Photography And Video: The Single Source Of Light

The way humans are used to seeing other humans, and all the other things in the world around them, is with those people and things lighted by a single source of light: the sun. One of the first, if not the first, thing we do is to identify the source of the light on the thing we are looking at. It’s so natural we don’t even know we are doing it. This is one of the main things that makes lighting a challenge, because we feel it should be a natural talent we’re born with.

When a painter looks at a canvas or a sketchbook and then up at the subject the first question they try to answer is where is the principle source of light coming from? It’s a primary skill they must learn: where is the light coming from? what effect does it have on the subject? Viewing paintings in a gallery, or photographs in a book, or images on a movie screen, our eyes instinctively find the source of light and follow it to the subject.

We so expect the single source of light to be true that we may find arguments like this one to be silly. But without the ability to manipulate light the photographer or video maker is handicapped. The first step in being able to manipulate light is training yourself to see it. The second handicap is to make several lights, placed in different locations on a set, or bounced in by reflectors, appear to be a single source of light. Failing that, not be able to create the illusion of a single source of light, your believability is damaged. Viewers know something is wrong. Most likely they won’t be able to tell what’s wrong or why it’s wrong but they will know it’s wrong. That isn’t a fault in your audience. It’s up to you to look purposefully at the light and what it’s doing. It hard to tell what’s wrong with the lighting when all the lights are turned on. Always start a set with only the Key Light turned on. Then each time you turn on another light you’ll be able to see it effect.

Here are 3 Key Things To Avoid:

Flat lighting. Light falling directly on the subject, like the sun coming over your shoulder. Use extra lighting or reflectors to soften the shadow but never use them to remove the shadow completely. You’re already working in 2D and flat lighting will only make it worse.

In close-ups, don’t have more than one light window That point of light that shows up in the eye from the light source. There should be only one.

There’s nothing that casts more than one shadow, except for bad lighting.

Of course with light windows and multiple shadows if they are not in the frame, visible in the shot, does it matter? You’ll probably  get by with it but you have to be on the look-out for their effect on what is in the frame. You’ll be surprised what you see when you look, really look.

This article and several others are available for purchase from SMASHWORDS in the booklet Photography And Video: Thinking About Light. It is also available for free by subscribing to this site. Look to the upper left and you will see the form.


Thanks for listening.





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