Five Things Music Can Teach Us About Lighting

In 1986 I walked into the photo department at The Gainesville (FL) Sun for the first time. I was 21, and it was like walking into heaven.

Several well-respected photogs worked there. There was pool glass available for borrowing. There were huge photos on the wall. And there was a nice stereo with a pair of high-end (to me) speakers on top of the bookshelf.

Looking back, I think they were Bose 301's. But I was impressed back then.

They said that they paid for the stereo by pooling the money they received for transmitting AP specials and enterprise art over the wire. It was the first time the connection between music and photography ever hit me.

Ever since, I have made an effort to install some sort of music into the photo departments where I worked -- stereo in the darkroom at Patuxent, amplified speakers in the studio at The Sun and now, multi-source music on demand in The Cave.

Music and photography share a lot of concepts. And even more specific, there is actually a lot of crossover between music and light.

1. Music is Part Art and Part Science

The more photographers I meet, the less it now surprises me to learn that many of them have some sort of a musical background. As for myself, I was a musician from way back. I started with piano lessons in elementary school, and played in bands (saxes, mostly) from middle school through college jazz ensembles.

Music sits at the intersection of math and art, as does photography. It calls on both sides of our brains, and we cannot function well as musicians or photographers without being able to access both right- and left-brain thinking.

Lighting is inherently grounded in physics -- ratios, fall-off, beam spread, inverse square rule, etc. Even your f/stop scale is a function of the square root of two.

Music is like a code -- a time-based, mathematical code that you have to either solve or create on the fly. Reading two clefs of music at once is like simultaneously translating two people speaking a foreign language.

And being good at the mathematics part does not make you a good musician any more than it makes you a good lighting photographer. You need to be able to access the expressive components as well, or you'll just be a "technically" good photog or musician.

Which is kinda like a blind date being described as having a good personality. That statement is defined more by the what it doesn't say that what it does.

2. Music is All About the Ensemble

If I had a dollar for everyone who asked me what f/stop I was shooting at, or power rating on a flash, or how far to place the flash away from something, I'd probably be in a different income tax bracket.

And in the end, none of that matters -- I could alter my power rating on a flash from 1/8 to 1/4, change my ISO from 200 to 100 and nothing would change. It is not about the absolute numbers. It is about the relationship between the lights, and/or between the flash and the ambient.

Music is the same. How loud is fortissimo? That depends on whether you are playing on a stage in front of 500 people or in a small room with a string quartet. What matters is what intensity it takes to blend with the other notes being produced.

Is the goal to blend into a chord? To carry the melody? To belt out a solo, backed up by the horn section? How loud you play is not an absolute -- it is relative to the loudness of the other sounds in the ensemble.

Same thing with lighting. How much salt do you add in a pot of soup? Depends. How big is the pot? How salty do you want it?

3. Music Has Color and Feel

Music has major and minor chords, and patterns such as circles of fifths. Lighting has warm and cool gels -- and visual patterns such as families of color.

Music has dissonant notes that tend to really grab your attention -- much as a warm, gridded light will make something in a dark, cool palette stand out.

Within musical passages there are things that fit and things that don't. Similarly, there is a logic to lighting. You can sell all sorts of strange things in your light -- if there is a logical reason to arrive at that light.

Sure, you can put a strobe in a toilet. But why would there be light coming out of a toilet?

McNally, on the other hand, once needed to light the interior of a torpedo tube on a sub. So he stuck an SB into the tube, and had a weapons tech point a flashlight into there. Now the lighting coming from the tube not only did the job it needed to do, but made sense.

Just as with music, you can do dissonant things with your lighting if you establish a logical framework first.

4. Music Can Alter the Way We Interact

Don't believe me? Well, then you've never seen a room full of middle-aged white people transform at a wedding reception when the DJ cranks up Love Shack, by the B-52's.

It can be a little embarrassing, actually. It's an excuse to go crazy -- and go crazy they do.

Lighting can drastically alter the way we visually interact with something. You can make someone look like an angel with the right light. And ten minutes later, you can have him looking like The Devil himself.

Further, I love actually shooting with music playing in the background. That's why we had the amplified speakers in the studio at The Sun -- just bring your iPod and you were good to go. Any time I am going to be shooting someone in my own tiny studio, I either ask them to bring their own iPod or have my iPhone set up to run Pandora through the house system.

That way, they pick an artist and Pandora creates a play list for them. Perfect. And being in their own musical environment puts people in a good place.

Sometimes I will choose music based on the feel of the photo we are trying to create. It not only alters my perception of the shoot, but the subject's as well. And it starts to get us into the same vibe, which really helps.

I am planning to photograph a cellist a few weeks from now for my long-term arts project. Still brainstorming ideas, but I think I want to have him playing in the woods. It's one thing to be shooting a cellist out in the woods, and yet another to have the sounds of, say, Bach's Cello Suite #1 wafting through the trees as we are shooting.

No iPod needed, and nice work if you can get it.

5. Music Should Be Organic

One of the ironies of music is that when it is technically perfect it is often utterly uninspiring. And I feel the same way about light. If anything, I tend to default to making things too structured and buttoned down. And I do not like that very much. So I have to work to reintroduce the imperfections that make things more interesting. More believable.

The musical equivalent of what I am trying to avoid here would be Auto-Tune. And as far as I am concerned, Auto-Tune absolutely sucks. It systematically drains the life out of music in it's effort to create singers out of people who happen to have more looks than talent.

The world is not perfect. Unless you have an overriding reason to the contrary, your lighting probably should not be totally perfect, either. Get the feel you are looking for, and then scrape up some edges. Find and create some randomness -- introduce imperfection if none is there. Think "al dente."

Your lighting, and your music, will thank you for turning off the Auto-Tune.

I am very curious as to how many of you are musicians, and whether you have thought about how it affects your photography in general and your lighting in specific.

Hit us in the comments if you have thoughts of your own.


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