Studio Lighting Theory on SIZE of Light

I have been teaching light control workshops for many years and as such have been forever linked to lighting education and light theory. And whenever I have been asked why I have chosen to stay focused on light I respond that lighting education is one of the most overlooked and yet most important aspects of gaining a well-rounded knowledge of photography.

There are factors that are present in lighting that can be subtle nuance and there are those that are science and physics. For me personally, I enjoy trying to find ways to master or in some way to conquer both. There are many who describe it as using two sides of the brain; the left side of your brain for analytical thought processes and the right side more for creative thinking. It is great exercise to try to use both.

The Theory of Lighting Relativity

One of my greatest friends and mentors, Dean Collins used to teach that almost everything in photography is based on relativity. Everything is relative to the next thing. With this in mind think about the size of just about any given light source. The statement that I make over and over is that the size of any light source is directly relative to its’ distance from the subject. As a light source gets closer to a subject it becomes larger relative to the distance. It seems pretty simple and makes sense. But what is important is how the distance affects the way in which light reacts to this change in size/distance.

There are three primary changes that occur whenever the size/distance changes. For the sake of this discussion let’s assume we are using a standard medium-size softbox.

As you move the softbox closer to the subject three things happen:

·      The edge of the shadow becomes softer

·      The size of the actual highlight increases

·      The brightness of the actual highlight diminishes

Large source=Large soft highlights and shadows

Want to make a shiny "hotspot" less shiny?  Move the light closer OR make it bigger. Want to harden the edge of a shadow? Simple.  Make the source smaller or move it further away.   Here’s the thing to consider with the above three actions. Physics plays such a big role in this area of control that it is fairly easy to understand once you know what is taking place.  The good news is that it does exactly the same thing and reacts the same way each and every time you repeat an action. So, great predictability and habits can be born if there is something you want or need to do for a specific picture. You can repeat specific looks and alter the shadow or the highlight accordingly with predictable results and in order to produce depth in your work shadows and highlights must be present. In some of his writings, Leonardo DaVinci was quoted as saying that “the artist who avoids the shadows may be said to avoid the glory in art." Great, so let's all start paying attention to the shadows and give them a little respect.  The same applies to the highlights. Moving the light source in and out, closer and further away, makes for big changes in the overall look, style, and mood of any photograph. 

Smaller Source=Small highlights and sharper edge shadows