How Light Is Used To Create Images – V

by William Lulow

In the past few articles I’ve discussed how light is used to create images. But, there’s a whole lot more to it than that. The “Psychology Of Light” comes into play here as well. Once the photographer has decided what lights he or she will use, the decision has to be made on how exactly to use them and what kinds of lighting will be used to create just the kind of photograph desired.

All this presupposes a complete knowledge of whatever lighting you decide to use. Whether it is studio strobes, speedlights or actual hotlight, you need to know all the various ways these tools can be used before you attempt to create a psychologically meaningful portrait.

Like most everything else, light has a definite psychology. Dark images are “moody” or convey a sense of mystery. Light images are usually happy and convey a sense of lightness or airy-ness! It is important to keep these things in mind whenever you start to do a portrait. You need to find out what the final “judge” of the picture wants. Portraits for websites and other publicity images need to be informational. They need to show what the person looks like, but at his or her best. Personal images, the shots that photographers usually do for themselves or their portfolios, can really be anything they like. I’ve often said that a personal portrait is more about the photographer than the subject. Many famous photographers have photographed the same subjects, yet they all look different. That’s because each photographer has a different “take” on how the subject looks.

You have to keep the rules in mind. Publicity and advertising photographs are most often “directed” by someone other than the subject (an art director, usually). So, if you want to sell those images, those are the people you need to please. If you’re doing a private commission, I would suggest finding out how the subject sees him or herself and then try to please them. If you’re doing a photograph for your own book or collection, then you are free to make whatever kind of image pleases you!

So, “light” pictures are mostly informational and must be lit accordingly. You need to fill in shadows and add highlights and keep the backgrounds light to make the image have an uplifting psychological impact. Conversely, if you’re trying to create a psychologically “down” feel, then the lighting should be shadowy, moody and the backgrounds dark.

Once you have been able to make these types of images consistently in your body of work, you can then try breaking these “rules” and discover what effects you can create.

Here’s a psychologically “light” image:

Expressions are smiling and the background is light. Here’s more of a moody image:

This is lit by a single edge light and the subject has a serious expression.

Keeping expressions in mind is important to the outcome of your portraits. I usually like to talk to my subjects to try to elicit expressions, but if you’re creating a “mood” portrait, sometimes playing slow music can help. Trying to control the “psychology” of your shoots will lead to better portraits that really say something about you as a photographic artist. And, using light creatively usually makes all the difference in portraiture.