Two things you CAN’T fix in photoshop

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A photograph is nothing more than light projected onto a sensor (or piece of film, back in the day) and the difference between a horrible photo and a masterpiece is as often about lighting as it is about composition or anything else.

Why, then, do so many folks who call themselves photographers have simply no idea at all about light and how to control it? I don’t know.

That’s it. Nothing more to see here. Go about your day. As you were, soldier.


Oh, I see. You were expecting more than that?


First, a brief lesson on spatial awareness.
Humans have a vision system known as ‘Stereoscopic Vision’, which means we perceive the world through two eyes that are on the same plane. Our perception of depth comes from the two slightly different visual signals from each eye being interpreted by our brain. That’s all well and good in the real, three-dimensional world, but when we’re using our fabulous stereoscopic vision system to look at a photograph, we’re wasting our time because the photo is flat. Any perception of depth must come from the photograph itself – it must be an optical illusion. This can be partially achieved through depth-of-field (blurry backgrounds and stuff like that), but lighting is equally as important in achieving this goal.

If something is to appear to be in front of something else, what better way to achieve that than to have the front object cast a shadow on the rear one?
Take someone’s face, for example. On a face there is a nose, and that nose tends to poke out a bit from the rest of the face – a fact that is obvious in the real world because our brain receives two slightly different views of said nose and is led to believe that it is in fact protruding. It is less obvious in a photograph, particularly one taken face-on to the subject, so we must use light and shadow to push the nose out from the rest of the face.

So now we understand that a photograph is flat, and that consideration must be given to this fact prior to pressing the shutter if we are to produce an image that has any sense of depth.
Next, we need to understand a little bit about different kinds of light and how we can use them to different effect.

For the most part, we need to concern ourselves with two kinds of light: diffuse light, and direct light.

Direct light is essentially light that comes from a small light source (for our purposes this also includes the Sun, which is not exactly small, but it’s a fair distance away) and casts a sharp, solid shadow. It is often harsh and it shows up every tiny little lump and bump – read as ‘not great for making skin look smooth…’

Diffuse light is light that has been softened, or spread out. So, outside on a cloudy day or studio light from a great big softbox. Diffuse light gives either soft, gentle shadows or practically none at all, depending on the size of the diffuser – cumulonimbus clouds being a largish sort of example.


Ok, good, now we know about depth perception and how much of a dirty lie it is in a photograph, and we know about light sources. What next?


How to use this knowledge to our advantage, that’s what.


Light and depth (or the perception thereof) are two things that you really should think long and hard about before you take a photo. Unless of course you’re photo-documenting an earthquake or a typhoon as it happens, in which case you should probably be more focused on staying alive than whether or not the light is ‘just right’…
Assuming that imminent death is not a concern, however, you really need to think about light and depth-perception because these are two elements of a photograph that no amount of Photoshop can ‘fix’ effectively. If you have crappy lighting, you’re probably going to have a crappy photograph. If you want one part of your photo to stand out but everything else is in focus and it looks like a pizza then you’re not going to achieve that goal.

When shooting in natural light – or any light over which you have no control – you will be well-served to spend some time looking at the light and considering how it will affect your photos before you even think about composition, model placement and backgrounds. From something as simple as avoiding having your subject facing into direct sunlight (love that squinty look, anyone?) to metering, exposure compensation, fill-flash and reflectors, working with natural light is about adjusting yourself and your subject to make the best of the situation. Spend some time experimenting and reading your camera’s user guide – painful as that may be – and you will soon discover that natural light is not the enemy. Sunlight is not a nightmare, cloudy light is not boring, and natural light can be used to produce something wonderful.


Taken outside in direct sunlight. Notice how the model’s hair is lit up by the sun, but she is positioned in such a way as to not have direct sunlight on her face.


In a studio situation, where you have total control over the light, you can learn to use it to evoke the mood that you’re aiming for. Diffused, gentle light generally infers a diffused, gentle feeling to the photo (Wow. Somebody quote me on that one), whereas more direct light gives everything a harsher, edgier feel. The direction that the light comes from also has a significant effect on the feel – we’ve all been kids and held a torch under our faces to make ourselves look spooky, right?


Taken using two light sources. One with harsh, direct light off to the right-hand side of my face and the second a diffused, low-intensity light on the other side. The direct light picks out all the lumps and bump (yay) and casts some harsh, scary-looking shadows while the diffused one just picks out s few details in what would otherwise be complete shadow. It also creates a rather nice catch-light in my left eye.


There are so many ways that light can be used to change the way a photograph looks that it’d take a whole book to cover them all.
In fact, it has: Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. This book is the best I have come across for learning all about how to control and use light. And yes, I do get paid if you buy it from my link but I only recommend stuff that I genuinely believe in. I own this book and it really, really is awesome.

Essentially, experiment with different light source types, positions and combinations. Reflect light, bounce it, play with it, be aware of it. Learn about kickers and rim-lights; about reflectivity, falloff and the Kelvin scale; learn about the colour of light; study other photographer’s lighting setups and how they achieved certain looks.

Light is awesome, dudes, and if you ever want to be a truly great photographer you need to learn to use it and control it. No exceptions.


Lighting Examples #2
Two more examples of using lighting to create a specific effect. Notice how the image on the left has quite directional light, but diffused just enough to make the model’s skin nice and smooth yet still cast that cool shadow. The image on the right uses light from behind to light up the background and create the silhouette effect.


A final note on further study for how humans see things and how, as photographers, we can use this knowledge to our advantage: Perception and Imaging: Photography–A Way of Seeing is an incredible book that I recommend every photographer everywhere should read at least twice. Click on my link to buy it and I’ll get some coin for your trouble. Once again, I only recommend stuff that I really believe in – this book is brilliant.

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