"I'm new to lighting, what's the first thing I should know?"
That's a question I often get asked from photographers that want to learn lighting and improve their craft. I've been shooting and studying photography/lighting/cinematography for 15 years now. I'll always be a student of this craft but have certainly acquired knowledge and experience over that time period. And more importantly, made many mistakes. Here's what I wish I knew about lighting/photography when I first started:
- Think Critically
I know this may sound obvious and maybe even cliche, but one major mistake I made when I first started out is that anything a teacher/speaker/instructor said and taught, I would take it in as if it was the proper and best way to do something. For example, when I was still in college I had a professor who preached "people look best in natural light". They were also a working professional so I 100% bought into anything they would say. I mean, they were not only teaching but also a "working professional" so they must know what's best right?
I ended up assisting this person and realized a few things. One of the reason they preached "people look best in natural light" was because they didn't have the best work ethic. If they could get away with taking a snapshot, they absolutely would. Shaping and crafting light in the manner you want can and does take effort. If your priority is to carry the minimal amount of gear and you don't want to set anything up you certainly can get away with that at the sacrifice of fully controlling your lighting. Now, there are certainly situations where you don't have a choice and you have to be mobile and can't carry a lot of gear. But that's certainly different then cutting corners. What I learned and realized is that people find ways to justify and explain their behavior. In this case, this person did it by preaching "natural light".
- Lighting / Color / Style is Subjective
In a lot of fields, there's direct right & wrong solutions. For example, if you're a doctor operating on someone you need to keep them alive. If you're a mathematician, you need to solve the equation. In those instances, you either get it right or you don't. However, when it comes to being a creative or artist, there really isn't a direct answer. If your images have a direct function, then there's certainly more of clear answer and a limit for creativity. Like taking a passport photo which certainly has a function and clearly outlined parameters.
When it comes to lighting, there's two different approaches. Naturalistic/Real/Clinical & Expressive/emotional. The former being more "true to life" and having the light motivated and justified by something in scene or frame. Generally, with this approach the lighting doesn't draw attention to itself. With expressive/emotional lighting however, anything goes that can help communicate and evoke the emotion you're trying to make the viewer feel. The motivation for the lighting & color is based on the feeling you're trying to evoke. Not only that, but you can make up your own rules on what the colors mean & represent. This opens you up to endless possibilities which can be a double edged sword.
Out of these two approaches, neither is better then the other. There can be times where one suits the project / idea / client more appropriately, but when doing personal work or finding your own style it's completely up to you to make that choice.
Example of expressive lighting. (Left) - Portrait of Joseph Walsh, Principal Dancer at SF Ballet. (Right) - Portrait of Nikisha Fogo, Principal Dancer at SF Ballet
- What works for some, may not work for you
This ties into to the first point about thinking critically which is being self aware. When someone is speaking or teaching they're usually telling you about their experiences. Their experiences are directly tied to who they are as a person. Are they outgoing or shy? Or they to themselves or a chatterbox?
One of the best examples I can use to illustrate this point is when someone asks "is going to art school / college worth it?". A lot of people like to dive into why or why not art school or college is a waste of money or worth it. I like to say the answer falls directly on you and who you are as person. For me, I probably would not have become a photographer if I didn't go to college. I certainly had an interest in photography but had ZERO social & networking skills, and anxiety approaching strangers. Throw in having a camera in your hand and it makes for an excessively awkward situation. I really had no clue or idea what to say to people.
However, for me going to college and studying photography gave me a golden ticket (at least in my eyes). It gave me the excuse, the reason the permission to go up to someone I didn't know and say
"hi, I'm a photography student. I'm working on a project and need to practice taking portraits of people. Would it be okay to take your photo?"
Had I never had that reason, I'm not sure I would have ever progressed like I did or gotten out of my comfort zone. Perhaps I would have eventually found a way, but it might have taken me a lot longer or even worse I might have just settled for doing something else. For me, going to art school/college helped me immensely. But with that being said, if you're someone that's naturally outgoing and a master at networking. You're self disciplined and read a lot or can learn on your own, you might be better off diving directly into the field and "real world".
- Gear Doesn't Matter
Originally, I thought that good photography was something you did with fancy gear. That you would dial in some magic setting in the camera, and make adjustments on an expensive lens and BAM! You have an amazing photo. Well, that couldn't be further from the truth. For the most part, photography is a vehicle that lets you open doors to your interest and curiosities. Meaning, that if you don't have a genuine interest in something or are curious about something, it doesn't matter how expensive or fancy your gear is, your work is going to lack purpose, meaning and eventually fall flat.
Who you photograph or what's in front of your lens and camera is ALWAYS more important then the lens, camera and number of lights you're using.
I know this post is about "lighting" and I'm sure the expectation of some was for me to list gear and what to buy, but really lighting to me is a form of self expression like poetry. The technical and gear part is easy to learn. Finding your style and why you light a certain way is more about knowing who you are and what drives you.