is slightly brighter it grabs the attention. It’s not that one component is under- or overexposed, it’s simply that one shows a slight variance from the others.

Figure 3.7

Figure 3.7. These tomatillos demonstrate how simple lighting variance directs viewers.

ISO 100, 1/125 sec., f/5.6, 100mm lens

Similarly to the previous wineglass images (Figure 3.1), these two apple images (FIGURE 3.8A and B) demonstrate two lighting variations. The first image is properly exposed; however, it lacks a focus. Each apple is treated equally; there is no hero. A strobe and softbox are used to illuminate the entire scene equally. The second image takes a different approach in that one apple stands out from the rest. The lighting directs the viewer to exactly where the photographer intended; the back-right apple is the key subject. This time the same softbox is used to add a base exposure, which is roughly two stops underexposed, and then a second strobe with a grid is added to spotlight one apple and make it the hero.

Figure 3.8

Figure 3.8. a) A well-exposed still life of apples with no standout; b) spotlighting a single apple makes it the hero.

ISO 100, 1/125 sec., f/22, 100mm lens

The series below (FIGURES 3.9A–E) relies on multiple photographic techniques, but lighting adds much of the interest. There is nothing elaborate about the subject matter; it’s simply a collection of fruits and vegetables. Each subject was analyzed to determine what was unique, and then controlled lighting highlighted those specific areas while allowing the other elements to recede.

Figure 3.9

Figure 3.9. In this series—a) gourd; b) kiwi; c) mushroom; d) Pink Lady; e) star fruit—unique lighting is used to focus the viewer’s attention.

ISO 50, 1/60 sec., f/4, 100mm lens

Although these images were lit using strobes, the next section, Light Painting, addresses a specialized lighting technique that can produce similar results with greater control, enabling you to place light wherever you desire.

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