Almost everything I do as a photographer comes back to this challenge: seeing light as a cinematographer would on set. I was recently reminded of this in conversation with a friend and fellow photographer as I was trying to think of the best advice I could give to someone wanting to step up their lighting game. So I’m sharing one of my lighting journals from film school, it was my sort of “ah ha” moment after several semesters of confusion and frustration when it came to lighting.
(I know it’s not perfect, I would admittedly see this assignment much differently now but I still think it’s a good example exercise.)
As a student of photography I shot only natural light for years. Then I made the switch to film school and it seemed I knew nothing. Lighting I, Lighting II, Advanced Lighting, etc… the classes kept coming but I still didn’t get it.
As dumb as this sounds, I couldn’t see light. In the natural world or in watching a movie, I couldn’t identify each light source or describe it’s qualities, much less the psychological impact. And then came an assignment to do those exact things.
Direction. Color. Quality. Intensity.
It was our task to gather stills from feature films, and then describe these characteristics for each light source, along with the mood and tone they conveyed.
In each scene from a movie, consider how much information the lighting actually gives: where to look, who is important, are they good or bad, what time of year is it, time of day, is this a comedy, is this set in the past/future, is this person trustworthy? The list goes on and on.
As a photographer, your lighting is communicating something, why not learn it’s language and start identifying it’s characteristics? Without further ado, here are the notes from one of my lighting journals:
The English Patient
A Single Man
A Single Man
A Single Man
If this piqued your interest and you’d like to learn more about thinking and seeing like a cinematographer, here are a few links for you:
1. Gather stills from movies you love and analyze the light.
3. Take notes from Brent Christy who is always offering lighting plots from his shoots.
4. Dive into Cinematography Database. Matt Workman is giving you gold with his scene breakdowns and articles like this on bounced light.
About the author: Doug Jackson is a photographer based out of Orlando, Florida. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Film and served as a U.S. Marine in the Iraq War. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.