Light Quantity, Light Quality, Light Direction

Last week I had the privilege of going to study Light with Cris and Deanna Duncan.  Chris is a Master of Photography, a Photographic Craftsman, as well as a Certified Professional Photographer, and Deanna is a Photographic Craftsman, so they know their stuff!!  They were also very kind and willing to answer all of my questions (and if you ever have had a class with me you know I’m not afraid to ask questions (seemingly intelligent or otherwise!))  They taught me so much about different aspects of light, and the experience was so great that I thought I’d share a little of what I learned with you.

Light Quantity, Light Quality, and Light Direction.  These principles were drilled into my mind.  Light Quantity, Light Quality, Light Direction.  See what I mean!  Drilled!  Because Chris goes over these steps in his mind at the beginning of every shoot, he adds the right amount of light to support and enhance every scene, and to give it a lift, but not overpower.  Paying attention to light quantity is important to keep a scene consistent across all your subjects, and properly exposed.  Regarding light quantity it’s also important to have all your tones within a printable range, which to my surprise, is a lot less than the eye can see.  Our eye can see 24 stops of light, however, printers can only print 5 stops of light.   So it is even more important that we make sure our highlights have detail and shadow areas have detail so everything in between is perfectly and properly exposed.  This can be achieved by metering in camera, however, any teacher I have had, or experienced professionals I know, use an incident light meter.  This allows them to get there exposure perfect in the camera and have very little post processing time.

Unlike light quantity, there’s no device to measure light quality. When we discussed the quality of light, we talked about how “hard” or “soft” it is, that is, how hard or how soft the shadow looks. Try this: place a portrait subject in direct sunlight at noon. The overhead light will create deep shadows in the eyes, neck, etc. The nose shadow will be sharp and distinct. This is called a “hard” quality of light. Take the same subject out in the same location at the same time on an overcast day and the transition from the light areas to shadow areas will be very gradual with no distinct shadow lines. This light is “soft”.

How do you go about finding or creating hard or soft light? The rule of thumb is: the bigger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer the light. Place a big soft box 2 ft from a person’s head and you’ll get a soft light.  Move it 25 ft away and it becomes a small, hard light.  Outside, use direct sunlight for hard light, open shade for soft, with many variations in between.  As a general rule, soft light is more flattering than hard, but the choice is yours depending upon the effect you’re trying to achieve.

What I loved about the way Chris lit his shots is if there was already a lot of hard light outside at the time he shot, or his subjects might have been standing in shade but the dappling through the trees was hard, then he lit with harder light to match what the scene called for.  In turn if we were inside, or in areas with more consistent shade he lit with a close large soft box or parabolic umbrella, again matching the light quality the scene called for.  This makes his portraits make sense, his style consistent, and honestly his work breathtaking.

Light Direction really has the biggest effect, in my opinion, on the impact a portrait can have on a viewer.  Light has the ability to sculpt a subject into what the creator wants it to be.  In a studio setting for example one side light with deep dark shadows on the opposite side has the ability to rake across the face, accentuating wrinkles, crevices, scars, and can aid in making a man look very sinister, foreboding, older, or lonely.  A light coming at a 45 degree angle from above has the ability to fill-in shadows, smooth out wrinkles, and make a person look younger and more beautiful.

Our class had the privilege of going with the Duncans on a commercial shoot he was doing with young girls for a cosmetics company.  It was an excellent learning opportunity because it beautifully illustrated each element I discussed previously.  It was a very overcast day and a little difficult to tell where the light was coming from.  However, Cris had already discussed with the head of the project what type of look she wanted for the shoot.  The girls needed to look like friends, having a great time playing and hanging out together, on a beautiful day full of sunshine.  Light Quantity: Chris needed more light so he brought in 2 strobes to boost the light level of the scene consistently from front to back, and to keep his exposure within the 5 printable stops of light.  Light Quality: he needed the light to be harder, like the type of light that we get from a very small sun far away in the sky, in the middle of the day.  The strobes were placed about 25 to 30 feet from the girls one with no modifier in the back and one with a very small medal bowl modifier on the main light.  Light Direction: the main light was placed about 45 degrees above and to the side of the girls to simulate the direction of the sun.  The result were beautiful, fun, sunshiny pictures perfect for a teenage audience.

Our class was given the knowledge to light anywhere, in any situation.  Honestly, it sounds a lot easier than it is.  To me, being mostly a natural light shooter in the past, everything seemed a bit backwards.  My camera lens, usually open to let in more natural light, is closed down to control the amount of artificial light coming from a strobe.  When a subject needed to be lit more evenly, or the amount of light needed to be more even across multiple people, my instinct would be to turn the light to the group.  However, the laws of strobe lighting are kind of counterintuitive.  The photographer needs to feather the light by angling the umbrella or the box, (whichever modifier is selected) until the strength of the light is the desired ratio, or equal from person to person.

Below are some examples taken for our class and after as I went home and applied principles I learned.  What I love about them is I can see how the light is shaping the face in each portrait.  The light is telling a different story for each individual.  Mystery, happiness, confidence, tenderness.  Light has the ability to tell the story, and to change the story.  In the brighter parts, or the darker areas, it is always beautiful.  Thank you Cris and Deanna Duncun for our study with light.  I’m so grateful for your excitement, patience, and desire to help others succeed.  Thank you so much for helping me be a stronger, better, more passionate photographer.


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