Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Exercise – the lighting angle

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Start with the light, fitted with its diffuser, at the same level as the subject and camera. Between shots, move it around the subject, so that you photograph this lit from the front (with the light next to the camera), from the side, from behind and to one side, and from directly behind.

Then raise the light so that it points down towards the subject at an angle of about 45 degrees. Again, move the light right around the subject between shots.

Finally, suspend the light overhead, pointing down, and take three pictures: directly overhead, from slightly in front, and from slightly behind.

Lay out all the photographs together. Study the differences in order to become familiar with the effect of moving the light. You should find that certain qualities of the subject are revealed better by some lighting directions.


First, with the diffused light horizontal to the subject, (L-R) front, side, rear-side angle, rear:

Of these, the side lit one looks best, as it reveals more of the detail of the texture of the flowing skirt to the left. The front one looks too flat. The rear-side one is too dark and the rear one is in almost full silhouette, which is good for seeing its (two-dimensional) shape but does not reveal any texture or form in three dimensions.

Then the same four positions with the light raised and pointed down at an angle of 45°:

To my eyes these initially look very similar to the first set; maybe my light source wasn’t strong enough or the right distance away to really demonstrate the differences? Upon close inspection the nuances become visible, especially on the preferred side-lit shot; the creases in the skirt appear a little more prominent.

Finally, three lit from above, (L-R) directly top down, slightly in front, slightly behind:

All three of these looked more pleasing to my eyes than those in the first or second set. The middle one, lit from above and slightly in front, is my firm favourite in this set and in the whole exercise; it has most successfully illuminated the whole of the subject and shown the subtleties of the surface texture.

Top front

Top front

What I’ve learned:

I initially found this to be a frustrating and time-consuming exercise, mainly as I think I lacked the right kind of equipment and space to really do it justice. Once I got it all set up to a satisfactory degree I found the actual shooting and moving the light source around both simple and informative. I wish I’d been able to show more of a difference in the set with the 45° downward angle lighting but think I was restricted by my setup in this instance. I did however get to appreciate the huge difference that can be achieved with the movement of the light source.

The learnings from this exercise have complemented my reading in the excellent ‘Light, Science & Magic’ book [1] that I got a copy of for this part of the course. Some of the key theoretical principles discussed in the book really came to life for me during this exercise.

1.  Hunter, F . 2012. Light, science & magic 4th ed. Oxford: Focal Press


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