Practical Lighting

Practical Lighting

I went to film school, so naturally I learned how to use lights when I was working on film productions. They were all constant lights, huge ARRIs or something similar, that provided a lot of light. I learned how to modify those lights with scrims and barn doors and the like, but even with that knowledge, never enjoyed the process. I love cinematography. It is one of my favorite things in the world. But I don’t like what many have to do to become a cinematographer, which is to handle lights in every which way. So when I picked up my still camera for the first time, I didn’t want to deal with lights. I wanted to be creative in whatever way felt right, and that was when I started embracing natural light.

I used to light images with bare bulbs covered by paper lanterns to diffuse them. This provided a very inexpensive way to light an image when I had nothing else at my disposal. But then I remembered something that even films use from time to time, and that is called a practical light. Think of a movie scene where a lamp is on in a house and it looks like the lamp (or candle, or flashlight, etc…) is lighting the subject. Usually that light source is not actually doing much of anything, and in fact there are bigger lights outside of the frame doing most of the work. The lamp becomes a practical, or motivated light source, making the viewer believe that the light is coming from said lamp.

I thought more about this practice and figured that it made sense in films, where people would be moving around and that amount of light just might not be enough. There is a lot to be said for the quality of light that comes from a larger, more powerful light source. However, in the kind of photography I do, very often shooting in low light and dealing with grain, why not simply use the lights that are already in my house? So the other day I experimented with that. I placed myself and my little black backdrop behind me in a spot where I would be lit from a distant window as well as an overhead hallway light to the other side of me. I really liked what I was seeing in camera and could immediately envision how, if contrast were added, it could look really moody. So I shot the entire image that way.

I loved the look of it, and how little fuss it was to configure, so I shot another image like it when I was visiting my hometown, photographing my sister-in-law in her parent’s house. The trick, though, is to understand light and not see it as a nuisance, or something we can haphazardly throw around in an image. The problem with using a lamp in a film is that people move. Shadows will dance where they want to when an actor moves even slightly, whereas in a still frame we know where the model will be placed, and can adjust the light accordingly. In the example below of Stephanie posing for me at her parent’s dining room table, I placed her in a position so that the main light source (a chandelier) would light her face evenly. Behind her was a kitchen light that I turned on which allowed the back of her to be lit, albeit only slightly. Yet, when I turned that kitchen light off, her back was completely black.

Lighting with practical lights, or lights that already exist in a certain spot, is not the same as just lighting someone with a lamp. You must place the subject carefully and determine light ratios so that you are aware of if you need to move your subject for optimal detail where you want it. In Steph’s case, I moved her around a couple of times and adjusted the brightness of the lights until I liked how lit she was.

I used to get so frustrated with not fully understanding light ratios or apertures and things of that nature. But now I realize something very simple, at least for the type of work I do – if something looks good, it probably is good. If you like what you see in your camera, go with it! And if you understand how you can enhance something later, you’re probably on the right track. Granted, this is all pertaining to the type of work I do specifically – editing and whatnot, but can be applied to many types of photography and art in general. The point is simple: even if you feel like you are not technically up to par, do what works for you. You will learn a lot in the process. Find light however you can, and create art no matter what. There is no reason why an f/stop should hold you back.

If you have ever created with practical lights, share your imagery below!

I hope to finish the image of Stephanie at her parent’s house soon! I’ll follow up with the finished product.

Floor in final image provided by WHCC.

7 thoughts on “Practical Lighting

  1. oooh. I really like how warm the image with Steph is without feeling like the tones are sacrificed. Looks very rustic. Very….Northwestern Spain. (I want to go there so bad.).
    I really love this post. It’s you showing people how they can do something with the tools they already have. You don’t need $1000 lighting to create something amazing.

  2. I am actually very much like you. I only like lights when they are not in my way or holding me back from being creative.

    This is a self portrait I shot a little while ago. I did my hair and make-up and I liked it so much I needed to take a picture. It was a really cold day and did not want to go outside so I improvised with a window on the right and a standing light, that has a head I could position in certain ways, on the left. After I photoshopped it you could not even tell whether I shot in a studio or not.

    The image you created is very lovely and really speaks to me. Lately I’ve been really searching for myself and how to improve in my art. I admire your ability to tell stories.

    Thank you for being you and reaching out to us <3

    x Lis

  3. Brooke, I LOVE this post! It’s so refreshing to see that I am not the only one who does not like to mess with lights and would rather use what’s available! I like to keep it simple and create the light I need with what I have on hand. I’ve used practical lights for many of my self portraits.

    For this photo I used the hallway light, and kept adjusting the opening of the door until the light felt right:

    This image is lit with just the living room light:

    This one is just a light I have in the corner of the room:

    And this is a little kbit of daylight seeping in, mixed with the light from the burning paper:

    I have a set of professional lights I have been making myself try to experiment with, but I just cannot force myself to do it. After reading your post, I am even more convinced that I should go with what feels natural to me and continue to be creative with the existing light sources around me! Thank you for the inspiration!

    Slava 🙂

  4. Such a cool post Brooke!”keep simple” are my keywords :p i just love natural light and how it change during the day!

    early evening light from my window:

    for the upper side i used my notebook screen light e the below light came from the candle:

    Thank you so much for bein my inspiration from so long time ♥

  5. First of all: Another amazing and inspirational post! I truly love your work and always will repeat that! Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Most of my pictures are with natural light in so many different uses!
    Some of them:
    Using the last shine of a day and a window blinds (portrait of a friend):

    Using the light of the top of my appartment, next to sundown (self portrait):

    And this two was at the same place, inside my livingroom with a window at right of the imagem and the reflection of the light on the other side by a white wall:

    Thank you once again for the post! Natural light rules <3

  6. Really great and inspiring post, Brooke! It’s inspiring in that you achieve great results with simple tools and careful consideration — proof that you don’t need tons of gear to create meaningful art. I do the same thing with my own surreal photomontage work: here’s how I used a flashlight to get the raw shots where they needed to be for the final result. Thanks for encouraging us to share our images, too! 🙂

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