Thursday, July 24, 2008

Light Is Not Your Friend, Neither Your Enemy: It Is What It Is

As every book on photography points out, "photography" means "writing with light." Light has qualities, many qualities, and for the beginning photographer some of those qualities are less obvious than others. There's intensity, of course. That one's easy. It's too dark. It's too bright. Adjust exposure, or adjust light source. There's direction. That one's mostly easy - which way are the shadows pointed? Which side of the thing is lit up and which side isn't? Again, pretty easy to fix. But then there are the subtler ones - which produce anything but subtle results sometimes.

For instance, there's hardness. Hardness refers to a quality of light which is controlled by its relative size in the "arc" of the picture. The smaller the arc, the harder the light. Direct sunlight at noon on a clear day is very hard, because the sun is very small in the sky. Light from a softbox (and that's why they're called that) close to the subject is very soft, because it's huge relative to the arc of the picture.

Hardness controls the texture of the image in some ways. It isn't always apparent that this is significant in the ways that it is. For instance, consider this image:

The model's skin is very textured (and not necessarily in a good way.) That's because the sole source of light is a direct sunbeam - because she's in deep shadow, there's not even any ambient light from reflection off nearby objects or the ground, as there often is even in most "direct" sunlight pictures. It took a while to get her skin even this good: every little blemish and fold was sharply outlined by shadows. Even if you fix the blemish, you still have to fix the shadows, and it's tricky to find a good source for replacing the area.

Then consider this image:

Same model, same approximate location (less than a hundred yards away,) same time of day (less than ten minutes later.) Totally different. Why? Soft light. She's in open shade, in a courtyard with light-reflecting walls in all directions. The light "source" is huge: light is coming from everywhere. I hardly had to do any work on her skin, and that was just to remove actual visible blemishes.

It's not just a matter of how much light you have: what kind of light, its hardness, directionality, and color, are almost as important. I say "almost" only because if you don't have enough light, you don't get a picture. After that hill is climbed, the other qualities of the light are just as important as the quantity.


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