Lip Service? Or it just sux!


Jean Harlow by George Hurrell

The word ‘photography’, as just about every book or article written on the subject will tell you, translates as: writing, painting, or making graphic forms with light.

It is obvious that without light, photography would not exist, but it much more than that.

Many great photographers, sadly most of them from the past, maintain that the “art” of photography, a word bandied around far too much nowadays, is the study, and application of all the subtleties of light in its many forms and qualities to create an aesthetically pleasing composition.

The photo illustrating this blog post: Jean Harlow by George Hurrell, was recently posted on facebook by a genuine ‘student of the art’, as an example of ‘beautiful lighting’ worth at least commenting on, if not emulating.

The excellence of photographic lighting skills reached their pinnacle in the 1930’s/ 40’s with the emergence of the Film Noir movement in Germany and France, and in Hollywood with their sensual and almost erotic lighting of glamour starlets of the era, both on the soundstage and in the photographer’s studios.

Since then photographic and film lighting has of course developed, but basically the principles remain the same.

It is only since the digital ‘everyone can be a photographer’ era of the last say, twenty years that lighting expertise seems to have significantly declined, and in many cases ignored completely.

It seems that nowadays getting an image, any image, captured is an “awesome accomplishment”, if it obeys the rule of thirds more or less, it is a “great composition”, and if you can see some details, and the colours are more or less ‘correct’, it is “well lit”.

The qualities of light which photographers should be aware of as the most influential aspects of creating a composition which has modelling of form, definition, mood, control of focus points, information and variation of visibility (the very things artistic photographs are made of) are:

  • quantity…how much, and how little, and where it falls

  • intensity…the strength of the light overall

  • colour…range from black to white, and degrees of saturation of all colours included

  • distribution…where the light falls, what it reveals, and more importantly where it hides or masks details

  • texture….the softness/ hardness of light definition, beams and pools of light, and the quality and depth of shadows

However the majority of photographs which are seen today, seemingly exploit none of these aspects: the majority of ‘professional’ photographs appearing on facebook, flickr etc, where the largest potential audiences for photography gather, and garner the most of the trite, meaningless comments of ‘awesome capture’ and ‘wonderful, unique lighting’, seem all uniformly and flatly lit from edge to edge, with totally detailed shadows, and far too often not only blown out highlights, but starkly white faces, and either a complete lack of modelling, or grossly inappropriate shadows.

What used to be known in the business as ‘porn lighting’: full field and full frontal detail everywhere, so that everything is visible no matter what, and without any form or finesse.

This can be the result of one, or all of three different styles of photography:

  1. totally disregarding the light altogether, or having no understanding of lighting

  2. harsh and unsoftened, on camera, or close to on camera flash

  3. ‘studios” which are set up this way either intentionally or unknowingly.

With the daily bombardment of ‘awesome captures’ on the internet, and the current career trajectories of photographers being as they are: (day one- buy a dslr, day two, turn professional, day three; open my very own studio) is there any hope of returning to photography which is about capturing the subtleties of light on a subject, rather than just aiming, pressing the button and hoping for the best?

The proliferation of hire ‘studios’ is also to blame to a certain degree. I have ventured into several of these studios – read: glorified barns for amateurs not good enough to join a photography club to have a “bit of fun” – recently and found that the most prevalent lighting set up is indeed ‘porn lighting’: two far two big, overpriced and powerful softboxes set two metres apart, about three to four metres from the subject, both set to the same output, and hope for the best.

One studio owner became visibly heated under the collar, when I actually had the audacity to move the lights into the traditional key/fill positions, and adjust the outputs, and another made it impossible to adjust or reposition anything because the lights were affixed immovably to the ceiling and accessing the adjustment panel meant the need for a ladder, with of course none in evidence.

Mention the words ‘lighting ratio’ to one of the new breed of photographers, and you are almost universally met with a puzzled expression.

Unfortunately it seems from the majority of evidence that quality of light, has given way dramatically to mere quantity…in parallel with that other necessity of modern digital photography: quantity of images, and fix the best of a bad lot in photoshop has completely eclipsed actually striving for fewer quality photographs.

Which strikes me as rather odd: over 80 years ago, when photographers had to battle with inefficient and notoriously cantankerous lighting apparatus, slow lenses, and even slower emulsions (films for the uninitiated) they could come up with excellently lit and beautifully processed work as the above illustration demonstrates.

And yet today, when lighting is efficient, varied, good quality and very cheap, and cameras almost all perform so well that they need little more than a candle to produce good quality images, there is so little regard for good, aesthetic, and dare I say artistically creative lighting.

©Copyright: Stephen Bennett, MMXVI

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