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Painting With Light Paperback – May 18, 1995

4.3 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.


"Provides fascinating insights into the mechanisms of the studio system."--Ian Gilchrist"Reel Ink" (06/03/2013) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 191 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (May 18, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520089499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520089495
  • Product Dimensions: 10 x 7.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By mirasreviews HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 26, 2005
Format: Paperback
"Painting with Light" is a reprint of cinematographer John Alton's 1949 book that began as a series of articles for "International Photographer" magazine. The book earned Alton appreciation among students of cinematography and the ire of those already working in the field. Students welcomed a how-to book by one of Hollywood's masters. Cinematographers found Alton lessons arrogant and too narrow, as the book advocates Alton's signature, somewhat controversial, style of using few lights. In any case, John Alton is one of the most studied cinematographers in Hollywood history, best known for his low key lighting in film noirs such as "T-Men" and "The Big Combo". And "Painting with Light" provides insight into why and how Alton chose the style he did.

An Introduction by film critic and documentarian Todd M. McCarthy provides a biography of John Alton and a filmography. John Alton starts out by saying that his techniques may be applied to still photography, and there are a couple of chapters toward the end of the book dedicated primarily to still photography, so photographers take note. The equipment that Alton describes is outdated, of course, but the reasoning and techniques may still apply, especially to those interested in low key lighting. The book starts out by introducing the cinematographer's equipment and describing basic lighting set-ups. Film noir fans may be particularly interested in Chapter 3, "Mystery Lighting". Alton found "the most beautiful photography is in a low key, with rich blacks", and he talks about creating it here. Chapter 4, "Special Illumination", explores some situations also common to film noir, such as streets, rain, fog, and moonlight. Chapter 5, "The Hollywood Close-up", might be applied to portrait photography as well as movies.
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Format: Paperback
I really had to laugh when I read the review of one film school student who was looking for books on lighting that explained how to do lighting "fast, cheap, and beautiful." In that statement lies the failure of todays film schools, and the genius of "Painting with Light".
In filmmaking we are faced with the same Paradigm that faces all industries. The pyramid = Fast, Good, and Cheap. Each of these occupies its own corner of a standard triangle. But here in lies the rub, you can only choose two: good and fast, fast and cheap, cheap and good, etc.
"Painting with Light" comes from an era were most of Hollywood understood this paradigm. Most people in Hollywood, particularly those in "Key" positions knew that good, if not great, lighting took time, and often time took money.
It's an excellent book for those that wish to know more about the general technical requirements of film. Along with "The 5 C's of Cinematography". I would also reccomend, if not require, this book for any aspiring indie filmmaker. Want to make a movie that competes with the majors? Learn what the majors know, and forget what they taught you in film school.
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Format: Paperback
First off, I want to note that the author DOES cover still photography in this book even though the major emphasis is on film techniques. As someone who has always considered lighting to be vital, learning more lighting techniques is a passion. I was naturally drawn to this one.

It didn't disappoint. Very convincingly, Mr. Alton makes his case for the way lighting and setting can affect the whole tone and mood of a film. He also reveals how some difficult situations, filming against snow, can be overcome.

This was a seminal book of 1949 and I'm glad to rediscover it, even though I wasn't born in 1949 and I came to it late but had the luck to see an earlier edition. As you can probably tell, the cover photo is riveting and the contents are also compelling.

I did want to note what may, perhaps, be obvious to some readers: film techniques and the ability to manipulate lighting have come a long way since 1949. Special effects can be used. But I come to this book with a still photographer's background and I'm thrilled to be able to use the information in both film and still photography.

If you are prepared to take what is here and remember when this book was written, you'll find an abundance of riches. For those who like noir type photos or movies, you'll be thrilled when Alton discusses how to use weather to your advantage - whether that be rain, snow, fog, etc.

Also, a confession: I prefer black and white photos and films - in many instances - so I was particularly delighted to read Alton's words about "rich blacks", two words that might not seem to be joined together - rich and black (and I'm not talking politics or class here).
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By A Customer on December 7, 1997
Format: Paperback
Originally published in 1949, "Painting With Light" by John Alton was long out of print until the University of California press reissued it in 1995. We would expect that a book by a cinematographer who's heyday was the 1940's & 50's black and white cinema would have nothing to teach us in color movie days. But that expectation would be wrong. The book covers a wide spectrum of the history and craft of cinematography, including the birth of the close-up, special lighting effects, & motion picture theatres. No review could as well convey the exquisite contents of this book than the short blurb from Martin Scorsese printed on the back cover: "The reappearance of this forgotten book -- so insightful and informative -- is a great event for film students and scholars as well as anyone interested in the art of cinematography: its author, John Alton, remains one of the greatest practitioners of that art. From the bright, colorful studio fantasy of 'An American in Paris' to the rich, sinister interiors of 'Slightly Scarlet,' from the sensitive black and white location work of 'The People Against O'Hara' to his powerful noir films with Anthony Mann ('Raw Deal,' 'T-Men,' 'Border Incident') and Joseph H. Lewis 'The Big Combo'). Alton left an indelible mark on his craft as few others have. He truly did paint with light."
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