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Be 'Practical' With Lighting

In Hollywood cinematography, there has been a sea-change over the last thirty years or so, away from "Studio style" lighting setups, to scenes and shots motivated by practical lighting. Gone are the days when a cowboy enters a barn, turns on one single lantern, and is blasted with pure white light coming from 12 different sources. But what does that sentence mean? "Motivating light using practical sources?" It sounds confusing and jargon-esque to the uninitiated. And how does it apply to still photography..?
      To boil it down, "Practial lights" are any light sources that appear in the shot. A lamp. A streetlight. Car headlights. The idea being that if you have a person sitting next to a fireplace, or at a table lit by a lamp, that light source wants to predominate in the shot. So most of the light should look like firelight, or lamplight. And that [lighting] element should be clearly in frame. This does NOT mean that you should always rely solely on that light source. For example, sometimes you may need to add light from a flash/studio light to amp it up. Maybe the real-life lamp (or whatever) does not provide enough lumen-power. But no matter what, it should always look like that is the source of the light.
      So how do we create practical light on a budget? The bad news is that most photographers do not have the lighting kit, nor expense account, of Hollywood. The good news is that with practical lighting, that is not needed. The lights that appear "normally" in a location are the ones that are used - or implied to be used - in the shot. Let's throw out a hypothetical....

Here is a house where the homeowner has replaced all of the old incandescent exterior lights with 5000K LED fixtures. Let's say we want to capture a shot of someone in front of this house at night. Since we want to imply that the garage and porch lights of the house are the primary "lighting" of the shot, we would show them in the image.  Using them as "practicals" would be fairly easy to balance with added flash, since flash tends to be in the 5000K range as it is. So we can adjust the shutter speed, f/stop, and ISO to find the range we like, and add a little flash to fill in the shadows if desired.

Because of the 5000K color temperature, these house lights could serve as Practicals, while an added flash could fill in or serve as additional light.

In the end, we can use "real world" lighting to either illuminate, or "motivate" (meaning we mimic them) our imagery. The point is that, in the end, the result is more realistic and organic looking.
      Let me put it another way: If someone looks at the photo and thinks that it looks "easy" to recreate with nothing more than a cell phone and porch light? Then it is a success. Because... It's not that easy. Nothing that is imaginary - but looks real - ever is.


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