Thursday, August 20, 2009

REVIEW: Sculpting with Light – Techniques for Portrait Photographers

When you pick up a book like this, what is your real intention? Is your goal to work for your local portrait studio? Is your goal to build your own studio and take portraits there? If you answered YES to either of these questions, then I think this is a great book for you to consider reading. If your goal is to take better pictures of your family members using your flash gun, or reach the elite level of fashion photography, then your search for the right book isn’t over yet.

Allison Earnest takes you on a journey into her world of what I would call common private studio photography. This is actually the type of professional photographer that most of interact with at some point in our lives, be it our first family portrait, Senior portraits, or our wedding studio shoot. There’s people like Allison in every city of the country, some of whom work independently and other who work for a large studio which sees hundreds of families daily. The techniques described in this book will teach you how to work in that industry to get results that you once paid what you thought was a lot of money for (your perception changes when you’re the photographer :).

Chapter by Chapter Walkthrough

1. The Physics of Light

This is what I call “the book report chapter” because it feels a lot like the author wanted to establish some credibility up front, so she did a book report on the physics of light and what you see here is the result of that. I say this because I work with lots of engineers every day and it is easy to see which ones are the the hard core scientist types, and which ones are just faking that part (and you can be successful either way). The real hard core types can’t get down from this level, so if the author were truly writing this from her own experiences then this book would be filled with stuff like this. However, it isn’t so I think this is basically a meaningless chapter you can skip. Why? Because if you want to understand these concepts, read a book by those who are true experts on the subject as is the case with Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting: Third Edition. If you want to read a portrait book, then you don’t really want a geeky explanation like this so just skip it.

2. Incident and Reflected Light

This chapter starts to pick up where the author left off on the last chapter, into a technical dissertation that is inadequate and not terribly helpful. However, it’s clear that like most pro photographers, she actually understands the concepts on a practical level, if not a technical level, so she goes on to do a great job of explaining the practical concepts of incident and reflected light. Tip here – look at the images and read the captions, but glance over the geek speak. When the author takes about practical applications, then pay attention as there’s good information there.

3. Light Design Tools

This is actually a very good chapter where the author provides a nice overview of a lot of different lighting mechanisms, modifiers, and techniques. Brief, to the point and illustrative makes it a plus for the beginner.

4. Portrait Lighting Basics

Again, this is a nice way to ease into the concept of portrait lighting with some good examples. I think the beginner would have benefited from a better illustration of what exactly the author means when she says "butterfly light pattern” as its a concept that is described differently by other authors and in my opinion looks nothing like a butterfly. That quibble aside, this is a good chapter that beginners will definitely learn a lot from. The authors experience certainly shines here.

5. Lighting Different Facial Shapes

This chapter is where I began to see value in this book over others I’ve read because this is a topic that you don’t see typically covered (or not very well if it is mentioned). However, this is a real challenge for even experienced photographers, so it is great to see some advice and good examples to illustrate the point. The last page of this chapter was a nice too because it finishes up with a series of challenges with tips on how to address them – bravo!

6. Working with Multiple Subjects

By this chapter I was really wishing the author had included some different models as I was tired of seeing the same model over and over again. I was also a bit perplexed because I honestly liked the first take (plate 98) way better than the final take (plate 101). This wasn’t the first time this happened in this book, but this one was the most memorable. There’s still a little useful info in this chapter, but it could have used some more depth. Another chapter on large groups could have been useful in this book as well.

7. Sculpting with Ambient Light

While I think more setup and outdoor light modifier discussions would have been useful, this is actually a fairly detailed and good chapter in this book. While entire books have been written on the subject (some of which have been reviewed on this blog) I think that the author does a reasonably good job of familiarizing the reader with the most important concepts.

8. Post-Production Enhancements

Every so often a chapter comes along in a book that you know was either the victim of the publishers tight schedule or the authors lack of expertise, but honestly I think this chapter is without question the worst in the book. It’s basically an advertisement for Kubota Tools (which btw, you can get his best stuff in onOne PhotoTools). Skip it as you’ll want to cringe when you read it. Go read my What Photoshop Books Should I Read? article for real books on this subject.


When I first skimmed through this book my first thought was “these pictures aren’t that great,” so I admit I went in with a negative attitude when I read this book. I quickly got annoyed with the author seemingly trying to sell me on Hensel lights throughout the book (note to editor – skip brand names if there is a next edition). However, as I read on I appreciated the authors middle chapters that offered some really good advice and tips that aren’t always easy to find. Had I been the editor, I would have cut chapters 1 and 8 from the book and enhanced chapters 2 & 6. That leaves chapters 3, 4, 5, & 7 as being the real useful content in this book. For many that will be enough, especially if you don’t have exposure to those concepts. I appreciated what was there, and suspect you will as well.

Skill Level: Any

Value: At retail, too much – but the going rate on Amazon is fair

Recommendation: If you are new to studio lighting and want to improve your portraiture then chapters 3 through 5 will be useful to you and probably worth the price of the book. If that isn’t your goal then you shouldn’t bother with this one. In the end, I say pick it up on sale and skip to the good stuff.

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