Excerpt from Chapter 4, Advancing Your Photography Handbook

lighting as a language

Whether you are an amateur or a professional, every photographer knows that light is the most important factor in your photographs. Since photography means “light writing,” light is your basic tool that you are working with. Joe McNally, an outstanding master of photography and thus of light, told me, “Light is language, think of it that way.”

The first step of really learning the language of light is to closely observe it. As we discussed, this begins with your study of the masters, to see how they used light, what their light sources were, and how did these strike their subjects?

Let’s look at this painting by Johan Vermeer, the master 17th century Dutch painter who painted simple everyday life, using mainly the same two rooms of his house and often the same subject (a great place to start: no elaborate studio, make up, lights, etc.) Look closely at this painting and take note of what you see: One light source coming through the window, which lights the side of the woman facing it, leaving the left side of her face in shadows. The cream wall behind her is hit by the light, giving fantastic contrast to her top and blue apron. The objects in the room are only lit from the window and by light reflected from the wall and are bright or shadowed accordingly.

Here’s an example of one of Marc Silber’s images from “My Mexico” which will appear in my new book, Forever Young. As you can see, he took advantage of the “Vermeer” light coming in from the north facing door, gently striking these two young girls, waiting patiently. Give it a try yourself, it’s always wonderful light to “speak with” as a language.

Try This Lighting Exercise

A very rewarding exercise, both in learning light and composition, is to find a room similar to that used by Vermeer in your home, dorm, or apartment, recruit a willing subject and simply reenact this as a photograph. One light source, one subject, you and your camera. Get in the habit of observing light wherever you are – inside or out. What is the main light source, what are the secondary sources, where is it being reflected from, etc? Wedding and portrait specialist Bambi Cantrell showed me how she sizes up light in a room by holding her hand out and noting how light strikes it, then turning her hand to see any changes from other light sources.

MORE LIGHTING TIPS: For more on lighting tips from Joe McNally, Bambi Cantrell and more, watch one of our most popular videos on our YouTube Channel>>>”Lighting Tips: How to Capture that National Geographic Style.”

Plus, order your copy of AYP now and we are throwing in a bonus copy of Marc’s E-book, Focus on Beauty.