5 Lighting Lessons Learned from Tony Corbell

Last week I travelled to New Mexico for a Santa Fe Photography Workshop on lighting taught by Tony Corbell. Everything I have achieved to date with photography has been done with ambient light. My studio work was hit or miss — really any good shots were lucky — and my portraits were average at best. Learning how to craft images with artificial light was the obvious next step for my photography.

Tony Corbell is actually a pretty well known photographer who has taken portraits of three U.S. Presidents, the UN Millennium Summit, and has appeared in more than 25 photographic books. He primarily teaches about photographic lighting and imaging workflow.

First, let me say the images you see here were taken for Tony Corbell’s class. I am 100% certain I could not have taken them before arriving Santa Fe. Perhaps that’s the best testimony I can offer.

Here are my five big takeaways from Santa Fe:

1) Meter the Light

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In the old days before digital, photographers did not have the luxury of taking a bazillion pictures to get the lighting right. Film cost money to buy and develop. Instead, they metered light to get the right exposure before they shot.

Moving forward, digital cameras do allow for spot checks by frames, and frankly, I think many self taught photographers like myself over-rely on “click, bracket and pray” approaches to photography. When it comes to portraiture and some city shots, this over-reliance creates mistakes and the need to correct during the editing process.

Part of the problem begins with the camera itself, which takes photos for what it believes to be a middle ground exposure of grays, approximately 18% of the light. The camera’s interpretation of light creates many poor images. This in turn produces challenges which require compensation while shooting and many extra minutes in Photoshop correcting light.

However, when light sources are metered accurately the image is shot well. There are no surprises. The editing process is so much quicker — primarily for subject corrections and artistic interpretation.

I was shocked by how few actual photographs I took after using the meter, and how little editing my shots required. This shot of Julia required no light corrections and only about two minutes of touch-ups in Lightroom. And yeah, I bought a basic Sekonic meter over the weekend.

2) The Da Vinci Principles of Lighting Subjects

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Tony Corbell spent some time studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s views on optics and lighting subjects. One big takeaway was using both highlights and shadows to provide a contextual view of the subject. Specifically, the eye needs both light and darkness to interpret an image. Shadow is critical for DaVinci.

Further, DaVinci used to place the focal point of his painting subjects at a 45-degree angle from the primary lighting source. This would create the necessary “unity of shadow, progressively veiling the boundaries of
different colour areas.” Given Da Vinci’s success as a painter, he might have a lesson or two worth a bit of experimentation for photographers, and experiment I did.

This rock star photograph of Gary, the guitar player features a light at a 45 degree angle from his left side, also angled down at 45 degrees. A second “God light” was placed above him at 45 degrees.

3) How to Set Secondary Lights

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When you use ambient light as your sole source of illumination, there are limits to what your camera captures. When you create your own light, you have the opportunity to leverage your primary light or ambient light with secondary illumination.

Building off the Da Vinci principle of using shadow to interpret a subject, secondary lighting done well provides highlights that build on the primary light. Ambient light can serves as either the primary or secondary light or both (think diffusers and/or reflectors). The key is to meter and set the secondary light at 1 to 2 stops below the primary light.

The above portrait of Thomas taken at Eaves Movie Ranch used the ambient light to provide highlights while a Bowens 500 light served as the primary source. You can see the highlights adding context to Thomas’s left side.

Another key aspect in positioning light sources is harshness. The further away a light is from the subject, the harsher it is, creating tighter highlight points and deeper shadows. When shooting portraits, softer smoother skin is best achieved by placing the light as close to the subject as possible. Diffusing light sources also helps.

4) More than the Golden and Blue Hours

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When you are a landscape or street photographer that uses ambient light as your primary source of illumination, you come to treasure the gold and blue hours. I almost always refuse to shoot outside these timeframes. But when you understand how to control light, you realize an image can be exposed for anytime of day, rain or shine.

Tony Corbell showed us how to meter during the day, and how to use secondary light sources to provide fills. I cannot tell you how freeing this is. Since the class, I have taken several pictures using flash to augment ambient sunlight, and some of them have been mid-morning and afternoon shots. The above shot of Gary, the skateboarder was taken a few hours before sunset.

5) Editing for Light

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It was refreshing to see Tony Corbell’s editing process. Even though he relies on the actual photography and edits very little, he does edit, and he uses Lightroom, Photoshop, and the Nik series of filters and editing tools. However, a filter does not make a photo, and it was clear that these tools simply help bring out the best in a decent capture. Those improvements begin with balancing light in your photograph.

Perhaps the best lesson I learned on post-processing from Tony was helping people interpret your photograph as intended. The human eye is drawn to the most well lit part of a photograph. So dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) to help lead the eye is important. If a photograph is lit across the image, then the converse is true. The eye will migrate to the darkest portion of the image.

The above photograph of Kaarina features some burning on her chest as the light there was dominant. In addition, I darkened the outside sections of the image to draw you into the photograph and focus on her. Without this darkening, you could easily focus on her chest or her arm and the sweeping dress instead of Kaarina’s face.

Speaking of arms, another aspect of editing is eliminating distractions. Kaarina’s arm was veiny after a day of shooting and movement, so I smoothed out her arm. The Thomas portrait had secondary light pouring through a hole in the wall, so I edited it out. These are minor details, but addressing them is the difference between good and better.

There were many other lessons learned at the workshop, but these were my big five takeaways. A special thank you to Tony Corbell for his hard work training us. And thanks to the Santa Fe Photography Workshops for organizing and hosting. It was a great week that I am sure will benefit my photography for years to come.