Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

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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.

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Exercise – the lighting angle


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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Exercise – Softening the light


Using a diffused light source to soften the shadows and highlights take two photographs, one with just the naked lamp, the other with the translucent material held between the lamp and your subject (but out of view). The two exposure settings will be different.

Look at the results, and write down exactly what you see as the differences. Look, for instance, at the strengths (blackness) of the shadows, their extent, and the hardness of their edges. Look also at the highlights, and at the contrast. Finally, was the diffusion an improvement? Record your answer.


Direct light

Direct light – 6.5 sec at f/22

The direct light source causes the shadows to be clearly defined, with quite dark, sharp edges, tailing off a little to a more blurry effect. The shape however is still clearly identifiable.

Diffused light

Diffused light – 10 sec at f/22

With the diffused light the shadow is barely discernable; you can just about make it out close to the object but it has indistinct edges, is greyer in tone, and the patterns of the internal loops and whorls are not evident. The overall surface looks flatter and more consistent, with the slight reflections at the edges diminished. This version needed a longer exposure, as expected.

In many cases (e.g. product photography) removing or reducing the shadows would produce a more pleasing image. In this particular instance however, I’m more drawn to the direct light version, with the defined shadow, probably because the object lends itself more to this as a creative execution.

What I’ve learned:

Diffusing the light has the significant effect of softening or removing shadows. On a grander scale this is evident in the difference between bright sunlight and an overcast sky, but it is interesting to experiment in this manner to control artificial light on a smaller scale.