Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Obsession With Light

An oft-repeated adage in photography is that it's all about light. Learn to see the light! Blah blah blah. I've addressed this before.

There is an internet forum I used to frequent which I still peek in to from time to time for ideas. At this very moment they're arguing the lighting scheme used by a NYC headshot guy. It's painfully obvious that the subjects are facing a large window, the photographer stands dead center, and shoots. You can see the window and the photographer reflected in the subject's eyes. This was explained early on by one of the few members of the forum that actually knows anything.

The discussion has proceeded in two directions: first, the photographer is an untalented hack because he's using head on lighting; second he must be using giant octobox/parabolic reflector/v-flats/some other lighting gear.

The takeaway here is this: These self-styled photographers equate talent and skill with using complicated lighting setups and these same self-styled photographers don't actually look at the picture particularly closely. I theorize that they're examining the lighting patterns or something, and then thinking about what piece of gear they read about most recently.

Hold on to that for a moment.

There's a style of lighting for people which is, perhaps, becoming more prevalent. We can think of it as the Terry Richardson look, it's pretty much dead-on from the front, often somewhat harsh. See also Martin Schoeller, who is less harsh but still dead-on. Another example: I read an article on/interview with Novak Djokovic, the tennis player, in which all the accompanying pictures were 100% Terry Richardson style.

These pictures are all of a sort that is panned by the kind of low-level pro/half-ignorant amateur we find cluttering up the internet, because, again, talent and skill = complicated lighting.

To be sure, complicated lighting can be flattering, it can hide a multitude of sins. If you sell low-end portraits, you want to do this sort of thing. But it's not the same as "talent" or "skill", it's pretty much paint by numbers out of one of a couple of books. Or you can do it the hard way and sift through megabytes of misinformation on the internet. With dead-on flat lighting, there's no place to hide. Pretty people still look pretty, though.

The point about taking pictures of people is that it's not about the lighting at all. It's about styling, direction, and about finding the right moment. Eliminate "Camera Face" and find the picture that's a good picture of the victim, not a bad one.

The guy they're complaining about on that forum is actually pretty decent. His lighting is revealing, but not interesting. He makes his subjects look appealing as hell with posing, styling, and finding the right moment.

It's Not About The Light.

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