This is not a “beginner” book. There are no photographs
of light stands and speedlights. I hope that
you already know what they are. This book is to help
you think about the light that these tools provide, and
what that light does when it is rendered on a subject. By
focusing on the subject, we can make all kinds of decisions
about the gear we are using.
Subject-Centric Lighting . . . What Does That Mean?
Light is a substance we cannot taste or smell. We can’t
touch it or bend it. In fact, we can see light only when
it reflects from something—and that “something” is the
subject of our photograph. The light can reflect from
the subject with soft tonalities or with wildly exaggerated
color. It can also carve the texture by highlighting
the raised areas and defining the unlit areas as shadow.
Edge light can separate our subject from a darker background,
while the chiaroscuro effect of gentle gradients
can add depth to a portrait.
Light is the tool that we use to reveal those attributes,
but it is the subject that embodies them. Therefore,
subject-centric lighting means we think of the subject
first. What qualities does the subject possess that
the light will react with? How will the light react and
what will it reveal? What elements do we wish the subject
to present? Will the subject present soft edges with
open shadows or distinct lines of highlight and shadow?
Should the subject merge with the background or be
separated from it?
It’s all about choices
There are no right or wrong answers, there are simply
choices that we as photographers must make. Those choices need to be made before the lights are set up
and in position, and based on what we want our images
to look like as prints or digital displays. We refer
to that process as previsualization—knowing in advance
what it is that should be achieved, then working toward
that end. The tools we use are many and varied but the
images we produce should not be the result of happenstance
or luck. The decisions we make must be conconscious
choices that guide the image toward the what we
saw in our heads way before we clicked the shutter.
I was once hired to shoot some images for a company
that wanted to show how the pollution from an
Arizona copper mine was (in their words) fouling the air
with thick black billows of airborne death. I immediately
knew how to show that smoke at its worst: backlight
it. During the afternoon, I went to the town the smelter was in and scouted a position that would show the sun
setting behind the smoke. The result was simply scary;
black smoke blocked the light and created a deep, highcontrast
trail of darkness against the vibrant sky. As I
drove past the smelter to the side lit directly by the sun,
I took some additional shots for myself. In these, the
smoke was front lit against a pale sky—and you could
hardly make out the smoke at all. It looked like faint
white streams against some soft clouds.
The subject was the same and the light was the same.
What changed was the way the subject and the light
interacted. In the scary smoke shot, the smoke blocked
the sunlight and created a shadow of it. In the not-soscary
smoke shot, the sun simply bounced off of the
particles, revealing no contrast. This is the essence of
subject-centric lighting: considering the subject first,
then applying the light because of what we know of the
subject’s ability to handle it.
1. How Subject-Centric Lighting
Works to your...
Don Giannatti (Author)
Don Giannatti has been a professional photographer for more than 45 years. He teaches workshops for photographers across the United States, Canada, and Bermuda. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.