Understanding light

Light is perhaps the most crucial element in photography. Ok, that’s a bit obvious – I mean, without light, there’d be no photography. Everything’d be dark.

What I mean to say is light, amongst many other elements, can make or break an image. Understand it and put that knowledge to practice, your own photography skills will improve by leaps and bounds, regardless of whether you’re a natural light photographer or studio photographer or somewhere in between.

Next time you flip through a magazine, take a moment and look at the ads. With a little practice, you can figure out how they lit the models, and even how many lights they used.

I found this terrific Vogue cover of Michelle Obama – whether you’re pro-Obama or not, you can’t tell me that this isn’t a terrific lady and a great role model. I picked this picture because, while there’s a lot of lights, it’s pretty easy to pick them out.

Michelle Obama - Vogue

The photographer used at least five lights. I’ve used my high-end photoshopping (that’s sarcasm) skills to point them out for you.

Michelle Obama - Vogue
  • Camera: the camera is positioned in between chest and waist level, at Michelle’s eye level. Note that she is looking directly at it.
  • Blue: the main light, it’s slightly to the right of and slightly below the camera. It illuminates mostly her torso, with some spill light on her cheek, skirt and the sofa (I didn’t circle the latter two)
  • Red: Small light source to the right of Michelle. The reason I know this is separate from blue is because if you look at her left arm (your right), you’ll see that the arm isn’t as strongly lit as that side of the face.
  • Green: This light is above and slightly in front of Michelle – note how the folds in the skirt have shadows underneath them, even in the shadow cast by the sofa/blue light. This is how I know its primary light isn’t the blue one.
  • Yellow: this is often called hair or kicker light. It adds definition and shine to hair. Also above Michelle.
  • Pink: This one, I am unsure about. If you look at the original version, you can see a faint highlight from a light. I am not positive if it’s from the Green light or if this is another light source that’s meant to help define her shoulder. I am leaning toward the latter; I think it comes from behind Michelle, camera left.

Do you think I missed a light source? What do you think about the pink light?

Edited to add: Upon reflection, I think I did miss a light. Can you guess where?

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