Artists and photographers share a similar passion for light. It is the most essential ingredient in any photograph and painting, and yet it is often the most difficult of skills to manage. I have seen many studios blast their subjects with light from all angles, not really understanding why, but in the sure hope that if enough light is pointed at their subject the photo will be devoid of those problematic and pesky shadows.
Light may be an essential part of a photo, but so is the opposite… darkness. Let’s not forget that shadows are just as essential to a picture as light. Even with high key photographs where backgrounds and skin tones are washed out, shadows are still needed to create depth.
The early photographers used old masters such as Rembrandt to guide their lighting technique. They followed the sound rule that since there is only one true source of light, the sun, then a picture must not display extra light on the subject unless it is clear in the picture that another light source exists, such as a candle or lamp.
Most portraits were taken using the light from a window or skylight, which is replicated these days in studios using artificial light sources with the same name. These give the most natural form of light for any subject, and in many cases, they are the only light needed.
The trouble with many studios today is the number of lights that are available, and that makes it too tempting to use them, even when they are not required. It’s almost as if you feel that you have to use them because they are there, otherwise why have them in the first place. The temptation often leads to poor quality lighting due to a lack of understanding of how to manage all that light.
To learn the art of lighting, concentrate on one light source, the window light (or large brolly). and learn how it changes your subject when you use it at different angles and distances. It is a simple process to learn. Sit your subject in a fixed position in a chair (for their comfort while you mess with the lights), and position your light at different angles to the subject and take a photograph at each position. These will then become your reference shots which you can examine on your computer.
Try setting the light at an angle away from the subject, so it is not pointing directly at them. This is called ‘feathering’ the light, and often gives the most flattering and softer results because you are using the edges of the light rather than the brightest centre.
The contrast that you will achieve with the single light method will depend on the size of the studio and the colour of the walls. A small white studio will give less contrast than a larger studio, or a small studio with black walls. To increase the contrast try using a black screen behind the subject. To reduce contrast use a white reflective screen. This produces a more natural effect than using extra lights, and is much easier to control.
Once you have covered every angle with your window light, change to a flood light, and repeat the process. Then finally using a spot light. This will produce a wide range of reference shots that will illustrate exactly how each type of light affects the subject and the depth and shadows etc in your studio. Remember that if you try the same process in a different studio you may get different results depending on its size and colour of walls.
The example photos in this post were all taken with a single light, so if you are considering taking some portraits any time soon, why not try switching off a few lights and follow the Rembrandt rule. You might just produce a few masters.
www.photographers.co.uk – expanding in more depth on techniques
Wikipedia – Rembrandt lighting explained
Wikimedia – Examples of original Rembrandt lighting