Picture Perfect Lighting: Mastering the Art and Craft of Light for Portraiture

Image of Picture Perfect Lighting: An Innovative Lighting System for Photographing People
Release Date: 
February 27, 2016
Rocky Nook
Reviewed by: 

Artists aspiring to become great painters often learn much by studying the old masters, and similarly photographers desirous to learn portrait lighting techniques often turn to great images by master photographers. Roberto Valenzuela’s book, Picture Perfect Lighting attempts to show “innovative” or creative low-budget lighting approaches for beginners whose goal is portrait, glamour, and fashion photography.

Valenzuela’s techniques are geared toward the single photographer shooting fashion or glamour without an assistant or makeup artist, utilizing a very simple, low-budget methodology that might include an inexpensive 48-inch reflector for “fill” lighting to lighten shadows. Granted that while this may seem farfetched for a professional fashion photographer it may be acceptable for beginners who aspire to photograph people.

Although Valenzuela does not use the term “guerrilla” filmmaker/photographer, the author’s emphasis for most of the book seems to be that of making-do with whatever is available, such as shooting with light that is being reflected into alleys, building hallways, open shade, or wherever good lighting is available. He spends a great deal of time explaining “circumstantial lighting,” which encompasses not just natural light but also “how light interacts with objects around us” and man-made light sources beyond the photographer’s control.

Several chapters are devoted to “speedlight” hot-shoe flashes that are remotely triggered and used off-camera, as well as reflectors and studio light modifiers.

All too often the author’s explanations of his many visual examples and on-location shooting tend to be long-winded and rambling. A talkative approach is fine if you are teaching students face-to-face which Valenzuela often does, but as a writing style it becomes verbose and tedious. In a book, succinct explanations accompanying extensive visuals should be sufficient. Unfortunately, it usually takes many pages to fully understand the point of Valenzuela’s examples.

Interestingly, while Valenzuela rigorously lists camera settings of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed under virtually every shot in the book, he never mentions which lens or which focal length was employed in capturing the images. This is very strange because as any professional photographer will tell you, the choice of which focal length to use is paramount in determining the kind of image that is produced. Wide-angle lenses produce very different images from that of telephoto lenses, and certain focal lengths are definitely less suitable for portraiture than others because they tend to distort facial features. It is perplexing that specific lenses for fashion portraiture were not discussed. To list shooting at f/4, ISO200, and not the focal length for a particular visual “look” or to not differentiate whether the lens is a 28mm, 85mm, or 200mm is puzzling and uninformative.

Another problem is that Valenzuela completely ignores the issue of digital formats. There are several formats other than full-frame (35mm) in today’s photographic market such as Nikon’s DX and Fujifilm’s APS-C sensors that are fully capable of delivering professional results at much lower cost, which would be very helpful to the beginners who are his target audience. Images included in the book show him working with a digital SLR but he makes no mention of formats. This will leave the novice curious with many unanswered questions as how to implement his suggestions.

While Valenzuela has chosen to only showcase his work in this book I believe his examples would have benefitted greatly by showing some outstanding fashion and glamour work by the great photographers such as Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Eve Arnold, Guy Bourdain, or Richard Avedon.

I agree with Valenzuela that great lighting does not require artificial studio lighting. Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, and Steve McCurry are some of the great photographers who rarely if ever worked with artificial lighting for portraits. On the other hand there are amazing photographers such as Richard Avedon, Phillipe Halsman, and Robert Mapplethorpe whose studio and artificial lights were their domain, and Irving Penn who felt so supremely comfortable with both mediums that he even took his “studio” on location to utilize the best of natural lighting.

Having a great sense of lighting, whether ambient or studio, is crucial for creating outstanding photographic images. Novice photographers desiring to gain insight into fashion/glamour photography may find this book rambling, confusing, and superficial.