Exploring Light, Discovering Style: A Lighting Tutorial
Part 2: Quality, Direction, and Intensity
By Bruce Dorn | February 01, 2011
The intent of this instructional series is to equip you with the cognitive and structural tools necessary to begin your own personal exploration of light. If you are willing to invest the long-term effort, your personal observations, experimentation, and eventual instinctive responses may well evolve into a unique and recognizable style, creating a look that is yours and yours alone.
Before you can master something, you must know it. To know something, you must acknowledge its nature. Start by simply noticing and rejoicing in the "Quality" of light. Get all spiritual about it. Absorb and reflect.
Notice how the sun - so hard and bright and very far away - manages to offer so much variation. Study how this singular source reflects off of things, the light rays bouncing about and picking up all manner of color casts en route.
The convoluted textures and warm hues of a sandstone cliff becomes one sort of reflector while the cold white side of a delivery truck creates quite another. An overcast day comes in nearly infinite variations, each with a unique character and mood. A ceiling of cirrus clouds - which the Cinematographers call "High Silk" - diffuses but simultaneously renders very distinct shadows. A heavier blanket of overcast also illuminates but can quickly become somewhat cold, directionless, and somber. What, exactly, is going on up there?
In the process of noticing the quality of light, you will also come to appreciate the effects of the "Direction" of light. As you observe and learn, try to separate the effects of each characteristic. Our ultimate goal is to mix and match both in the service of Concept.
How does light change direction? Once again, reflection plays a key role in the lighting of nature's stage. The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. If you've ever played pool and used the cushions to send the cue ball rebounding to a specific point on the table, you'll instantly understand the concept of "bounced" light. Through the random or specific placement of reflective surfaces, the illumination of a single source can easily do the work of many.
And what about the importance of a light source's "Intensity"? At the core, we're simply looking for enough intensity to render the scene while allowing a stop, shutter-speed, and ISO we find appropriate. Beyond "Enough" and "Man, its freaking dark in here!", there isn't much to say. Think, rather, about how light intensity affects a given scene's contrast range.
Contrast refers to the range of tonal values between the darkest shadows and lightest highlights we hope to record. Undiffused midday sun reveals a range of contrast that is difficult for current digital technology to capture within a single exposure. Not to worry; a highlight-biased exposure choice and cleverly-illuminated shadows can make even the highest-contrast scene much more pleasing to the eye. You're going to hear this again and again throughout this tutorial; expose for the highlights and light for the shadows.
Quality, Direction, and Intensity. These are the essential characteristics of the light. Observe them, understand them, and finally, strive to master them...
Get articles like this in your inbox: Sign Up