A lesson in learning light…

Teaching lighting is tricky. The first impuse of many newbies (ouch – and I remember all of the errors of my life) is to pump in the light. Not enough light? Pull out the 1K and flood the place! Wow. It took me years to learn the subleties of light and shadow. And half of good lighting is the absence of light – what you can’t see…shadows add depth and mystery.

So – the question tonight is, how do you teach good lighting? Well you don’t need a light kit in the beginning (good news to those of you on a tight budget). All you need is imagination. First – you don’t see light – what you see light reflected. Without light and something for it to bounce off of, you are in the dark. Gather your students around and turn off the lights (and those of you teaching high school be careful). Ask students if they can see anything – the answer should be a resounding no! Bring out a penlight or flashlight and aim it at their eyes – this is one of the few times they knowingly will see light directly – the light coming from the source. Now aim the light at a pre-chosen object or person. A balloon works fine. Walk around the object while shining the light on it…students should see the object fully lit and then with side lighting and then backlit. Have them discuss which type of lighting they found most intriguing. Point out that they weren’t really seeing light, but that the object/subject was reflecting light and what they saw was the reflection…or that they were seeing the source diffused through the balloon or a combination or diffused/reflected.

I had a favorite exercise when I taught photography for 4H members. We’d have one night meeting and everyon would bring flashlights and tripods for their cameras. We’d practice writing with light – doing a time exposure and write letters or create designs. Outline bodies. Not sure if today’s digital still cameras can handle this – but it really drove home what light is.

On to step two. Once student “get” that light is relected, you get them outside in bright sunlight (preferably). First – divide your class into two and have them stand opposite each other and facing a partner. One group should be facing into the sun and the other group should have the sun coming over their backs. Have them look at each other’s partner and comment on how each side looks (side with sun in face has bright light, may squint…side with sun at back should have even light on face and halo in hair). Now have them trade sides and observe the difference.

Next teach them the hand trick. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes unless you have them snap some shots so they can reflect on the lesson later.

Now for some variations. Want them to understand how light falls off as you move (or you move your subject) away from the light source? Set up a candle (ok or a small light) in a very dark room. Allow students to take photos of an object a foot away from the light…and gradually move the light a foot away at a time. It gets dark pretty quickly.

Reflected light. Give each student a two by two sheet of cardboard and have a roll of heavy duty aluminum foil on hand. Have them crumble/crinkle the foil and then straighten and flatten it…and then glue to the cardboard. Voila! A simple reflector. Used to get rid of dark shadows on faces or to make people pop out of a dark background.

One light. You can do amazing things with a simple stand light. Start w/250w. Have your camera on and hooked up to a monitor. Sit a subject on a chair about five to ten feet away. Place the light beside the camera so it approximates an on-camera light. Ugly. Now slowly move the light up until it is several feet higher than the camera. As the light raises, it will create a shadow under the chin of your subject. Make sure your students see that/you may have to repeat a few times. Now move the camera to either the right or left about three to five feet. A shadow should develop on the cheek opposite the light…adding depth. Next fill in the light with your reflector…not harshly but softly. The light is your key or main light…the reflector is your fill light.

As i’m in Reno visiting my daughter at this time (along with my sister-in-law from Oz, Mil), I will complete this posting this afternoon. Enjoy your families and look forward to a year of peace and joy. Later…

Much later. Mil is now the proud owner of a MacBook Pro. Plus some extras….
Well, on to more about lighting. We’ve been over one light. One light moved up and over. One light with a reflector. The best of all worlds is one light with an umbrella. My theory of lighting is not to have everyone exclaim over my marvelous ability to light but rather to be able to view and enjoy a story without considering the individual elements. The best light is open shade…even light. One close way to replicate open shade is with a stand light and an umbrella. When working in news I used this eighty percent of the time…sometimes with a kicker for back or hair light. Move it up and over so there is a hint of shadow on one cheek and under the chin and your video looks professional.

Two lights? Umbrella one in front and use barndoors to clip the back and head of the subject to help them pop out of the background. Sometimes I used the single light/umbrella for front and pulled the second light back so it filled in the background behind the subject (think library shelves full of books or something visual) and the fringe of light spilling over the edge clipped the head/shoulders of the subject. Mixed daylight or fighting daylight? Add blue gels or dichroics (blue filters) over the lights.

Get into three lights and have enough time and you’re in heaven. Add gels, barndoors and other goodies and you can create mood and mystery. Some other time I’ll get into backlighting effects and such, but for now take it easy and take it slow. It’s that time of year and a good time to mellow out and learn something new…

Tell ya what…Larry Nance and I ran some lighting tests a while back as part of our VJ workbook (still in progress). I’ll dig a bit of that out and post it this weekend if I can find it.


One thought on “A lesson in learning light…

  1. I don’t want to keep adding to this, so will add a comment instead. Besides the “kill it with light” style of bad lighting, there is the “flood it evenly” style. Set up lights so they are perfectly opposite coming in at the same angle from opposite sides. Wonderful…you have shadows everywhere. Light is both an art (aesthetics) and science (temperature, balance). You need to know a bit of the science to understand types of light…but the rest an art. Painting with light…creating magic.
    Additional note: Clifford Oto of the Record in Stockton had a good posting on light…mainly applies to stills, but the gist is he “plays around” with light. You can follow the formula and get the same good ole stuff every time or your can experiment. The latter can produce failure or something fantastic.

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