light (realism, aesthetics) Light is a necessary and pragmatic element in photography and live action film making, it is the baseline for realism in film, and it is also an aesthetic tool to support story narration. While in contemporary cinema many film images have little or no external reality, they are composite shots with a mix of live action and computer-generated visual elements, there is still an ontological assumption that what is shown or displayed on the screen has a reality: there is an essential realism to photographic, photo-realistic images.
The realism of film can be understood in the perceived relationship of light as it is represented in film and the perception of light in actuality: the audience’s direct and personal experience of light in lived experience informs their viewing of film. Audiences also have the experience of viewing thousands of images that present realism, so that there is a personal, social and cultural history of realism in representational art, drawing, painting, photography, and and also in film, where various and varieties of developments in different moving image technologies during the course of the 20th and 21st Century have in themselves changed the aesthetics of representation within their mediums. Light is understood and experienced in actuality and the representation of light has a history, which had developed through a wide range of still and moving image mediums, technology and aesthetic styles.
As image recording technology has developed and changed so have conceptions of realism in the audience: the most evident example being the change from black and white to colour film making, with lighting practices for black and white developing to match the representational limitations of black and white film stocks, and then the emergence colour photography and film making moving through a range of colour film stocks, first in the medium of silver nitrate and then to video technology, first in black and white analogue video, and then to colour images and finally to digital moving image. A narrative film made in the 1970’s would be made with that era’s technology or today contemporary digital images can be filtered in editing to reproduced the film technology of the 1970’s in order to place the film narrative in that era: the development of film technology creates an aesthetic of realism that is for a time contemporary and it then becomes historical: a dated form of representation, the realism of an era. The shift from black and white to colour image is in itself an aim and a demand for the realism of film to develop and change. The conception being that colour in film is more realistic, while black and white films are in practice perfectly comprehensible as offering realism.
Both the technology of the medium and the lighting practices for narrative film codify a range of visual aesthetically codified realisms. Film drama developed from stage drama that had established forms, genres of narration; comedy, tragedy, melodrama, farce, grotesque, absurd and stemming from these dramatic forms and also from literary forms, established aesthetic conventions, expectations that contributed to forms of film narrative and lighting styles associated with these. Melodrama is associated with saturated colours, and the thematic use of colour is used to indicate heightened emotion, tragedy is more likely to be associated with shadow, contrast in light, and expressionistic light to indicate internal struggle.
In the longer established arts, painting, literature, drama, the approaches to considering the aesthetics of realism are often studied and classified as part of historical aesthetic movements or national arts: Romanticism, Pre-Raphaelite, Flemish, Impressionist. Narrative film can be codified via periods in film making, movements and nationality as with fine art, and also aesthetically within film genres, which is the more familiar and widely shared typology. In genre there is the narrative, the type of story, and there is a performative aspect: there is the type of story to fit the genre and how they are acted out, and there is also the visual iconography of the genre which is not just objects, costumes and place but is often related to the use of light. Light is part of narrative and identifies the type of film.
There is no definitive textbook to state what a horror film should look like, but an audience will understand what kind of story is being narrated through its visual style, and a part of this is its lighting. Soon after the start of the film its narrative will be codified and become, through audience recognition, part of an informal catalogue of similar genre films. The plot of a film narrative can be summarised and stated without any visual representation, which might seem to separate story and action from its image and the use of light in the narrative, but there are visual aesthetics, visual style, design, staging, sound, that connect through convention and aesthetics to different genres.
For an individual film there will be a sense that this is the production of a unique narrative, but its conception and production will be gauged and developed in relation to other similar films and concepts of realism. In narrative film there is continuity of light; the control of exposure, contrast range and colour temperature during filming so that shots can be edited together for continuity, which creates a temporal and spatial realism, and there is the realism of the narrative, how the use of light is linked to the aesthetics of form and how this is used to articulate the character, settings and plot.
In literature, in writing, when setting is compared to character, when something like the brightness of the day reflects the hopefulness of the character, this is considered to be the use of analogy. To consider light working cognitively in the same manner may not be the correct way to understand expressiveness in light. Rather the light sets a situation and time for the events of the story, and then this light will inform the realism of the film: where someone lives is not so much an analogy of their personality, but that they live in a certain place at a certain time has a certain type of light and this light will become coded within genres, the old dark house, but rather than analogy, the audience recognise the type of house by the way it is lit: the lighting contributes to the iconography of the form, it’s not a specific analogy.
As a further explanation that light is not like literary analogy, it’s not the joining of concepts that produces meaning in an image, photographers can make everyday people seem odd and awkward by the device of harsh frontal light, that creates an unusual modelling with sharp shadow and a background that rapidly falls to darkness, and often this lighting has shadow that rises from below rather than falls on the ground. There is no analogy in the lighting, the lighting does not function like a word comparison to the subject, but the light sets a reading of the image. When the lighting has an unnatural aspect, it does not come from a coherent source, then this inflects on the reading of the image. The first chord of a piece of music has no subject matter, it can’t indicate metaphor or analogy but the sense of it being sweet, sour, urgent, loud, magnificent can be signalled. Audiences read light not in literary terms, but as a particular type of light that they will then connect to the story. Often the film lighting will match the genre conventions, and sometimes the lighting can work to misdirect this: a horror film can be dark and foreboding or it can be bright and glamorous, misdirecting the audience, but then other factors will coalesce to create the form, the music, the story events, the camera angles.
To look at light in reality and how this is carried into film realism, actual light has a source, which produces a quality of light that illuminates the setting and the subject: hard, soft, diffuse, direct, indirect, and this orientates us in the real world. Someone wakes up and its bright sunny day, or its overcast and raining, its early morning, it’s late in the day. Here one can see that the conscious reading of light is momentary: Someone will check, gauge the light and they are then orientated to the light: a person’s familiarity with light is so extensive and familiar that it only needs to be at the point of consciousness for a moment before it’s understood. A light source will also have a colour temperature, of which there is very little untutored awareness, but as with the quality of the light a person will measure and assess this. So, light gives a sense of location and time, which is an essential aspect of narrativity, and this perception will occur in life and also in the reading of images.
A film narrative that fails to have continuity of lighting and becomes incoherent, will be a sequence of different images not a realist representation, but within a successful narrative the light will not just have continuity, but the source and the fall of the light will orientate the audience: progressing the plot through changes and progressions of light. The audience recognises the light: giving them a sense of where they are in the story. As a process of reading the light: the first shot in the scene shows the setting and time of day, the first shot of the character shows them entering, and they recognise or don’t recognise where they are and this is indicated by the setting and how it is lit. A film with just constant illumination, an overall wash would have continuity of light, but it would not have a realism as the unchanging artificial light would have no narrative purpose: unless of course the characters lived in an unchanging world of washed out light.
There is natural light, the light of daylight, there is artificial light from electrical sources and there is unnatural light, light that is apparently outside the physics of light, light that has no coherent source. In religious art, painting there is heavenly light; radiant, golden, abundant, which is explicable as it comes from Heaven, so this unnatural light is Godly, God’s light. Here unnatural light, light that is not sourced by any sense of an actual sunlight, burning or electric light, is used aesthetically, it conveys a meaning beyond its function as illumination. In the painting of surrealism, lighting may be illogical. So that in surrealist images objects out of place seem abnormal, not just because of their placement, but they are also in an unreal existence due to the strangeness of the light. Even to light without shadow can be odd if there is no narrative reason for this: having no source of light is counter intuitive. A film can use natural illumination or be lit, but just having sufficient illumination to film is not narratively coherent. Those will little experience of lighting will often under lit a scene, leaving it with an unusual contrast range, flat, featureless, which will appear false to the audience, or taking the opposite approach an inexperienced approach to lighting will over light, creating multiple light sources, lighting that shows that that the lighting is artificially placed, and so again, felt, seen by the audience as artificial and unrealistic.
Unnatural light will break the conventions for lighting, in terms of expectations of source and so be perceived as odd, unusual, alien, oddly unreal. Sunlight is a single source, coming from a single direction, so lighting a subject with two opposing equal strengths of light is perceived as unnatural. The direction of natural and artificial light is most often from above or from the side, with a pragmatic reason for this, so light from below is often inexplicable and perceived as strange. From these expectations and conventions for lighting the heroes and villains of a story, good and bad characters, and the moral characteristics of story settings can be seen to develop and be encoded in types of light.
Artificial light, the light of interiors are implicitly understood by their source, there are interiors with natural light, window lights, there are rooms lit by candles, there are bulbs, there are tubes, there are halogens, there are LEDs, and as with natural light these set a time and location. As with natural light, daylight, there is little conscious analysis of artificial light, but in a narrative film, for example, in a period film set in the 17th century, if the images are produced by diffuse fluorescent tubes, this is not the light of the 17th century but 20th century light. There is a history of lighting in its technology and this is conveyed in images and films that represent the past, the present and the future. In realism there is the actual light and then its reproduction in images and film narratives that further codifies the light, linking it to narrative to confirm its realism. The story ends and the characters walk into a new day, a sunrise, the light has no intrinsic narrative component, but it progresses time, so that the new day is a new time and a new event and for the story a new beginning. This use of light can become a convention for the ending of films, so that the particular narrativity of when the event takes place, at sunrise, is then connected to the plotted events of the narrative and to storytelling conventions.
Beyond representing the lived experience of light, narrative films, rather than choosing to represent actual light can choose to represent it through other aesthetic representations of light: a film can be made to look like a Flemish painting, or an impressionist painting. There is a history of representing light in art, and this will give a realism to a film image: this can be a comic book look, a formalist look. Different members of the audience will interpret the light in different ways, not everyone will consciously recognise the lighting styles of different artistic movements and periods in art: but there are levels of realism in the light, and the circulation of art is extensive: the audience may not know the origin of the visual style, but recognises it. Also, for filmmaker’s such choices will not be for a single scene, and the style of light will be carried from scene to scene, giving the specific single narrative a coherence without reference to the stylistic origins.
Light has social qualities. There is the light of poverty: diminished, weak, limited, ill, and there is the light of wealth that grandly displays costume, jewels, setting, status and good health. This light, these environments and settings exist and are created in life, becoming aesthetic practices and conventions in representational art. There are codes, style of lighting: a range of realisms that have developed over time into a vocabulary of light. One major strand stems from the depiction of those who have property and social status. This is the light of wealth, displayed in the realism of classical painting, which moves to status and style in socially stratified class based societies. Status, as of kind nobility remains in place in contemporary images, but out of the classical portrait develops a 20th Century style of light: glamour in photography and film and this is light that is originated and exists primarily for and in images: glamour lighting removes imperfections, it emphasises a conformity of beauty. There is a classical light that is read as tasteful, linking mostly to the history of painting, chiaroscuro, poise, self-control, and there is the move to glamorous light that remains tasteful, but it can also be read as tacky, brash, linking to commercial studio photography, reproductions of colour that are gaudy and saturated in print and on film, mass produced images which do not express the social status that is claimed by the subjects of the formal classical portrait. This 20th century light is a glamour that can be supposedly achieved through the purchase of commodities, clothes, cars, make up, health. Products are lit with with the aim to show taste, style, perfection and beauty. Prestigious, painterly light supports status for person and expensive objects and glamorous light supports a status of commercial beauty, manufactured eroticism: both depict apparent lifestyles aspirations and are mirrored with the lighting of social environments, so that night clubs, restaurants, offices, galleries will be lit to styles of light stemming from the aesthetics of light, and a key aim of architecture has been to feature and display light. Film narrative both creates and functions within a cultural and social environment which is aesthetically defined.
To discuss a particular use of light in European portrait painting and then carried into photography is when North Light is often used. This use of light was originally a studio convention, because having windows facing North for drawing and painting classes was practical as it illuminated the model and because of the direction that the studio faced the light remained consistent throughout the day, and this pragmatic convention is now an indicator of quality in light, of the subject being venerable or prestigious enough to be drawn, painted or photographed. A pragmatic use of light has an enduring cultural meaning.
There is unprofessional, haphazard light, light having no sense of aesthetic control, light being used only to show things: harshly with no sense of taste, and when the subject is considered lurid then this light can be interpreted as sleazy. The are crime scene with inadequate light, images of death, murder, addiction, the candid. These images show light that exists, but it has not been modelled to meet the aesthetic criteria of realist art where light is controlled to model and define shape and to offer harmony in colour. Uncontrolled light has an aesthetic meaning. Audience’s viewers, members of a society or a culture are expert interpreters of realism and its social meaning: the reading of all images may be positive, negative, the images may be contested, rejected, but they are still understood. They form a representational history of the culture, and narrative filmmakers work to produce narrative within a social and historical setting.
To learn how to use light there are several steps. The first step is to look at light in life, to study light, and to see and understand what the light source is and how this light illuminates settings and figures. Another step is to study how light is reproduced in different mediums, its aesthetic reproduction in fine art, photography and film. Here, paradoxically, and because the source of light is often not part of the produced image, the source of light is outside the picture frame, the shadows are studied, and they indicate the position of the light source and the quality of the light source: hard shadows, a direct light source, spreading shadows a single point bulb light source, parallel shadows the high bright sun, or long shadows, the end of the day.
The most important step to be able to use light is of course to practice, to produce images, experiencing and an understanding of how actual light is reproduced in the medium. This can be done without setting lights and then to practice lighting, to begin to use and plan light: choosing locations, and also setting lights, but with a view to predicting the visual images that this will produce.
There is a contradiction in learning to understand light, someone may have taken thousands of photographs but even so they understand very little about light as the images are read as realist representations of light rather than studies to know how the medium reproduces light. Taking photographs carefully, differentiating between the light on the subject and how that is reproduced and having a vocabulary to look at light is important. This vocabulary is both a description of the light source, the light as it falls on the scene, and how this is reproduced in photographic terms: exposure, contrast range, tonality, saturation, high key, low key, full scaled under scaled. The terms for photography are often listed or understood as technical terms but if they are used without an understanding of light, its aesthetic use, and how light will support or undermine realism and narrative then the terminology will only produce well taken images, rather than it being clear that light sets a social context, light has a narrativity.
One habit, a poor practice, that is often taken on when becoming a photographer is to shift to what is the dominant mode of lighting: lighting well, producing good images, according to current taste. This is likely to be the lighting of good taste or glamour, so it is not a lighting designed for narrative. Its is important to be able to create a lighting style for the present day and to understand what this is, it’s also important to know how light is connected to narrative, the history of light, the technologies of light, and actual light. Realism is an aesthetic construction, it’s part of the form of a narrative film. The term director of photography indicates a decisive role in the film making process: this is directing light to support the narration of the film.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019