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.

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