Have You Considered the “Arc of Beauty” in your lighting?

(Image by Tracy Sutherland)

We are going to take a high-level view of lighting today and discuss what I call the “Arc of Beauty“. And while no lighting scheme is going to be directly discussed, what we are to think about is a general tone of the light and what it does.

The “Arc of Beauty

The Arc is backlight from side to full back. This lighting is one that I think of every time I get ready to do a still life, food, tabletop, or product shoot. It is a go-to lighting at the highest level.

What that means is I haven’t thought about whether it will be a softbox, or an umbrella, or a grid spot… I just want to get the benefits of back / side-back lighting established first.

And I do this usually with a boom or grid-held light instrument that allows me clean vision below it while keeping the light itself above and or behind the subject. While it can be done with a stand, the boom allows me to get the stand out of the picture from behind and not have to limit my angle in order to not see it.

Full on side light is also part of the arc of beauty. And remember, top down lighting is also side lighting since it is oblique to the camera.

Full Side Light is also within the Arc of Beauty and can provide some stunning textural and dimensional presentation.
The arc also extends vertically from lower than the subject to directly over top (also a ‘side light’ in angle from the camera.

From a full on back light oblique to the camera to top down light from above, the arc is also a vertical tool that can help with dimension, texture, color definition and more.

Why do I start here?

Because the tendency of front lighting is to make things flat. Dimension falls away, shadows fall away, and the overall texture is diminished as well.

Here are two shots to show you how it works from a small, intimate image to a large scene.

The pear and grape still life was shot on an 8 x 10 Deardorff and 14″ lens with Ektachrome 64 Transparency film. Light is from camera right and is a 24x36″ softbox shot through a 48x48″ scrim. The light is above the set.

Shot on Canon 6D / 24-105 MM at 30 MM. The back light gives texture to the sand, the wall and the sidewalk. It also creates a much more interesting set of shadows and shapes. Dimension and texture.

Bob Knill used a grid spot from the back.
Billy Walker chose side light to lift the details off of this head of lettuce.
Lisa Narduzzi chose a large soft light to bring out the texture and shape of her farm fresh beets.
Maciel Blaszczuk used a window light directly behind the bowl of onions for this iPhone shot.
James Kern uses light from the back right side to sculpt the texture and dimension of the assorted objects.
Soh Fong chose a diffused side light for her bananas in a corner of a small box.

Are there exceptions?

Absolutely. Shiny objects, liquid, situations where you WANT a flatter, less textural light. Of course there are exceptions and there are also some very talented photographers out there who choose front lighting as a stylistic difference for their work. They make killer images because they have worked with the technique long enough to know where and how to absolutely use it.

However that might be, we are talking about the bulk of our shooting approaches here.

To see it for your own self, set up something as a still life and move your softbox all around it as you make the photographs. You may have to add a little fill to the front (large white card perhaps) but shoot one with side light, back light, side/back light, low back light, high overhead backlight.

And shoot some with the light up front.

I believe you will see the difference and may help you think about your light in a bit of a different way.

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