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A few years back, Frans Lanting said something in passing that’s really stuck with me, I presume it’s an old studio lighting maxim:
Front-lighting for color, side-lighting for texture, back-lighting for form.
This line is pretty much a recipe for how to light an object in the studio depending on what aspect of it you want to emphasize. Got a colorful subject? Start by photographing from the same direction as the light is coming from. Want texture? Make sure the light is coming in from the side, that way it’ll be raking across the front of the subject you’re looking at and showing shadows on even the smallest bits of texture. And want to show the shape of something? Backlight it, and create a silhouette.
Obviously it’s simplistic (as any nine words of advice must be), but it’s not a bad place to start when thinking about lighting.
In addition to light direction, we also talk about the difference between soft (wide) light sources and hard (tiny) light sources. Hard lighting tends to pick up more texture by creating better-defined shadows than soft lighting.
What does all of this have to do with composition?
While we have a great deal of flexibility in lighting subjects in the studio, many of us who photograph nature, or events, or sports often have a little less room to organize our environment the way we’d like. We might have a couple different objects in our scene, and perhaps we’d like the form of one of them juxtaposed with the color of another and the texture of a third, and the light might be doing something else entirely.
So, what do you do when the light isn’t right for a particular scene? There are no magic solutions that will address every scene, but there are a few tools that will sometimes help.
The first, and often the simplest, is simply to move your feet. If you’ve got a backlit monolith and you’d like to show it’s texture, your perfect shot may just be a few dozen yards to the side. Want color? A few dozen yards more might get you there. It’s astonishing to me how often photographers won’t use their feet to help their compositions, neglecting the simplest, and sometimes best, tool. This will change your composition, but much as you can’t always have everything you want (outside the studio) in terms of the arrangement of your subjects, we can’t always have the one composition you’d hoped for with the precise sorts of lighting we’d prefer. Instead, we have to find a composition that balances all these concerns.
The second, and a necessary and important technique for nature photographers, is to come back later. If you want more texture in the scene, maybe it’ll get more side-lighting at sunset, so come back at sunset. Want softer light on the subject? Come back when it’s cloudy. Patience is a key component for my own type of photography, but it won’t help folks working a wedding or a football game, so this technique too has it’s limitations.
Third, it is often possible to introduce some additional lighting into a situation. Using flash as your primary light can be pretty ricky. Basic flash units are stuck being hard and limited to providing front-lighting, which makes them pretty awful sole sources of lighting for most subjects. Being able to move the light off the camera and/or bounce flash off of nearby walls provides more flexibility. Still, even on-camera flash can often be a big help as fill flash, in which a smidgen of flash is used to bring out some color and/or texture on backlit subjects. Even filling in with as little as a stop and a half less light than is already in the scene can make a huge difference in how much detail when can see in the texture and color of an object. Reflectors can often be used to accomplish the same result.
Lighting might at first seem separate from composition, but really it provides another set of constraints we must contend with as we strive to design our images.