Controlling Light

“Controlling light is an exciting component of the craft of photography. For the most part, I don’t think the photographer practitioners fully appreciate it.

I have been thinking a lot about motivation—Specifically the inspiration to make pictures. I have been a professional most of my life, which means that I am motivated to make pictures when I have an assignment. But that’s not what I am thinking about today; I am thinking about the other images I need to make. I think my need is the perfect description here; my internal voice says to make this picture is like a hunger pain in your gut, or is it your brain? I can only describe it like this full-body feeling to frame and capture something. Most of the time, it’s just a play of light. (hence the name for this blog.)

Often as photographers, we are described by the subject matter. We photograph, you know, people or landscapes its too general to photograph light, but that is what we all do. When I ask photo students what the one thing they need to learn more about is, it is often light, and they usually mean “controlled light” – like in a studio.

I guess I remember that feeling a few decades ago wanting to learn the same things and use those “cool-looking” flash systems to make light.
I remember the overwhelming feeling of learning something exciting and new in my studio lighting class and later working with brilliant lighting photographers like David Vance in Miami and Steven White in New York City, though they came to lighting very differently, their photographs of the people and the fashion was much more than subjective it boiled down to great light. The light was so good that you overlooked the lighting craft. I wanted to “see” and “control light” as they did.

Controlling light is an exciting component of the craft of photography. For the most part, I don’t think the photographer practitioners fully appreciate it. They see it so quickly that they don’t think about it – light- very much. Greg Heisler, arguably the best light controller in the business, described the right light was the appropriate light. What was appropriate for the subject, or for. what the photographer was trying to say in the photograph. And that is not to say Greg’s application was simple or easy. No, Greg tested and practiced to get the light right often days before the subject was in the lens’s view.

In the days of film photography, I remember going to the photo lab late at night with my friend Darren Lew to look at lighting tests, often hundreds of frames, with various filter packs to get the appropriate light effects.

Controlling light comes in many forms; One time when I was an assistant on an assignment with Art Kane; we had traveled across the country for a big-budget advertising job on location – Kane was not one to get up for sunrise easily, and he didn’t on this day either. No, we waited and waited, had a nice lunch, went on an afternoon walk around the little town, and then went back to the hotel to get the Nikons and the Kodachrome 64 film – his film of choice. We ran into the Art Director in the lobby, who wondered where we had been all day?* Art said with a smile, “waiting for the light.”

We packed into the vehicles and went out to the location I had scouted the afternoon before to determine the nest light for the layout and set up the model with the product and shot 1 and 1/2 rolls of film. No polaroid tests to check exposure or for the client to review. I took a quick meter reading and set the camera exposure 1/500 at 5.6, and we bracketed one shutter speed up and one down. Kane moved the set up for different layout options, then we traveled back to the hotel for a beer on the veranda before the moon rise. This is another way to control the light.

I tell photography students that choosing the time of the day may be the most important choice you make in lighting. The very act of choosing is control. It is not getting what you get and don’t get upset. If you have ever made a picture – captured the perfect moment, but the lighting was less than ideal, you understand the importance of choosing the “time of day.” (I know that photojournalists don’t always have a choice. This isn’t about spot news photography; this is about all photography but journalism.)

It wasn’t until I was solidly in my career as a photographer that I understood many of these lessons. And I have probably learned more as a teacher than as a student. The phrase “Follow the Light” is not without navigation or control. It comes from years of practice.

By richardkellyphoto

Photographer | Educator | Creative Director

"Creating visual experiences photographing extraordinary people making a difference."

Portraits and Visual Narratives for Editorial, Education, Healthcare and Hospitality sectors.

Richard Kelly Experience Workshops
Point Park University Photo BFA program - Instructor

One reply on “Controlling Light”

*no client relationships where damaged on this assignment, the stylists and the model where spending the afternoon preparing for the early evening shoot.

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