Throwing light on light

Not even the masters of lighting agree on where lighting sits in the hierarchy of elements that make a photograph great. They do, though, have definite ideas about how to use it, what to use to achieve it, and how to master it. Candide McDonald quizzed four masters of lighting for enlightenment on lighting skills.

“Lighting is everything in photography. Lighting is the single critical element, whether it’s natural light, a candle, or a studio full of artificial light. Lighting is where photography starts. Photographic lighting provides an illumination to the subjects or scenes within the setting. Without the necessary lighting, the image would look bland and incomplete.” This is the view of American photographer, Tim Tadder. It’s quite an endorsement. Tadder is celebrated as one of the world’s most influential conceptual advertising photographers. He’s also highly respected for this art photography.

© Robert Coppa. On the Cusp.
© Robert Coppa. On the Cusp.

Lighting is also the essence of Australian fashion and portrait photographer Robert Coppa’s work. “Without light, I can’t achieve my final result. By definition, photograph means ‘drawing with light’. Although light is essential to photography, light in itself cannot produce emotive and expressive photographs without the application of thorough photographic technique. Light enables me to apply my creativity to successfully deliver commissioned work. By understanding light, I am able to adapt to varied situations, whether shooting in the studio or on location,” Coppa says.

Lighting is not everything for US still-life photographer, James T. Murray. “Light can set a mood, tell a story, and help to elicit an emotional response. It’s important to know how to change the mood of a photo by altering the lighting. How can you make a photo happier, ethereal, mysterious, or eerie using light? This is something that will be asked by clients of all commercial photographers. For me, beautiful light is only part of the foundation in the construction of a photo. There is also styling that’s involved, set design, colour palette, and post-production. If you’re shooting a portrait, fashion, or beauty photo you also need to connect with the talent on set. The greatest lighting in the world cannot make up for defects in these other areas.” For Australian advertising, fashion, and beauty specialist Steven Popovich, it is one of many tools also. “Lighting is one of the many elements that needs to work together to help create the desired visual direction. It can bring an idea to life, tell a story. It’s also an element that can become a part of your signature and I’m constantly trying to push it into new worlds; making it complex one day and pared back another.”

Paths to enlightenment

Each of the photographers interviewed has created a power cell of lighting techniques and, in some cases, a signature lighting style for which they are sought for work time and time again. For Popovich, this is through the simple process of trial and error. “The discovery for me came when I got a studio space and consistently shot submission editorials earlier in my career. Every shoot I would try something new. If the lighting wasn’t working, I would change it up again. Then, reflect on the shoot so I could learn from my mistakes.” Coppa’s signature style was developed with more intention. “My greatest lighting technique is the use of a single light to create a Chiaroscuro effect. I can consistently achieve that look by using just one light and a large reflective soft box. I studied the elements of tonality, composition, and colour that I’m drawn to.” This led him to achieve Chiaroscuro’s three-dimensional quality in images strongly contrasting black and white.

© James T. Murray. Shot for Victoria’s Secret Direct. CD: Tracy Deleu. AD: Christine Bollinger. Styling/Retouching: Yuco Lacovara. DigiTech: Jeff Alves de Lima.
© James T. Murray. Shot for Victoria’s Secret Direct. CD: Tracy Deleu.
AD: Christine Bollinger. Styling/Retouching: Yuco Lacovara. DigiTech: Jeff Alves de Lima.

Murray, whose specialty is still life, learned how to light from the fashion photographers he assisted early in his career. “I’ve been told that I approach shoots more like a fashion photographer than someone who does still life. I applied to still life the techniques I learned shooting fashion and portraits, and as a result my pictures were different, and that worked in my favour.

Tooling up

When it comes to gear, Tadder says that he has nothing he considers to be special. “I’m not a gear guy so I don’t really dwell on the importance of gear. Every particular image requires a unique approach to lighting and I try to use a unique creative method for each specific project. Lighting comes with infinite variables. Every job or project requires a different approach to lighting techniques; it all depends on the story.”

© Tim Tadder. Shot for Humana. Agency: Golin. Commissioned to capture the spirit of athletes competing in the National Senior Games presented by Humana.
© Tim Tadder. Shot for Humana. Agency: Golin. Commissioned to capture the spirit of athletes competing in the National Senior Games presented by Humana.

Popovich relies on an enormous collection of tools. “All of my gear is important. The more the better. But that could also be the nerd in me. Every situation is different and each piece of gear gives me a different quality of light, so it’s very hard to pinpoint one piece. Thinking back on my career, I would say that I frequently use the Octa soft light (various sizes), Photek Softlighter, and beauty dish the most.”  

The majority of Murray’s work is done in his studio in NYC. It has both northern and southern exposures, but the natural light changes very quickly because of the tall buildings that surround it. Using this available window light is possible, he notes, but too stressful because of the constant shifts. The appeal of window lighting was a magnet though. “I set out years ago to figure out how to recreate various kinds of window light using strobes. We mostly light with strobes at this point. I can give almost any ‘look’ that’s asked for with them. We use Broncolor strobes almost exclusively at this point. They’re flexible, durable, and precise. Light modifiers (soft boxes, grids, Fresnel, spots, etc.) are key. Knowing what they can and cannot do comes from experience, practise, and experimentation.”

Coppa also relies on strobe heads and light modifiers. “Many newcomers to photography are drawn to the amount of light or wattage the light can produce.” Of far more importance, he says, is the consistency of the light and the degree of control. “Having granular control of the light output will give you far more versatility over sheer power alone. My preferred modifiers are typically large reflective soft boxes. They produce a beautiful soft light that creates a painterly feel to my images. I also use Elinchrom’s range of direct reflectors and often pair them with deflectors to create a punchy light for my fashion editorial work. I shoot exclusively with Elinchrom equipment and have done so for over 17 years.”

© Steven Popovich. A Night at the Museum with Louis Vuitton, for Grazia magazine.
© Steven Popovich. A Night at the Museum with Louis Vuitton, for Grazia magazine.

Uniquely yours

Lighting may be taught at college, but it can take years to finesse; years to develop a signature lighting style and/or mastery. That ongoing education process matters, Murray notes. “Study light. Do this when you’re walking on the street, watching movies, viewing art. Ask yourself why the light moves you and how that’s achieved. Most of all, practise, practise, practise,” he says. He doesn’t believe that he has a signature style. His work doesn’t call for it. “My clientele demands that I’m able to achieve a variety of looks and sometimes on the same project. I always have several personal projects going where I’m usually trying out new ideas and techniques that can be later applied to commissioned work. You cannot rely on your same lighting set ups and still stay current as a professional. Testing and trying out new and sometimes crazy ideas for lighting is essential,” Murray says.

© Tim Tadder. Shot for Muscle Tech. Model – Scott Mathison.
© Tim Tadder. Shot for Muscle Tech. Model – Scott Mathison.

Coppa’s attitude towards developing a signature style is more structured. “It all starts with understanding how light behaves, regardless of the equipment used. Light behaves the same way whether it’s generated by Elinchrom, Profoto, or any other brand. Once you understand how light behaves, then you can concentrate on discovering your style. Part of defining your signature style is discovering your photographic sensibility. By critically examining photographs and mapping your preferences (tonality, composition and colour), you will develop a consistent look as you will naturally gravitate towards that style.”

Popovich recommends that each photographer find their own path. “Everyone is different in the way they work. When I first started out, I was always pulling references for things I liked and using them for my inspiration and direction. The best thing I did was stopping that. That enabled me to look at my lighting and figure out my own aesthetic, and not trying to replicate something done already. Not to say my light has never been created before, it has, but I was able to focus on developing my own style.”

© Robert Coppa. Palm Beach, NSW.
© Robert Coppa. Palm Beach, NSW.

Pearls of Wisdom

Lighting tips from those who have mastered it.

James T. Murray: Lighting doesn’t necessarily need to be complicated to be successful. The most important decision is always how the light should fall on the subject. Basically, what is the quality and quantity of light? Usually, we’ll start with one light source and build or subtract as necessary. I’ve recently started to set up a second alternative lighting scheme and show both to the client before receiving feedback. This has been one of the modifications in our evolving workflow that’s been very helpful and efficient regarding time management during the COVID crisis.

Tim Tadder: There’s a multitude of photographers who tend to over-light images or think that lighting is super complex, when in reality less is more. The best image-makers really focus on creating work that is not super formulaic and is rather crafted to the story they are trying to tell.

A lot of photographers also think that retouching is some magical process, but if lighting is poor to begin with, no amount of retouching will help. Retouching should shape and enhance light. Retouching is a place where photographers can put their style on an image. A signature lighting style is more of a toning process, with the use of contrast in a certain way, that ultimately gives an artists’ work a particular look and feel.

Steve Popovich: Do it all! There will always be mistakes, things you could’ve done better. You will only learn and reduce mistakes by making them in the first place. No different from life. Like life, creativity comes from within and manifests into an experience before you. You’re in control of the outcome, so never stop trying new things given the opportunity. The biggest mistake is to always play it safe. Another thing to consider is to be a problem-solver. Often, I’ve had a lighting direction considered, but on the day it hasn’t worked, for whatever reason, like the makeup, styling, or the model isn’t marrying with the lighting. The calmer and more considered you can be to fix your lighting, the better. Sometimes there is so much to shoot in a day. [Lighting] is the one thing you want to get right so that the rest of your day can run as smoothly as possible.

Robert Coppa: Learn how to leverage the Inverse Square Law for practical uses in photography. Use a bounced fill light to control the level of contrast in your images. When using multi-light setups, start with one light and build on it incrementally. Don’t be afraid to use hard lights. Be open to constructive criticism. Practise your lighting techniques with intent. Avoid overexposing your subject. Avoid using unflattering light, such as up-light, too-broad, or too-short lighting. Don’t rush your lighting set-up time. Avoid unwanted shadows due to cross-lighting. Avoid uncontrolled light spillage (refer to Inverse Square Law).

© Steven Popovich. A Rose by Any Name.
© Steven Popovich. A Rose by Any Name.


Robert Coppa

James T. Murray

Steven Popovich

Tim Tadder


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