There is a scene in the 1984 movie “The Karate Kid” where Daniel (Ralph Macchio), a bullied young man wanting to learn how to defend himself, is given a seemingly meaningless task given to him by mentor Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) of washing and waxing several cars. Miyagi instructs Daniel on waxing the cars with one hand and then taking the wax off with the other. “Wax on, wax off” he says.
Subsequent scenes show Daniel painting fences, a house and sanding floors until he complains to Mr. Miyagi that he feels like he’s been treated like a slave and hasn’t learned any karate. “Not everything is as it seems.” Says Miyagi. Daniel starts to storm away, but Miyagi calls him back and asks Daniel “show me wax on, wax off,” meaning to show him the motions that he used doing the various chores. After the demonstration Daniel learns that he was being taught how to block punches and kicks without even realizing it.
Way back when I was a young photo student one of the lessons was called “front, side and back lighting.” It called for photographing a single object or person outdoors with the light falling on the front, side and back of the subject. It seemed easy enough and seemed to me a bit innocuous, even a little boring. I thought it was about exploring different angles of your subject and with shooting outdoors, I would have plenty of light. “A piece of cake” I thought.
I found a large and obelisk-shaped headstone at a local cemetery. I moved around it to get the front, side and back views. My instructor told me about exposing for the different lighting. Backlighting was typically about two stops darker than front lighting and side lighting usually splits the difference between front and back lit. When I was done, at the next lab session, I processed the film (I did say “way back”) and then began to make prints in the darkroom. When the pictures were dry I showed them to my instructor who asked me which ones I like best and why. I was a bit puzzled because they were all of the same subject. I looked at them for a while and then came my own personal “wax on, wax off” moment. It wasn’t about the subject but the lighting, more specifically not just how much there is but show the direction from which the light comes can affect the photo.
The front-lit photo, while it was evenly illuminated and the easiest to print, looked a bit flat and boring. The back-lit photo was more dramatic but was the hardest to print because of the difference of exposures between the subject and the background. The side-lit photo to me was the most pleasing. The shadows gave the image some depth and volume.
I suggest any budding photographer to assign himself or herself the front-, side- and back-lighting lesson. It teaches about light and can be used with any subject, from portraits to landscapes. Then maybe you can have your own “wax on, wax off” moment.