Light Photography: more than it’s cracked up to be.

Browsing through some reference images for a lighting design I was working on, I recognised a project and had to take a second look . . . what is this, witchcraft? I asked myself. Surely they couldn’t be so brazen as to doctor the image for such a reputable job ?

This thought led me to ask the question about what really goes into the art of light photography, because with lighting its simply different from your normal snap. What is its purpose? Is it about an accurate representation of what is visually in front of you, to show the client that you met the brief, or a way to show the world how impressive the design is, regardless of how it actually appears 90% of the time?

Photography in lighting is not as simple as it first may seem. As we know photos are only a point in time, and the beauty of lighting is that what we create is in a state of constant flux, as the light conditions change.  In this article, we find out the view and approach of professional photographer Dan Paton, who specialises in architecture, lighting, interiors, design and the built environment, and effervescent associate director at Hoare Lea, Juan Ferrari, who runs the London Lighting Team, to add the perspective of a lighting designer with experience of how photos of his installations need to work in practice.

Tate Britain – Lighting Design: Max Fordham LLP/Andy Hutton


Photos by Dan Paton: //

Chris :    Now I hear a lot about the elusive golden hour for photography, how much does the light you have to play with dictate the photo you can get, and how does that apply to light installations? Juan, is there a time that you as a lighting designer prefer the shot to be taken, and how much do you leave down to the photographer ?

Dan:       The golden hour is a gorgeous time, the ambient light is waning and becoming warm, picking out architectural features in a beautiful way. As its waning it tends to marry up in intensity with the lighting installation, the façade of a building for instance. You tend to get a more elegant balance between the light that’s been introduced and the ambient light, and for a photographer it makes your life a bit easier. The main problem with shooting lighting installations is contrast .

Juan:     I would leave all of the technical aspects to Dan. What we like is that the photographer finds the soul of the project, and the emotional connection points, uses these to decide the time its shot. We design for people, and I can have a completely different feel from Dan especially if I designed it, it’s all about keeping a constant dialogue . Photos are not 100% accurate, sometimes they can make it appear even better than it is, photography is an art form, and that’s what a good photographer brings in to play.

Juan Ferrari –

Dan:       Cameras are scientific objects, they record what’s there, but there is a lot of emotion in anything to do with light, to create an image that looks like you might perceive it when you are standing in front of an installation, is something you can’t often do in one exposure, the photographer has techniques that invoke the same feeling and awe the designer envisaged.

Chris:     It’s clear that it is not a binary process, I suppose for interior lighting photos at least you have a more controlled environment. What areas do you find most challenging and why? Juan how do you feel about the use of additional photographic light sources to achieve the best shot?

Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford – Architects: KPF – Lighting Design: Rob Gregg


Dan:      Time is quite difficult, the arc of the sun is changing, and the time of year when you shoot is obviously affecting how much available light you’ve got. The type and size of windows in the space, that is also a factor, if the lighting design and space is beautiful there is no limit to the number of photos you could take, but doing all that before the sunsets, sometimes can be a challenge, you must understand the design well. Lens flare is a problem when shooting low down, waggling mirrors can negate that !

Juan:    I am a purist on that front, I do not like introducing additional light sources into spaces .

Dan:      It’s definitely a last resort !

Juan:    I am less of a purist on the postproduction of the picture. You need to connect with the space and the people in the space, in an almost anonymous manner. The essence that makes a great picture is the authenticity. For marketing purposes, its an interesting concept to bring staged lighting and recreate a scene, because sometimes  architectural scenes are not that exciting. If a scene isn’t that interesting maybe it shouldn’t be marketed; it just needs to be lit.

Chris:    We have already touched on it, but what is it that you are looking to achieve with your photography. Is it a true representation, or something that ‘looks good’ ?  Is it closer to design or art? Juan what is your opinion on this and what does the brief for a good photo shoot generally consist of?

“Lunar Cycle”, Lewes light Festival 2020 – Eleni Shiarlis Lighting

Juan:     I do trust the photographer on that front, to extract the best moment. Dan is very committed to understanding what he is shooting, and brings an uncommercial view which is critical, as for me what he does is an art form. The brief needs to allow the photographer to extract the essence and soul of the project.

Chris:    I don’t envy you, Dan. In that position you have to interpret quite a few things. It’s a lot on your shoulder for something!

Dan:      Sometimes more than others. I can completely understand it. I wouldn’t want to have to write a lighting brief. There are really two sides to the brief, the romantic and the technical. These days there are ever more technical aspects with different lighting modules creating different moods. Really understanding what the area is going to be used for is where I start.

Juan:    From my perspective the photographer needs to understand what we are trying to convey, the message. We explain the narrative of the project, the capacity of the systems and architecture being photographed. Then you can talk about close ups, details that you would like to see within the photographs.

Old Hall, Queen’s College Cambridge – Lighting Design: Hoare Lea Lighting


Chris:    Lighting design is a bit of a niche, so a good lighting photographer must be even more so. Who are your main customers and what has been your favourite installation, and, Juan, what for you makes the best photographer ?

Dan:      There was one project that stands out with Hoare Lee. It was a light sculpture with the designer Steuart Padwick, in association with the mental health charity Mind. The concept was to raise awareness of the stigma around mental health and you could tweet your mood at the sculpture, and it would change the colour to reflect the mood you were in. It was absolutely gorgeous, especially just after the golden hour, when you had the blue of the dusk sky, the backdrop of the City of London glinting, the purplish colour of the Thames.

Juan:    The fact that Dan can know so much about the project, is testament to what he can bring. It was incredibly challenging work all the way through. Our brief was only to illuminate a wooden sculpture, no twitter involved, no connection of being a barometer to the city, no people tweeting their emotions, with the piece changing to a corresponding colour. The artist and ourselves spoke to Sally Marlow, a renowned psychologist and psychiatrist, who used the piece for informal research. Any tweet was recorded (under GDPR) and that was analysed by psychologists as part of informal research, which was amazing.

Head Above Water – Design: Steuart Padwick – Lighting Design: Hoare Lea Lighting            


Chris: Just out of interest, did you find that Londoners are generally grumpy – that’s what people think, right? Really angry and stressed colours ?!

Juan:     When you have the chance to read thousands of tweets from ‘The Head Above Water, you find many of them are funny, cheerful and frequently related to love. Out of all of these the one that stood out for me was a solo tweet sent at 3.00 in the morning, which simply said pain. It’s kind of the reason the piece is there, there is something about mental health where people struggle to communicate, but also to know that they are being listened to, they are suffering in silence. If at the time the person that typed that could see the piece reacting to them and felt listened too, our job is done.

Head Above Water – Design: Steuart Padwick – Lighting Design: Hoare Lea Lighting


Chris: thank you Dan and Juan for those fascinating insights.




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