08: Controlling The “Presentation of Light”

08: Controlling The “Presentation of Light”

Subject Centric Lighting: The Five Areas of Light Presentation

Cover image by Project 52 student, Gabriel Alvarez.

When the lighting choices we have made are used, the light is ‘presented’ back to the camera in expected, and controlled ways. There are five parts of the light presentation, and we use them in every image we make.

True Subject Value:
What the subject looks like when not in specular or shadow, this is the area that shows us the color of the subject as well.

The exact or absolute reflection of the light source.

Specular Transition:
The point where the specular reflection transitions to the true subject value

Shadow Transition:
The transition between True Subject Value and Shadow

The places on the image that are not lit, the opposite side of the light source.

These areas of light are found in nearly every subject. By understanding what they do, and how they are controlled, we can understand much more about the light that is used to present these areas in the ways we want to show them.

In other words, knowing what causes a shadow transition, how to present true value, and how to control a specular highlight means we have control over our lighting and we can create the looks we want. Whenever we want.

Photographers and artists use these representations of light to show texture, shape, dimension, color, clarity and mood. Illustrators use highlight and shadow in their work to create their own light. And they use the same tools to light their drawings, although quite imaginary, as photographers do.

We can see all the presentations of light in this image of Inaudia.

Lit with two strip lights (one on each side), the one on camera left is behind Inaudia and aimed forward just bit. The one on the right is slightly in front of him, and angled at an oblique angle.

This renders two different kinds of specular presentations, the absolute one on his neck and left side, and the softer one on the right side.

All of the transitions are there, and these transitions are what we see when we are determining soft light from hard light. A fast transition is a hard light, where a softer transition – as in the picture below – is a softer light. We would call this image a hard light image because of the fast fall off in the transitions between highlight and true value, and true value and shadow.

This image shows a lot of true value skin tone. One of the reasons is that the model is not shiny (wet) or perspiring to cause a shinier surface. Powder is used to intensify the diffuse skin (true value) so the speculars (in red) are presented softly. The blue speculars, however, are presented with very sharp transitions. Note that the specular on the shiny lips is absolute, with no soft transition. The gold jewelry on the dress shows as highlight/black because the reflection of the light source from the shiny metal is absolute.

Lighting: Very large softbox directly in front of the model, and back 5 feet. White cards are positioned on either side of her, but pulled back to a point where they will not reflect in her eyes.

Photographer Anne Stephenson shows how to control the specular, true value, shadow and transitions in this seemingly simple table top product shot. As you can see, nothing done well is simple. Every kind of surface is in this shot.

Let’s start to put all of this together now.

Behind the Image: Nicole Fernley

Behind the Image: Nicole Fernley

Nicole shot these images for the Still Life Class. The idea was to shoot a portrait and a landscape of the same image to see how the subject matter changes in the POV of the camera. She wanted a very soft, natural feel to the light.

The photo at the top shows the landscape view and the two images below show how the portrait view changes the relationship of the eggs to the background by including more of the contextual area around the subject.

The image on the left adds a bit of candle warmth to the images.

You can see the fill board reflection on the shadow side in the images below.

Here is her lighting scheme for the still life. The soft scrim is just above the subject and is diffusing the already diffused sunlight from the window nearby. This allows for the ambient of the window light to be used as well as the soft, scrimmed light from above.

I think those 5 in one reflector kits with the scrims inside are the best bang for the buck for lighting. Buy two.

All photographs by Nicole Fernley.

07: Subject Properties: Part Three

07: Subject Properties: Part Three

Shiny or Glossy surfaces:

The third of our major surface efficiencies is glossy or very shiny surfaces.

The complete opposite of the textured surface, the glossy surface will record the reflection of the light source absolutely. That means we have to be very careful with our light sources… they will be shown in the object.

Umbrellas may be seen in their totality, the studio can be reflected into the camera, busy, confusing surroundings will find their way to our lens via the absolute reflectance of the subjects extremely efficient surface.

Of all the surfaces, shiny will be the most challenging. There is no room for even a bit of sloppiness in lighting angle or source choice. We will actually see the light in the reflection so it is part of our subject.

Where light was used to render subjects with texture and matte, it is itself part of the image when the surface is shiny, or very efficient.

(I am often asked how to light a car. The first thing I say is that you shouldn’t light the car, light what the car is going to reflect… because that IS the lighting on the car. The absolute efficiency of the paint is going to reflect whatever the photographer has put at the angle of incidence in order to present it to the lens.)

Example of a car shot:

In the shot above you can see the reflection of the trees and buildings behind the photographer. The absolute efficiency (gloss) of the paint reflects what it sees (angle of incidence = angle of reflection) and we can see clouds, threes and more in the paint. If we wanted the paint to be more controlled we would have to control what it ‘sees’. And then reflects.

Motorcycle in the sun.

The motorcycle above shows different efficiencies on the surfaces. The sun, a very small light source, provides a diffuse light on the textured leather seat and the brushed metal braking pad in the back. It also provides a somewhat diffused presentation from the black parts of the chrome pipes. But where it is striking the chrome, it is either an absolute specular or there is no reflected light at all. The chrome areas are reflecting what they see, and in most cases, they are seeing a dark void. You can see the street and surrounding area in the curved pipe in the middle of the photograph. Want ‘chrome’ pipes? Put white cards where they will be reflected back to the camera.

Glossy and shiny items are everywhere in our lives. From iPads and computers to glassware and furniture. We must learn the difference between lighting for texture and matte, and lighting for glossy. While both are photographic lighting, they have very different results if approached the same way.

I approach shooting something shiny differently than shooting texture or matte. The reason? Texture and matte will not show my light sources and shiny will – absolutely.

One place that shiny surface exist in an otherwise matte area are eyes. Eyes are quite efficient because they are a glossy surface with moisture. Can’t get more efficient than that.

Eyes absolutely reflect the source of the light. If you are shooting with a big umbrella, it will be seen in the eyes. If the choice is a softbox, it will be seen as a square highlight in the eyes. A photographer can even simulate ‘window’ light by putting black tape in a grid pattern across the softbox diffusion panel, and the eyes will render it as ‘window panes’… pretty cool, eh?

And it is a challenge too. Eyes reveal what the light source is, where it is, and how many lights were used. We can see reflectors and occasionally ourselves, in the reflections from the eyes.

Example of eyes;

As you can see, the eyes are so glossy they reflect the square softbox used for the main light. Look closely and you will see the white card in front of her providing the ‘beauty fill’ to the underside of chin, nose, and eyes. Surrounding the super efficient eyes is a more matte surface that allows the light to be diffused in presentation.

Another area on a face that can become efficient is the lips. We can add lipstick or lip gloss to enhance the surface efficiency of that area. After adding shiny lipstick, the lips will begin to reflect the light source absolutely, but because the area is small, and still has texture, the source is not revealed absolutely as it is with the eyes.

Shiny, efficient surfaces, like glassware and computers, become a challenge because of the rounded edges and absolute reflections of the surroundings.

Controlling the area around the shiny subject can be as important as the lighting itself. I have large black pieces of cloth that I regularly hang to make sure that the studio itself is not registering as a reflection in some of the glossy objects I shoot.

When shooting subjects with high surface efficiency, control is the word of the day; Control of the surroundings, control of the light, and control of the reflection. Other than all those control issues, shooting shiny stuff is a piece of cake.

Just put the light at the angle that puts it where you want to see it reflecting from the subject. Done.


Well, yeah, there is a little more to it than that.

And we are going to go into depth with all the controls we can use as we progress through the course.


  1. Find glossy items and photograph them in the natural world, and then surround them with white cards in such a way they reflect those cards back to you.
  2. Explore ways to show how glossy something is by using the light source reflecting in it.
  3. Photograph cars or motorcycles with interesting reflections.
06: Subject Properties: Part Two

06: Subject Properties: Part Two

Matte Surfaces

These are surfaces that are not as rough as texture, but not smooth either. Skin, cloth, natural leather, finished woods and many food items are examples. Most of what we deal with in our daily lives would fall under the Matte surface example.

Matte surfaces have a softer way of showing us the reflection of the light source. Where texture showed us mini sources next to mini shadows, the matte surfaces have less of a drastic presentation. The surface doesn’t have that much difference between the size of the components of the texture. A cloth book cover has texture, but it is much more tightly confined than say old barn wood.

And the reflection of the source is shown as a larger area rather than many tiny reflections. This gives the texture a smooth and not altogether recognizable shape. There is an angle where the incidence will match the reflection, and be seen by the camera, but it will be a muted reflection, not a harsh one.

EXAMPLE of Matte Surface reflection of the light source. You can clearly see the reflection of the source, but the transition to the non-reflective areas is gradual and not defined.

The ballet shoes are most defintely NOT a highly textured object, nor are they glossy.

Skin is one area of great interest. Portrait, beauty and fashion photographers have to be able to control the way skin looks for their imagery. And skin can present some widely diverse efficiency. Dry skin has a very matte look, wet skin becomes more efficient due to the water, and then the reflection is nearly absolute, and skin color can become an issue with the wrong kind of light presentation.

A good makeup artist helps to smooth out skin blemishes, we know. But the MUA also helps to matte the skin evenly so that the reflections of the light sources do not create very bright reflections on the face.

A model begins to sweat…err, sorry, perspire with the heat, and the skin becomes a bit more efficient due to the moisture. Liquid is much more efficient than skin, so the perspiration on the face becomes shinier. The remedy is a little bit of powder, which of course renders the skin more matte and less efficient.

Faces are full of contours and angles that can reflect the light source back to us. Tips of noses, eyebrows, cheeks, chins and foreheads are all areas of concern when we are shooting with light that has a small source. The small source can become a direct reflection on even matted skin, so keeping it within our tolerances is very important.

Again, you can see the very soft transition from the highlight to the non-highlight matte surface, where as the gloss lipstick provides a sharp, immediate transition to the non-reflective area.

Photoshop Note:

Trying to fix a small highlight on the tip of the nose, or one that is across the whole front of the forehead is painstaking and difficult. It can be done, of course, but working with the subject to make sure he/she is not rendering the light back to you in such a way as to need the Photoshop is much more preferable.

There may be times when we may want to enhance the matte texture, to make it more discernible, and bring out the texture instead of mitigating it.

Angle of incidence again comes to the fore. Angled to present even the smallest texture, the photographer can decide between broad light, like a softbox, or sharper light, like a direct, unmodified head, or a snoot.

Example of enhanced texture: Portrait of Tomas.

Even with the matte surface of the skin, by using a small lightsource (beauty dish at a distance) we can create more texture in this portrait by putting the light at more of a wide distance from the camera. This adds some texture from the sidelit properties of the subject. Enhancement in Photoshop is then easy, and keeps the matte surface for a cleaner presentation of skin.

Matte surfaces are where we can experiment and work with light to play down or enhance, or simply show it as it really is.

And most matte surfaces can be altered to create something more efficient or less. As we have seen, powder for skin can take away the ‘shine’ that we know is really the reflection of the light. Water or liquid can add sheen to the subject when we want the reflection. And we can use materials to create shine, like wax on a wood floor to enhance the matte to be more shiny by showing the reflection of the light as it renders back to us.

Remember that we all KNOW what shiny looks like, what matte feels like and how rough something is. It is part of what we learn from the beginnings of our lives. We touched, we saw, we felt… and we learned. Photographers aren’t creating anything new, we just learn to present it to others the way we want them to see it.

To recap:
Textured surfaces present small highlights and shadows because of the rough surface and how it reflects light. From a stone to a mountain, the texture can be enhanced by playing up the highlight and darkening the shadow.

Matte surfaces will show the highlight softly, allowing it to transition to the non-reflective part of the surface in a more gradual effect. This may be the most prevalent surface we have around us.


  1. Look around at the matte surfaces. they will most likely be more numerous than very texturized things, or very shiny things. Take some time to quietly study what light does when it is refracted from them.
  2. Note how different light (direct / indirect) reflects from the surface. Make images showing the difference.
  3. Examine the ways that matte surfaces can become textured (heavy side/top light), or shiny (wetting the surface down changes its ability to render the highlight and now it becomes more efficient).
06: Assignment Six; A glass of wine on location

06: Assignment Six; A glass of wine on location

This shot cannot be done in a studio, the client would prefer it be done on location.

Snow is good. Desert is good. Trees are good.

It’s all good because their tagline is “It’s Always a Good Time for a Good Wine” (Please drink responsibly means probably not while driving down the freeway or flying a plane… soooo –  there is that.)

Remember a few things about wine:

  1. Dark, red wine is hard to light for color. You may have to drive some additional light through the wine from the back. This may open up the wine for a more attractive color.
  2. Wine is transparent. If you have a busy background, you may want to use a white card for behind the wine glass so the busy background is eliminated in the glass.
    Method A: cut white card the same shape as the wine glass and carefully angle it to not show on the sides.
    Method B: Insert a white card behind the wine and take a second shot. Blend the white card glass into the shot without it.
  3. Pouring the wine is a great way to add dynamics, but make sure the lighting is absolutely dead on for that pour. Otherwise the highlight that is so important will not be brought out of the pouring wine. Think fill cards… lots of fill cards.

Use a lens that will render the wine glass sharp and the background less so. The client wishes to make the wine definitely be the center of attention.

Surfaces can be anything from a snow covered rock to a patio bench to a porch with all the accessories. This is YOUR shot. Make it reflect their tag line and you are golden.



This class focuses on 8 classic and diverse portrait photographers. We learn what makes the image makers tick, and use that information to help polish our own work even tighter. You will make more deliberate imagery after taking this class.

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This class has turned into a really powerful, and very popular class. Students rave about their increased vision, lighting, and compositional skills. Becoming very conscious of light, dimension, and shape helps in all aspects of photography.

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05: Assignment Five: Industrial Magazine Cover

05: Assignment Five: Industrial Magazine Cover

This is a fun assignment.

An art director needs a cover shot for an industrial trade magazine.

Which industry?

Whichever industry you choose – but it is industrial. Mechanical… build stuff!

The gig can be one of three approaches.

This shot would be a worker, holding something in their hands or working with their hands. We have background included… and it must be lit. Whether you use natural light or bring your own, the background cannot be ignored. Art director would prefer lighting from the right, as that is somewhat a custom of their magazine.

Still Life:
Tools, dies, saws… whatever you choose for this shot, there must be patina, a sense of them being used. Heavy lifting stuff. Real hard working tools. Gardening and light housework tools are not included.

Industrial Transportation:
Big trucks, skip loaders, construction site. If you go this way, remember to bring lights. This is a cover shot and it MUST be dramatic. Absolutely dramatic. Use your strobe to light something up, light paint in something to be featured. Take off the ‘snapshot’ hat and put on the “OMG, I can’t believe you shot this” hat.

The shot is vertical. I have included a layout for those who wish to go that way. Use of the layout is OPTIONAL.

Room for Masthead (magazine name)

PSD for those who want to put your work in a layout (optional). INDUSTRY.psd

Use Google to find what is out there… and you may be disappointed that so much bad photography exists in the construction arena.
Or… you may be very excited that so much bad photography exists in construction and find a niche that needs to be filled… ya know?

Research is GOOD.

Some ideas: