Whether you’re as big a fan of classic commercial lighting as I am or prefer something different—perhaps the contrast of “dark and moody” or the flat “light and airy” look that’s trending on Instagram—I encourage you to closely study the four elements of a well-lit portrait. Understanding their rationale and the order in which they’re usually applied will help you become more efficient and better at controlling your own unique style.
Are you a natural-light photographer? Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? Change your mindset. Be a photographer. As a photographer, you don’t identify yourself by your lighting choice. I don’t say I am a “Canon photographer.” I am a professional photographer. I take great pride in that, as should you. If you ever want to be successful in this business, you need to master all light. But make no mistake: There is a lot to do and it can seem overwhelming.
As a business owner, I need to show my clients what to expect and then deliver what they’re expecting. My clients come to me because they like “bright and vibrant colors” (that is a quote from an inquiry I had just today). If I want to add some moody or dramatic ones, I certainly can, but I need to deliver what they’ve been told to expect. If I tell them to expect bright and colorful photos, here’s how I ensure that happens every single time.
Understanding lighting as the primary photographer is, of course, the most important part of creating images. When photographers start out in their career, their assistant is a light stand. There isn’t much collaboration in that, and it means you’re still doing all the work yourself. The beauty of being able to add an actual human assistant allows you to get creative and bounce ideas off of each other throughout the process. Before you can get to that place, you have to ensure your assistant is trained properly and understands lighting not as a photographer, but as an assistant. Let me explain.
Photographers who understand light use it as a paintbrush to create a beautiful piece of art for their clients. Photographers tend to overcomplicate things, which can make the use of artificial light intimidating to some. This month, I talk about techniques that are not commonly used by wedding and portrait photographers who do most of their work outside the studio. I also get into the intricate details of light that can impact a portrait for better or worse.
Hard light is misunderstood. It’s the black sheep of the herd. One of the best ways to embrace hard light is to simply try it. It can be challenging because it’s less forgiving than soft light. Here are some tips to get you started.
It always makes me smile when photographers tell me they’re “available light” shooters. The first thing I do is grab the nearest strobe, hold it over my head in a Statue of Liberty pose and ask, “Do you see this strobe? Guess what? It’s an available light.” If photography is just your hobby and available-light shooting is what you’re comfortable with, that’s perfectly fine. But if you’re aspiring to be a pro, you’re doing yourself and your clients a disservice by not learning how to use flash.
Catchlights are the lights reflected in a subject’s eyes. I normally use strobes to capture them. Catchlights add life and sparkle, while their absence can result in dull, lifeless images. There are no hard and fast rules, and sometimes you may want dead and lifeless. It’s all about knowing what you want, why you want it and how to create it. But portraits are almost always better with catchlights.
Lighting geeks like me love nothing more than watching the way sunlight behaves as it streams through a narrow opening, moves across the sky or scatters into beams of light as it breaks through clouds or strikes the leaves of a tree overhead. It results in unique shapes and patterns. These magic lighting moments give me pause and remind me how powerful light and shadow can be in creating mood and atmosphere.
Not only is off-camera flash an invaluable tool for any wedding photographer, but done right, no one will notice you used artificial light. Your photos can still be bright and beautiful. Here’s how we use this amazing tool in our own luxury wedding photography business, which has taken us all around the states photographing some of the most stunning weddings.