Points in Focus Photography

Light, Science and Magic Review

Recommended by the Strboist, David Hobby, as the fundamental book on photographic lighting, need I say more?

Let’s get somethings straight, Light Science and Magic is a textbook. It doesn’t try and inspire you to be creative. It doesn’t have inspiring stories of photographic exploits. It doesn’t even tell you what dials to push or turn to change the settings on your lights.

What it does do, is give the fundamentals of how light behaves and how the things you’re photographing will behave under it.

Light Science and Magic is divided into 10 chapters by subject type. Chapter 1 and 2 provide an overview of light and its effects on the images that one might produce. While they don’t cover a whole lot of technical details, they do provide the foundation that is necessary for the rest of the book.

Chapters 3 through 9 are the meat and potatoes of this book. Unlike many photographic books, Light Science and Magic isn’t about setups but about techniques and physics. That is to say, the book never says, “light this scene by placing a light in such and such a location and setting it to f/5.6 ISO 100”. Rather it provides an understanding of the mechanics of light so that the photographer can make up their own mind about light placement for any given scene.

Light Science and Magic uses clearly drawn diagrams to illistrate each concept as it describes it in the text.

That is, in my opinion, a far more useful approach. Consider for example doing copy work. In this area of photography evenness of light is important. Chapter 3 teaches us about the family of angles produced by light reflecting off a surface. From this we can determine based on our lens, subject, working space, and lighting equipment exactly what the best locations for our lights are instead of simply having someone tell us, “put the lights x feet away and 45° from the axis of the lens”, or something similar.

The final chapter covers some basics of hot-shoe flashes, studio lighting, light modifiers, and some of the basics of balancing ambient light with flash. However, not nearly as long as it possibly could be, and there are entire books written on the subject, it does provide enough information to be a push in the right direction

The book itself is well put together with solid coated pages and good quality printing. As of the 3rd edition, the images are in color. There are diagrams that explain the concepts covered in each chapter. While they are clear and cleaning illustrated, sometimes I think they feel a lot like uninspired textbook diagrams. In addition to diagrams, there are full color photographs that accompany each concept as well. They are well executed and clearly and unambiguously show what they are meant to.

I found this book to be an invaluable tool in learning the principals for manipulating light and dealing with the way light behaves on a verity of subjects and surfaces. What it doesn’t do is tell you what to do once you understand the behavior of light; it doesn’t lay out any recipes for lighting a given subject or type of subject. Then again, there are books dedicated to lighting and composing subjects for just about every field.

I’ve found Light Science and Magic to be an invaluable tool. Once you understand the behavior of light, you can start designing your own lighting setups with less trial and error. That means spending less time on location tweaking the light and more time making useful images and to me that’s always a good thing.


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