Category Archives: 20. Photographic lighting

Shiny surfaces

Shiny Surfaces

Highly reflective surfaces can be a challenge to light and this exercise looks at one method of doing so.

The instructions ask that I gather an object so shiny that I can see my face in it and some large sheets of tracing paper. I selected a metal cake slice and placed it on the floor with the camera fitted to a tripod above it and pointing downwards. I fitted my Speedlight to the camera, set it to 1/16 power and then took a photograph.


Light next to camera,
48mm, f/5.3, 1/2s, ISO 100

The metal is very brightly lit with large areas of white where the flashlight has reflected off of the metal. There is also an area of green, the reflection of a plant that was sitting nearby. The metal is bright because direct reflections area  mirror image of the light source that produces them (Hunter et al , 2012, p38).

For the next shot the tracing paper came into play, or in this case, baking parchment that I had at home. I was asked to form the paper into a cone shape where the small end would cover the lens of the camera and the wide end would t around the subject without being seen by the camera. This was an extremely fiddly task. As the baking parchment was in a roll I had to fix several strips together to make one large piece of paper. Sticky tape, somewhat ironically, didn’t stick so I then tried glue stick, which seemed to do the trick. After several attempts I managed to get the paper into a cone shape and fit it over my lens, holding it in place with an elastic band. The ‘cone’ wouldn’t keep its shape and requires several adjustments to keep it out of the viewfinder. I kept the Speedlight on my camera but positioned on the exterior of the paper cone. I then took the shot.


Diffused light has minimised glare,
48mm, f/5.3, 1/2s, ISO 100

The bright, white reflections are gone and now the metal appears grey. This is because firing the flash through the baking parchment has sufficiently diffused the light, softening it and eliminating the glare.

The bright, white reflections are gone and now the metal appears grey. This is because firing the flash through the baking parchment has sufficiently diffused the light, softening it and eliminating the glare.

However had the metal object I had chosen as a subject had a rounded shape, such as a kettle, this technique may not have eliminated all reflections and may even have reflected the camera in the metal. Hunter et al (20012, p148) notes that when lighting a round piece of metal the family of angles consists of almost the whole environment. This causes everything to be reflected, camera included. The almost 360 degree family of angles can be seen in the shot below.


Rounded metal and glass bottles,
40mm, f/5.3, 1/13s, ISO 100

Hunter et al (2012, p148) suggest three ways to eliminate the camera reflection when photographing metal. They are to camouflage it with texture or additional subjects in the scene, which is what I think has happened in the shot above. To keep the light off the camera by covering it in black material of using a long lens and alternatively, by using a light tent.

This exercise has been useful in introducing me to some ways that it might be possible to successfully light metal. However, it would seem before embarking on lighting sets ups it would be wise to consider if I want the metal bright, dark or a combination of both, which Hunter et al (2012, 131) describe as the elegant compromise.

Hunter, F., Biver, S. and Fuqua, P. (2012) Light- Science and Magic. (4th Ed.) Waltham: Focal Press


Concentrating light

Concentrating light


This exercise looks at some of the options available when you don’t want to light a whole scene and instead want to concentrate the light on a particular area or object.

The exercise instructions are quite open, asking that I experiment with shaping light on an indoor shoot. It suggested that I use a snoot as a sort of spotlight to concentrate the light.


Snoots are tubes that are used to aim light by restricting all light except for that in the exact direction the light is pointed. DIY versions can be made easily at home using card or, as I recently discovered through an Internet search, an empty Pringles container.

I didn’t have to do this as I have recently invested in a Flashbenders, positionable reflector that I was able to use this for the task by fixing it into a cylindrical shape with the velcro, positioning it over my speed light head and fixing it in place with the attachment straps.


Grids are another tool that goes between the light and the subject and controls the light in much the same way as a snoot. As I don’t have one of these at home I undertook a Google search and found out that there were quite a few DIY versions that could be made at home with very few materials. I decided to make a grid from straws  that I found on I couldn’t seem to find black straws anywhere so set about colouring the yellow ones I did have with a permanent black marker. Luckily the marker had a broad head and this didn’t take as long as I imagined it would.

 The shoot

I initially set up a small arrangement on table with a decorative wooden box and some pieces of jewellery on a black background. However, I couldn’t quite get the ‘spot’ effect that I knew should occur with either the snoot or the grid attached. The light didn’t seem to be concentrating on one area but instead was lighting most of the arrangement. I went back to the drawing board and after some time realised that problems may possibly be

1. The light not positioned far enough away from the subject

2. The arrangement was perhaps too small and therefore the light from the snoot and grid was covering too much area.

I set up another still-life arrangement, this time larger, showing a chair with a purse, scarf and some beads arranged on top of it. I positioned the speed light, high on a stand, some distance away from the arrangement, facing the chair and pointing down. I began shooting with the snoot attached to the speed light. I began with the flash on the weakest power, 1/128 flash output and then gradually increased it to find a level, which lit the scene best.

I intentionally made the scene dark so that the spotlight effect would be clearly seen, however this created major problems for the exposure and resulted in clipped shadows in the exposure. Therefore, I had to brighten the room a little with light from a small tungsten lamp, positioned at the far end of the room, behind the speed light. I also used Bulb mode and a shutter release cable.

26mm, f/4.2, 1/2s, ISO 160

With snoot,
f/4.2, 1/2s, ISO 160

I took first a shot with the snoot attached to the flash at ¼ flash output and then with the grid attached. I converted both images to black and white in PSE 11 to keep the emphasis on the light and dark tones of the scene without the distraction of colour.

The snoot has directed the light towards the chair top lighting the objects that sit there. The light fall off from this spot has left the upper corners of the scene quite dark which helps to isolate the chair as the main subject.

With grid 26mm, f/4.2, 1.3s, ISO 160

With grid
26mm, f/4.2, 1.3s, ISO 160

After a few test shots I realised that with the grid attached to the speed light that I would require a longer exposure time. Even after doing this you can see that the overall image is darker as the spread of the light is tighter than with the snoot. While the shadows are not clipped the histogram does show a predominately dark distribution of tones.

histogram for grid shot

histogram for grid shot

What influenced the different results?

The flash output and light to subject distance were the same in both photograph, therefore the light intensity was the same, just distributed differently. This got me thinking about the individual qualities of both of these light-shaping tools. What was it about the grid that directed the light in a narrower spread? I searched through my textbooks and various photography websites before I got some answers to my questions.

In photography lighting for dummiesit states that it is the length of tube in a snoot or grid (or straws in my case) that defined the shape of the light. The longer the tube, the more defined the light. In terms of the spread of light it seems it is the diameter of the tube that influences how wide or narrow the spread of light is. The more constricted the tube, smaller the resulting light. The snoot I used was approximately 8cm across, resulting in a wider spread of light, while each of the straws I used were 0.5cm across, resulting in a narrow spread of light.

This also made me think that had I used a snoot or grid with narrower tubes that I may have got better results on my initial attempts at concentrating the light onto the tabletop still-life arrangement.


This was an interesting exercise that I seemed to have spent a rather long time on. However, carrying it out has encouraged me to experiment and seek out further information on how light behaves and how the light modifiers work.

Both the shop bought and home-made light modifiers worked well and produced interesting results. However, as I now know that the width of the hole and length of the tube affect the spread and definition of the light I can now experiment with some more DIY tools to concentrate the light. Perhaps using longer straws with narrower diameters attached to a snoot…

Contrast and shadow fill

Contrast and shadow fill


Präkel (2009) describes contrast as the difference in brightness between the darkest and lightest parts of an image. The course notes advise that in daylight, particularly on a large-scale, there is little a photographer can do to change the contrast of the scene, except perhaps wait for the light to change. However, when photographing indoors the contrast can be controlled in a number of ways.

This exercise looks at how reflectors, objects that reflect much of the light that falls on them, can be used to shape light by filling the shadows of a scene with light to varying degrees.

Präkel (2007, p116) notes that almost any large surface can be used to reflect light. Home made examples; a large white card (around 2ft-3ft) and some aluminum cooking foil are suggested by the course notes.

Set up

Instructions for set up were as follows-

  • Set up a simple still-life shot that will leave room for access at the sides of the scene.
  •  Set the camera on a tripod to shoot from the same level as the still-life.
  • Fix a light about 2-3 feet to one side of the still-life and at its level, so that it is at right angles to the camera’s view
  • Have the card, aluminum foil and a diffuser to hand.

I decided upon a simple vegetable still-life against a plain black background. I put a speed light on a stand and positioned this to the right of the still-life. After a few test shots I decided upon 1/32 flash power. The camera was positioned in front, facing the still-life. As I was shooting under low light (except for the flash) I opted to use a wide aperture.

I gathered the card, foil and the speed light’s diffusion dome and placed these close by. To this assortment I also added a, recently purchased but not yet used, 5 in 1 reflector set.


I carried out the exercise instructions (and adding a few steps to incorporate the 5 in 1 reflector) took the following photographs.

1. Without a diffuser on the speed light.

Without a diffuser the light is small and high contrast. This has caused bright highlights on both tomatoes and on the top of the pepper. There is a hard shadow of the pepper on the background cloth and of the pepper and the green beans on the left of the frame where no light has entered the shadow (Hunter et al, 2012, p19). The colour of the tomatoes appears washed out by the white light.

_DSC1899 without diffuser

1. Without diffusor,
68mm, f/4.5, 2s, ISO 250

2. With a diffuser on the speed light.

The highlight spots on the vegetables are smaller than previously. The diffuser has made the light larger and scattered it. Some of the light has entered the shadow areas making the shadows softer. (Hunter et al, 2012, p21)

_DSC1900 with diffuser

2. With diffuser,
68mm, f/4.5, 2s, ISO 250

3. With diffuser. White card positioned 3 feet from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.

The white card has reflect some of the light back onto the scene and as a result it has filled the shadow cast by the beans and pepper on the left hand side of the frame.

_DSC1901 white card 1m

3. White card positioned 3 ft from arrangement, opposite lamp.
68mm, f/4.5, 2s, ISO 250

4. With diffuser. White card positioned 1.5 feet from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.

I had difficulty focusing in this image due to low light, therefore I adjusted the composition and exposure slightly. This has made it difficult to directly compare the contrast in this image with the previous one. Although there does look to be slightly more highlighted areas on the fruit.

According to Präkel (2007, p116) reflected light behaves in the same way as a main light source which means it follows the inverse square law. The inverse square law states that the intensity of light observed from a constant source falls off as the square of the distance from the source. (p13). Put simply, by moving the reflector half as close as previous you double its effect, meaning twice as much reflected light.

_DSC1902 white card 1-2m_edited-1

4. White card positioned positioned 1.5 feet from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.
55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

5. With diffuser.  White reflector positioned 1.5 feet from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.

There seems to be no real difference in contrast between the white card and white reflector, except perhaps, the white reflector has reflected more light onto the background cloth.

White reflector. 55mm, F/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

White reflector, positioned 1.5 feet from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.
55mm, F/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

6. With diffuser. Gold reflector positioned 1.5 feet from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.

Golf reflector

6. Golf reflector,
55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

Gold reflectors work like other reflectors by directing light back onto the subjects, however, gold reflectors ‘warm up’ the reflected light Präkel (2007, p116). The contrast in the image using the gold reflector is similar to the that of the white reflector although on close inspection the contrast is slightly less around the dark areas of the pepper stem and the green beans. The pepper is also very slightly more yellow with the gold reflector.

7. With diffuser. Silver reflector positioned 1.5 ft from arrangement, opposite from the lamp.

The silver reflector seems to have reflected a lot more light onto the scene than the white reflector. The left side of the pepper is lighter and markings can be seen while a new small highlight spot can now be seen reflected in the peppers skin on the far left of the frame.

7. Silver reflector, 55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

7. Silver reflector,
55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

8.  Card covered with aluminum foil, dull side facing outwards, and take photograph.

The dull sided foil has reflected a lot of light back into the shadows. In particular those on the cloth covering the tabletop and under the pepper on the right side.

Card covered in foil, dull side facing out. 55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

Card covered in foil, dull side facing out.
55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

9.  Card covered with aluminum foil, shiny side facing outwards, and take photograph.

Unfortunately the focus on the shot was off and I failed to notice this at the time of shooting. I have still included it though as you can see that the shiny side of the foil has filled the shadows underneath the peppers and tomatoes and also in the shadows cast by the dries chillies.

Foil shiny side facing out, 55mm, f/5. 1s, ISO 320

Foil shiny side facing out,
55mm, f/5. 1s, ISO 320

10. Card covered with crushed, then smoothed, aluminum foil with the shiny side facing out. Take photograph.

Rather surprisingly, the crumpled but smoothed foil seemed to reflect the same, if not more, light than the smooth foil. Possibly because the light is being scattered at many different angles?

Crushed then smoothed foil shiny side facing out, 55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

Crushed then smoothed foil shiny side facing out,
55mm, f/5.6, 1s, ISO 320

Arranged in order, from highest contrast to lowest.

I am now asked to compare the photographs and arrange then in order of contrast from highest to lowest.

Highest contrast, without diffusor and no reflector.

Highest contrast,
without diffuser and no reflector.

With diffusor

With diffuser

White card at 3ft

White card at 3ft

White card at 3ft

White card at 1.5ft

White reflector.

White reflector.

Golf reflector

Golf reflector

Silver reflector,

Silver reflector

Card covered in foil, dull side facing out.

Card covered in foil, dull side facing out.

Crushed then smoothed foil, shiny side facing out.

Lowest contrast, Crushed then smoothed foil, shiny side facing out.

Foil shiny side facing out,

Lowest contrast, Foil shiny side facing out.

The naked lamp without a diffuser resulted in the highest contrast image. The contrast was then reduced by the use of a diffuser and then various light reflectors which reflected light back onto the scene filling the shadows. In this instance, the foil seemed to do this best because of it’s directly reflective quality.


This exercise has shown me that there are several tools available to help the photographer control contrast to varying degrees. Interestingly, the foil and white card gave similar results to the commercial kit which is good to know for the occasions where I don’t have it on me.

The big decision, it would seem, is for the photographer to decided how much contrast do they want in their scene and therefore how much shadow fill is necessary.

For this particular exercise, the one with the most shadow fill was not necessarily the best option. I preferred the shots with a medium amount of contrast, perhaps with the white card and white reflector.

Conversely, it is good to know that should I wish to increase contrast further at the time of shooting. I can do this by moving a naked lamp further away from the subject or by substituting a reflector for a black piece of card.


Hunter, F., Biver, S. and Fuqua, P., (2012) Light-Science and Magic. (4th ed.) Waltham: Focal Press

Präkel (2009) Exposure. Lausanne: AVA

Präkel, D. (2007) Lighting. Lausanne: AVA

The lighting angle

The lighting angle


Präkel (2007, p120) notes that the direction from which light falls on to a subject has a major impact on the viewers ‘reading’ of the image. This exercise will help to illustrate this as we look at the effects of moving the lighting angle. The instructions are as follows-

  • Select a subject. It should be no bigger than the diffuser in front of the light. It should be rounded and have a variety of planes to show areas of light and shadow.
  • Position the subject on a small level surface with a plain background.
  • Fix the camera onto a tripod and aim it at the subject.
  • Fit the light with a diffuser and move it around the subject taking _DSC1893 with the light in front of the camera, from the side, from behind and to one side and from directly behind.
  • Raise the light so that it point to the subject at angle of approximately 45 degrees. Again, move the light around the subject.
  • Suspend the light above the subject, pointed down. Take three pictures: directly overhead, slightly in front and from slightly behind.
  • Study the photographs to note the effect the lighting position has on showing the subject’s shape and form.

I selected a small trinket box as the subject for this exercise as it met the criteria in terms of shape and size. I used a speed light as the light source and placed it on a stand to be triggered wirelessly from my camera. I also closed the curtains in the room to minimise light from sources other than the speed light. As I was working in low light and long exposure times I used a shutter release cable.

Light level with subject



55mm, f/5.6, 8s, ISO 125

Präkel (2007, p158) notes that when light falls directly flat onto a subject very little texture will be revealed. This can be seen here. The frontal lighting has made the image very low contrast. There are no shaded areas to be seen on the carved box lid making it appear flat and 2-dimensional.



55mm, f.5.6, 10s, ISO 125

Präkel (2007, p158) advises that side lighting is effective for emphasising texture in an object as the light skims over the surface showing the micro contrasts. Side lighting has done this here by showing areas of shadow and highlight and modelling the subject’s surface.

Behind and to one side


Behind and to one side
55mm, f/5.6, 8s, ISO 125

There is quite a lot of highlight on the lid surface that contrasts with the areas of shade on the underside of the lid and the left side of the face and arms. The lighting behind and to one side has caused a large shadow to fall around the left side of the box.  Präkel (2007, p157) states that a cast shadow is helpful in revealing form as the shadow anchors a solid object on a plane and enhances the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional page



Behind 1,
55mm, f/4.8, 1/4s, ISO 200, -4 EV

I spent quite some time on this part of the exercise adjusting the flash’s power and experimenting with exposure compensation while attempting to capture a silhouette without clipping any highlights or shadows. I changed the background to white to enable the shape of the subject to be seen.

There are still some details visible in the silhouette, despite my best efforts. I have since read on several photography websites ( and that when trying to take a silhouette photograph it is better to expose for the background. So perhaps this is where I was going wrong? However it is clear that back lighting is effective at showing shape, although I quickly realised that the side-on view of the box was not a very distinctive shape and that the shallow depth of field has rendered some of the outline a little fuzzy. I tried this again with a slightly different arrangement to show the oval shape of the box.

58mm, f/4.8, 1/8s, ISO 200

Behind 2, 58mm, f/4.8, 1/8s, ISO 200, -5 EV

This is another photograph of light coming from behind the subject, however this time the camera is not looking towards it. It has created a rim of light around the top edge of the trinket box, which also helps to show its shape.

There also seems to be a pink/orange tone to this image that I wasn’t aware of at the time of shooting.


Behind 3
55mm, f/5.6, 10s, ISO 125

Out of the four possible lighting scenarios I think Side lighting and Behind 3 gave the best results for this subject. They both gave the subject areas of shadow and highlight which helps give a photograph a 3 dimensional appearance.

Light pointing down at 45 degrees



This is fairly low contrast with no real areas of dark shadow or bright highlights.



With the light hitting the subject from the right a few areas of highlight can be seen reflected in the lid. The side lighting helps to emphasis the textures of the carving and it appears more pronounced.

Behind and to one side


The highlights are brighter here and draw the eye. There is also a shadow on the underside of the figures arms and under the flowers. These help reveal the object’s 3 dimensional quality.



The areas of bright reflection have now gone. The areas of shadow are more defined around the head, on the flowers, under the arms and in the box. The front of the box is in shade and this allows the texture and pattern on the box to be seen. Of these four image this is the one I prefer as the shadows have modelled the box well and also the colours seem less yellow and have more of a brown/pink tint.

Light above

Directly overhead


The light above has resulted in only a little bit of shadow to be seen below the lid. As the lid is sitting at an angle the light above has still provided some shade under the chin, flowers and arms. The front side of the box and left rim of the lid are in shade, which has helped to reveal the texture, which is all but lost in the highlighted areas.

Above, but slightly in front

55mm, f/5.6, 10s, ISO 200

The angle of light has meant that it has managed to fill a lot of the shadows on the lid and make the contrast quite low. The colours appear very pale and the foreground is quite bright.

Above, but slightly behind

The light has shown up a few areas of highlight on the face, shoulders and on the top of the lid. This contrasts with the shadows and helps reveal the form on the lid.

55mm, f.5.6, 10s, ISO 200

I think of these three lighting positions above and slightly behind worked best for this subject as it revealed both highlight and shadow and helped to strengthen the solidity of the object.


This exercise has illustrated that the angle and direction of light have a strong influence on how the end image is viewed and to what degree a subject’s qualities are revealed.

Front lighting did little to show the texture of the trinket box in any of the set ups I used and made the image look quite flat. However I do wonder if this would be the case for all subjects? Perhaps a lighting set up that minimizes texture would be good for portrait work?

Back lighting, comes from behind the subject towards the camera was good for revealing an objects shape, although, as I found out when attempting this, gauging a suitable exposure was difficult.

Side lighting is effective for emphasising texture however if there is a grain to the texture, the light should be used across the grain to show this.

Overall, I think the exercise was valuable in showing some of the creative options available using only one light and varying its position and angles. This can be seen in the thumbnails below.





Präkel, D. (2007) Lighting. Lausanne: AVA

Softening the light

Exercise- Softening the Light


This exercise looks at ways of softening photographic light through diffusion. Hunter et al (2012, p28) describe diffuse transmission as the scattering of light through a translucent material. This has the effect of softening the light, making it less harsh.

The course notes outline some possible ways of constructing a diffuser at home using translucent materials such as tracing paper. However, as I recently purchased a Speedlight for my camera, which includes a diffusion dome, I opted to use this instead.

The exercise instructions are as follows-

  • Set up a still life arrangement
  • Take two photographs. One with the naked lamp and one with a diffused light source.
  • Look at the results and make notes about the differences.


I set up a simple still-life arrangement as directed and positioned my Speedlight on my camera. After a few test shots I realised the flash strength was far too strong. I experimented with the Speedlight’s exposure compensation settings before selecting -3EV.

I then took the shots as directed.

still life 2

No diffuser
52mm, f/11, 1s, ISO 100

still life 2 with diffuser

With diffuser.
52mm, f/11, 1s, ISO 100

At first glance there looks to little difference between the two shots, however closer inspection finds several variations. The contrast in the first image is higher with a lot of shaded areas. The shadows also appear to be blacker and denser than in the second image. The diffused light had revealed more details and texture in the shaded section of the dried fruit and it has softened the shadows. Taking all that into account, I think the photograph taken with the diffused light is the better image.

still life 1still life 1 with diffuser

In the spirit of experimentation, I repeated the exercise with a similar arrangement.

There are no shadows to compare here, but again the diffuser has reduced the overall contrast and revealed more details in the shaded areas than is visible in the first shot


This exercise had shown me the difference that diffusing light can have on an image, particularly in softening shadows and allowing detail to be seen. It is both effective and simple to apply, as any translucent material would work to some degree. Präkel (2007, p96) notes that a time-honoured technique for diffusing on-camera flash was to drape a handkerchief over it.

The diffuser would have also been helpful had my subjects been made of reflective materials, as the bright pinpoint reflections of the naked light would have been smoothed out and broadened.

Hunter, F., Biver, S., and Fuqua, P. (2012) Light-Science and Magic (4th ed) Waltham, Focal Press

Präkel, D. (2007) Lighting. Lausanne: AVA