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 and a significant force behind the rebirth of LIFE magazine as a monthly in 1978. Leongard taught at the International Center for Photography at 1114 6th Avenue in New York City and his book As I See It is a fine example of his craft and teaching. Mr. Loengard was called “LIFE’s most influential photographer” by American Photographer. 

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

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

Seeing his pictures, I first asked: “how can we apply Mr. Loengard’s wisdom of ‘not lighting all of it’ ?”

It turns out that lighting, like water to our bodies, is an essential substance that brings pictures alive. Loengard’s comment inspired an exploration of light qualities and directions of light other than harsh front lighting.

Here are ideas for diffuse, side light, back light and bright sun lighting in various types of scenes. 

Diffuse lighting with clouds overhead works well for some nature scenes, such as this picture of the Solduc trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, USA.

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 back lighting their model and using reflectors to bounce light onto the model when conditions are bright and sunny.

Side lighting by window light brings out the textures in this portrait of member of the Mystic Seaport staff in Connecticut, USA. 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” shows two wetsuits drying in the sunset, for an example of how back lighting creates silhouettes.

3. Backlighting

Back lighting is the stuff of dreams (click the link for more on back lighting). Silhouettes are one result of back lighting and in portraiture, light from behind puts a halo around a person’s hair, called a hair light. This light allows separation between the subject and the scene background.

To meter a back lit scene, use spot metering. The spot metering camera setting lets photographers increase the overall exposure by up to two F-stops of light coming through the lens to the sensor. This prevents a back lit scene being underexposed. To create a silhouette, however, we can expose for the light with average metering and let the wetsuits, or silhouetted person, go dark. 

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 cameras on steady tripods. The sun is a harsh, small light source and it is quite difficult to make flattering portraits in bright sunlight.

Overhead sunlight brings out the ripples in water, for this picture of a Queen conch in the Bahamas.

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.

For this flower girl portrait, since the sun was bright overhead, I moved into open shade. I asked her to close her eyes, then made a picture the moment she opened them to prevent squinting. It helps to have the camera in a position that frames a picture with no hot spots of sunlight on clothing or a person’s 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, for using less light can make more interesting and descriptive pictures.

When we don’t light all of the scene, we add depth and presence to our images as John Loengard has taught us. 


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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