Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

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Reflections on Part 4: Light

Wow, I found this section hard work… a combination of the sheer amount of exercises, the highly specific requirements of some of them (certain weather conditions, photographic lighting equipment etc) and – if I’m honest – the realisation that the subject matter actually took more time to sink in and makes sense than it did for the first three sections.

I mean, it’s been worth it! Light is so central to the art and science of photography that it’s self-evidently crucial to understand how it works (I won’t go as far as to say ‘master it’). So I’m very glad I got to the end. I do feel educated :-)

Natural vs artificial light

One major realisation in this section is how much I dislike working with photographic lighting! I’ve always leaned towards using available light (and in general I prefer ‘found’ rather than ‘staged’ subject matter) but until this set of exercises I hadn’t determined whether that was purely down to lack of experience of working with photographic lighting… well, it’s not. I now feel that while I understand much better how and why to use artificial lighting to create certain effects, it’s still not something I enjoy doing! I find it very frustrating and I’m not sure I have the patience for it. For the assignment I preferred shooting the natural light shots, and I’m happier with the results.

I can objectively see that other photographers may completely disagree, offering the level of control one has over artificial light as a major advantage… well, I can see that point but it isn’t my opinion based on the experience thus far. Maybe it’s just a ‘comfort zone’ thing. Maybe I’ll mellow on this one. Right now I am very happy to pack away the light lents, snoots, hotshoe flashes and reflector cards for a while…!


Now – bring on Narrative & Illustration!


Assignment 4: tutor feedback

I got my feedback report back from my tutor Dave very quickly, within a couple of days. It has however taken me almost a week to write this up.

The feedback was generally good. It wasn’t gushing, but it did include the sentence “Overall this has been a very accomplished submission for this assignment”, so I’m happy. There were a few suggestions on how else I could have interpreted the brief, but unlike last time (Colour) no recommendations to tweak and resubmit any images. The main sentence I was looking for was there: “From the work you have shown in this assignment, and providing you commit yourself to the course, I suggest that you are likely to be successful in the assessment.”

Some of the things I could have tried but didn’t: more unusual coloured light; some real close-up/macro executions; shooting the underside of the figurine (I must confess this one never crossed my mind!).

One shot had quite bad chromatic aberration, which I could have fixed in Lightroom. I was originally being very dogmatic about not post-processing beyond basic cropping and WB correction, but with hindsight I should go back and fix this particular point before the assessment. Likewise I may revisit the exact crop on one shot, based on tutor advice.

My prints are still sometimes coming out noticeably different to the onscreen versions; I still haven’t got a specific colour profile for my printer and paper, but thankfully Dave has given me lots of pointers for sorting this out.

I’m pleased with the feedback as I found Light slightly hard work. Glad to be able to move on!

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Assignment 4: Applying lighting techniques – change of plan

The pineapple has been sacked. It turns out that a pineapple has been done for this assignment before. More than once. Now that doesn’t necessarily stop me doing it again, but I strive for a little more originality. Plus, it wasn’t behaving very well in front of the camera. So the part has been recast as more of a… Gollum figurine. Much more original, I hope.



I had a go at shooting him under various lighting conditions this afternoon. I tried various combinations of two small halogen lamps and a taller overhead tungsten lamp, plus some ambient light in the room in some shots. Shape was OK I think, although I may struggle to get two identifiably different takes on that using just artificial lighting– we’ll see. I think I have a few candidates each for Form, Texture and Colour, just need to see them on a big screen to identify which works best. The next thing to try is some shots with natural / available light. Originally I was going to try to do all the shots with photographic lighting, but the risk is that they will all look a bit samey. So my current thinking is to use a mix of artificial and available light, as follows:

  1. Shape, natural light: silhouetted against window light
  2. Shape, artificial light: head-on shot against black velvet backdrop with snoot
  3.  Form, natural light: slanting sunlight through windows during mid-afternoon
  4. Form, artificial light: top-down, angled lighting plus 45° side-lighting to emphasis
  5. Texture, natural light: outside with overcast sky, diffusion and lack of hard shadows may bring out detail in texture
  6. Texture, artificial light: side-lighting across most textured part of figure
  7. Colour, natural lighting: outside in low evening sun
  8. Colour, artificial lighting: use reflectors to accentuate colours? need to experiment with this one

That’s the plan anyway… wish me luck.


Assignment 4: Applying lighting techniques – preparation

After the many (many) exercises in the Light section, I’m finally getting started on the assignment! I already had to ask for an extension to the end of the month, so the clock is ticking now, only about 10 days to go.

Subject inspiration

At the moment I’m planning on using a pineapple… I was already thinking of a fruit and my wife suggested pineapple. It has a distinctive shape, both in two dimensions and in three; it has texture; and it has colour(s).

I’m thinking I might divide the shots between the outside and the inside of the pineapple, i.e. the whole thing, and slices thereof. This way I can get a little bit of variety in the shapes, forms, textures and colours.

I auditioned a pineapple for the part just to see if the subject ‘worked’… I won’t use any of these shots, but they will serve as a bit of practice, getting to know the quirks of my chosen fruit…!

Pineapple test shot

Pineapple test shot

Lighting plans

Much as I normally prefer using natural/available light for photography, in this case I believe that as this is a technical exercise, I need to be able to control the lighting as much as possible, meaning: indoor photographic lighting. That’s my current thinking anyway.

  • Shape: lit from behind to create a silhouette
  • Form: side lighting to emphasise the curve, the contours and the depth
  • Texture: side lighting (obviously need to work out the right positioning / angle / number of lights to distinguish this from the ‘form’ shots) to show the ridges of the skin
  • Colour: am thinking of using frontal lighting, maybe a bit of top-down lighting, and maybe coloured reflector cards; alternatively I may see if I can get a warm, low sun outdoor shot?

I’m referring to the fantastic book ‘Light, Science & Magic’ [1] as I prepare for this assignment… am finding it very useful. One could almost say it’s been very enlightening (ho ho).

… more progress to follow shortly …

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

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Exercise – Shiny surfaces


Take a photo of a highly reflective object against a plain background, with direct lighting. Then using a cone made of tracing paper covering the space between the lens and the object, repeat the shot, experimenting with the position of the lighting, with the intention of minimising the reflection.


I chose a metal bottle stopper (which looked surprisingly grimy close-up, so I’m glad we don’t actually use it…) and placed this on a black cloth backdrop, and shot from above as suggested.

1. Direct light:
Significant reflection here, showing the tripod, the light, the camera strap and the photographer.

Direct light

1. Direct light

2. With diffuser cone, lit straight down:
Much less reflection straight away, and the background is rendered darker. Reflection of camera still visible as a dot in centre of sphere.

With diffuser cone, lit straight down

2. With diffuser cone, lit straight down

3. With diffuser cone, light moved further away:
Moving the light further away had the effect of reintroducing a little reflection in the sphere, but more notably the clear line down the length of the conical spike.

With diffuser cone, light moved further away

3. With diffuser cone, light moved further away

4. With diffuser cone, lit horizontally across the top of cone:
Less reflection than the last one, but not quite as smooth as number 2, where the light was pointing straight down. Camera reflection ‘dot’ most prominent in this one.

With diffuser cone, lit horizontally across the top of cone

4. With diffuser cone, lit horizontally across the top of cone

The most successful reduction of glare was in shot number 2, where the light was in the same straight-down position as in shot 1, just with the addition of the conical tracing paper cone.

What I’ve learned:

This was another interesting exercise in controlling light. The ability to reduce glare on shiny objects is a useful technique.

I am however glad to get to the end of the exercises in this section! Especially these photographic light ones; I’m not really one for using inside lighting like this. It’s been good to get out of my comfort zone but it hasn’t really changed my mind about indoor lighting. I like light, I just don’t like lightS so much ;-)

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Exercise – Concentrating the light


Make light fall onto a specific subject using a tube or snoot to concentrate the light, leaving the surroundings in shadow.


Following advice on the internet I made a simple snoot using a cleaned-out Pringles tube, which I attached to my speedlight. After a bit of trial and error on focal length (as long as possible, both for the correct concentration of light, and to avoid the end of the snoot creeping into shot), the flash strength (I had best results from -1.0 EV) and the aperture/shutter speed combination, I achieved the effect I wanted on this wooden doll. The backdrop is successfully rendered almost fully black.

Concentrated light

Concentrated light

What I’ve learned:

Concentrating light with a snoot is much simpler than I expected, and less hassle than some of the other lighting exercises. A nice simple but effective technique for controlling light.

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Exercise – Contrast and shadow fill


Set up a still life subject lit directly from the side. First take a shot with direct lighting, then with the light diffused. Then place a series of reflectors opposite the light: white card, the dull side of aluminium foil, the shiny side of the foil, and the foil crumpled and re-flattened. Observe the effect on contrast and shadows in the resultant images.


I actually took a few more shots than requested; the exercise called for the white card to be placed at two different distances but I also did the same thing with the foil-covered cards. The reason for this was that I was concerned that I wasn’t seeing the difference in the lighting effect as the light source I used was quite small and the subject quite dark. So I moved the foil-covered card closer, and in total I made 10 exposures.

(click a thumbnail to open slideshow view)

I have placed the results in order from the most contrasty/shadowy to the most evenly lit. What I saw was that the two factors that impacted the clarity of the image the most were (a) how shiny the reflector was and (b) how close the reflector was to the subject. The difference is most noticeable in certain areas of the subject, such as the top right part of the face, especially around the eyes, and the fingers on the lower hand.

Shiny Foil closer

Best exposure – Shiny Foil closer

What I’ve learned:

This is the first time I’ve really worked with reflectors, and I found it quite interesting. Moving the reflector and using different surfaces had a noticeable effect on the parts of the image that would have otherwise been in shade due to the position of the lighting.