Softboxes, lighting and other uTube fictions

Once you get past the snapshot stage of photography, it becomes obvious that lighting skill is what separates a snapshot from a professional photograph.

In times past, lighting skill, like any other skill, built up over time, often by learning from a seasoned professional, or perhaps through seminars and classes. Implied in this process was an understanding that real skill has no shortcuts; it is an accumulated wisdom learned through years of experience.

But now we come to the Internet. What used to be considered a lifelong learning curve has been replaced by innumerable uTube videos that promise to shortcut the process of learning and reduce it all to “ten tips for better lighting”. This is part of an overall fantasy that the hardest life skills can be mastered by finding the secret gimmick.

I once considered producing a series of lighting videos for uTube consumption, but have abandoned the idea because uTube is now saturated with videos from photographers who have no real understanding of photographic lighting. Everyone and his uncle thinks of himself as an expert. Any tutorials I might produce would get lost in a sea of misinformation, and ignored by viewers who think that lighting is just a matter of finding the secret lighting device or lighting setup. If only it were that easy!

Part of the problem is the way lighting is part science and part art. The science part is what nobody wants to bother with, because it can be difficult to understand, and seems irrelevant to making beautiful images. But actually, if you can get some of the physics into your artistic head, it simplifies lighting greatly and makes your job as a photographer a lot easier.

With this preface in mind, let’s take a look at how lighting has changed over the years, which will then lead directly to the silliness I am seeing now on uTube.

When photography came into the world in the 1800’s, there was only natural light, electricity was yet to come. Of course, natural light comes from the sun, and the sun has its own lighting profile and thus it has been for the last two billion years.

From a physics point of view, sunlight is a point source. The sun is enormous in size, however it is far away. In a full sunlit sky, it appears as a disk the size of a coin. Light rays coming off the sun arrive on earth as straight lines, what optics people call “collimated light”. When these rays strike an object, they cast a shadow, that is, a shadow is the area behind the object that blocks the rays. These shadows have sharp edges because the rays are parallel.

Another characteristic of sunlight is that it is unchanging from one spot to another. It is plainly clear that you can walk around in any space lit by the sun, and the intensity of the light won’t vary a bit, again because the rays are parallel and arriving from a great distance…a really, really great distance.

The earliest photographers learned what painters already knew, that sunlight is not good as a portrait lighting source, for the reason just mentioned, that it casts sharp shadows. So just like painters, they sought out light sources that were more flattering and pleasant, and this led naturally to “diffused” light. This whole realm of diffused light is now the source of endless hokum and nonsense about lighting for photography; more on that in a moment.

Diffused light, or soft light is “uncollimated” light, to use the physics term. It is rays of light coming from a surface instead of a point source. At any given point on that surface, light rays can emerge at any angle in a fully diffuse situation; or some of the rays can emerge parallel and some scattered, as is the case with light diffusion. Or put another way, there is a range of diffuse light from none at all, as in sunlight, to fully diffuse as in a sheet of thick white plastic.

Looked at in this way, it is a simple fact that a softbox, a matte white umbrella, and a diffusing panel with a light behind it are all going to produce a highly diffuse light. The effect on a subject is identical, provided two conditions are met: the size of the diffuse source is the same, and the distance to the subject is the same. This can be easily tested in a studio and I defy anyone to tell me differently.

Now this is where the hokum sets in. Both manufacturers of lighting gear, and photographers themselves, have attempted to claim that it is a lot more complicated, and the uTube world is filled with videos purporting to demonstrate the magical qualities of special lights or fixtures.

Take for example the so-called “beauty dish”, apparently designed to make someone look, well, beautiful. It is really nothing more that a round, semi-diffused fixture, a halfway point on the diffusion spectrum. You could get the same effect with a lightly silvered umbrella, or a light diffusion panel of the same size. There is no mystical “beauty” light coming out here.

I am not implying that all lighting fixtures are the same from a practical point of view. A reflecting white umbrella is quick to set up, but can’t be used close up because the shaft of the umbrella will get in the way. A softbox takes a bit of fiddling to assemble, which takes time, but it can be placed as close to the subject as you want. A diffusion panel requires setting up two things: the panel and the light itself. Furthermore, about half the light hitting the panel will be reflected back toward the light, which means it will give you about one stop less light than an equivalent softbox. So you can see that every solution to diffuse light has its pluses and minuses, like most things in life.

In many decades of shooting, I have used every kind of lighting fixture, and can offer some simple rules, which may or may not line up with the video advice on uTube.

For most subjects, a good starting point is a softbox about the same size as the subject and placed about the same distance away from the subject. For example, use a softbox of about 36 inches square for a typical head and shoulders portrait, and keep the light about three feet away from the subject. Used in that way, the light will have a pleasing “wraparound” quality in which the shadows have soft, feathered edges. Of course, placing that light is key, and that skill takes a long time to master, but at least you will be starting out with something that can work. This will work for lighting a wristwatch, a human face, or an automobile. I made a lot of money lighting up people and products with a single softbox, carefully placed, with a fill card reflector on the opposite side, again carefully placed.

On so many of the uTube videos, I see the diffused source placed far from the subject, say a 30-inch beauty dish placed out ten feet from the subject. Because the light is coming off the fixture at all angles, most of the light is just lighting up the room, not the subject; in other words, most of the light is wasted. To make things worse, the light that does reach the subject is directional, and must cast hard shadows that are not flattering to people or things. This is just one example of the poor advice offered on these channels.

In this post it would be impossible to provide a course in lighting; there is too much to cover. But at least I can make you aware that not everything you see on television is true, or even commonsensical.


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