9 - 12
Minimum one 45-minute to one-hour classroom period
About this Exploration
Examine and analyze photography that uses lighting to direct the viewer’s attention to highlighted points in an image. You will create four photographs that incorporate lighting techniques such as hard light, soft light, back lighting, and “golden hour” light. You can add photographs to a body of work based on your interests.
Light that is present without human interference. This can be the direct light of the sun on a bright sunny day, or the light created by a cloudy or foggy day. Natural light also includes the light of the moon at night. With natural lighting you may need to position yourself, the object, or the person you are photographing to achieve the lighting you want.
Light that has a human-made source (lamp, flashlight) and can often be moved around and adjusted. With artificial light, it is easier to manipulate or position where you’d like the lighting to focus.
The brief period of daytime shortly after sunrise or before sunset. During this time daylight is often redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky. Cinematographers also refer to the golden hour as the "magic hour.” The “hour” actually lasts about twenty or thirty minutes.
A type of bright light in photography that casts harsh, sharply defined shadows and typically draws the viewer's attention to a specific area.
In photography, ambient light is considered the "natural light" within a room.
Back Lighting (Backlight)
A light source located behind the person or object you are photographing. Back lighting creates great opportunities to play with silhouettes and create long shadows in your photography.
Soft lighting occurs when your light source is diffused. A soft light is the effect is subtler than it would be with a direct source of light. By using soft light, you will end up with less intense shadows, if any at all, and a lower contrast between the darks and lights in your photo.
Vocabulary available as Unshuttered Lighting Sheet in Resources section, accompanied by additional specialist terms.
This lesson covers lighting techniques that can be used when photographing anything. Create four photographs that incorporate the lighting techniques discussed: hard light, soft light, golden hour light, and back lighting. You also have the option of creating one alternative photograph that uses gel filters.
Before taking photographs and experimenting with new techniques, we will discuss lighting in photography. Many different lighting techniques can be used when taking a photograph.
- There are two main kinds of lighting in photography: natural and artificial. Artificial lighting and natural lighting can be manipulated to create any number of lighting styles—it is just a matter of practicing how to use them. However, within lighting, you can manipulate different types of effects so the light fits your desired result. For this lesson, we will be focusing on five different examples.
Discuss: In your opinion, how does lighting influence the vibe or feeling of an image? What kind of lighting techniques can you recall that you have seen? There is no right or wrong answer.
- Similar to color, lighting can influence us on a subconscious level. Next, we will review a few techniques that photographers use. Try experimenting with all of these techniques. Look at some lighting vocabulary and lighting examples.
Review the Vocabulary: Review the Unshuttered Lighting Worksheet as a large group. Keep the worksheet handy, printed, or saved on their computer or mobile device.
Look at Artwork: Look at a few artwork examples that used lighting in thoughtful ways and examine Unshuttered artwork(s) and the Getty collection artwork(s).
Examining the Artworks: Look at one of the four student photographs shown here. Pause for about 30 seconds to simply observe the image, then share what you notice about the photograph.
- 30-45 seconds examining the artwork
- 2-4 minutes discussing the artwork
- Transition to the next artwork
- Repeat as time allows
Artist bio: (Image 1) Adam Chun has been taking photos for four years and started by photographing and photoshopping buildings in his Los Angeles neighborhood. He has always been interested in cultivating a sense of community through photography.
(Image 2) Regina Zamarripa Aguilar (They/Them/Theirs) is a visual artist and writer based in Southern California. Born in the city of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Regina grew up in the community of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, California. Their artistic craft often incorporates aspects of their cultural background, queer-migrant identity, and mental health. They consider their artistic style to be unapologetically honest. Currently, Regina is pursuing a degree in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of California San Diego.
Questions for Discussion:
What do you notice first about this image? Talk about what is going on in the image. Be as descriptive as possible. This is not about interpreting the image but rather simply describing details you notice.
What stands out to you the most about the lighting in this photograph?
How does the lighting influence the mood or perception of this image?
Getty Collection Artworks: Look at one of the three Getty Collection photographs shown here. Pause for about 30 seconds to simply observe the image and share what you notice about the photograph.
- 30-45 seconds examining the artwork
- 2-4 minutes discussing the artwork
- Read the artist description and artwork information
- Repeat for the next photograph
About the Artist: (Image 1) Marian Drew is an Australian photographer. Her art practice spans more than 20 years, and is characterized by innovation and exploration of photo-media. Drew’s unsettling and beautiful photographs serve as a reminder of the fragility of life and the impact that man has on our natural environment.
About the Artwork: Drew's tabletop still life compositions feature fruits, vegetables, and dead animals and birds presented as game. While the unusual angles and lustrous colors bring to mind post-impressionist paintings, the richness of the fabrics and dramatic lighting seems to be inspired by traditional European still life painting from the 17th century. (For an example from the Getty collection, view here.) For this series of photographs, Drew gathered animals that had been killed by cars (roadkill) for her compositions. Roadkill gives Drew's photographs a twist that calls into question humankind's stewardship of the earth and its creatures.
About the Artist: (Image 2) Andy Warhol was an American artist, most notably known for his contributions to the Pop Art movement and his silkscreens and paintings of Campbell's Soup cans. Warhol was also an avid photographer. He used Polaroids and black and white film to photograph the cultural icons of his time.
About the Artwork: Princess Caroline, daughter of Hollywood star Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco, was 26 when Andy Warhol took this Polaroid. Warhol’s representations of Princess Caroline were in the traditions of Hollywood studio photographers or advertising rather than that of historical paintings of royalty.
Questions for Discussion:
What do you notice about this image?
What artistic lighting choices did the photographer make?
Apply your knowledge of lighting in photography and create four photographs that implement thoughtful lighting components. Create four photographs that implement lighting techniques that influence the mood and vibe of an image.
It is important to remember that photography is all about the process. Today you’ll begin experimenting with four photography examples particularly focusing on lighting in your images.
- A photograph that uses a hard light
- A photograph that uses a soft light
- A photograph taken during the “golden hour”
- A photograph that uses back lighting
- A photograph using color transparencies or gel filters (optional)
Begin Creating: Grab your cameras, take photographs with intention, and have fun.
You should consider:
- How does the photograph implement thoughtful components of the four photography skills mentioned so far? (composition, perspective, color, lighting)
- What story is my photograph trying to tell? Have I respectfully represented my vision?
Creating Gel Filters (Optional) Gel filters are transparent colored filters that are placed over light sources in order to cast color onto the scene and/or subject being photographed.
- Saran Wrap
- Acrylic Paint
- Hot glue gun
Follow these steps to create gel filters.
Step 1: Using an Exacto knife or scissors, cut out two pieces of cardboard into squares that are the same size. Once you have your pieces, measure a one-inch border and cut out another square inside, creating a hollow frame out of the cardboard. Make both cardboard frames the same size. To do so, you may want to trace your first frame to create the second.
Step 2: Take a piece of saran wrap and place it on top of one of your cardboard frames. Place one thumbtack on each corner of the frame to hold the saran wrap in place.
Step 3: Paint the inside of your saran wrap; apply one layer of paint. Let it dry and apply a second coat of paint. Let it dry.
Step 4: Once dry, carefully remove the thumbtacks. Take your second piece of cardboard and place it down, on top of the first piece, with the painted saran wrap between the two frames.
Step 5: Once you have confirmed your frames fit, carefully take your glue gun and glue both frames together, gluing the saran wrap in place. Once dry, you can cut out any excess saran wrap outside of the frame.
Step 6: (Optional) You can paint the cardboard frame black or the same color of your new DIY gel filter.
Step 7: Once you have created the gel filter(s), place them in front of your light source(s) (like a lamp or flashlight) to experiment with lighting a scene or subject. You may find it helpful to have someone help you hold the gels in place. Please keep the gels a safe distance from your light, and do not have them touch the light directly to ensure they do not get too hot. For more tutorials search YouTube for “DIY light gels.”
Write: Artists often sketch or write down their ideas in a sketchbook or journal. This can help you keep track of your ideas and assist you in the future when developing new ideas.
Take about 5 minutes to think about, write down, or discuss what techniques worked well, what did not work as well, and what to work on for the next class. Reflection can take place in a group or individually. Continue taking photographs and experimenting with color. You should also be prepared to discuss one of your photographs.
Banner Image: Untitled, 2018, Sabinah Lopez