Developing a
Strategic Approach
to Lighting
Developing a lighting strategy is a process of connecting the dots of technique cause and effect observed by trail and error experience, or systematic experimentation, to solve to meet the goal for a particular shot. Beginners struggle because they lack any practical trial and error experience and often either don't grasp the underlying cause and effect, or worse believe they understand it but get it wrong.

What I do in my tutorials is line the "dots" of technique up like ducks in a row and get them quacking in unison so beginners will see what in the flock the real goal is in lighting. What my ducks are quacking here isn't "AFLAC" it's "CONTRAST".

CONTRAST is the common thread for all lighting strategies because it points directly to the goal of the exercise. Presumably you think something in your photo is most important, no? Otherwise way take it? What is the most effective way to convey to the viewer of your photo what in it is most important? Make it contrast strongly with the background.

The reason contrast is an effective strategy is because our visual system is instinctively hard-wired to react to it. So when faced with any new lighting problem the first and most basic questions to ask are:

What is most important to the message I want to convey? What will make it contrast with the background and lead the viewer to it?

Finding the Most Effective Background

The simplest way to make a face contrast is to put it on a dark background and dress the person in dark clothing. That was any frontal lighting strategy will meet the basic goal of contrasting what is most important &emdash; the front of the face &emdash; with the background. But cause and effect always has a flip side, which is in this case backlighting. Backlighting would not be effective on a dark background because it would made the face dark. Making the face dark means it would no longer contrast with the background.

Two different strategies, one effective, the other not. The criteria for measuring the success of both? Whether or not they will make the face contrast with the background.

Let's try to connect those dots a real life situation. You are assigned to shoot soccer game. It is a clear day at 2 PM sunlight is coming from the south side of the field from a south-westerly direction. What is the best strategy for lighting in that situation? Let's evaluate them in terms of a goals: seeing the faces and uniforms of the players clearly.

Standing on the north side of the field will backlight the players. The modeling in that rim lighting will be very dramatic, but the camera would not be able to handle the contrast of the ambient light and the faces and uniforms will be rendered very dark. The significant thing to note here is that the lighting strategy is good, in general, for modeling the shape of the players but without the ability to add flash to lift the shadows you are not equipped to take advantage of it. It does not meet the goals so it must be rejected. But if the day was overcast with the light coming from the same direct but the clouds reducing the contrast of the light to a level the camera could handle it would work effectively.

So seeing the light will not work on the north side of the field facing into the sun we move to the other side. Now the light is coming over your shoulder and flat lighting the players and field. That's bad lighting, right? You've been told and seen flat lighting is bad, evil stuff. But rather than just rejecting it based on previous experience in other situations stop and consider against the goals here: seeing the faces and uniforms of the players. That is really easy to do in flat lighting, all you need to do is find a shooting location where the players are surrounded by a darker background: a dark section of the stadium, or by raising the vantage point of the camera so it is looking down at players surrounded by the field around them.

As in this case the most effective strategy will be a combination of light direction and choice of background to make the light direction contrast the focal point against it. Beyond that the overall strategy making the players the focal point will involve eliminating any other contrasting distractions. A very effective tactic for that in sports photography is shallow depth-of-field. More often than not a high vantage point is not possible and from ground level the background is a sea of distractions which can be minimized by blurring them. That isolates the foreground with CONTRAST. Not tonal contrast, contrasting sharpness.

Other forms of contrast such as the color contrast of the uniforms with the background need to be considered. Black uniforms on a very dark background is not an effective combination, nor are green uniforms surrounded by grass. The ideal situation would be a background where the faces contrast in tone with the background, and so does the color of the uniforms, but the color contrast of the uniforms doesn't overpowering.

When shooting outdoors there are always many variables you cannot control, but you can usually control where you shoot from. So when thinking about where to stand to capture the action stop and consciously think about the goals and strategies, connecting the dots of cause and effect of different forms of contrast to meet your goals.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
and Digital Photography

This tutorial is copyrighted by © Charles E. Gardner.
It may be reproduced for personal use, and referenced by link, but please to not copy and post it to your site.

You can contact me at: Chuck Gardner

For other tutorials see the Tutorial Table of Contents