Photo Notes A place to talk about making images.

October 15, 2012

Updates and Light Opinions

I hope you’ll check out my books: Photographing Architecture and Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting. I hope you’ll get copies if you haven’t already. Of course you know that one reason for this blog is to sell the book and get you to consider one of my classes at An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio, Getting Started in Commercial Photography

Updates on my project with the 8X10 camera: I went back to the Indiana Historical Society and made another negative. This didn’t have the defects on some of the last set, so I think it is time to go forward. Here’s the latest shot from the conservation lab:

I also made a Vandyke print of one of the original negatives. I need to stress that seeing this scan on your monitor isn’t like seeing the actual print. It never is. If you want to see original images you need to go to galleries or buy prints. At least look at well printed books made with the photographer’s supervision. Anyway, here is a scan of my print from the first shoot.

I wrote most of what follows for one of my students at BetterPhoto. I’ve said these things before in this blog, but that’s no reason not to say them again. The heart of the matter is: if you can’t make light, if you have to find light to take a picture, or if you believe that light designed by a photographer is inferior to found light, you will limit the pictures you can take and limit there quality. It is better to learn more skills, and get more tools, in order to allow yourself to be a better photographer.

I am aware that many people use the terms artificial light and natural light, but I don’t think that when a great number of people use a term that actually makes the term accurate. A photon doesn’t act differently because it comes from the sun or a light bulb. A given light source may have a different color balance, but that doesn’t mean that it is natural. Sunlight and lightning (note the word is lightning with an n. Instantaneous light from storm clouds) have a similar color balance, but a cloudy day, or a volcano or natural phosphorescence have very different color than daylight. People most often refer to strobes as being artificial, but call a light bulb is a natural light source. In fact a strobe is really a kind of controlled lightning, which is natural, while light bulbs doesn’t occur naturally. The real problem that people have with strobes is that they can’t visualize what the light will look like, so they find that their pictures look very differently from what they hope. This is why you need to practice with light in order to understand and visualize light, which will make it easier to work with any light source.

I do think that natural is a value laden term. Natural foods are assumed to be better than artificial food; natural fabrics are assumed to be better than artificial. I often hear people describe themselves as “natural light photographers.” I am sure they wouldn’t like to describe themselves as photographers who are handicapped by an inability to create and control light in their photographs. The term photography is from the Greek and can be translated as “writing with light,” and I do think a photographer is a better photographer when she/he can actually create a photograph by controlling the light. Lighting is not the only way to make better photographs, but it is one of the most important tools for creating better photographs. This is why I teach lighting courses, and write books and articles about lighting. If I can help more shooters learn to use this tool I can help a lot of people make better photos.

Some years ago I did a job for the Huntington Library in Pasadena, actually San Marino, at the same time [a well known photographer who I shouldn’t disparage on this blog] was shooting for them. He is known for using “natural” light. I talked to my contact about my shots and his after the shoot was over. My contact was much happier with my work because of issues with focus and light control and color, all the problems in the other photographer’s images existed because he had little ability to control the light.

People that I know and respect use the term natural light, which is too bad. The term has even slipped out of my mouth once or twice, which is unfortunate because natural isn’t precise. There, I am glad I got that off my chest, again. You might want to say: “I use ambient light” rather than “natural light” in order to be accurate.

The important thing is to learn to pre-visualize what the light will do. You can walk around hunting for good light outdoors, or even inside. But if you don’t understand the way light defines a subject you will be hunting for good light randomly, which may be a fruitless search. This is why I think that practice, with lights, is so important: it gives you a real sense of how light works. So if you think you need soft light for a portrait you’ll start with a large light modifier, perhaps the light panel. Then you might want to define the face a little more so you may add a hard light. Regardless you won’t have to just keep moving the lights around. The goal is to be able to see the portrait you want to make, or still life or architectural shot, in your head. This will enable you to make choices about the light. It is important to know there isn’t one right light that will fit everyone, or even a few lighting set-ups that will work in any situation. Lighting is not something you can set your camera to do automatically. Lighting requires you to take control and create the right situation for your subject.

Strobes create light by passing a spark though a tube filled with xenon gas. Both a dedicated on camera flash (say a Nikon SB900 or a Canon 580II EX) and a mono-light like an Alien Bee ( create light in exactly the same way. A dedicated unit (SB900, 580II EX) is better for work where you travel or cover events, like weddings. It is much lighter and will mount on the camera. It will expose automatically, but of course automatic light often looks bad, even when it is properly exposed. Mono-lights, or studio strobes will work all day without running out of batteries or taking longer to recycle because they run off AC power. They often have more power and better light modifiers. They are much better for studio work, and can be better for many location jobs.

The images I put into the lighting discussion are all strobe images. I’m aware that I use some images repeatedly in this blog. I am building a new portrait portfolio so I should have more shots where I can find them for the blog.

Please consider one of my classes at

An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio

Getting Started in Commercial Photography

If you’re in the Indianapolis area there are other opportunities as well. I’ll be teaching a class in commercial photography next spring at Ivy Tech.

Powered by WordPress