Lighting Isn't Everything: Three Things to Consider When Making Your Next Image

Lighting Isn't Everything: Three Things to Consider When Making Your Next Image

Most people do not understand lighting, frequency separation, or color grading. Here are some things to consider to make your next image even more engaging.

Before we get too far into my rant, let's get a few things straight. I am a professional photographer who uses lighting just about every day. I rely on it and I am constantly learning about it, but lighting and retouching alone do not make an interesting image. 

So if lighting, color, and retouching aren't the most important aspects of a photograph, then what is? To answer that, we need to talk about a few things photography is good at and useful for.  

1. The Fleeting Moment

Traditional photography is fantastic at showing a brief moment in time. A single photograph is usually less than a second exposure, and it is up to the viewer to imagine what happens before or after. Depicting only a brief moment allows people to examine something they wouldn't or couldn't notice unless it was served up to them in a picture. Not every image needs to be Edgerton's "Bullet Through Apple," but a small moment can be charged with a lot of information we would otherwise have no means to ingest. 

2. Evidence

A photograph can show proof that something exists. It can show us people and places we never knew existed. Ansel Adams, for all of his technical achievements, showed people places they could never dream of visiting or otherwise see. Diane Arbus shed light on people society tried to sweep under the rug. Seeking out subjects that are novel or underexplored can create really powerful work that impacts more than just fellow photographers.  

3. Viewer-Led Narrative

This one is a doozy, so stay with me. Something photography is much better at (as compared to say film/video) is allowing the viewer to place themselves in the universe of the image and finish the narrative for themselves. When we see images, we instinctively try to relate, we look for ourselves in the image. We do this with film and video as well, but photography is uniquely suited to this because of its static nature, its ambiguity. Building off the fleeting nature of photography mentioned above, we are left to our own devices to develop the narrative of the image based on our own experience. Used properly, this can be a powerful tool for engaging your viewer.  Ask yourself, are you providing enough information or too much? 

It has been preached about endlessly in the online photography community, this idea that “it's not the gear that matters, it's the story.” I’ll go one step further and say even your technique has less to do with the success of your image than many would care to admit. Technique is just one of many ways to bring your viewer in or out of the world of your photograph. It’s important, but if the image is shallow, if the viewer isn’t rewarded for diving in, then they will just move on.  

These are just a few devices we can use to create more interesting work. What, other than how many lights you used, is important to you in your photography? 

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7 Comments

user-156929's picture

Great article!

user-165452's picture

That’s a great article. Those are the things on my mind but couldn’t quiet grasp, thanks. I would say however that film, if don’t thoughtfully can have the same effect, if not rushed and less of the Hollywood quick edit, fast movement. Cheers

Carlton Canary's picture

Thanks Chris,

I try not to think in absolutes so I do believe that all of these can pertain to the broader visual art landscape, film/video included. That said, I think photography especially lends itself to these concepts.

Carlton Canary's picture

I love when people have a personal take on my images. Thanks for sharing!

JetCity Ninja's picture

you left out "naked woman."

I think the best thing any and all photographers can do to improve their images, is study a little (or a lot) of cinematography, and if possible work on a film or two (even just a local indie). The filmmaking people deal with all the same issues as still photographers, but at a much more developed, structured and serious level. Plus, you'll learn all about lighting--again, at a level that's as sophisticated at it gets.

Carlton Canary's picture

Hi Timothy, I agree with a lot of what you say. Most photographers are basically “lone wolfs” left to their own devices to figure things out. The film industry is very robust, and many off the issues we are faced with as photographers have already been ironed out to the Nth degree. That said I think still photography presents it’s own challenges from a more conceptual standpoint as opposed to a technical one.