UNDERSTANDING LIGHT AND SHADOW

Light and shadow, the fundamental part of professional photographic lighting.  Highlight and shadowing are the equivalent to the artists paint brush, were there is light the eye will follow because of it`s contrast with the shadow.  In most photographic education, way too much time is spent discussing highlight, (light sources) and too little time is spent studying shadow or the shadowing from the area the highlight ends to the darkest area of the portrait.  It leaves many photography students looking for adequate light sources and not worrying about the shadowing, giving the world the many flat images that we see today.

Lighting and shadowing are equals and only work with the other.  It is ying and yang, not greater or lesser.  Light without shadow is boring and flat: while shadow without light is one dark-assed photo.  The most important area to study in the creation of the portrait, (at least if you want to portrait to appear to have depth and be somewhat 3 dimensional) is the transition area from high light to shadow.  This transition area is the area where the skin is no longer illuminated by the light and the skin first starts darkening, to the area just before the darkest black or near black shadow.  That tiny area is the most important area of the portrait you create from a lighting perspective.

The width or size of this transition area, between highlight and shadow,  the more depth and the better quality your lighting has.  The size of this transition area is created by control the characteristics of your lighting (hard, soft) and the softness and intensity of your fill.  To create the widest transition is best to use a harder or more contrasty light source and fill the shadows more with a very soft, non directional light source.  With the huge, over sized light sources that most photographers suggest using, there is very little shadowing that is actually created.  On top of that many suggest using a box with a white interiors and an extra baffle to soften the light even further.  While you can create a transition and adequate shadow with a light source like this it takes more skill than many student photographers have. You actually have to create shadowing, by moving the light more to the 90 degree (more to the side of the subject, if the nose were face directly at the camera and you put a pencil in the subject`s ear “not suggested by the way” it would point to the 90 degree position.

I personally enjoy using smaller light sources that give me more control and even attaching grids or louvers to these smaller light boxes.  I also love to use strip lights as a main light source for it`s control over the highlight (

Outdoors I follow the same thinking.  As most of you know, I use sunlight being reflected off a silver reflector and then being feathered off the subject to create a softer main light source that over powers the ambient or existing light.  This ambient or existing light becomes my very soft fill.  This system of lighting is to create an adequate transition from highlight to shadow.  Now you know why I tell photographers not to use flash our doors, I don`t think you can program your TTL flash for the proper transitional area, however you can see it with your eyes and a constant light source.

With shadow you have a lifeless two-dimensional road map of the human face, without light, one dark-assed photo, but when both are created to work with the other, you achieve portraits that have depth and realism.

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~ by jeffsmithbooks on June 6, 2011.

6 Responses to “UNDERSTANDING LIGHT AND SHADOW”

  1. Very nice, Jeff. Seems like it should be obvious, but this little insight seems so often lacking in the work I see. It sent me to our camera to try a little experimenting!

  2. salut

  3. Another great post. I have a question though. Do you ever use the outdoor ambient light as the key and the reflector for fill. You always talk about using the reflector as the key, but I see in your books where your sometimes using it under the subject to fill in the eyes. Thnaks.

    • I do early in the morning and late in the day. The problem with ambient light only is the color balance, you often have blue light coming from the open sky and green in the shadow (reflected from the foliage) You can color balance for one but not both.

  4. That might be a situation where a warming reflector might help; however, early in the morning or late in the evening, assuming the sun has gone beyond the horizon, there might not be enough ambient for a reflector to work sufficiently at the needed distance. In that case might you consider an off camera strobe for key? I see that done quite frequently, for example late evening shots on the beach.

    Also, would you use a reflector for fill in these two cases:
    1) Heavily overcast days where you get dark eye sockets?
    2) When the subject is standing under the edge of an overhang such as a front porch or tree with directional light filtering in from above?

    Still waiting for your “Outdoor Portrait” DVD. If you cover this on that DVD, I can wait to watch it. Thanks.

    • Just got your Outdoor Portraits DVD. Love it! Wow! There’s nothing like actually seeing it live. It answered all my questions. It’s so valuable to see not only how you light them, but how you work with them and pose them. The entire camaraderie is invaluable. I think I’m going to have to get your Composition one as well.

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