Don’t Light All Of It

Joe McNally’s 2010 portrait of John Loengard, photographer and LIFE picture editor. Public Domain  Wikimedia.

“If you want something to look interesting, don’t light all of it.” -John Loengard

John Loengard is an American photographer, critic, historian and scholar. He was LIFE’s picture editor for 14 years, a significant force behind the rebirth of LIFE magazine as a monthly in 1978, and an instructor at the International Center for Photography at 1114 6th Avenue in New York City.

Loengard’s photographs often catch the imperfect and the offbeat.

He photographed the Beatles, Annie Leibovitz atop the Chrysler building, and an elderly Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

Mr. Loengard was called “LIFE’s most influential photographer” by American Photographer. 

I wondered: Can we apply Mr. Loengard’s wisdom of ‘not lighting all of it’ to 4 types of lighting?

Aesthetically, lighting can be used to make a more eloquent statement about the subject.

The crucial idea was to explore light qualities and directions of light other than front lighting, which is often flat and harsh.

So, here are ideas for diffuse, side light, backlight and bright sun lighting in various types of scenes. 

Diffuse lighting with clouds overhead works well for some nature scenes.

1. Diffuse, Overcast, Soft Skylight

A cloudy day. Perfect for taking portraits, right? Yes!

Clouds diffuse light. Cloudy skies are ideal for portraits and some nature subjects because the quality of light resembles a huge softbox, at least until the sun reappears.

Overcast and softly-lit conditions have diffused light that comes in from all directions and illuminates the shadows.

If you do not have any cloud cover, you can place your subject near a large north-facing window. The closer the source of light is to your subject, the softer and more beautiful your lighting will be.

TIP: Be aware of the qualities, direction, intensity, and temperature of natural light.

Direct sun at high noon is warmer in tone and has higher contrast, and compared with overcast lighting, the direct sun creates unflattering shadows.

This is why you’ll see pros backlighting their model and using reflectors to bounce light onto the model when conditions are bright and sunny.

Side lighting by window light brings out textures. Photography and text by Jim Austin Jimages.

2. Side Lighting

Light from the side generates textures on surfaces. Qualities of low-angled side lighting in those golden moments after sunrise and before sundown are especially sought after by photographers.

In film production, side lighting is often used as well. The BBC series Peaky Blinders uses a series of large controllable HMI lights to add side lighting through windows to create mood and a “Peaky” atmosphere for the actors and the drama.

“Dive Suitors” An example of how backlighting a photograph helps create silhouettes.

3. Backlighting

Backlighting is the stuff of dreams. It can create silhouettes. For portraits, backlighting places a halo of light around the person’s hair, called a hair light. This light allows separation between the subject and the scene background.

To meter a backlit scene, use spot metering. It makes us increase the overall exposure, boosting exposure by up to two F-stops of light coming to the sensor. This prevents a backlit scene being underexposed. 

For portraits, the adage to “put the sun at your back and have your subject face bright sun” is a 19th-century idea left over from the days of slow film, slower lenses, and rock steady subject matter. The sun is a harsh, small light source and it is quite difficult to make flattering portraits in bright sunlight.

Queen conch, Bahamas, in overhead sunlight that brings out the ripples in the marine waters.

4. Direct Sun Overhead

While mid-day, bright, overhead sun is a challenge, there are a few subjects that do well in this kind of lighting.

Clear water is one of them. In overhead sunlight, ocean waters can appear translucent, showing undulating ripples within.

NATURAL LOOK IN BRIGHT SUN: When the sun is overhead, move into open shade, have someone close their eyes, then photograph them just as they open their eyes. This keeps them from squinting. Also, try to find a camera position to minimize hot spots of sunlight on their clothing and face.

For portraits, here are a couple of tips I use:

  • I try to catch my subject doing some activity instead of looking right at the camera. The secret is to move around the subject, changing camera position so the subject does not have sunlit hot spots on their face.
  • I will position my subject at the sunlit edge of a shadow from a large tree, so light is in front of them and a dark background behind.
  • If the sun is high and bright, I will move my subject into open shade, have them close their eyes and relax a moment. After a brief pause, I ask them to open their eyes just as the exposure is made, to keep the gaze relaxed.

As we practice the craft of photography, we learn that is is not necessary to light the entire scene. Light is indeed a language, as Joe McNally reminds us, and using less light can be more descriptive.

When we don’t light all of the scene, we add depth and presence to our images and, as Mr. John Loengard teaches us, make them more interesting. 


All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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