COMM 242, Advanced News Photography (Photojournalism)
(Instructor: Ross Collins, North Dakota State University)

An introduction to lighting for photojournalists

Note: Many of these photos were taken by photojournalism students in COMM 242.

The three characteristics of light:


Light can vary in intensity by as much as 1,000 times. Our eye automatically controls this intensity by opening and closing its iris. We can see this effect as we enter a dark room from outside, or go into a bright sunny day from inside--until our eye adjusts objects are either too dark to see (underexposed) or too washed out to see (overexposed). A camera uses three adjustments to control intensity: aperture (f/stops), shutter speeds and film/sensor speed (ISO number).

The photo below left is an example of high intensity light. Beaches and snow reflect sunlight to add intensity (photo by Colleen Tuckner). Below right is an example of low intensity light. The star effect on the lights may have been enhanced by a filter over the lens (photo by Jeremiah Utecht).

High intensity light.Low intensity light.


Light is perceived as hard or soft. Hard light is strongly directional, casting deep shadows and bright highlights. Soft lighting tends to be non-directional, or come from a diffused source, such as a window, florescent, or foggy day.

The left photo below is an example of typical harsh sunlight at midday, darkening the eye sockets and area under the nose. While this may be okay for casual snaps, photojournalists generally try to avoid hard sunlight by using flash to fill the shadows, or taking pictures at another time of day (photo by Craig Snowden).

The right photo relies on soft light, possibly from a slightly overcast day, to enhance the soft character of the child (photo by Kathryn Glennon). This photo is considered high key, that is, made up mostly of light tones. Low key images, such as that of Fargo at dusk above, are made up mostly of dark tones.

Hard lighting.Soft light.


Portrait.We judge the shape and texture of things in our environment mostly by the way the light strikes those objects. Images can look one-dimensional and flat depending on the angle of light striking them.

In the studio, photographers can carefully control direction to get the effect they are looking for. The standard, four-light studio setup uses one light 45 degrees to the side, and 45 degrees above the subject as a key light. Shadows are lightened or "opened up" with a second light, usually slightly above the camera, the fill light. The subject is delineated from the background by illuminating the backdrop and, usually a fourth light shines at the back of the head, the hair light, to further add depth and in interesting rim light effect. In the standard studio photo at left, however, (photographer unknown), the hair light has been eliminated to avoid accentuating a bald head!

Watch an eight-part YouTube video covering studio lighting. The photographer speaks with a charming Scottish accent, although he tends to be a bit sexist. His lighting demonstration is useful and comprehensive, however.

Photojournalists may sometimes take formal studio mugshots, but usually they do not have this much control over lighting. In the real world they try to work with what they have, and so have to carefully evaluate ambient light, that is, the light around them. Sometimes they will add to this light with fill-in flash or reflectors.

Photos lit with on-camera flash tend to have a flat, one-dimensional, "coming-out-of-a-cave" look. Generally this is unattractive, and most photojournalists try to avoid it if they can. The photo below right is an example of this (photo by Ross Collins).

Flash on camera.Window light usually softens harsh rays and falls from a more interesting angle, often from the side and from above. This photo below left actually is an example of unusually strong window light, although it still flatters the shape and texture of portraits (photo by Stacy Quast).

Window light.





Normally we see objects lit from above. Light falling from below a face is unusual, even unsettling, sometimes causing a ghostly image photojournalists call ghoul lighting. The candle-lit photo below, however, uses a softer ghoul lighting, the candle's color temperature balancing the image to a strong orange cast (photo by Shawna Caufield).

Candle light.


Backlit portrait.Strong light from the back can highlight hair and even help give shape to objects in the foreground, but it can be tricky to avoid underexposing the subject. In the example at right, the subject's face is dark. It could be lightened using fill-in flash or, to an extent, in Photoshop (photo by Craig Snowden).

Rim light.Backlit photos can give an interesting rim light effect that separates a center of interest from the background with a dynamic glow. The problem, again, is underexposure of the subject. The rim light in the photo at right adds interest to an otherwise typical indoor building scene (photo by Matt Perrine).

Texture lighting.









Strong light scraping from the side or back of a subject is sometimes called texture light, because it dramatically emphasizes texture and shadow, as in the snow shadows photo (by Brad Holste). It generally is not a good idea to emphasize texture on faces, however, unless the model is young with flawless skin.

Color balance

"White" light actually has a color cast. Our eyes automatically adjust for this. Film or sensors do not. Color cast can be measured in degrees Kelvin; the higher the number, the more light skews to the blue end of the spectrum. Florescent light is missing part of the spectrum, and so generally has a cold greenish tint. Incandescent light has a low color temperature, about 3,000 degrees K, so looks orange. Candle light is even more orange (1,500 degrees K), as you can see in the photo above. Generally we have to correct color balance for most natural image, either in Photoshop or in the white balance correction of some digital cameras. Of course, sometimes we like the unusual color balance, particularly if it's toward the warmer side of the spectrum.

Below shows the advantage of warmer light in the morning or evening (photo by Craig Snowden). Usually we find this color cast attractive, while the bluer light of midday looks harsh. To the right, an off-camera incandescent light offers a glowing orange cast to the studying subject. Some photographers would find this objectionable, however (photo by Erika Graff). Photos in florescent lighting generally look cold and slightly greenish, and need to be balanced (photo of bookstore employee below, student photographer unknown).

Morning light.Incandescent light.Florescent light.




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