Lighting for Still Life Photography

Welcome to the first in a series of articles on lighting for still life photography. Studio still life is the ultimate teaching tool for any photographer. It is a “no excuses” environment because the photographer has complete technical control. It can be a very methodical work space where you can immediately see the step by step changes. You don’t need a lot of fancy lighting equipment. You can work with clip on work lights from the hardware store. I’ve used under cabinet fluorescent lights. I even know someone who used flashlights.

Experiment with Lighting

It’s important to take the time to experiment and move the lighting equipment to see how it changes the photograph. Move the light in. Move it away. Add lights. Take away lights. Modify the light. Try a lot of different things. Most importantly, critically analyze what is happening. You may not have an interest in being a still life photographer but following along and investing some time experimenting and learning to “see” light will improve your photography even if you are a street shooter or a landscape photographer.

Light is the most important tool a photographer has. Understanding how light plays on an object and being able to control and manipulate the light is vital to convey the desired message or mood of the photograph. The first step to mastering light is to get a background on light as it relates to the photographer.

Characteristics of Light in Photography

Light has four to seven basic characteristics depending upon who you ask. The number changes because they may be grouped differently but the meanings are the same. The characteristics we are going to discuss are quantity, contrast range, color, quality (hard/soft light), direction, with special emphasis on quality and direction.

Quantity

Simply how much there is. Take a light reading to get your exposure. Now you have to determine how the quantity relates to what you are trying to create. Is it fine as it is or do you need to add additional light for a greater depth of field or to use a faster shutter speed or take away light for a shallower depth of field or slower shutter speed. There are other ways to alter exposure but we are concerned with the light.


Contrast Range

The difference between the brightest and darkest areas of the scene is the contrast range. Take readings of the highlight and shadow areas. The difference between them is the contrast range, typically referred to in the number of f/stops difference. If the shadows read 1/125 sec. @ f/4 and the highlights read 1/125 @ f/16 the contrast range is four stops. I rarely care about the specific number of stops. What I do care about is holding any important detail in the extremes of the scene and what I need to do to make sure it holds. I may need to add some fill light to open the shadows or use a flag or other device to cut down the light in the highlights.

One of the beauties of digital photography is that the changes can all be done visually. Add a fill card. Take a shot. Still not right? Make a change and try it again. The instant feedback is great. Experiment. Learn how different modifiers change the light and resulting mood of the scene. Contrast range is a characteristic that some people don’t list separately. The quality, or how hard or soft the light is, can have a direct relationship on the contrast range.

Color in Photography

Light in the visible spectrum has a color. The color is called its color temperature and is noted in Kelvins (formerly degrees Kelvin). Kelvins is a thermal unit of measurement. The number as it relates to photography is a theoretical number coming from how hot an object (a black box radiator) would need to be heated to give off that color. “Warm” light, reddish or orange light, is in the lower numbers such as 2700K. “Daylight” is considered 5500K. “Cool” or blueish light is in the higher numbers such as 8000K. The slightly confusing thing about these numbers is that the warmer looking light is at the lower color temperatures and the cooler looking light is at the higher color temperatures.



Natural light

Natural light changes color throughout the day depending upon several factors. On a clear day it changes due to how much of the Earth’s atmosphere it’s going through. The beautifully “warm” looking light at sunset is due to the light passing through more of the atmosphere than the “cooler” looking light at mid-day. The light will appear cooler or bluer on an overcast day because the clouds filter out some of the visible light spectrum changing the ratio of visible to ultraviolet light allowing more ultraviolet light to reach the camera sensor.

Artificial Light

The color of artificial light can be all over the map. Incandescent, or “tungsten” lamps are in the warm range. Fluorescent lamps can photograph variations of green.  Modern LED bulbs have color temperature ratings on the packaging so you can select the color you want. Metal-halide, sodium vapor and mercury vapor type lamps have very distinct colors because they emit very specific frequencies of light. Electronic flashes can be in the 5000K to 7500K range.

Our eyes and brain adjust for the differences in light sources. Our camera sensors (and film) are not as forgiving. There are several ways to photographically handle the color temperature of the light.  The auto white balance setting (AWB) on today’s cameras do a good job of correcting for the light source. Some cameras have icons that allow you to match the camera setting with the light; a sun icon for daylight, a cloud icon for cloudy a day, etc. You can include a gray card in a test shot to correct for the light source when processing raw files. This technique is useful when color accuracy is important. You can also manually adjust the color temperature in raw file processing for artistic effects.

Quality of Light

Quantity, contrast range and color are measurable and objective. Quality is more subjective. This is where the more creative aspect of lighting comes into play. Choosing the appropriate type (or combinations) of light and positioning the light(s) accordingly is what still life is all about. This is how the photographer creates drama and mood in a shot. I call it the magic. The magic is what makes the photograph special. Every scene has magic in it and it’s up to the photographer to find it or coax it out.

How hard or soft the light is. Some people split this in to two categories; one for hard light and one for soft. I’m going to list them as one because they are opposite ends of the same scale. It is easiest to determine the quality of light by looking at the shadow areas.

Hard Light

Lighting for Still Life Photography - hard light

Hard light gives hard edged, clearly defined shadows. Think about what the light is like at mid-day on a bright sunny day. The light is harsh with bright reflections off of metal and glass. The shadows are deep and dark with very precise edges. It can have a high contrast range. I call it “contrasty.” The contrasty nature of hard light makes it dramatic and good for showing texture. The smaller the light source, relative to the subject, the harder the light is. Think back to that sunny day. The sun has a diameter of 865,000 miles but it is ninety-three million miles away which makes it a relatively small source for anything on Earth.

Soft light

Lighting for Still Life Photography - soft light

Soft light has soft edged or not well defined shadows. It is typically a lower contrast light. Picture a totally overcast day. The entire sky is now acting as the light source making it much larger than the sun. The resulting shadows are soft and not very dark. There isn’t much texture in the subject. Soft light tends to wrap around a subject showing shape and volume. It is also good for minimizing texture. Soft light is typically more flattering on people than hard light is.

Direction

Where the light is coming from. There is some overlap with quality because the position of the light can also enhance or minimize texture. Light coming from straight on, or on lens axis, will flatten the shape of an object and minimize any texture. Light coming from the side or back will give more shape and volume to the objects.

Lighting for Still Life Photography - side light

The direction of light is where some of the fun and magic of lighting happens. I compare it to sculpting. I typically start a shot with a soft light coming from straight overhead. It can be a light on a boom or a light bounced off of the ceiling. This gives my base exposure and sets my shadow values where I want them to be.

Lighting for Still Life Photography - front light

Next I start adding in highlights or lighting to bring out specific areas of texture or interest. This is how I create the mood or “magic” in a photograph. It isn’t uncommon to adjust the position of elements in the photograph as the lighting changes. It is amazing how the characteristics of the light can change the relationship of the objects. Or how much of a difference an 1/8 of an inch can make!

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