Thinking like a photographer: When observation is more important than software

As technology advances, new features are introduced that sometimes seem like they can replace artists. So is the software more important than the artist is? It’s a valid question in the CG world. In my experience, no matter how good or advances the software is there’s no way of overcoming a good, skilled artist. One of the skills I’ve found to be incredibly useful is being able to think and work like a photographer or cinematographer even though you’re using digital tools.

My journey into photography

Several years ago, before I got involved in the CG industry, I really wanted to be a photographer. I got obsessed with the techniques and even went so far as to develop my own pictures in a “guerilla dark room” at home. I bought used equipment to practice and read every article, book or tutorial related to cameras and lenses. 44696_Inline_04 Learning photography is more than learning techniques. It’s learning a whole new language, complete with its own terms and rules. Looking back, I’m very glad to have learned these rules at a very early age in life and being able to understand them in a more organic and natural way. Some of the key terms you should know are depth of field, lenses, shutter speed and ISO. More importantly, though, is understanding how they all play together. Or, the rules. Knowing these will help you get a sense of how an image should look when it’s correct. When I started getting into the CG industry, I was able to use my knowledge of photography to control the final output of the virtual camera. Once I figured out the technical part of photography, I started to learn some of the more complex artistic processes. To do this, I began to watch different photographers work. I’d spend several hours a day just figuring out what they were doing and how they were doing it. For example, I’d look at the direction of the light, the softness of the shadows, the temperature and color of the images and I was extremely critical with what I was seeing. Since I already knew the rules of photography, I was able to focus on how they achieved the artistic side. Over time, I started to understand the decision process behind different styles and the ideas that went into every picture. Getting into the habit of observation is probably the most important part of becoming a CG lighter. You have to use your eye, train your sight and build criteria. When I work on my shots, I’ll constantly refer back to what I’ve learned about photography and use it to justify my decisions. In other words, I prefer to work with my eyes and my brain rather than working with my hands and my software. One of the first things you have to know when you work with any CG shot is that your audience is going to look at your final image as if it were a taken by a camera. This concept is imperative because if you do anything to ruin that illusion your final work will be unpleasant to them, and for the same reason, it won’t be successful. Your job is to keep the illusion and to create images that are as appealing as they are believable.

My three-step approach to lighting

When I’m blocking out lighting, I have an analytical process that helps me understand how my image has to work. Really, it’s just a simple exercise to explain how you can think like a photographer instead of being caught in between of a bunch of technical terms. This process is based on three main steps, and of course, in the basics of photography.
  1. Light direction and shadow softness
  2. Light exposure and temperature (color)
  3. Contrast and saturation
You can use any software to incorporate each of these. Think of them as a way of understanding and translating photography into your CG shots.

Light direction and shadow softness

44696_Inline_01 The first step in my process is to define where the light is coming from. Is it coming through the window? Is it the sun? These are the type of questions I’ll ask myself to figure out the light direction in a shot. Once I figure out the direction, I work out the softness of the shadows. Are they extremely blurry? Are they sharp? Maybe halfway? I usually try to think about how the shadows of this particular scenario would look like in real life and then recreate that in the software. Another thing that always helps is to gather a lot of photographic reference for the shot. The light direction and shadow softness is the first step to evoke the time of day and the mood in the scene. It gives direction to the scene and focuses the audience’s attention.

Light exposure and light temperature

44696_Inline_02 After figuring out the direction and shadows, I’ll define the light exposure. I like to create a strong relationship between the intensity of the light and the darkness of the shadows. When you work with the light exposure, you’re always dealing with those two things. How accurate one of them is will always depend on the other one. An extra substep for this would be how the exposure affects the falloff, or decay, of the light. Think about how the exposure controls the life of the light in the scene and how the light’s energy is preserved through the scene. This is crucial to guarantee realism and have physically plausible results. Once the exposure is set, I like to move onto defining the light temperature or color. Most current software programs give you an easy way of inputting a value, generally using the Kelvin scale so you can match real light temperatures in your 3D scenes. You’ll have to figure out the time of the day and what the actual temperature would be during that time, but there are tables online to help with this kind of information. From your base Kelvin value, you can make decisions and change a little bit those values for a more pleasant result based on your art direction. A key concept for light temperature is the relationship between opposites. Naturally, when you have a warm temperature light, your shadows will be on the cooler side of the spectrum and vice versa. This will create a nice and interesting transition of light and volume for your lit objects.

Contrast and saturation

44696_Inline_03 Contrast and saturation are all about creating a rhythm for the reading of the image. Usually, I work out these on the comp and try to define the correct values for the different areas of my images. In the case of these two, they’re bound together, so when you change one, you’ll inevitably modify the other. This is one of the final touches to your images to help give it balance. It’s the color correction part of the process and it’s when everything comes together. During this step, I’ll pay close attention to the relationship between spaces and how it’d affect the contrast and saturation. For example, depending on its distance from the camera, an object’s luminance and color are changed. Use this to figure out how it can give some dynamism to the final image.     In conclusion, working as a lighter is a delicate balance between having strong technical skill and a strong sense of observation. Of course, you have to know your software, but in my experience, the most amazing lighters always trust their eyes more than their knowledge of any particular software. Something else to think about is the fact that software and tools are evolving very rapidly and the learning curve of them is incredibly fast. However, the process of training your sight isn’t something you can do as quickly as learning a new piece of software. It’s a self-taught process that requires practice every day and it can still take years to learn. You have to love observation and want to translate it into this language of photography and cinematography. In photography, the camera does a very minimal amount of taking the picture. It’s really the fine-tuning of a photographer’s eye that captures and creates a piece of remarkable art. Similarly, CG software is just a tool, the technique, and the equivalent of a camera, but your trained eye becomes invaluable at the time of creating images. Your trained eye and photographic ideas will make your CG work look and feel like something no software can achieve. Roger Deakins said, “Don’t get distracted with technique.” This couldn’t be any more true for CG lighting. Artists who think like a photographer, like a cinematographer, have the ability to see scenarios and scenes to evoke a story. No matter which software you use, you’ll see a final composition of color and light. You’ll see a final image instead of some values stored in a computer.