What kind of lighting is this?” my photojournalism professor asked one morning during our class. A classmate instantly replied, “Loop lighting!” I, on the other hand, stared at the picture for at least a minute until I actually saw the light instead of the shadows.
Another morning, my professor took us out into the quad area outside and placed someone underneath an overhang so a pattern of light shone on their face. “Now, what kind of lighting is this?” I still couldn’t answer that question.
On a Journey for Light
Much of this class taught me how to perceive the world differently from how I natively see things. And even though I specialized in graphic design as a visual journalism major, I needed to understand photography and lighting if I wanted to truly work in a multimedia magazine job. So, my quest for light began.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to flip-flop my vision. Instead of focusing on the shadows, I could focus on everything but the shadows. It’s similar to those optical illusions, such as the controversial young or old woman picture. After that, I started separating the light from shadows.
I also discovered that I could often detect light through shapes: rectangles, diagonal lines, a triangular shape on one’s cheek for Rembrandt lighting, circles for loop lighting, a half-moon, crescent, ovals, and more. Associating a shape with a particular style helped me distinguish between those that looked similar.
It’s similar to playing a game of hide-and-seek: it’s hard to find someone when they’re hidden in a dark space, but once you find their form, see the color of their clothes, and separate the shadows from their body, then you can identify the person.
Adapting a New Process
Finding the light became much more difficult when my professor asked us to look for it in color portraits because I have an extremely high color sensitivity—I have a shirt that’s clearly indigo, yet most of my friends think it’s purple. My eyes often compress colors together. As a result, light just looks like another color to me. Later on, I realized I could actually look for lighting through color—light is generally yellow or white. After that realization, I looked for white and yellow spots when I took pictures—a practice which helped tremendously.
During later class sessions, we browsed through more color and black-and-white photos, so I implemented my new techniques. First, I looked for the brighter spots in the picture. Next, I looked for shapes that helped me identify a particular style, and then I finished with an observation of white and yellow colors. Eventually, I inched toward my classmates’ response times. I still couldn’t distinguish the styles as quickly as they did, but I at least knew what they were at this point: broad, loop, short, split, Rembrandt, butterfly.
Being able to discern this kind of light did not come easily to me. It took practice and still is taking practice in my photography. It even took me using techniques to rewire my brain to see something that I normally don’t see. It’s quite the quirky process and I’m still not the best photographer in the world—but at least I can catch the light when I snap the shutter, look at the digital copies of images, and say, “Look at that small, dark circle under her nose: it’s butterfly!”
Cover image by Christopher Julio Hernandez.
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