In Classical Greek, the word “photography” literally means writing with light. One of the most important things a photographer can do is to take control of light. Many photographers spend most of their time capturing available light; fewer photographers use lights to create their pictures. The real difficulty with lighting well is learning to write in a new language with new tools. If we want to do that well, we need to understand the tools and how to use them.
After a few decades of using lights, I have become convinced that there are two-and-a-half important things about light. The first is color. People who have come to pho- tography since the advent of digital and auto color often think that the camera will fix the color automatically. While current digital cameras can fix many things, they don’t do well with mixed light. So if you have daylight coming into a room lit with a lot of tungsten-filament light bulbs, you will have problems with color. Perhaps the daylight will be blue and the tungsten light neutral, or maybe the daylight will be neutral and the tungsten yellow, or it could be that everything is wrong. Some digital cameras actually create more separation between colors of light than film did.
The second important thing is the size of the light source. Although it may seem that a soft box is in some basic way different from an umbrella, the really important characteristic is size. A bigger light source has a softer look, it makes a much longer transition from light to dark, and there will be fewer shadows. A large light source actually lights each area of the subject from many different angles; it is as if each part of the subject is lit from each part of the light source. So a big source lights wrinkles and texture very differently from a small light source. The size of the light source is more important than its shape, though many people don’t think so. In other words, a 4×6-foot soft box will be a softer light than a 5-foot umbrella, and both are softer than a 2×3-foot soft box. The type of light source affects the way that reflections appear in the eyes and on the surfaces of a subject, but this is less important than it was when we couldn’t retouch a catch light or reflection.