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Light Right: Lighting as Part of Composition

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You can have the greatest subject and the best arrangement, but it’s the light that brings life to an image. A good studio photographer needs to be able to guide the viewer through an image. The authors of Light Right show you how to use light to compose your photographs for maximum impact.
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ISO 50, 1/60 sec., f/16, 100mm lens

Proper lighting is more than achieving the right exposure. Exposure is easy; today’s modern cameras and meters make getting a good exposure almost a foregone conclusion, and when in doubt, you always have the image histogram to confirm whether the exposure is correct. We all know people who claim to be accomplished photographers because their family vacation pictures look good on social media sites or because they captured a pretty sunset while visiting the islands. The lighting might be exposed properly, but what did they do?

Creating a magnificent image requires the artist to have control over all of his or her tools. Think about Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Rembrandt’s portraits, and consider how your eyes move through the images. It’s not merely the subject matter that brings the painting to life but the artist’s control over his medium. Just as a painter controls paint and brush, a photographer must control the placement of light.

Lighting helps tell the story. You can have the greatest subject and the best arrangement, but it’s the light that brings life to an image. We refer to this as “lighting as part of composition.” Your eyes travel through an image with good composition; your gaze lands where the photographer intended and then moves along almost as if you are following a path with arrows. The lighting becomes an element in the image, not merely the means to proper exposure.

Direct the Viewer’s Eye

It may sound odd, but a good studio photographer needs to be a puppet master and control the viewer—or at least the viewer’s eyes. It’s the job of the professional photographer to guide the viewer through an image.

The idea is to give the image a key element that catches the viewer’s attention, and then use a supporting cast to move and hold his or her attention in the image. It’s important to ask yourself why you find an image interesting. Even the most intriguing subject will warrant only a passing glance unless there is something to hold interest. Light plays a big role in how an image is experienced. Again, we are going beyond proper exposure; we want to see how light becomes part of the composition.

The following still life images of the three wineglasses and cork (FIGURE 3.1A and B) are identical, except for the lighting. The exposure is spot-on in the first image. If we were merely lighting for exposure this would be great; however, a professional photograph requires more; it demands that the subject, exposure, and lighting work together to create the overall composition. The second image has more character. Again, the subjects and camera have not changed, but the lighting has been altered to add greater depth—some would say more soul. No longer does the still life comprise only the glasses and cork but also rose highlights cast by the wine and directional shadows that move your eyes across the scene.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1. a) The softbox is placed directly above the subject; b) the subject is lit with a 10-degree grid, which creates a spotlight effect.

ISO 100, 1/125 sec., f/11, 100mm macro lens

Jan Oswald, Artist with Light

Parts of this section will take a slightly different approach than usual, analyzing the images of the well-known photographer Jan Oswald.

A comfortable use of lighting often mimics how books are read, from left to right. Simply put, it’s natural for us to move our vision across a page, and thus across an image. Zen Tulips (FIGURE 3.2) is a comfortable image; it’s easy on the eyes. There is no incredibly creative or dramatic lighting, but the direction of light begins on the left and then gently moves across the image. The flow travels from the blue vase, along the green stems, and finally comes to rest on the red tulips. The composition and lighting work together.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2. Zen Tulips, by Jan Oswald

ISO 64, 1/250 sec., f/32, 150mm lens

The lighting in Single Calla on Painted Background (FIGURE 3.3) follows a similar path as with Zen Tulips, but here we have an image with a completely different energy. Where the previous image was comfortable, now we have drama. Interestingly, the subjects of the two images are soft, sensual flowers, but it’s the photographic treatment that is different. Again, the lighting works with the image and not against it. The background of the image, and the curve of the calla lily, convey motion, almost as if the wind is blowing from left to right. Notice the highlight side and shadow side. The left highlight side mirrors the bright area of the background, while the shadow portion tucks behind, mimicking the far right. Everything about the image—subject, background, and lighting—contributes to the composition of the final image.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3. Single Calla on Painted Background, by Jan Oswald

ISO 64, 1/250 sec., f/32, 150mm lens

When is it OK to break the rules? Lighting aside, Melon on Blue Plate (FIGURE 3.4) breaks a handful of basic design rules. First, there is a dividing line that splits the image in two, and then the flowers on the right compete for attention with the melon on the left. So, why does the image work? It’s the lighting—the lighting connects the two sides. You could say that it creates a bridge spanning the dividing line. The highlights on the melon and flowers are the two brightest areas of the image, telling the viewer of their importance. The connection is solidified by the shadow cast by the melons and ends directly in front of the flowers, leading the viewer across the scene.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4. Melon on Blue Plate, by Jan Oswald

ISO 64, 1/250 sec., f/32, 150mm lens

There is little doubt in Watching (FIGURE 3.5) about where Jan wanted the visual focus to be. Unlike the previous examples, Watching provides us with a bulls-eye of light. It’s not a spot of light only in the center but rather a pool of light directed from the left that enhances the subject. Whereas the leaves are lit to show texture, the same lighting focuses our gaze on the only part of the image without texture. Other photographic elements that enhance the image are the warm-versus-cool color palette and the geometrical circular pattern.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5. Watching, by Jan Oswald

ISO 64, 20 sec., f/32, 150mm lens

The common thread so far has been that the lighting is part of the composition and not merely a tool for exposure.

In a departure from floral images, Jan Oswald’s Still Life with Broken Glass (FIGURE 3.6), from her Dutch Masters series, closely resembles the lighting characteristics of the great master painters. The subject is no single object, but rather all the elements as a whole.


Figure 3.6. Still Life with Broken Glass, by Jan Oswald

ISO 64, 1/250 sec., f/22, 310mm lens

Unless done carefully, this approach makes it easy to end up with an image that has no focal point and thus is easy to dismiss. Still Life with Broken Glass uses carefully controlled highlights to direct the viewer’s attention around the image; we move from element to element, never losing attention.

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