This is part of a series of articles on the basics of flash photography. To start at the beginning of this tutorial, click here.
We will begin our study of flash photography with how light works. I can explain what great lighting looks like, but to achieve any lasting impact on your mind, lighting must be experienced.
I want you to experience great lighting the same way I first did–in hopes that it will impact you the same way it impacted me when I learned the secret to great lighting. I say “secret” not as a hollow method of hyping this technique, but because as I view the work of so many photographers, it is clear to me that the “secret” to great lighting is often overlooked by photographers.
I learned this lesson while I was moving to a new home. Like any passionate photographer, I was less excited about moving to a new place with new business opportunities and a new lifestyle; and more excited to explore my new home in Florida from a photographic viewpoint.
I spent many hours researching Naples, Florida to find the best photography locations in the region. I found many wonderful places to shoot, but one of them was especially intriguing. It was a location I found on Flickr. The photo I found was a snapshot taken with a cell phone, but my interest was piqued.
The location was a bridge overlooking the bay, and in the background included gorgeous Italian-style buildings and other city buildings. The photo that grabbed my interest was a simple snapshot taken during the middle of the day, but I knew there was a hidden gem somewhere in that composition-less landscape.
After two weeks of a mad cross-country move, I ventured out to the location to hopefully create what I had envisioned.
I arrived and found the scene exactly as I would have expected to see from the snapshot I had seen. However, I knew that ordinary scene was about to transform. I saw small accent lights–dim during the day–wrapped around the trees, lights on the buildings waiting to be powered on, lights on the cars passing by, and a bay full of water waiting to reflect the light it would be hit with. If I were even slightly more dramatic a person, I would have called it an orchestra of light ready to illuminate my landscape.
I readied my tripod and DSLR for the daylight to recede just enough for the other lights in the scene to shine through. When it did, I clicked a single exposure and waited for the photo to appear. I was astounded to see the gorgeous photo that resulted from seeing a simple snapshot online with boring lighting, and then thinking how the scene would look if the lighting were more interesting.
The photo turned out great! This was the photo that taught me what an ordinary scene could look like when smothered in interesting light.
I have learned from experience that when photographers discuss “great” lighting, it is almost universally translated in the minds of photographers to mean “magic hour lighting” or the moments after sunrise and before sunset when the golden light of the sun streams across the earth.
Magic hour light certainly has its place in photography, but hardly encapsulates the concept of interesting light. Magic hour lighting can make photos look beautiful because it is “interesting.” It is different from what people see outside all day. After all, it only lasts for a brief moment after sunset and before sunrise each day.
Going forward, I will refer to light only as “interesting” or “boring.” The general terms “ugly and “great” will not aid us in understanding light. Remember, to dress up your photos and make them more captivating, all that is required is light that is different from what we usually see.