See the light!
Light matters in Art & Photography. The way an artist portrays light can make or break an image. Learning to see it first and then capture it is truly vital. When I started learning the basics, the concept I worked very hard to nail was Catch Lights.
What are Catch Lights?
These last 3 pieces were drawn by my daughter Miriam. I often wondered what that little circle in the eyes were. After studying light more in depth, I realized that this style of art was trying to portray catch lights! This little piece added to the cats eyes help draw you in to look at its eyes a bit more, much like in photography.
Here you have my son, Edmond, holding his dad’s guitar. He is attempting to play like “Daddy”. Take note of those eyes. Edmond has eyes that are so brown they look almost black. The only way I am able to see the pupil is in direct light. For picture taking that can be a problem – his eyes can look lifeless (because light is often associated with life, you can see how that may be a problem) if I do not take note to get catch lights. In the image above, Edmond has flecks of light in his eyes. (The window with white shading was 45 degrees to the right of this image.) Those specks of light help give life & draw the viewers attention to his eyes.
Catch Lights by definition = Catch light or Catchlight is a light source that causes a specular highlight in a subject’s eye in an image. They are also referred to as eye lights or Obies, (the latter a reference to Merle Oberon, who was known for using this technique.)
There are correct and incorrect ways to capture catch lights, but that is not what this particular post is about. It is, however, important that you understand some basics, such as catch lights, though. Catch lights are essential if you want to draw attention to the eyes OR if you are simply wanting to add life to the subject. The lightest or brightest portions in an image will grasp the eyes attention. If you want to bring attention to any part of your image you add light. To take the attention away you will apply the opposite by darkening or removing the light. Because of light’s affect on images and how we see them, this is something one must learn early on in art or photography.
Maximus Visual Artistry does well here in this composition by using light to guide you to his focal point. The focal point should be the free floating orb between the girls hands. Then the light spills onto the girl, highlighting her hands, inner legs, chest, and parts of her face. The light does not, however, fall into the surrounding darkness. You can see that there are plants around because the dark sky is not as dark as the brush or grass, yet it is light enough that you know there is sky behind the foliage. The emphasis is not on the foliage nor the sky though. Maximus was sure to bring that point across by the huge contrast created by the background and the main subject.
Light gives an artist the ability to paint a story, or maybe better said, draw out the subject of interest by direction. When working an art piece, learn to lead ones eyes by the use of light.
If you have an image like the one above by Maximus Visual Artistry, where the tones are pretty even across the board, the use of light is where you will find strength. If you look at the mermaid’s head dress on the left, also look at the left side of her face, and on her knees. These spots are the brightest portions of the image. Then behind her you see the blacks of the rocks. The contrast works like a map help to guide you to where you should be looking. Your eyes will lead you to to bright first then wander to take in the rest of the view. This is light being used to assist in the storytelling. The source used is direct and spills over or onto the subjects.
Incident Light: Incident light is the light that falls on a subject, either directly or indirectly.
Reflective Light: Reflected light is the light that bounces off your subject and other elements in the scene.
Contrast: Contrast describes the difference in brightness between the highlight and shadow areas of a photograph.
You need to take into account the color or tone of the subject being lit. Dark colored subjects need more light whereas a light subject will not require as much light.
Direction of light – Note where the light is coming from. This will determine the way the shadows fall or where the highlights will hit.
Intensity – The darker the shadows or the hotter the light the more intense the mood that is created (It will also affect whether you need to add reflectors or other light sources for filler. Your camera can only meter off of one spot.)
Source – Take note of the Size and Distance – The size and distance will affect the intensity.
Sculpting with Light: Techniques for Portrait Photographers by Allison Earnest is a book I recommend to any artist.
When I look at Adrian’s work it always triggers an emotion. His work captures moments that are timeless. This particular piece is one that most any parent can relate to. I don’t think it would have been as great of an image had the light in the refrigerator not been on, nor if the light in the kitchen was spilling in. The fact that the shadows seep in from the sides to create a vignette, and the main source of light is coming from the refrigerator as the main source of light, allows the artist to bring the subjects to our attention. The contrasting darkness of the children vs the incident light plays a factor in the image as well. It really does not take much – but it does take a know of the conditions (aka lighting) that you have to work with. Obviously, Adrian is in the know, which brings me to his next piece:
I had first seen Adrian Murray’s work with his son and the sailboat. I adored everything about it. What caught my eye was how his focal points were placed in such a way that my eye could not miss the story unfolding. It dawned on me was that the lighting is what made this moment stand out in my mind. The brightest features in the image were on and around the main subjects. The light reflects off the water into his son’s face. You also see the sails that are backlit and mirrored in the water below. The backlighting is apparent on the top of the boys head where you see a thin rim of light. The light sail and the fair skin, both, do not need much light. Obviously, the spill of the light from behind and the reflective light from the pond were masterfully utilized in this sweet capture!
Backlighting is said to be a more difficult technique to learn. The reason for that is that you must learn to expose the skin properly and the camera cannot meter for 2 scenarios (as mentioned earlier.) So your options are to meter for one or the other OR have an alternative light source to fill in while you meter for the brighter area or background.
The lack of light with carefully placed or spotlit areas in varying degrees is just as poignant as the presence of light. One will often hear the following comments:
That movie/art piece was very dark!
That image leaves me with a light and happy feeling!
It was a gray and blah sort of day. OR It was a dark and gloomy sort of day.
That was from the dark ages.
I need to watch something light and uplifting.
It is not a coincidence that dark, neutral (gray), and light are used in the description of ones emotions or mood. People relate to light and dark in a very emotional manner.
Pauly Pariwat Pholwises quickly became an artist whose work I love to see. I suffer from chronic migraines, and have all my life. I am very sensitive to light. If something is too bright it can bring on a massive migraine. When I am viewing Pauly’s work there is a certain calming that his images bring. He is able to balance lighting in his images.
We often talk about framing in photography. In the next image Pauly Pholwises utilized the reflections to create that frame. The lighter top portion almost forces your eyes down while the lower light section (almost a foggy looking piece) pushes your eyes up – The two ends bring your eyes to rest on the face of the girl looking back out at you. This is one instance where the light areas were such that the eye wanted a more soothing and less light shade to look on.
In this next image – you can see that the variation in color is within the greens that surround the girl. The darkness moves to light from the base of the bloom to the bright tips. Pauly carefully guides your eye by having his subject hold a blossom right in front of her, the brightest part of the flower being just at her top lip leaves your eye to move on to explore her face. A true artist. I commend his ability to create varying shades and still keep it within a range that allows mood yet not be so harsh that the brights are blinding or the shadows so dark you cannot see the detail. His balance is very soothing to the eye (and my head).
Pauly Pholwises, utilizes contrast in his work, but it is softened in the way he edits. His mastery of neutral tones is one that is sought after by many. That combined with his composition skills and artistic flare makes it easy to see why his work is loved everywhere!
Strong lighting or lack of lighting will tend to match the emotion it conveys, just as soft lighting will have a more calming effect or balance to that emotion.
InvitingHome.com state this in trying to explain how light creates mood in architecture:
Higher levels of lighting generally produce cheerful effects and stimulate people to alertness and activity, whereas lower levels tend to create an atmosphere of relaxation, intimacy, and restfulness.
As you can see – light creating mood is not limited to art alone, but in Architecture, Home Design, Psychology, and theater.
This next artist is one that I would consider a master at moody Black and White images. He has a way of making the dark & mysterious mood alluring.
Imagery by Eli Dreyfuss
Darker shadows, like the way the light hit her hair and created a shadow across her face, gave me the sense that she was in hiding, while her eyes or facial expression tell me she is a strong individual, even if she may be scared. In Eli’s images, I notice that he is always mindful to include the catch lights. In this workflow, I find the catch lights to be vital elements to the images. It assists in definition.
Imagery by Eli Dreyfuss
The mysterious darkness leaves one longing to know more, understand why. Is she hiding? The use of complete blackness over the eye on the right makes me feel as if it is a way of saying she is in hiding OR is it a metaphor for some unknown secret?
Imagery by Eli Dreyfuss
With more light than the first two images (also by Eli Dreyfuss), it feels as if the artist is willing to share more. I almost sense he is willing us to search her expression more and the details about her. Had she been as darkly portrayed we may not have noticed her fingers running through her hair, or the sadder portion of her face (the right eye and downward turn of the mouth on the right).
I know I shoot and show lots of images of people, but all of this applies to animals as well. One artist that I enjoy perusing through his images after he has been to the zoo is Mark Lynham. Mark is simply put, brilliant, in his work with light. This tiger’s markings make for great contrast already so converting to a BW image allows the contrast to stand out quite nicely. Then Mark adds the negative space above. He could have gone with white, but because the tiger has a nice amount of white already, black is the natural contrasting color that helps the tiger stand out more dramatically. If you look closely at the tiger’s eyes, you can see the fleck of catch lights in the upper portion of the eyes. Flawless exposure, great conversion, and the experts composition makes this a great image that any tiger enthusiast could stare at for long periods of time.
by Mark Lynham
Of coarse, if your subject has white fur, as this Ring-Tailed Lemur has, when against a darker backdrop, it will stand out. That combined with beautifully focused eyes with awesome catch lights in the upper portion of the eyes makes a very stunning image!
by Mark Lynham
Depth of field is usually spoken of hand in hand with blur or aperture. Yes, Aperture does help with creating that depth of field, but as you can see in Marks Lynham’s image above, the depth of field is made that much stronger with the use of light. By making a point of ensuring the large cat in front was lighter than the 2 unfocussed ones behind, the eye is assisted not only in focusing but making that depth of field more prominent.
by Mark Lynham
The term “silhouette” has been extended to describe the sight or representation of a person, object or scene that is backlit, and appears dark against a lighter background.
Silhouette’s came about in the 18th century as a cheap representation of a person, object or scene. Today it has been taken to another level. It is not uncommon to find a silhouette created with a spectacular sunset. The brightness of the sun combined with the vibrant colors create an ambiance that paired with the nearly black or solid black of the objects can’t help but make them pop. The key is to get the brighter light source in front of your object. The back light will help outline your subject best because of the contrast.
by CJ Wilkes
When Silhouette’s were first created, the backing was usually white or a solid color. Of coarse you would see some that were inverted, but they were hand drawn rather than done with cameras like today. The great artists could pop out a silhouette by eye (without the use of screens), but even the ones that used a screen would get so good at them that they could pop them out in minutes.
Mood created by light is very intriguing to myself. Of coarse it would be! I see and feel emotion in everything. The following site site was fun to study LumiFi They break down lighting and color into moods.
Here are a few interesting examples in terms of how lighting shapes behavior from InformeDesign:—Visibility of vertical and horizontal junctions aids orientation—People follow the brightest path—Brightness can focus attention—Facing wall luminance is a preference—Lighting can affect body position
Understanding the ratio of the light on a task or object compared to its surroundings can be very useful. Since the lighting on the artwork is five or more times brighter than the rest of the room, it draws the eye and commands special attention.
Our eyes permit us to see not only the shapes and surface characteristics of objects but also to perceive color and its relative brightness. Color contributes greatly to the quality of life – the thrill of a pink sunset or a blue sky.
Color plays an important part in our selection of furnishings, walls, and window treatments in a variety of applications – and since all color comes from light, it is an important part of our lighting decisions as well.
Light is more than a just a necessary part of the seeing process, it shapes the way we view the world around us and can dramatically increase the enjoyment of your home…
…or art piece or photography.
As IES states, Color comes from light. When I think of light combined with color to make an image strong, I instantly think of Lisa Holloway’s work. I feel that the path is set out for me when I look at her images. There is no guessing. The light guides the eye to her subjects face or desired targets.
I see a ring within a ring of light in the image above. Starting from the outer vignette to the light from the back lighting to the dark auburn hair and then back to a light colored complexion of the child’s face, and then her eyes are seemingly darker than her face. It is like looking into a tunnel. When the tunnel is strait you look right at the end of it or what is at the end of it. Here, the analogy is at play.
by Lisa Holloway
Living in a forest, there is already contrast with a child vs nature, then add colors as rich and vibrant as the child’s including her blonde hair, then on top of it the drama of the lighting. Because of the lightness of the little girls skin and hair, the light from the source makes her stand out perfectly. That is not done by chance. Lisa looks around at the lighting conditions, angling them in the perfect spot so the light will fall on them just right. It is a dance, it is not chance.
You hear that there are better times for shooting in. It is true. The time of day can affect how nicely the light is. If the day is overcast, it will work like a giant soft box for you. However, even on cloudy days, you have to watch how the light affects your subject. The Golden hours are a favorite for many (the couple ours at sunrise and the couple hours before sunset). Those times are loved and coveted because the shadows are not harsh like at mid day. But in mid day, there are things you can do to help with your shooting. You can use reflectors or Off Camera Flashes. You are not limited to just those 4 hours. The most important aspect to all of this is to get out there and practice with your camera. Always take note of the light around you. If you are in the trees and you see light spatters all over the ground and within it is the shadowing of the leaves and branches, chances are you will get a dappled light on your subject as well. Maybe you have to block the light source some or find a location that is not being affected so.
Place your subject in the location you are thinking of. Look in their eyes, look at how the light is playing around them. Is the light hindering your view? Is the light enhancing? That is very important. In the end, you want people drawn to your image. Or do you want to negate the light and simply outline your subject? Create a silhouette? You are the master of your art! And like all masters, you must practice and learn to see in light, in color. Watch and learn from others who are well versed in their crafts. There is a reason they are amongst the best of the best. These particular artists, featured here, are consistently producing images that Ooooo and awe the masses. For myself it is easy to see why. They understand the fundamentals. Lighting being at the top of the chart.
When you are reading up on different techniques or concepts, try not to let it all overwhelm you. Pick one, then study it until you know it inside and out. Then move on to the next. For some, this subject is one that they understand while others will need to get a few more books out and play a whole lot before it clicks. That is how it works. Just don’t give up. Work until you see light in such a way that you will have full control over your shoot. Work on back lighting, then move to playing with your shadows, then play some with catch lights. All the while, remember to look over the work of those you admire and love most.
A very special thank you to all the artists that allowed me to feature them in this blog post.
Thank you ~
CJ Wilkes (Cindy)