Exercise 4.4 -lighting ex nihilo

For this exercise, I stole a basil plant from the kitchen window ledge. This gave me two contrasting textures, the organic form and slight sheen of the leaves, and the flat sides and glossy surface of the ceramic pot.

Equipment and general set-up is shown above. I created an infinity curve with a roll of mid-grey background paper on the dining room table. The camera is locked-down on a tripod, manually focused and set in ‘X’ mode at an aperture of f/16. Exposure adjustments were made by varying the light intensity. Although I shot in RAW format, I made no post-processing adjustments before exporting to JPEG.

This is my default starting point for lighting set-up, perhaps influenced by my architectural drawing background in which shadows, if added to an elevation drawing are conventionally shown as if the light source was at 45˚. It does a workmanlike job, the combination of sheen and shadow on the leaves giving a good indication of overall form and individual curves.

As I suspected, lighting with a single point source gives unacceptable (in the context of this subject) shadows on the left side and loses detail in the ‘internal’ leaves. Of the two alternative methods for lighting the shadows (fill light or reflector) I consider the fill light to have worked best in this case. Being close to the lens axis, it has been better able to penetrate to the interior of the plant.

With this set-up, the main light is behind the plant with the intention that the form of the leaves would be defined by sheen. It is inevitable that the front will be in shadow, so some fill lighting is essential. It is interesting to compare the main+fill and main+reflector images as the effect on the pot is very different, with different facets lit.

Again, my preference is for the final image in the sequence, with both lights and a reflector.

The starting point for this set-up is similar to the basic 45˚ lighting but with a large light source to give a softer light. Because the light wraps-around to some extent, there is better lighting to the interior of the plant, but we still have the heavy shadow and undefined leaves at the rear left.

The intention of the kicker is to define that part of the plant by a combination of rim light and sheen. It work tolerably well (third image) and it is arguable whether it is improved by the addition of a reflector. The reflector improves brightness at the left, but also flattens the lighting on the left side. On reflection, this image could be improved by the use of a smaller reflector or by placing it further from the subject.

Lighting from above gives a different set of shadows, and emulates the lighting that the plant is most likely to be seen in. It was interesting to watch the changing light, particularly on the pot, as I changed the angle of the reflector.

Overall, my preferred image from the exercise is 2D, rear diagonal lighting with front fill and reflector.


Exercise 4.4 – Lighting the lion (a mistake to learn from)

For this exercise I chose to light a soft toy lion. The reasons for the choice included the surface texture and the mane, which I hoped would pick up rim lighting. In practice, the furry surface texture killed the definition of the shadows and specular highlights and, thus, the definition of form.

On the basis that every mistake is an opportunity to learn, I will post the results anyway, but will repeat the exercise with a new subject.

This is intended as the ‘control’ exercise. The camera is, effectively, at the bottom-centre of a 1000mm x 2000mm soft box, giving flat an almost shadowless light on the subject. The outline shape and colour are clearly delineated but there is no sense of three-dimensional form.

It is said that the skill of studio lighting lies not in where one places the lights but where one places the shadows. This is explored in the other lighting set-ups.

I first attempted this set-up using the large soft box, but the light-source was too large and the lighting too flat. ‘Rembrandt lighting’ is intended to emulate the painter’s studio, which had large windows at high level. The main light is large, and high at at about 45˚ to one side. Because I was operating in a small room, there is a lot of stray bounce-light, which fills the shadows even without a reflector on the lit side. Having tried both, I prefer the version without reflector which has a greater lit:unlit contrast.

Of course, the shape of the subject’s head is non-human and does not show the characteristic triangular light on the far cheek.

This is a first attempt to emulate ‘Karsh lighting’, which fails because the shape of the subject’s head does not suit the technique. However, experimenting was instructive and it appears that the placing of the rim lights is critical.

I first placed them at 45˚ to the rear of the subject, which gave really good backlighting to the mane but put the face in deep shadow that could not be relieved by the reflector. This might have worked if a third light was available as fill-in to light the face from the front.

With the lights only slightly behind the subject, there is better wrap-around but a lot of spill onto the background. ‘Feathering’ the lights forward reduced the background spill and, usefully, put more light onto the reflector and, therefore, onto the face.

On reflection, I am pleased with the final result (largest image)

This is the same set-up as the Rembrandt lighting but with a much larger light source, therefore softer lighting. The image shown above is made without the reflector. With a reflector in place at the left, the contrast is lower and the lighting almost flat.

The large soft box is a light-source that extends from 45˚ in front of the subject to 45˚ behind, causing the light to ‘wrap around’ the right-hand side. The version without the reflector is reasonably successful.


The same set-up as above but with a bare-bulb light-source. The shadow cuts the subject in half and, unlike the set-ups with large, soft light sources, the version with a reflector is preferable  as it gives some detail to the left-hand side of the face.


Finally, and just for fun, an exercise in sinister lighting from below. Lighting is a single flash with a snoot and honeycomb, and a red gel, directed at a mirror on the table in front of the subject and reflecting upward.

Yousuf Karsh at B+H

Beetles + Huxley have an exhibition of 23 portraits by Yousuf Karsh taken between 1941 and 1988, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. All are darkroom prints made by Karsh himself or under his direct supervision. The sitters are statesmen, artists and film stars.


It seems appropriate to use the old-fashioned word ‘sitters’ in this context rather than ‘models’ or ‘subjects’  because, with two exceptions (WH Auden and Georgia O’Keefe), these are studio portraits, posed and with very considered lighting.

To get a sour note out of the way quickly, there were two images that I didn’t like (Martha Graham’s pose seems awkward and the fill light on JFK’s profile seems flat), but a 21:2 ratio of gems to ‘others’ is pretty damn good.

Because, I am currently working on the ‘ex nihilo’ section of part 4, I spent some time studying the lighting and making notes of how I thought Karsh had lit each one. I am almost certainly wrong in most cases (the ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill looks like two lights and  a reflector, but the catalogue notes tell us that Karsh used six floods, two spots and a background light) but I will use a few of my imagined set-ups in exercise 4.4.

This is the classic ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill after addressing the Canadian Parliament in 1941. The story of the scowl is oft-repeated’; given only a few minutes, Karsh snatched away Churchill’s cigar and photographed the reaction – producing one of the most iconic images of the man (and incidentally, one of the most widely-reproduced photographic portraits in history) and launched his own career. Less well-known is that Churchill was sufficiently amused by the incident to allow another photograph to be taken, this time smiling.

Unfortunately, B+H do not show this one as I would love to see them side-by-side. I must say that I find the smiling image rather creepy and I need to analyse my own reaction. I think it must be that the ‘roaring lion’ picture is so iconic, and has fixed the historical image of Churchill so firmly that the variation comes as a shock.

Many of the male images share the classic ‘Karsh lighting’, rim-lit  with front fill. Castro and Hemingway are fairly symmetrical, and it is the asymmetric lighting on Bogart and Cousteau that I found most interesting. The Bogart image also shows Karsh’s attention to the sitters’ hands (see also Churchill above, or Einstein, GB Shaw, or Joan Miro)

The ‘young romantic’ female subjects get a softer-lit treatment (but sharp focus) which seems to be based around a large front fill source with some accent lighting. Older female subjects with a few ‘character lines’ get the male lighting treatment.

Many of these images are familiar from books or online sources, and Karsh is known as a master of lighting. However, it is only when we view the prints in the flesh that we discover that he was a master craftsman in the darkroom as well. The prints are superb, especially the luminous highlights.

Overall an enjoyable and informative exhibition, and the catalogue is the best £10 that I have spent on a photography book.


Beetles+Huxley (2016) Yousuf Karsh London: Beetles+Huxley

Exercise 4.3 – ambient artificial light

These images were taken during an evening walk through central London. They were taken between 7:20pm and 8:45 on an evening when sunset was at 7:03. Therefore, they show a transition through the ‘blue hour’ into full night-time.

All images were made with a Pentax K-1 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens used in manual exposure mode. Most used ISO3200, apertures between f/4 and f/8 and handholdable shutter speeds.

I shot in RAW, so colour temperature decisions could be deferred until post-processing. I follow Rut Blees Luxemburg’s preference for embracing the real colour of the light source rather than attempting to correct it, so I have set a ‘daylight’ white balance (5500K) in all cases.

Post-processing was in Lightroom, where I adjusted overall contrast (and, occasionally, exposure) to fit my subjective memory of the scene. The typical adjustment is to open the shadows (moving the ‘shadows’ slider to the right) and tweak the ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ sliders so that there is marginal clipping at both ends of the dynamic range. If this were a camera club competition, I would be tempted by local adjustments (grads and post-crop vignetting) but I have eschewed them for this exercise.

The main question with shooting night-time cityscapes is whether to use the artificial light sources as illumination (see Luxemburg or Brassaï) or as the subject (see Shintaro). I have attempted both approaches in this exercise.

As seen in the set above, in many well-illuminated spaces (street lit or internal), the emphasis is on quantity of light rather than its quality. Typically, there are multiple overhead light sources giving a soft, even, shadowless light. In Northumberland Avenue, the street lighting is bright enough that the illuminated theatre sign can be rendered without resorting to HDR.

In this set, the lighting is more directional. The floodlighting from the SNOG bus is intended to give a coloured ‘stage lighting’ effect while its internal lighting gives working light to the servers and, incidentally, illumination of the customers’ faces. With the couple reading the menu, there is overall street lighting but their faces are lit by the illuminated menu acting as a large softbox. In the bar image, there is no street lighting and the two figures are lit by very strongly coloured lights intended for dramatic illumination of the building.


In this image, shot in Trafalgar Square, the rather dim general light comes from the reflected floodlighting on the National Gallery but the womens’ faces are lit by their torchlight reflected from the pages of their guidebook.

In these wider views, the scene and the sky are dark or black and it is the light sources, and their reflections, which are the subject. Water is an obvious reflector, but I also used glossy paintwork on buses, taxis and other vehicles, and a surprising amount is reflected from dry roads and pavements which are ‘polished’ by use and seen at the right angle.


This is the classic ‘light-source-as-subject’ image, of Eros in Piccadilly Circus and the Coca-Cola ad behind him. I spot-metered the red of the illumination as a mid-tone and let the other tones fall as they will. My regret (and I will go back and re-shoot sometime) is that I set the shutter speed too fast (1/1250s) rather than closing the aperture or setting a lower sensitivity, which has caused a form of pixellation in the changing LED displays.

The final image is my favourite of the evening. The neon sign in the window is a picture element itself but also gives that glorious red internal illumination.


Exercise 4.3 preliminary – transition time

My main response to exercise 4.3 is a set of night-time images, taken in central London on 20 September. The images in this posting are a subset taken over a 10 minute period around sunset, between 7:01pm and 7:10. Sunset was 7:03, not that one would notice, given the heavy overcast. What is noticeable is the rapid change of light levels and the changing relationship between the intensity of the artificial light and the lightness of the sky.

Images were made with a Pentax K-1 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, used in manual exposure mode. There was minor tweaking in Lightroom, to adjust overall contrast rather than exposure.

All images were shot in RAW mode, deferring decisions on colour temperature until post-production. All images were set to ‘daylight’ (5500K) colour balance to enable a proper assessment of colour changes.

The interesting point is that, with the exception of the very bright ‘stage lighting’ floodlights on the SNOG bus, the artificial lights are insignificant in relation to the overall daylight levels. The first of the images used in Exercise 4.3 was taken at 7:20pm, 17 minutes after sunset, by which time the scene had darkened noticeably and it is the artificial lighting that dominates.

Eggleston at the NPG (and a further musing on naked emperors)

If any photographer’s work invited the naive response, “my kid could do that” it might be William Egglestons’s photographs (Tucker, in Stepan (ed) 2005,170)

Anne Tucker also tells us (ibid) that “Eggleston’s pictures possess the seeming simplicity of snapshots”. I start with these observations because they match my own opinions on viewing the exhibition of Eggleston’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Unlike Tucker (whose article accompanies an image of a table with condiment bottles and an out-of-focus crockery cabinet) I retain what she, insultingly, describes as my ‘naive response’.


Although Eggleston is not primarily a portraitist, a comment made both by the wall-notes and by Ian Jeffrey (2008,330) the curators at the NPG have put together an exhibition of some 100 images from the 1960s onward. His portraits are all taken in and around Memphis, Tennessee and a high proportion are of family or friends.

In the first space, we see early monochrome work from the 1960s. These are smaller than the main colour images, typically 8×10. The images appear candid but there is an element of design, whether carefully composed or shot on the spur of the decisive moment is unclear.

The second space contains much larger, colour images from 1970 to 1975. Most are taken with a 5×7 view camera, an instrument with which Eggleston was clearly accomplished. The images have a characteristic shallow depth of field but very accurately placed plane of focus. This is clearly seen in the image above, of girlfriend Marcia Hare; the face and the out-thrown left arm are sharp (the camera a little less so) but the lower part of her dress, and most of the grass on which she is lying, are blurred giving a dream-like overall effect but focussing the viewers attention on the important parts. Incidentally, this image is displayed next to an earlier photo of Hare in a nightclub, dancing and with head thrown back, in a vertical version of the same pose.

However, the outstanding image, for me, in this space is one of Eggleston’s cousin, Shelley Schuyler, standing in a long dress gazing into the camera and holding a champagne glass. She is sharp overall but the depth of field is very tightly controlled, as seen in the grass at her feet.

My overall impression of this space is good. Large images (the head-shots are larger than life) and saturated colour seem to capture the personality of the subject and I left the room  feeling that I knew many of them. This is a clear counter-example to Ted Grant’s oft-quoted maxim, “When you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”

The third space, ‘Eggleston and Colour’, tells of his adopting the dye-transfer process and the shock felt by the photographic art world at his 1976 MoMA exhibition of colour prints. His contribution to the history of photography is the forced realisation that art photographs do not have to be monochrome.

This space has some thought-provoking images such as the one above, of Eggleston’s uncle Adyn Schuyler and a black ‘house man’. This is the American Deep South in the 1970s and the relationship between the figures says something about race relations of the period. Jasper, the servant, stands a few paces behind his employer but mirrors (consciously or unconsciously) his pose.

There is also a 1985 ‘Portrait of Elvis Presley in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee’ which is a photograph of a photograph of Presley surrounded by memorabilia.

However, there are photographs in this space that appear to be no more than very large snapshots, and led me to muse on imperial nudity and Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story. To return briefly to Tucker’s comments at the top of this posting, it is the ‘naive response’ of Andersen’s child that exposes the truth of the exposed emperor.

I wonder what the response to many of the images (even the two that I have highlighted) would be if they were presented as 5×3 enprints in a Boots envelope rather than as massive prints on a gallery wall. How many would make it into the family album? Frankly, there are some which would not make it into my shoebox (for instance the Dennis Hopper image in which the alleged subject turns away from the camera and is unsharp compared with the dashboard of the car). To what extent does our acceptance of a photograph as ‘art’ depend on its being presented in an art context – printed large and hung on a white gallery wall?

Coincidentally, on the same day that I wrote this posting, an article in the Times (Whipple 2016) reported on recent psychological research suggesting that people’s reactions to an image vary depending on whether they are told it is art or not. This is a topic to be followed  up, although possibly in a later course module.


Jeffrey, I. (2008) How to read a photograph London: Thames & Hudson

National Portrait Gallery (2016) William Eggleston Portraits [online] at: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php (accessed 18 September 2016)

Stepan, P (ed) (2005) Icons of Photography – The 20th Century Munich: Prestel

Whipple, T. (2016) Call it art and that’s what it becomes In: The Times September 19 2016, p.11

Ambient artificial light 3 (Shintaro and Zachmann)

In the previous postings of this series, I have looked at the effect of ambient artificial light in lighting the scene. By contrast, Sato Shintaro’s ‘Night Lights’ series is all about the light source itself. This is a set of images made in Tokyo and Osaka between 1997 and 1999, showing the clutter of advertising illuminations and deliberately excluding people.

Although the course notes tell us that these are ‘blue hour’ images, the skies are uniformly black and it is the artificial sources that illuminate everything. From the level of detail, these appear to be large-format film images (Shintaro tells us that ‘Tokyo Twilight Zone’ was shot on large-format film and these appear similar). The images are crisp and vibrant and capture the look, if not the bustle, of these cities at night.

Shintaro’s ‘blue hour’ images are in his ‘Tokyo Twilight Zone’ set (2002-2008). These are all taken from Tokyo fire escapes, giving horizontal views over the city, but usually from back-street locations (where the fire escapes are) rather than tourist spots.

Use of the ‘blue hour’ preserves some colour in the sky and sufficient light to show some detail in unlit areas, but our attention is taken by the artificial light elements. Unlike ‘Night Lights’  these are not advertising features but working lights such as the streetlights , the railway floodlights and the office window lights in the image above. In this set, we get a sense of how the city ‘ticks’

Patrick Zachmann is a Magnum photographer who has been photographing in China since 1982, and in colour at night since 2001. His ‘China Nights’ images (Magnum 2014) cover everything lit up at night, from construction sites to nightclubs.

CHINA. Guangdong. Town of Humen. 2005. Massage parlor.

CHINA. Guangdong. Town of Humen. 2005. Massage parlor.

Zachmann’s  images concern the integration of people and artificial light. Migrant construction workers and sex workers feature large, and there is no romanticisation. These images are different from his normal documentary style, much more impressionistic, but most give a feeling that there is abuse or coercion somewhere in the background. The treatment is good, some of the lighting is beautiful, but it is not an easy set to view.


Magnum (2104) China Nights 2005 – Patrick Zachmann [online] at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com [search string omitted for clarity]

Shintaro, S.(s.d.) Night Lights [online] at: http://sato-shintaro.com/work/night_lights/index.html

Shintaro, S. (s.d.) Tokyo Twilight Zone [online] at: http://sato-shintaro.com/work/tokyo_twilight_zone/index.html