Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Light: Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, 3rd Edition
$29.75 from Amazon U.S.
£21.84 from Amazon U.K.
I suspect that I'm like most devoted amateurs, in that I have almost exclusively photographed using available light, occasionally resorting to on-camera flash for holiday parties and other indoor events. Not surprisingly, my indoor people-pictures universally sucked: harsh, mug-shot lighting with stark shadows and inky black backgrounds. I browsed through a few books on lighting and flash photography, but found them mostly useless: lots of vague generalizations and spiffy portrait examples, yet I still was mystified as to how flash and studio lighting really worked. It all seemed like black magic.
Light: Science & Magic decodes the mystery. It's easy to overlook on the shelf at your local B&N or Borders; the cover illustration is a little odd, and it lacks the splashy large photos other lighting books are filled with. But it's a brilliantly logical and straightforward introduction to studio/portrait lighting for beginners, standing head and shoulders above anything else I've seen.
The introductory chapter outlines lighting as the "language of photography," and identifies three basic principles that organize everything else. These are: the critical rôle of the apparent size of your light source, the three types of surface reflection that determine the appearance of your subject, and the concept of the "family of angles" that control direct reflections. The remainder of the book fleshes out and organizes these principles into a kind of mental "toolkit" for lighting anything. The authors emphasize that photographic styles and fads come and go but the tools remain constant. They also advise the reader to learn and grow with the gear you already have, before rushing out to buy more toys.
The second chapter present a commendably clear description of the physical nature and behavior of light, and its interactions with objects, as it pertains to photography. You'd think this would be obvious stuff, but the clarity and logical rigor of the discussion were very...er, enlightening. Subsequent chapters delve into the details of the three types of reflection (diffuse, direct, glare) and provide the most comprehensible description of polarization I have ever seen. The discussion is accompanied by simple, lucid diagrams that
illustrate the concepts nicely. Chapter 4 discusses surface appearances, how the interaction of light source with the reflective characteristic of an object determines its appearance to the eye or camera. The discussion neatly segues into a clearly diagrammed analysis of lighting a partly reflective object optimally.
This is much easier reading than one would think; the concepts and their application flow so logically and are so clearly explained that it's entertaining rather than a dry slog. Using lighting and management of reflections to provide clues to the three dimensional shape of a subject seems simple by the time you get there. Chapters on lighting metal and glass might seem pointless if you plan on taking portraits of people, but the lessons they teach about managing direct reflections are directly relevant to avoiding nasty eyeglass reflections. Chapter 8 finally delves into portrait lighting, with the usual review of key light/fill light/rim or hair light/background light planted firmly on the principles previously explained.
The last chapter, "Traveling Light," finally gets into details about the actual gadgets you might want to use, like umbrellas, strobes and soft boxes. It's a pleasure to read something that stresses the principles at work, and the concept of designing the lighting of a photograph, rather than the latest expensive strobe.
I can honestly say that this book has dramatically improved the quality of my own portrait photographs (mostly of long-suffering immediate family members). I don't think there are any better print sources out there for someone who wants to get a handle on lighting.
As a postscript—I can also enthusiastically recommend a website for those interested in learning more about off-camera flash and portable strobe lighting; that would be David Hobby's wonderful Strobist, which includes extensive tutorials and lots of info on cheap DIY options for professional-quality lighting results. Great stuff. —GW
Mike adds: I don't want to step on Geoff's toes—he decides what he wants to review, and of course what he wants to say—but Light: Science and Magic also happens to be the basic lighting text I've been recommending for years. It's included in the chapter called "Technical Books" in my book about cameras and lenses, Lenses and the Light-Tight Box.
Featured Comment by Mike Peters: "Back in the old days of K64 and Fuji 100 color transparency film, I used to shoot corporate annual reports and magazine editorial work. I used strobes extensively, carrying anywhere from 50 to 300 pounds of packs, heads, stands, light modifiers, knicknacks and gewgaws to be able to make pretty light anywhere under any circumstances. I even had a generator so I could have flowing electrons to power up where no power existed.
"Being able to light stuff was what separated the pros from everyone else; it was what kept you in business. Now, with digital I can shoot in almost total darkness without ever using a flash and get amazing results. Thank goodness I don't have to schlep hundreds of pounds of lighting gear anymore. But then, neither does anyone else. We can all shoot away at 6400 and fast lenses. Pphotography is pretty democratic now.
"However, knowing lighting can have an advantageous effect on your ability to shoot in natural light. You know what you can get just by looking at light. Even if you can't control the light, you can sometimes control the subject or where you stand to make things better.
"Another good book is Matters of Light & Depth by Ross Lowell—you know, the Tota-light guy. He makes understanding light very easy, diagrams and all. I don't know if it's in print anymore [yup —Ed.], but It's worth getting.
"The best thing though is to look at images, paintings and movies that have what you consider to be good light. If you learn how to look, you can infer quite a bit about how the lighting was done, and get a grip on the qualities of the light, such as is if soft or hard, direction, height, and how it brings out or suppresses texture.
"Light creates mood and that mood plays with your emotions. Done right, good light will make you feel something about the image that sometimes even the subject matter will have a hard time doing."