What is the most important aspect of photography and film? I have heard this question asked multiple ways and numerous times over the last few years, and probably the most common answer I've received is the equipment. The fact-of-the-matter is that, no matter what people think, the equipment is probably the least important element of successful photography. I’ve also heard amateurs and professionals alike try to avoid the question by answering it in this way, “all the elements of a film are important.” I believe that this is a much more common view, and maybe more accurate than any other answer than other typical responses, but to be fare to you, and this article, I think that it should be answered as a single element, like camera, posing talent, lenses, or script (for film), etc. Telling you that every aspect of a photograph or film is as important as the other isn’t necessarily going to help you become a better photographer.
Many of us have had to ask this question when we were getting into the industry, and some reading this article are asking this question now. Why? Because, your next purchase may be a camera, camcorder, or perhaps sound equipment, maybe a lens, and you need to know how to prioritize. You also need to know what separates good photos from "okay" photos. So let me simplify this for you, if there is a single element about photography that I believe separates one one photos "success" from another’s failure, it is lighting. I can already see the eyes rolling and hear the huffs. “How can lighting be the most important thing in a film?” Think about it, we are living in an era of DSLR cameras, amazing production rigs, computer-generated images, amazing software, thousands of scripts online… the list goes on, but there is still a major quality difference between well shot photography and amateur photography. The truth is, all these technologies have done is made it easier to make and distribute photography or film, but not necessarily high quality photography and film (if you think of high quality as art and not in terms of resolution). If you allow yourself to be objective and study photography and film, you’ll quickly realize the depth of planning and detail that is put into lighting on all well produced film sets and photo shoots.
Lighting is so important that during pre-production of a feature film, the Set Designer and the Head Gaffer will typically create what is known as a lighting plot which details the execution of lighting for every scene. Lighting plots can be simple, showing the blocking (placement) of the actors/actresses, lights, and cameras, or they can be advanced, detailing every object on set and showing an “elevation” view. Regardless, they are used by every major motion picture and many professional photographers, who see the benefit of plotting light for their photo shoots.
The importance of lighting can even be detected in the most popular works from the Renaissance painters. These works of art separated themselves from the rest of the artists and painters during their day because they understood the element of light, and how to manipulate it to create emotion, movement, space, rhythm, and tone. There was even Thomas Kinkade (known as the Painter of Light) a modern painter who understood and capitalized on the idea of “light”. These artists understood two important aspects of light: the direction of the light and the quality of the light. (I'll discuss these in a future post.)
If you’re still in doubt about the importance of light, think about how many photographers use a Canon 5D Mark, but how wide the gap can be between the quality in their work. I have seen hundreds of pictures of the Eiffle Tower shot with a Canon 5D Mark, but there are only a handful of photographers who truly understand how to capture it with a perspective on light.
I will admit that lighting is not the only thing that makes these photos stand out from the others, as there is also composition and color that help to make the photos truly great, but in my opinion, light is the most important thing. In more ways than one, lighting is like the foundation of a large structure. Take the Great Pyramid: its foundation supports everything else within its framework. When a tourist travels into the Giza Necropolis, the first thing he might see is the top of the pyramid, at which point he might think, “This is amazing. I wonder how they created that.” It’s often not until he’s up close to the landmark itself until he notices the foundation. That is just like light! If we try to recreate the “pyramid” without the foundation right, the structure will crumble. The same is true with our framework inside the camera and lens. Get the lighting right, and it will set the tone for everything else that’s beautiful in your frame.