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Light: science & magic – book review

I read Light: Science & Magic during a return long-haul trip to Singapore – I thought a better use of time than watching a stream of films! It is an introduction to photographic lighting.

It is a technical book, written in a very accessible style and covers a wide range of areas relating to lighting: including basic principles, equipment, an examination of light itself, dealing with reflections, surface appearances and tricky subjects, and so on. The tools in the book are ‘the grammar and vocabulary of light’. It will no doubt become an important source of reference for me and I recommend it to other readers.

I include here a few ‘notes to self’ on important aspects to me at this stage:

  • ‘The eye can detect a very slight change in colour mixture, but the brain refused to admit the difference’. That is until we see a photo reproduced on the screen or in print. Our clever brains sort out unbalanced colours for us when we are within a live scene, but not when we are viewing images. Overall, the authors argue that it is better to correct light balance in camera if possible, rather than in post-production. An area to which I don’t pay enough attention – should carry and use grey card as a habit!
  • On contrast – a small light source produces hard shadows (all rays coming from one direction), whereas a large light source (rays enveloping the subject) produces soft shadows. Size is relative to the subject and its distance from the subject: for example the sun is a small light source because of its distance. Whereas the sun diffused through clouds is a large light source. It is the relationship that is important.
  • On subjects – different subjects react in different ways to light and require different treatments. They can either transmit, absorb, or reflect light. It is the reflective qualities that work on the camera.
  • When light is transmitted, refraction occurs as light passes from one medium to another. Diffuse transmission is where light rays are scattered in unpredictable directions (eg through white cloth / translucent materials). Direct transmission is where light more or less passes through (eg clear glass / transparent materials). Simple transmission cannot be photographed – there is no reflected light for the camera to capture.
  • Absorption – when a subject fully absorbs light, it cannot be photographed – think of the difficulty with black cats!
  • ‘Photographic lighting … is primarily and exercise in reflection management’.
  • Family of angles – deals with the angle of view within which the camera will record reflections (think snooker angles) and affects the desired placement of light sources for a given subject.
  • Portrait photography – full and useful discussion of lighting for this area of photography. Must revisit and practice.
  • Equipment – comprehensive discussion of this area and the options. Need to revisit once I’m familiar with the basic equipment I have already.

Above all, there is an emphasis on practice and application of theory to master photographic lighting.



Hunter F, BIver S, Fuqua P (2015). Light: science & magic (5th Edition). Focal Press, New York & London.

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