Hello everybody,

being new on the pixeLess Thursday I thought I start it off with a book I absolutetely love. I’m probably exaggerating a bit, but to me one of the best books about lighting is neither new nor is it about photography. You won’t find any discussion about e- or iTTL, sensor sizes and not even flash duration in it and it’s amazingly old by today’s standards. I’m talking about “Painting with Light” by John Alton, first published 1949.

You might be surprised, but John Alton is one of the most innovative cameramen in the classic Hollywood sense. He’s one of the most influential creators of what is known today as film noir, even a lot of his work can be considered as B-movies – with an A-movie lighting. And “Painting with Light” is, as Todd McCarthy states in the biographical notes facing the book, is “the first book on the art of cinematography ever written by a leading Hollywood cameraman.” Considering the fact that these guys had no electronics and not the ways of post-processing they really had to know how to light a scene quickly and efficient. And with John Alton there’s one more important point: lighting for mood.

At this point I have to thank my friend Morgana Creely for hinting me to this book. It’s not only a lot of information about classic cinema technique, explanations of all the interesting jobs in a camera crew (honestly, do you know what a rigger does or what a cameraman’s job really is?) and a really interesting biography, but first and foremost it’s a book about lighting for different scenes and moods. Here Alton really goes into detail and shows drawings and stills to illustrate the various scenes he explains.

Painting With Light was the first book on cinematography written by a major Hollywood cameraman. Published in 1949 and now put back into print, it is one of the best and most unusual books in the field. Written with good humor and full of helpful diagrams and photographs, it is certainly the most entertaining. Its technological discussions are dated, but Painting With Light remains relevant because its primary focus is on light itself and the many complex ways the camera crew can manipulate it. This new edition contains a biographical introduction by Todd McCarthy, who describes how the man who shot the strikingly colorful ballet sequence in An American in Paris also helped define the stark, haunting style of the film noir. (description on Amazon.de)

John Alton "Painting with light"

John Alton “Painting with light”

One of the great benefits of the book is, that it’s old. As a reader you’re not confronted with ‘this technique only works with gadget x’ which you need to buy next, nor do you need to fear any form of product placement by a camera- or strobe manufacturer. Instead you get very straightforward information about positioning the lights to create a certain mood. And Alton also explains why these settings work, how you can use them to create depth and so on. And because this is “old school” technology and technique you can easily adapt his hot lights settings for modern continuous or strobe light sets. And you learn a lot about the basics on “painting with light”.

Now don’t worry, you don’t need to search your local bookstores for an old copy of Alton’s book – luckily there’s a reprint available, both in print and in a Kindle version.





You’ll find a pretty interesting documentary on John Alton on YouTube:

About The Author

Digital Artist & Photographer

Torsten is a freelance journalist who usually writes about all things related to photography and image editing. While his main output is magazine articles, he also does video tutorials and blog posts as well. He also is what one might call an enthusiast hobby shooter (photographically speaking).