Tuesday, November 28, 2017


The single most important quality of light is its direction. After you’ve acquired or created direction everything else is easy. This applies to still photography, cinematography, or traditional two dimensional arts as well. 

I didn’t just make this up or invent it—I learned it over my forty-plus years as an artist by studying those aforementioned two dimensional artists—the classic painters—and the great cinematographers who studied those same painters.

My favorites include:  
  • Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master, who did brilliant portraits of ordinary people by window light (see his: “Woman Holding a Balance” and “Girl Interrupted at Her Music”).
  • Michelangelo Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque painter. His works using strong directional natural light are stunning (see: The Calling of Saint Matthew”).
Many of the great cinematographers have also studied these and other painters for inspiration. If you want to learn lighting I suggest your study the work of great cinematographers like: 
  • Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter)
  • John Alcott (Barry Lyndon)
  • Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Altered States)
  • Frank Tidy (The Duellists)
  • Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings)
These are just a few truly great photographers I’ve studies over the years; there are virtually no, living, still photographers I can suggest to study today.

The basic rule for Directional Lighting.
  • Your light’s direction should be coming from any direction other than camera position.
  • Light coming from camera position will be flat light and flat directionless light is death to three dimensionality and texture because it erases shadows. 
Note:  This applies to photography of any type of subject (people, places or things) if you want it to appear three-dimensional; from landscapes to product photography, baby portraits to weddings, travel photography or sports coverage—they all need directional lighting.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote:  “The Artiste who avoids the shadows may be said to avoid the glory of the art.”

How to acquire or create directional lighting.

Inside Natural Light - Portraits:

Direction is created by placement of the subject relative to the Light source—when you can’t move the light source you move the subject.

Example using an open, standard, outside door….

 f3.5 @ 1/160th sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 120mm
I picked this spot for her bridal portrait because all the light sources in the room had great direction. The key light—the open door—is very directional and soft (the source is larger than the subject making it nice and soft). The background is lit with both overhead floods and some window light giving the background a warm glow. I placed her about six feet from the doorway and had her rotate bringing her right shoulder towards the camera. Then I had her bring her nose towards the light just enough to get light in her far eye.

Inside Natural Light - Immovable Object:

Here direction is created by Camera Position relative to the light source.

Example using a large, natural light, opening….

 f4.0 @ 1/60 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 84mm
In the ruins of Pompeii (Italy) you can’t move anything! When I happened on this scene all the tourists were taking their pictures at the opening you see on camera right—giving them flat, boring light. So, I circled around, 90 degrees, from the opening finding a 5 1/2’ tall wall.  Looking over the wall I saw the scene bathed in great directional light creating gorgeous texture and shadows! So, placing my camera on top of the wall, and on my tiptoes, I created an image nobody else even saw!

Inside Natural Light - Landscapes:

Here direction is again created by camera position; most nature/landscape photographers know this (even the amateurs usually get this right!) unlike a lot of so-called professional portrait and wedding photographers.

Example using dramatic, back-side, lighting…

film: Kodaochrome 64; lens: 16mm Fisheye
I placed my camera in this spot so that the background pinnacles would get that dramatic semi-back light; I like that half the pinnacles are in silhouette.  Moving in close to that large petrified sand dune (this is Arches National Park) and still getting such a panoramic view was possible because my lens’ angle of view is 180 degrees.

Example waiting for directional light….

f14.0 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 168mm
In the planning of this image my camera position was fixed because I wanted this composition. Therefore, I had to determine when this angle of view of the barn would get good directional light.  Is it at sunset or sunrise and what month of the year would give me that light? I also had to wait for good clouds to complete the image I had pre-visualized.

As Ansel Adams said:  “You don’t take a great photograph; you make one!”

In Part 2 I’ll continue my lesson on the creation and use of directional light in the studio. ’Til next week…

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

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