Get Creative With a Little 'Light S and M'

One of the best things about running a blog on flash technique is that I pretty much live in a vortex of lighting ideas. If something cool is happening, you guys tell me about it. That is how I originally found out about the book, "Light - Science & Magic" last year, when I asked you to send me your favorite photo book titles.

L-S&M was by far the most popular suggestion, and it has been a favorite of Strobist readers ever since. A few of them have even formed a Flickr group dedicated to the principles they learned in the book.

Today marks the official release of their third edition, the bigger budget for which has allowed them to update the book with new photo examples and diagrams. The addition of full color from cover to cover makes the book much more visually accessible for photographers. Kind of an important thing when one is talking about lighting, no?

If there was a knock on the earlier editions, it was that they were somewhat dated. Not anymore.

And the book remains jam-packed with the same teach-you-how-to-think information that has made the previous versions such a go-to resource for lighting photographers.

For Photographers, By Photographers

Authors Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua all are the real deal, working in photography, illustration and design in Northern Virginia. Hunter taught lighting at the college level, and now works in several different forms of media. Steven Biver does killer photo/illustration work for a variety of clients. (His site is really worth a few minutes of your time, BTW.) Paul Fuqua works with Discovery, those guys who do the cool science and nature stuff on TV.

The book is not a gushing career retrospective. It won't tell you how the authors schmoozed ten extra minutes out of Bill Gates on a shoot.

It is not a series of portfolio photos and how they were made. Oddly, as many techniques as it delivers, you cannot even call it a "bag of tricks" type of book. The examples are (for the most part) sparse, visually simple photographs that drive home the techniques and solutions being covered.

Ego and bravado took the week off in favor of raw, honest information dissemination. Amen to that.

What the book does is teach you how to think about light. After 20+ years of doing this, I feel like know my way around a studio. L-S&M is already changing the way I am approaching my lighting.

I have always considered myself somewhat of a fish out of water when it comes to writing (I am a picture guy) so what I want to do is to walk you through the book, chapter-by-chapter, to show you how comprehensive their approach to lighting really is.

A Walk Through the Book

The first two chapters cover the authors' approach to learning and a discussion of the basic qualities of light. While this may seem a tad superfluous to some, it ensures that all of the readers are up to speed before jumping into the pool.

The third chapter, "The Management of Reflection and the Family of Angles," is the foundation for the rest of the book. It all comes back to this. Reflection, both specular and diffuse, is to lighting as arithmetic is to algebra. You really cannot hope to learn the latter without a thorough understanding of the former. But even here I found new ideas that challenged the way I thought about light.

Chapter four deals with subject surface quality as a component of lighting. Often overlooked in the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching lighting techniques, this is a critical determinant of your final look. The light is positioned and sized and sent to the subject. But before it gets to your camera to record an image it can be drastically altered by the subject itself. You will learn not only to anticipate this variable, but to use it as yet another means of control.

Basic physics covered, (and don't let that "P" word put you off) they now move to three-dimensionality and form in chapter five. As with everything else in the book, they lay foundations and then allow you to incorporate what you have just learned into more complex concepts. A casual flip through the book might lead you to judge the illustrations as too simplistic. Don't be fooled. What they are is a distillation of the concepts being presented in a way that allows you to learn them more easily.

From here they move into how to light various surface qualities - metal in chapter six and glass in chapter seven. This may seem needlessly specific to some. But my take is that most of the subjects we shoot are more complex. And knowing how to attack each surface variable leads to a better problem-solving technique on the more complicated shoots.

Chapter eight moves into people, with a head shot as the vehicle to talk about how the various lighting positions affect a portrait. Again, the subject is very basic - a head shot. But this is a subject you just cannot do a lighting book without addressing. And many will find it a good reference.

If anything can be taken for granted in the business of location photography and lighting, it is that nothing can be taken for granted. Chapter nine deals with the "extremes" of lighting challenges. White on white. Black on black. Opaque and translucent background in both of the above combinations. At this point, I would not have been surprised to see a section on black holes.

The final chapter, Traveling Light, will (hopefully) be familiar ground to long-term readers of this site. They cover some basic tips and techniques in a way that will be useful to many of you. But this book is primarily a solid foundation - for many, an all-new foundation - that will teach you how to think about light and enhance your problem-solving skills.

For Thinking Photographers

I have heard earlier versions of this book called a "Lighting Bible." Those are strong words to throw around, and I find the following description more appropriate.

If you are a thinking photographer, "Light - Science & Magic" is a book of revelations about light. And if you are not a thinking photographer, it may very well turn you into one.

(If you have read Light - Science & Magic, and would like to share an opinion, please sound off in the comments section below.)

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Blogger Nimai said...

Thanks! I'd planned to buy this book just from the recommendations already read on this site. Exciting stuff.

"all of the readers are up to speed before jumping into the pool" - Nice metaphors! ;)

April 04, 2007 6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it worthwhile to buy a new copy if you own the 2nd edition?

April 04, 2007 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

I have 2nd edition and liked it so much that I just have to get to the 3rd. Would never have known about this but for the Strobist blog. This darn Internet thing just might catch on if it keeps being this handy!

April 04, 2007 8:04 PM  
Blogger r.gabra said...

Thank you David, going to order it, seems like a good investment!

Ok I may be out of topic but I'd say that photography is light(and shadow) but, it could be counter-productive thinkin too much about lighting(as it could be the same for anything else).

I can see many creatively lit shots but couldn't say they're beautiful in any other sense.

This is absolutely not a critic, but something hard to keep in mind sometime. Just a personal suggestion (referred to anyone, to me as well of course!).
Hope I've been able to explain the sense of my words. (It's hard to express yourself when you barely speak english!).

April 04, 2007 9:38 PM  
Blogger David said...


I understand exactly what you are saying. Bear in mind that the primary purpose of this website to teach lighting. The photos that you see here are the best one I have that fit within that framework.

I do take other photos, but they are not for here...

Likewise, L-S&M is full of mostly "unartistic" photos. Their job is to teach you the principles of light. Your job is to apply your own personal vision to your newfound skills.

And your English is just fine, thank you.


April 04, 2007 9:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize that this question has nothing to do with your latest blog entry and is not really a comment but more to the fact that it probably is one of the dumbest question to date....what is gaffer tape?

April 04, 2007 10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of you in Canada - has it for 29.99 canadian.

April 04, 2007 10:48 PM  
Blogger bmillios said...


I have always considered myself somewhat of a fish out of water when it comes to writing...

Don't knock your own writing ability - you do just fine, thank you.

April 05, 2007 1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you say the book is about thinking, not just follow examples.

It is a spring board for creativity not copycat photography. When you understand the principles anything is possible.

Just made me think of another good book called 'The Thinking Photographer' by Ian Bradshaw,(World Press Photo winner) I think it is now out of print but well worth a look if you can get hold of a copy.It's not on Amazon as far as I can tell.

April 05, 2007 6:16 AM  
Blogger Oameni Si Fluturi said...


is this book appropriate for beginners (in lighting concepts) also?

April 05, 2007 6:21 AM  
Anonymous retorik said...

David - is there a way you can set up a Canadian Amazon referral link so I can still give you money by purchasing this book?

April 05, 2007 3:47 PM  
Anonymous cameron obscura said...

Just got my copy in the mail today -- kiss productivity at work goodbye!

April 05, 2007 6:26 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

DOH! I bought the 2nd Edition not long ago.

It does look dated and only has low quality black and white pictures, so this new version looks a much needed update. Apart from that though it is an excellent book. The thing I really like about it is that the word "Photoshop" doesn't appear anywhere... Too many photography books these days try to cover everything from getting to know your camera through to editing shots during post-processing. As a result they cover too many subjects too lightly.

Light Science & Magic is a refreshing change and I wish I'd found it long ago. The book deals with photographic lighting and nothing else, unlike another “Lighting” book I have which dives into post-processing software in the second chapter. Light Science & Magic takes you from understanding how light behaves and why into applying that to photography.

What is also good is that it doesn't lead to needing masses of expensive lighting gear. The 2nd Edition has examples of how to take portraits using a single flash.

I highly recommend this book to anyone.

April 06, 2007 5:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Japan too... Thats the second book I've seen on strobist and ordered in Japan. No idea if its economical for you so just a suggestion...

April 06, 2007 5:31 AM  
Blogger Rui M Leal | Fotografia said...

Could anyone let me know if this deserves an update from the prior version?

This looks like we are talking about software but it's just a book :)

I have the old version and is really good but it's worth the update to this one?

Kind regards to everyone and have a good easter day.


April 06, 2007 5:39 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I had been planning on buying this for awhile and this seals the deal.

However the book I am really waiting for is the Strobist Book.


Tampa Bay Photographer

April 06, 2007 9:46 AM  
Blogger Marco said...

Hi great review, I might buy it, I want to improve my flash photography.

What about "Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait"?

I am going to my cousin wedding in June. Would that help me?


April 10, 2007 8:28 AM  

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