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The Search for the Perfect Light

Light in a photograph or painting is the vehicle by which we are able to enjoy seeing the meaning of the image. A hard light like sunlight behind the photographer or the flash from a camera produces an evenly lit image with dark, thin shadows. That the information in the dark areas is obscured is of little importance to the overall image. When an image containing a large proportion of shadow and a small portion of strong highlights, the story contained in the shadow area attains a high value of importance. A soft directionless light like on a cloudy day surrounds a subject equally, diminishing the feeling of space and depth in the photograph. The challenge to the photographer is to present the light in the shadows in a real manner, defining the image and giving it depth and color that falls naturally to the eye. Highlights must appear bright without loss of detail but still retaining enough range of light to appear true to its shape. Recommended lighting ratios in the studio range from 2-1 to 3 to 1. The perfect light as defined by Vermeer is closer to 4 to 1. Background objects play a part in telling the story as shown by the center (s) of interest. These main subjects are the ones lit by the strong main light, creating a three dimensional look, enhancing the shape and depth of the subjects. A master of this perfect light ratio was the Dutch artist, Vermeer. For a photographer to attain this perfect ratio is more difficult, not having the tools of the paint and brush to achieve the correct ratio. However, there are ways the photographer can produce the right result. The use of window light to highlight a subject while depending on the scattered light in the room for modeling and depth is one way. Outdoors, there are windows in time when the side light of a sunset exactly balances with the light of dusk. A subject lit by a bright sunlit wall can produce a strong, rounded modeling light that envelopes your subject without overpowering the shadow areas. Once on a wedding, I accidentally discovered a method of achieving the perfect light ratio. While lighting a bedroom scene with the bride and her maids, the fill light head swiveled un-noticed to face a wall instead of towards the subject. The resulting ratio changed from the normal 2 to 1 to 4 to one, producing the Vermeer effect perfectly.

© 2006 Kenneth Hoffman Articles available with limited rights for distribution upon written email approval. A link back to this site is a requirement. Contact Ken for permission.
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