Skip to main content

photo & video

Understanding Light

Lesson 1 of 34

Class Introduction

Mark Wallace

Understanding Light

Mark Wallace

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

1. Class Introduction

Lesson Info

Class Introduction

We have so much to cover. We're gonna be going through, well, we already met our students, so, we'll just skip that little slide. So, welcome to the thing. We also have a model that I want to introduce to the world and to you guys. She is still doing hair and makeup and getting all that stuff ready, but she's gonna be coming out. Her name is Alexis Kathryn, and I'll just call her Lex. But she is... I put her Facebook page up there for people at home who want to see all of her stuff. And then also, she's the founder of Spontaneous World, and we are actually gonna be traveling together all over the world for a few years. And so, you can read about it at But she thought up a lot of that stuff. All right, so, we are gonna be talking about understanding light. And I wanna, sorta tell you my story with light, because I started my first professional assisting job, was with a guy whose name was Karim Shamsi-Basha, and he's a Syrian native, and he came to the United States...

during the revolution. Anyway, so he... Not this revolution, the first, in the 70s. That revolution. So he came over and I started working for him in the late 80s, early 90s, I think. And he has this really, really, really thick accent, and so my job with him was, I would hold the little reflector, and bounce the sun into people's faces. That was my big first job. And he couldn't pronounce my name, and so he would just tell me to grab the reflector, and he couldn't really say that, so he'd just be, 'lector. And so, I just became Lector. That was my name for him for as long as I can remember. So that was my first job. And this guy is a phenomenal photographer. He shot for National Geographic, and Time, and Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times, and People, and, you know, those magazines and publications. And he is a master at light. And so I was spending time with him, and I asked him about light, and he said, if you don't understand light, you'll never, ever become the quality of photographer that you want to be. And that's it. And so I thought, oh man, light is gonna be impossible to understand; it's all this really complicated crazy stuff. It turns out it's not that complicated. It's pretty simple. There's a few things that you need to know, a few principles. And once you know those, it doesn't matter if you're working with natural light or studio light, or speed lights. You can do it all. And so that's what we're gonna be doing. We are going to be talking first about the principles of light. So things like, the properties of light; hard light, soft light, the direction of light; that kinda stuff. We're gonna talk a little bit about the color of lights, and how that's different than the color of prints and reflected light, and projected light, and all that kind of stuff. And then also, we're gonna be talking about the science of light. So there is some science involved in all this stuff, so, if you're like... I'm really bad at math. But that's okay, we'll walk you through it, but we're gonna be talking about photons, and photocytes, and chromatic abberation, and wavelengths, and all that kinda crazy stuff. And you're thinking, why do I need to know this? I'm shooting babies. Trust me, it'll be good. And you'll be like, oh yeah, that's why this is happening. I need to do this. And you'll be able to control all your light. So, it's gonna be fun, and it's gonna be a lot. So, we're gonna be doing that. Then we're gonna apply all those principles, so it doesn't, you know, if we learn all that stuff and we don't actually put it into practice, what good is it? And so, we'll be sort of dividing all this stuff up. So we'll be talking about a principle of light, and then we will be applying that in some way. Then we'll talk about a principle, and then we'll apply that. We'll talk about some science, and then we'll apply that. And so, hopefully, it'll be like, Radiolab, or MythBusters, or Bill Nye. It'll be, sort of, science with fun. And we'll try to do that. And I'm not a real science-y guy, so I'm just sort of, making that stuff up. But we'll learn some things, and we'll have charts and graphs to make it as easy to understand for me as possible. Cause I have to explain it, I'm like, oh, what is this again? And so it'll be great. We're also gonna be working with natural light. We're gonna be working with speed light. Who is the speed lights person, wants into speed lights? Speed light, speed lights, okay. Speed lights, by the way, are, they're not complicated, but they're really sort of complicated. And we're gonna start; we're gonna do natural light first, then we're gonna go and we're gonna be working with speed lights, and then we're gonna be working with studio strobes, and then we're gonna mix speed lights and ambient light, and studio strobes and ambient light, and speed lights and studio strobes. So we're gonna be doing all that kind of stuff. Normally, we would begin with studio light, cause it's a lot easier to understand that than it is speed lights. But, because of the way the course works, we're gonna start with speed lights, and we're gonna throw you into the deep end. One of the things to note though, is we don't have enough time to go through all of the speed light stuff that I would love to, but that's the last thing I did at Creative Live, and it was three days of, I mean, it was full on three days of speed light stuff. So, if you wanna know like, all the speed light goodness, that's really what you need to watch, is the speed lights workshop to learn about high speed sync, and hyper sync, and all that kind of crazy stuff. All right, so that's my disclaimer about speed lights. We're gonna get quite a bit of speed lights stuff, but not as much as I'd love to over three days. And then we're gonna apply these things. So, what we're trying to do here: we're gonna try to understand light, we're gonna try to modify the light, we're gonna try to control it, and we're gonna capture it. So that's all about this workshop and what we're doing. And then we will be working with natural light; I think I already saw this, and speed lights, and studio strobes, and so it's gonna be good. All right. One disclaimer, another disclaimer: I am a portrait photographer. So that's what I do. I shoot, I make pictures of people. I shoot people. And I'm about 90% in the studio. That's what I'm known for, but I do a lot of location work as of late, and travel photography as of late. But I definitely have a bias toward shooting photos of people, and so I know there are people watching out there that wanna know about scenic photography and product photography and those types of things. But the nice thing is that light is light. And so when we know how to apply some things to shooting portraits, we'll be able to apply that same principle to shooting something that's highly reflected, like a glass of water, or a mountain, or whatever. So, light is light, and once you know the language you can apply all of that stuff, and it'll be good. And then also, we're gonna be learning the language of light. And the nice thing is light can be described. And that's really what we want to know. So, we wanna be able to talk about the quality of the light, and the quantity of the light. And we do this all the time with things like the weather, right? So you would say something like, we have a nice cool breeze outside, right? And so then we know it's a pleasing thing, and it's not a lot of wind; it's just this nice thing. It's easy to understand. Or we could say, uh-oh, it's an arctic blast of freezing air that lasted for five hours. You know, and that's like, oh, that's really unpleasant. And so we already describe things in terms of quantity, and duration, and quality. We just have to learn how to do that with light. So when we see something, we can say, oh yeah, this nice, soft light, and it's got no specular highlights, and it's, you know, opaque, or semi-transparent. Whatever. We're gonna be learning all of that stuff, and once you learn that, then you can not only describe it, but when you see a photo and you go like, how do they do that, you'll know. You'll be able to go, oh, we're gonna look at the specular highlights, and now I know what the source of the light was, and what the angle of light, and where the angle of incidence was, and what the color temperature was, and yeah, let's do it. And then you'll be creating stuff on your own, and it'll be awesome. And then you'll be winners. Not that you're not winners now. Everybody's a winner, right? Wow, that was a good way to start. So, we are gonna start though. Light; you can't really see light, right? You can't, it's just sort of floating around there. What we can see though, is we can see the shadows. What did I do? Oh, I went backwards, sorry. We can see the shadows. And so, I need to start us off by talking about the shadows. Cause that's what we can see when we look at the floor, we look at the wall. We can see how light falls, and the shadows are going to tell us all about the qualities of light. So we're gonna begin with the very, very basics, and that is the shadows. And so, hopefully, there is a marker back here behind this white board. Isn't this a cool white board? I think I'm the first person to use this white board. Is that right? I don't know. Maybe. We'll see. All right, so shadows work like this. I'll do it on this one. When you have a shadow, and I am, I'm not an artist, a drawer; is that what you call a person that draws? An artist. I'm an artist, but I'm not a drawer. Anyway, so when you have a shadow, okay. Let's say this is a shadow, and it's totally jet black. Right? That's the shadow. What we really are concerned about when we're talking about the quality of light, is this edge right here. This edge is gonna tell us everything about our light. And so if we have a shadow and it just stops, and then we have no shadow, that is what's called hard light. Very hard light. And this has no transition area. If we have light that is a little bit softer, what happens is this shadow doesn't just stop; there's an area where this shadow fades out. And so you can have a shadow that stops and then it has a little bit of transition area. You can have a shadow that just has no hard line, it just sort of fades out over time, but the length and how this fades out is how we can describe light as being hard or soft, or diffused or not. In fact, if you look sort of at my hand. I don't know if we can get this. If you look at my hand, look how the shadow changes on the white board as I move it closer and farther away. So when I'm really close, you can see a clear line, and when I go far away it starts to get fuzzy. And why does that shadow change, based on the distance? We're gonna learn about that, because that's gonna help us understand where to place our lights to change how those shadows look, and to fix things on the face, and things like that. So somebody was talking about trying to fix shadows in sunlight. Who was that? Was that you? Yeah. So we're gonna learn how to do that kind of stuff. Of how to control this. Cause we can, like I'm moving my hand to control these shadows on the white board, we can absolutely do the same thing when we're working with natural light or light in the studio; to change how those shadows work. And it's gonna be really cool. Okay, so we're chugging along. The other thing that we want to know about are the highlights. Specular highlights, specifically. And it's really difficult for me to describe this or to draw it on a white board. In fact, even this is inadequate for me to explain what happens. But, what we're gonna be talking about is the size and the shape of light, and how that affects this thing called the specular highlight. A specular highlight, by the way, is just a reflection; I don't know if you can see it on my shoes, or my eyes. It's a reflection of the source of light. And so, we can change those reflections to make something more pleasing, or less pleasing, based on what we wanna do. But to show this, and for me to draw it, it really isn't going to work, and so what we're gonna do is we're gonna do this little exercise here. And John Cornicello. John, we haven't introduced you yet. Come out here. Oh, I know who I am. Everybody knows who John is. This is John Cornicello. Hey, it's good to see you again. Nice to see you again. So John's gonna help me out. What we're gonna do here is we're gonna set up this sort of creepy statue. I'll have this creepy statue thingy. It's a perfect 10. We're gonna set this up, and what we're gonna do is we're gonna start working with different types of light. So we can show this. So this guy is here, and what we're gonna do is we're gonna sort of walk through this, and... Awesome. So this light right here, by the way, this is called a Fresnel light. And later we'll be describing why it's called a Fresnel, and what that all is. But, if you try to rent it it's spelled Fresnel, F, R, E, S, N, E, L. But it's pronounced frenelle, cause it's French. So, it's the same kind of lens that lighthouses use. It's all chopped up. But anyway, we're gonna be talking about that. Don't forget, when you're working with them. Yes, this gets extremely hot. So, yeah, we don't wanna touch that and burn our hands, cause it can do that. Okay, so what we're gonna be doing here, is we're gonna be talking about the properties of light, and we're gonna be also talking about specular highlights, the direction of light, and all kinds of different things, all on this creepy, number 10 body here. This is really cool. So, one of the things that we have to understand is the qualities of light, and the direction of light, and so, what we're gonna be doing here is we're gonna start, and we're gonna emulate this with this camera right here. Are we ready to go? Yeah. Okay. When we're looking at this, and we'll have to have you guys walk around and do this a little bit later on. With all the cameras, sorry, you can't. So you have to imagine it. When we're on axis with this light, and we're looking, and that light is in the same position as our camera, what happens is the light from side to side on our subject is absolutely even. In fact, we were supposed to turn all the lights off in here. So we have to do that first; I forgot. We're gonna make it pitch black in here so we can really, really see this. There we go. Awesome. Okay, now we've got that light right there. Cool. Okay. So now we can see this. When we're on axis with our; when our camera is on axis with our light, what happens is, notice that there are no really shadows from side to side on this mannequin thingy here. It's what we call flat light. The light is evenly distributed from side to side. If we go from our camera being in position with where the light is; and this could be the sun, it could be a studio strobe, or whatever, and we come to the side, what happens, and we're gonna have this camera right here to the side. What happens, instead of having flat light, all of sudden now, we start to see that shadows are showing up. We can see on here, because the light is hitting this side, we've got a lot of light on this side, and we can see this light sort of falling off to the back. But notice something here. This shadow right here is clean and crisp. It's a very, very crisp shadow. And so what that means is this light is what we call because there's no transition area in this shadow. We're gonna talk a little bit more about these shadows in a second. But as we come around and we change our position of light... We'll come over here. What happens is if we look down like this, and we look up toward this light here, what we're seeing is a silhouette of this mannequin thing here. And it's really, really difficult to see it cause that light's coming straight into my eyes. If I just put my hand over my eyes like this, like I'm driving into the sun, all of a sudden that becomes crystal clear. We're gonna see if we can do this with the camera here. Did that work? Awesome, so this is low contrast light with a silhouette, and by putting something to block that light on our camera's lens, we, all of a sudden, get a nice, clear picture. So this... Perfect. We got it? All right, so a couple more things, then we're gonna actually have you guys come and look at this, cause I want you to see it for yourselves. The other thing that I wanna show you is, on the back of this mannequin here, notice that we can still see this mannequin. We can still see something. And the question is how is that possible, because all of the light is coming from this side. So how is light getting to the back of this mannequin? And the answer to that is, it's this floor right here. So tons of light is falling off this floor, and it's bouncing up, and that's how we can see the back of this. If this was a pitch black floor, or there was nothing here, what we would see is a much more distinct transition between the light and the shadow because we wouldn't have anything that's reflecting. So it's really important... Yeah, we can maybe... I think this is too big of a surface to show, but you can, if we had... The important thing to understand is that your environment is really going to affect your light. And so it's not just enough to have a light and put it on your subject, and to shoot. You have to also remember, are there white floors, are there highly reflective concrete floors, is it a black floor, is there dark wood? Cause some things absorb light, and some things reflect light, and that's gonna change how things look. And so, unfortunately, if you're an environmental photographer you might have a lighting set up that works great in one environment, and you try it again in a different environment, and it looks radically different. And that can throw some people. Like why does this not work? Well maybe in one place you had a nice small thing with white walls, and in another environment it was oak wood. And so, it can be totally different. Okay, so we have that. The other thing I wanna show you; and we're gonna look at the floor here. But notice how the shadows on the floor change. So these shadows that are close; notice how they have a really crisp, clear line right here? This is a really crisp, clear line. But as we go forward out here, notice this shadow here has this big transition area. Why is that? How come that has that big transition area? And notice also, my finger has a crisp, clear line, but this shadow doesn't. So how come these two shadows in the same place have two different shapes? They shouldn't, but they do. Why is that? Well the reason is, this light over here, when it shines on this object right here, the shadows right behind this object, there is no, this object is so close to this, there's no... You guys can hop up right now, and actually come see this. So you can see it. So come and stand, maybe on this side over here. I'll have you walk around and see this. But see how this, this shadow here; very, very crisp. Right? This shadow over here, not so crisp. Has a big transition area. The reason for that is this shadow here, this light is hitting this object and there's really no way for any light to get around in here. So this shadow is surviving all by itself because there's no way for light to get into this space. But down here, what's happening is this light is actually wrapping around this, and so the farther it gets from the object, the more light that's spilling around that, and the more that light is starting to affect these shadows. And that is what we call affective size. We're gonna talk about the affective size of light and how that changes things. We're gonna do that next. All right, so the other thing I want you guys to do really fast is to do the walk around. So come over here, squat down, look at this, lock your eyes, get that in your mind. You've seen the side light, how this has a nice transition in the front light. So do that 180 really fast. And we're gonna check. Do we have questions coming in, as these guys are doing that? Mm-hmm. Or am I surprising you? You know we do. Okay. This is from one of our regulars, Fashion TV, from Singapore. You know what, I put you in darkness, so, maybe what we should do... I think we can turn the lights on. I'm sorry. Really, I'm just gonna throw you in pitch black. Oh you know what, we're okay. You're okay? I'm just gonna shout out the question to ya. Okay. We'll just do that. I get no camera time. Okay, so with, Mark, with reference to shadows, we should always light from top to down, and avoid creating shadows from the bottom up. Any practical tips for us? People often say the torch light effect is not flattering, especially in lighting a subject from the bottom up. Yeah, so we're gonna talk about the direction of light right after this, and we're gonna talk about vertical direction of light. And yeah, the torch light effect is not great cause it's unnatural. So in nature, light comes from above, always. Light is always coming from above in nature. It might get down low on the horizon, and be directional to the side, but there's nowhere in nature that light comes up, unless it's a camp fire of something like that. And so, that's why it looks weird, cause it's not something you see naturally.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers. 

The success of every photographer — artistically and professionally — is based on a strong understanding of how light works. Join photographer Mark Wallace for a three-day course that will demystify the fundamentals of lighting and give you the concrete skills you need to get a powerful image using the right lighting every time you shoot.

Mark will cover everything you need to know about hard, soft, directional, and diffused light. You’ll learn about reading natural light and manipulating it with tools like reflectors and diffusion panels. Mark will also guide you through working with light in a studio environment. You’ll explore using basic studio lights to manipulate and shape light and working with strobes and speedlights. You’ll also learn about shooting on-location and how to balance shape, and color ambient light and light from a flash.

By the end of this course, you’ll be equipped with a whole new understanding of light that will help you to shoot more efficiently, capture consistently well-lit images, and reach new creative heights as a photographer.

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Presentation 1

Presentation 2

Presentation 3

Zone Lighting Basic Setup

Gear List

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Claudia Ochsner

This is an excellent course. I recommend this course to every photographer, of any level who want to put money into lighting stuff. Mark Wallace has a gift to teach and to truly enlighten his audience about complex issues in photography. The money for this course is well spent, the time is more valuable than hanging around in forums and ask questions to others who don't have a clue as well. The products used ( partly promoted ) are very "American" - I have to say that as Swiss. Because you know there are two other brands which could compete at the top level of studio lights as well. Just kidding - But seriously - many thanks to Mark, John, Lex ( Gosh - you are so beautiful ) , CL and their team to help me to reach out for a new level in my photography. I am now going to push my boundaries, well knowing that understanding light is science, but for sure not rocket science.

Rose-Marie Gallagher

This was an outstanding course! Mark presented TONS of quality information, starting at the very basic concepts and working up from there. He is interesting to listen to and very understandable. Great examples that expand the learning. Highly recommended! Thanks for bringing Mark's class to CL...I hope there will be more.

a Creativelive Student

This is probably the first Creative Live course I have purchased that I've watched in its entirety. Every single solitary video. I feel so strongly about Mark's teaching ability that this is also the very time I have written a review. I first came across Mark Wallace on Adorama TV. Interesting and so knowledgeable. So I explored and found other tutorials by Mark on Pocket Wizard. So when Creative Live offered this three day course - I bought it without hesitation. Mark makes the difficult - easy to comprehend and the un-understandable - understandable. I have learned so much from him and I haven't even met the guy! There are so many questions I'd like to ask - that doesn't mean that the videos were lacking in any respect. Rather, time constraints prevented Mark from covering topics he wanted to cover. I am definitely going to purchase the original Mark Wallace Creative Live course on Speedlights. I am also voting for a course: "28 days with Mark Wallace," so that we can tap into his genius with Lighting. How about it Creative Live? Bravo Mark - a very successful course. I am looking forward to the next one.