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