Light Right Q and A

The following post originally appeared on as part of their Digital Design Bookstore

We have about 50 years of commercial photography experience between us and almost that much time spent as photography instructors. While sharing a commercial studio together, we decided to write a book about studio lighting. We wondered if two people could work on a single book. Would the writing styles and individual voices mesh, or would the differences be too jarring? Like the Car Talk guys on National Public Radio, we think it’s helpful and perhaps entertaining to get different viewpoints on the same subjects because there is no single answer when tackling studio lighting. Here we take a similar approach by answering questions about some of the topics that are addressed in our book, Light Right. We hope you enjoy the conversation and find the information useful.

Q: Joe, when you’re looking at a new project, what are you trying to accomplish with your lighting?

I want to say ‘everything,’ but we I know that’s a little vague. I try to break down what I want to accomplish to just four key elements—dimension, texture, separation, and drama. This holds true for pretty much every subject that I shoot. The Pluto image makes an interesting subject because it’s really simple. The subtle highlights and shadows tell us it’s round, that same contrast makes the texture of the background and water droplets standout, and the overall tonal range between the foreground and the background adds separation and drama. If you address those four key areas then odds are the lighting will work.

Q: Brad, do you spend time thinking about the subject itself as you work on your lighting scheme?

Absolutely. The subject is what drives all my lighting decisions. What I want to say about the subject, its important features, can be enhanced or diminished by the lighting I use. The image of the bucket is a good case in point. The bucket is old, and the mop and brushes have great texture. I used light that raked across the surfaces to bring out as much texture as possible. I made sure to get light on the old wooden handle, and I used a warm light to separate the bucket from the background and enhance the emotional impact of the shot. If all the objects were new and shiny, I would have lit them very differently.

Q: Joe, what advice would you give a photographer starting out, regarding making lighting equipment purchases?

Everyone knows that I am an equipment geek, so I love this question. The first thing that I will say is that you don’t need every new gizmo that comes on the market. Lighting gear is really personal. What you need really depends on your subject matter, genre, and style. My wife and I, she is also a professional photographer, joke that we both use “available light.” I use every light that is available in the studio and she uses only what nature provides.  It's all in your definition of available light. You do want to make smart choices. I learned that it’s better to figure out exactly what you need and save your money until you can purchase the highest quality option. I own strobes today that are at least fifteen years old, and they still work great.

Q: Joe, we see so many lighting demonstrations where the photographer is lighting everything with a formulaic scheme. What’s wrong with this approach?

We’ve seen this a thousand times. Place a light here, a fill card there, and presto—your subject is lit.  It just doesn’t work. There are two big concerns when people use formulaic lighting schemes. First, no two subjects are the same. We both captured images of watches for our book, but one was rugged and the other one was sleek and shiny, which means the same approach wouldn’t work. The second, and probably more vital consideration is your career. You need to have a unique style that separates you from other photographers. A formulaic approach doesn’t let your personality shine through.

Q: Brad, what recommendations would you give a photographer who is looking to develop their style and improve their lighting?

That’s an easy one. Experiment and don’t settle for the first solution. There are certainly rules to lighting, but it’s important not to get locked into a single solution. This shot of the bottles was lit in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense with respect to traditional lighting. Usually, you would use a large diffused source to light glass, giving it pretty broad highlights. I started with that type of light, but I was looking for something edgier, so I switched to a ring light. Sometimes you just have to break some rules to get interesting results.

Q: Brad, beyond lighting, what are some of the other key things factors to help grow your business?

You need to make sure that you’re creating powerful images that speak directly to a particular market. Identify the people who need your images and then market to them in a way that they’ll respond to. It could be direct mail, social media, trade shows, etc., but you need to reach them. Once you contact them, engage with them. Let them know that you are confidant in what you do and that you have what they need. Treat each one like they’re your most important client because they are.

You’d think that after a combined 50 years of commercial photography experience that we would have all the answers, but we don’t. Being a photographer is about learning, adapting, and exploring new options. Have fun, and remember, don’t make it more complicated than it actually is.

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