Exercise: The lighting angle

The brief

Find a suitable subject with relief that can show the differences in shadows and light. Keeping the camera in a fixed position, position the light with diffuser first at the same level as the subject and camera, shooting from the front, side, directly behind and then from behind off to one side. Then raise the light to an angle of about 45 degrees, pointing down and shoot the same positions. Finally position the light directly overhead pointing down and take three pictures: directly overhead, slightly in front and from slightly behind. Study the results.

For this exercise I chose to use a Mayan mask that I had bought on a holiday trip to Mexico a few years ago. It is a wood carving and has all sorts of shapes and planes carved into the surface which I thought would photograph reasonably well. I used my Nikon speedlight for this exercise fitted with a diffuser. My camera settings for all the photographs was the same, namely f8, 1/160, 35mm, ISO 200. My flash power was set to 1/8.

Fig 01 Front level

Fig 01 Front level

Front lighting on the same level causes rather flat lighting with a harsh shadow on the background. There are a few hotspots down the centre of the mask as well.

Fig 02 Side left level

Fig 02 Side left level

The side lighting is more interesting and dramatic creating a split lighting effect which shows some detail in the steps of the pyramid depicted on the mask and interesting shadows around the mouth and eye on the lit side.

Fig 03 Back level

Fig 03 Back level

I love the eerie effect that the back lighting has on this mask. No detail on the mask is visible. The level back light causes a radial gradiant behind the backdrop and creates a silhouette fit for Halloween.

Fig 04 Side right level

Fig 04 Side right level

Side lighting from the right hand side has similar outcomes as seen in fig 02.

Fig 05 Behind to one side level

Fig 05 Behind to one side level

Lighting the subject from behind and to the side almost creates a silhouette and casts some rim lighting on the edges of the mask closest to the light.

Fig 06 Front 45 degrees up

Fig 06 Front 45 degrees up

Front lighting pointing down on the subject from about 45 degrees is a better option than the straight on frontal light. The shadows are softer and fall immediately behind the subject and are barely visible. More detail and texture can be seen with the light in this position as compared to fig 01 and the colours are more saturated.

Fig 07 Side left 45 degrees up

Fig 07 Side left 45 degrees up

Side lighting at an angle of 45 degrees up creates a little less light fall off than in fig 02 and fig 04. The colours are more saturated and there are no hotspots on the wood. There is good detail and texture visible.

Fig 08 Back 45 degrees up

Fig 08 Back 45 degrees up

With the light held behind and 45 degrees up there is less drama to the image than in fig 03. I kept on getting a hot spot on the background cloth as well. Light spills over the mask and the features of the mask are fairly visible. The subject is still a silhouette, but I much prefer the image in fig 03.

Fig 09 Behind to one side 45 degrees up

Fig 09 Behind to one side 45 degrees up

With the light 45 degrees up and behind and to one side, the rim lighting position has changed. The top right edges of the mask and the brown pyramid steps are catching the light now, whereas in fig 05 it was the right edges of the face that were illuminated.The higher position also casts more light onto the subject. While I’m a fan for dark, dramatic light, I prefer the  lighting in fig 09 for this particular subject.

Fig 10 Overhead from top

Fig 10 Overhead from top

The axial lighting in fig 10 causes little highlights to fall onto the steps of the pyramid and casts a lovely triangular shadow at the base of the mask. I expected the detail of the mask to be lost with this lighting position, but was pleasantly surprised to see that although the image is quite dark with this type of lighting, the detail of the wood engravings is still visible. I also like the slight radial gradiant the light causes against the red backdrop.

Fig 11 Overhead from front

Fig 11 Overhead from front

I think this overhead slightly in front position is perhaps the best of all the front lighting (fig 11) . There is a lot of detail visible, touches of edge lighting on the pyramid steps to give form. The shadow is small and quite soft and falls behind the base of the image and eyes and mouth are nicely illuminated showing the same red through the holes as the background, whereas fig 01 and fig 6 are much darker due to the extent and position of the shadow falling behind the image.

Fig 12 Overhead from behind to one side

Fig 12 Overhead from behind to one side

Even though there is more light spillage onto the front of the mask, I definitely like this image better than fig 08 where the light was 45 degrees behind the mask. The light creates an interesting shadow, again in a triangular shape, in front of the mask. There is also less of a hotspot in this lighting scenario.

I think side lighting at 45 degrees gives the best 3-dimensional effect, although I suspect that 45 degrees in front and to the side might be better, but this was not one of the options requested for this exercise. It is difficult to choose my favourite out of all the images. I really like figs 03, 07 and 11, but for different reasons. For fig 03 it would be the drama of the image, for fig 07 it would be the split lighting effect which is a favourite of mine and for fig 11 simply because it is the best front lighting depiction.

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