Lighting tips for successful pictures

The key to any successful picture lies in the lighting.

Whether it’s a portrait, an action shot, or even a studio shot.

For the sake of this discussion, I’m assuming light levels are enough for shutter speeds that would eliminate camera shake or subject motion.

The most successful photographers are the ones most able to control, manipulate, and use it to capture what they see in their mind’s eye.

In the photo above, I chose to completely overpower the ambient light in the gym for two reasons. The most obvious is to create the special effect of multiple exposure. The picture was taken on slide film.

I cocked the shutter without advancing the frame then quickly fired the flash as the gymnast went about his routine.

My 2nd reason for overpowering the ambient light was to remove the clutter in the gym. If you’ve ever been inside one of these warehouses which have been turned into gyms, I’m sure you have noticed the clutter everywhere.

Not lighting the whole scene but just the parts that are important is a simple technique for eliminating clutter in your picture.

There’s generally 2 approaches when it comes to lighting.

  1. Use what’s there, modify and adapt to it— this is primarily where most photographers start out
  2. Come up with a totally staged pre-conceived vision and light the scene starting from scratch like working in a controlled environment of a studio–like an artist illustrating on a blank canvas.

In both instances the photographer must understand light well to predict, not only what the camera will capture, but an image that is reproducible in print.

Remember in digital photography, what you see on the monitor may not be reproducible because there’s such a thing as gamut or range of shadow and highlights exceeding what can be printed.

The 1st approach may or may not require you supplement the light already in the scene.

In the picture of this couple, I looked around and found a hallway where there was directional light coming from the left and right.

Serendipitously there was a beautiful mural of their organization on the wall. It provided a very effective simple backdrop which tells us about Steven’s Hope.

This is usually how photojournalist work.

They often meter their scene after deciding where their subject will be, determine the number of f-stops between highlight and shadow.

Congressman Jerry Lewis and his wife were photographed at this community pool. Rather than photograph them outdoors by the pool, I posed them within a window to frame them.

I placed a flash just to the left of the frame and triggered it by a radio slave. The flash exposed them one-stop higher than the ambient light.
Exposure was ISO 200 1/250 sec @ f16. The ambient light was 1/250 sec @ f11.

Then they boost the shadow area if there are important details there. The key is  to preserve the mood and feel of the scene. This approach usually requires little equipment and is usually on location.

The 2nd approach resembles how an artist paints

He paints his scene by lighting every element.
illustration showing banana is the top seller in produce department

For this illustration showing how the banana is the best seller in the produce department, I was in total control.
From choosing the props, right down to the design and lighting.

This is an example of the 2nd approach where I create an image out of a concept. Originally shot on Fujichrome 100 before the days of Photoshop.

I ate a lot of bananas for this particular shot.

The most time consuming aspect of this shot was the research and finding just the right props which were the right scale.

The ambient light is not a factor at all. It’s almost as if the photographer is working in a dimly lit room and he has to light everything in the scene.

By careful positioning of his lights and varying their intensity, he creates shadows and highlights selectively. How realistic or natural the scene looks depends on his vision in his head.

If outdoors, and if he wants to create a picture that is natural, then his scene will have to appear to have just one dominant light source–like how our one Sun lights our natural world.

The operative word here is “appear to have one dominant light source.” He will most likely use more than one light source because of the contrast but his shadows are carefully controlled.

At times a photographer has no control over the time a photo session is scheduled and you have to make the most of a situation.
I had to photograph this group of cyclists at high noon. So I used 2 lights to overpower the daylight.
One light is a bare bulb flash hidden behind the coach who is kneeling in the foreground.The exposure had to be something like ISO 100 f32 @ 1/250 sec to overpower ambient light which metered at 1/250 @ f 11.
The side benefit of overpowering the ambient light is the background clutter is rendered a non-factor and I got excellent depth-of-field.The picture appears as if it was taken in a studio when in actuality, it was taken outdoors on a street.

Even though photography is a two-dimensional artform, good control of light creates 3-dimensions by giving pictures depth. The good use of shadow and highlights in a picture is what conveys depth.

A common misconception about good lighting is that there has to be a ton of it. Well, maybe not a ton, but an eye-squinting-tear-producing amount.

A scene that is so bright like at high noon tends to be problematic. Light levels with such intensity require small apertures so that invariably the photographer has to deal with too much depth-of-field.

So good light doesn’t necessarily mean an exposure of 1/2000 sec at f11 iso 100.

It all depends on what you are photographing. There is such a thing as too much depth of field.

If you’re photographing something that’s moving fast, and if your aim is to freeze the moving object, then in that particular instance, that is good light.

You’re able to use high shutter speeds to arrest that motion.

In this picture of a jubilant Jim Courier celebrating after winning the Newsweek Tennis tournament, you can see what I mean that too much depth-of-field can be a bad thing.

My subject is almost lost in the colorful cluttered background.

Originally shot on Fujichrome 100. Exposure 1/1000 sec at f4 with a 300 mm lens. That is probably the tightest full frame picture I have ever taken.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t shoot it with a wider aperture, I didn’t have a choice.

My 300 mm lens was already wide open at f4.
I had 2 F3 bodies with me. One had a 400 mm f 2.8 lens attached on the other body. I happened to grab the right body, I guess?

That high noon light is probably only good for gunfights.

There are very few instances when a photographer will choose to that time of the day to schedule a shoot.

Well-lit photographs don’t usually happen by accident.

If shooting in available light, you can bet the photographer planned to be at that very spot at that time, after doing some reconnaissance beforehand.

Possible places with good directional light which can create a moody or nice ambience:

  • Doorways and windows
  • Reflected light e.g sunlight bouncing off the water in late evening or early morning
  • Incandescent light in homes
  • Candlelight and campfire light

If none of this makes any sense, please let me know by commenting.

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