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The Importance of Light: Using Light as an Artistic Tool

ARTIST'S CORNER, photography

Many first art lessons begin with a still life.

The instructor sets one up on a central table and positions a light in order to create some depth so students can begin to see and illustrate the five lights of nature upon 3-D objects as they create shape, proportion, color and form.

For many artists this is the extent of their training with light, but I was fortunate to have the additional opportunity to study photography from a true lighting Master. In this article I will share some of the important things he taught me about lighting for photography.

Choose the best quality of light

The size of the light source determines how hard or softly an object is being illuminated.

Small light sources create hard transitions and strong contrast. Large light sources create soft gradients and gentle contrast. Each option presents an emotional transmitter for a piece of art. Consider the image at the top of the post as well as the one below:

The indoor capture was created using Canon Speedlights and a variety of

(Rogue) light benders, color filters and modifiers.

These small light units create crisp contrast between lighting values. Notice the white specular highlights on the subject’s face and the crisp edges of the blue accent light. Look at the distinct edges of the shadows cast upon the back wall by the flower arrangement. This style of lighting was chosen because it harmonizes with the sharp lines of the room and the subject’s contemporary clothing and hair. It makes the image look decisive and polished.

The outdoor portrait was created just after the sun (a small light source) dropped below the horizon and the sky lit up creating a source as big as the world! Waiting a moment longer until it faded just enough to produce soft value transitions on the subject, three nice images were captured before the light was gone for the day. This was also a creative choice; I was going for quiet haunting emotion. Crisp lighting may have made her look defiant.

Note: For those using the sun as a source light, consider that most photographers create in early morning or late afternoon when the sky is illuminated as a large, soft light source. Lower contrast produces more detail from highlight to shadow.

When the sun is visible, it dominates as a very small, high contrast light source.

It is common for photographers and painters to wait for light or manipulate it in order to get what they want.

Those with budgets can choose from an almost dizzying array of umbrellas, diffusers, reflectors, light benders, filters and other options for creating with light. Artists without budgets use tin foil, poster boards, PVC pipes, wax paper, sheets, shower curtains – you name it!

One might look funny walking around with a roll of tin foil stretched around a hulahoop (great conversation starter!) but it doesn’t matter what is used to modify light as long as it produces the quality desired.

Choose the best direction for light

In addition to lighting quality, direction transmits emotion in art.

Front lighting is open and sharing. It consists largely of specular and diffused highlights. Viewers can see everything clearly. The portrait in this painting is lit from the front in order to create a flat, graphic result.

Lighting from behind presents viewers largely with shaded sides and shadows, the places where secrets hide. It adds mystery and drama to images. Think about cavemen looking for a place to sleep and coming across a darkened cave entrance. The portrait in this painting is split lit from behind in order to achieve a more dramatic sweep to the gown plus add a bit of mystery.

Side lighting presents viewers with the most equal balance of the five lights of nature. Everything can be seen and there is structure to all objects. In this instance an artist will choose overall value to express light or mystery in the piece.

When artists create indoors it is assumed that they have full control of light. Truthfully, with all of the options and makeshift modifier possibilities available there is no reason not to have beautiful lighting in your images! As a group, photographers seem a bit more more critical about lighting than many painters, but, because good lighting sells, it’s wise to master it. It has been my experience in the painting classes I’ve taught that new painters are challenged with getting enough contrast and dimension into their work = lighting.

An easy technique for experimenting with light is to set it up and then walk around the subject, examining it from different angles, determining where you like it the best. In this example, a 3/4 view of a face is set up with Rembrandt lighting and is viewed from opposite sides. Front light, in this case called Broad Light, makes the face look flat. Back lit, in this case Short Light, makes the face look more dimensional.

When working outdoors, lighting becomes more the matter of finding it in the right place at the right time. It’s not unusual to find a great location with poor lighting or a terrible location with great lighting. Artists use a variety of techniques to make advantage of the best lighting possible outdoors.

For example, experienced landscape photographers and painters visit potential locations several times while planning their final images. Because the sun travels during the year, the direction of light changes, too. Some locations are lit better in summer, for example, and others in winter. In addition, light changes throughout the day and it’s important to be there when it’s at its best. Even plein air artists have been known to tack pre-photographed images to their easels to use as creative reference while they enjoy the experience of painting on location.

Mid sunny daylight is sharp and hard. Portrait photographers frequently work in porches or under tree canopies in order to block the sun and use directional ambient light that is much softer and less specular. Landscape painters seem to go with it, sitting under umbrellas painting bold colors and hard edges. The important thing is to find or create the lighting that is going to project the mood, style and depth you envision for your art.

Choose the right paper to print on

There are many choices in output materials these days and it’s important to select the right ones for the images you want to print. For maximum impact, carry the emotion through the piece from conception to finishing.

Don’t kill a colorful, dramatic image by printing it on matt paper. In general, semi glossy-glossy surfaces enhance images that rely upon rich contrast and color saturation. Matt surfaces enhance pastels. Metallic papers show off contemporary and futuristic images. Canvas is good for classic portraiture, digital paintings, landscapes and general wall art. Fine art paper is a great choice for high key portraiture, pastels, chalks and sketches – but don’t limit yourself because there are many exceptions and presentation is the crowning touch for your beautiful work! It’s a good idea to have several options on hand so you can select the perfect output for each image you create.

More from The Importance of Light series:

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. 



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