Simplify Your Lighting

As many photographers know, nothing is as complicated as making something look simple, and when it comes to product photography, simple is what matters the most. Photographers like Scott Markewitz and Martin Wonnacott, whose work is pictured here, are some of the best at what they do because with a minimal amount of gear they can capture ordinary people, places and things in visually exciting ways. Wonnacott’s captivating portfolio of fine-art still lifes, for example, employs a bare-bones approach to lighting his subjects that enhances natural form and texture without drowning the entire scene in illumination. This minimal take on design keeps the eyes of his viewers right where his clients want them: on the product.

Markewitz, who works with Broncolor strobes (usually no more than three or four), says it all comes down to having a deep understanding of how to modify light, bend it to your will and do a lot with a little. He wants detail and texture, and too many lights can muddy the waters and undermine his agenda. He understands exactly what he wants to do with light and deploys each source with a specific purpose. History is full of classic portraits made this way, even with just one light; consider the sunlit ambience of an Avedon portrait or a precise butterfly pattern from Hurrell’s Hollywood glamour portfolio. One light, used just right, can tell quite a story.

Outdoor photographers and those who shoot athletes in motion, as Markewitz does, have a very practical reason to keep their lighting to a minimum: It makes travel and setup much easier. It’s also helpful to keep the shoot flowing smoothly instead of devoting precious minutes to tweaking a number of sources. But what if you’re shooting in the studio, with a subject that won’t move an inch? Studio still-life photographers also demonstrate a reason to keep lighting simple: It can communicate more clearly.

Product and beverage specialist Martin Wonnacott has 10 Profoto packs and more than two dozen heads at his disposal. Sometimes he uses lots, other times only a few. The key, he says, no matter what you’re shooting, is to create light that appears simple and natural—even when it’s not.

"Lighting should feel natural, however it’s applied," Wonnacott says, "be that a complex setup in the studio or on location. That doesn’t always mean to use one light only, but that should be the aim to achieve visually. What you shouldn’t feel is that someone has turned on everything that they have at their disposal. Natural—even if it’s an unnatural situation—that should always be the aim."

A meaningful understanding of light is crucial whether you’re working with several sources or just a few. With many lights in play, it ensures that the photographer isn’t working against himself or herself by having lights in conflict, casting counterproductive shadows and highlights throughout a scene. Shooting with lots of lights isn’t a remedy for poor technique; in fact, with many sources, the flaws are amplified.

But simple lighting isn’t all that simple either. Take studio food photographer Togashi. He’s as much of an old-school perfectionist as you can get, preferring 8×10 film until fairly recently and eschewing fads and trends in favor of classically beautiful—and meticulously crafted—lighting. According to his agent/wife Eileen Togashi, he usually accomplishes this with just two or three Comets.

"If y
ou were to come into the studio, you may be shocked," she says. "He uses top-of-the-line camera equipment, but his set—he uses very little. It’s what he’s always done. We’ve been in business 35 years now, and he’s very pleased with his results, as are his clients. We, too, have been a little intimidated when we see in some of the professional magazines what other photographers’ sets look like. For the client, it clearly is very impressive. We don’t put on a show there. That’s not where his show is. The show is in his pictures.

"Whatever happened to simplicity?" Mrs. Togashi continues. "He doesn’t add a light to get it just right. He tweaks with other things in order to make the highlights look delicious or to bring out a beautiful edge. Those are some of the tricks of his expertise and years of experience instead of a light. You can achieve light without lights.

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