Lighting Basics, Class Two

Lighting Basics, Class Two

The Lighting Angle: Part One

Now that we are starting to understand the metering a bit better, we are going to look at how the angle of the light can create different presentations – AND different exposure situations.

The camera is a fixed position. It is where the Point of View is coming from, and it always presents one leg of our triangle. There is a straight line drawn from camera to subject when looking through the lens.



We call this the “Axis” of the camera to the subject. Since the subject is always what is in front of our lens, this is a fixed angle.

Shifting the light from front to side to back creates all sorts of interesting changes in our subject. These changes are brought about by contrast, shadows, angles of shadows, and can be used to reveal or hide texture.

Front light is coming from on axis of the camera or very near the axis of the camera. Angled light (45 degrees) can actually be anywhere from slightly off camera axis to the point where it becomes side light.

Once we move the light back behind the model any distance back from the 90 degree side light, it would be considered backlight. And something other than that light source would become the ‘main’ light even if it was not as bright as the backlight.


Front Light Example:



Briana is lit from the sun which is over my shoulders. Notice the ‘flat presentation’ of skin and the shape of her arms and legs. Dimension is not presented well, and that is the point of front light. It flattens and contains dimension. Front light can be a particular favorite of some fashion shooters as it creates something akin to studio lighting, and alleviates many distresses on the skin.

Meter from the skin at the same axis as the camera. Using your in camera meter, choose any middle gray reflectance you wish, or by understanding the exposure (see class one) you can “place” the exposure where you want it to be.

Side Light Example:



In this shot of a man I met in Superior, Arizona, I used the sunlight from a side position to give texture to his face, hair and denim clothes. Light from the side meant that I had two areas of light on his face… the direct light, and the shadow (ambient) to base my metering on. I was very careful to use the dome of my meter right in front of him with the light striking the dome the same way it was striking him… half with directional light, and half with the ‘shadow’ or ambient light.

The resulting exposure indication would be very close to what I needed, and I double checked it through my in camera meter by placing the spot meter on the white t-shirt in the sun and opening up two stops (from middle gray, the reflection that gave me the reading – to the actual placement of the white shirt at a point that would still be white, with texture; two stops brighter than the indicated exposure reading.

See the Using a Photographic Light Meter on UDEMY (Assignment One). This class is free for all photographers.

Side / Back Light Example



In this shot the light is coming from the side and slightly back. This is a ‘rim light’ use, and can be thought of as a “special”. The sun is indeed the main illumination tool here, but the “Main Light” that is providing the light on Briana is the ambient light of the sky above her and behind the camera. The sun is adding the rim affect, and is brighter than the main light.

Notice that the sun still lights up part of Briana’s hands, chest, vest and hair. Notice that these areas are brighter than she is – as they should be. Basing (or placing) the exposure on her face presents us with a slightly brighter side light. This is more natural than if we had based the exposure on the side light on her chest or hands which would have rendered  the image much darker.

Back Light Example:



The sun is coming from behind Briana, and I based the exposure totally on her face. The sun then becomes quite bright and even provides nearly overexposed skin on her shoulder and arm. By placing the exposure on her face, we keep the skin tones of the subject area correct.

I used a handheld Minolta meter for each of these shots. With the ambient exposure dome pointed at the camera, I was very careful to keep all direct light (like the sun) from spilling over on the ambient dome so it would ONLY measure the light as it was presented to the subject – and therefor back to the camera.

In all examples I point the dome directly AT the camera and on the axis line.

Alternatives would be to come in close with the camera filling the frame with the subjects face and taking the reading from the camera. Making sure that all I was reading was the face or cheeks, and that there was no extraneous bright areas or flare from a backlight, I would take the exposure meter reading (thus finding the exposure for middle gray) and open up by one stop to “place” that skin tone at the proper reflectance. (For Caucasion skin I open one stop. For Hispanic or Latin skin, I keep the exposure and for dark, African skin I stop down one stop. These are my rules of thumb and I use them as guidelines to make sure that the reflectance levels remain true to the values I want to portray in the image.

Keep working on the first nine chapters of the Udemy course linked on assignment one. (This is a free course.)

Additional Assignment:

Shoot a person in full on sun, but not “noon” sun from above. Either early in the morning or later in the afternoon so the sun is coming more at an angle to the subject. How much of an angle is up to you, but I like to work with a shallow shadow under the chin. If the shadow under the chin goes all the way to the neckbones, the sun is still too high. This is done with the subject looking at the sun.

Shoot them in the same position but keep taking two steps to your left or right. No farther from them and keep them the same size in the viewfinder, but keep stepping away from the sun on axis until you reach a spot where the sun is slightly behind the subject. The subject turns in place to keep looking straight at you.

This will take you from front light to angled light to side light to slightly back side light.

You may keep on turning if you want to go all the way to full backlight.


The first time take the reading of the full on axis sun, and leave that setting as you continue around your arc.

The second time, use either the handheld meter or the one in your camera to make exposures  come out correctly to your taste as you go around.

(HINT: a gray card should remain the same exposure as you work your way around the second time. Have your subject hold that card and base exposure on that as you go around the arc.)

Bret Doss’s “Fallen Leaf” Series

Bret Doss’s “Fallen Leaf” Series

Bret Doss is a photographer and an engineer in Seattle, Washington. He and I have traveled the PNW together on occasion and he was my assistant on the Creative LIVE workshops.

He is a talented photographer with a wide range of interests. From fashionable portraiture to environments and still life, Bret brings a unique view to what he shoots.

In this recent “Improvisation” Bret turned his lens on leaves that fell on or near his porch. The images bring a subtle dynamic, and a visual twist, to something we have all seen… leaves.

Bret offers no explanation for these images, and I agree they need none. Fall is one of my favorite times of the year for photography, and shots like this are one reason.

FALLEN LEAF Series Oct ©Bret Doss 2012 06

FALLEN LEAF Series Oct ©Bret Doss 2012 05

FALLEN LEAF Series Oct ©Bret Doss 2012 03

FALLEN LEAF Series Oct ©Bret Doss 2012 04

FALLEN LEAF Series Oct ©Bret Doss 2012 02

FALLEN LEAF Series Oct ©Bret Doss 2012 01

This link will take you to the entire series.

In Tall Trees

I spent a couple of days in the forests and mountains around Seattle a few weeks ago. I hope to go again.

I am a desert guy. Lived in the deserts most of my life, and I find them fascinating – maybe due to my design predilection for minimalism. Not sure really, but the ability to see hundreds of miles from the Vermilion Cliffs, or to watch a the sun set over vast distances of open earth is something of a wonder to me.

I also find that deserts are hard to photograph. Well, at least hard to photograph well.

Some have been able to make astounding photographs of the desert southwest, but I am still working on it.

So get me in an area where you cannot see more than a couple dozen yards through thick, dark, and somewhat mysterious forest, and it is a whole new ballgame.

We took the “Mountain Loop” road out of Granite Falls, WA, and set out to just be three guys with cameras having fun. And we did. Charles, Bret and I spent a good long time not saying much, just taking in the wonderful environment.

And the quiet. The incredible quiet.

Rock and Tree: Washington State

I thought this was so interesting. The tree had obviously gained a foothold in a small crevasse on the rock. As it grew, it split the rock and enveloped it with the roots and trunk. Note: there are chains and other human artifacts on the rock, and I don’t move this stuff when I shoot.

It was a semi-cloudy day, and I was struck by how little light made it through to the ground. I had to bump some ISO as I looked for some interesting things to photograph.

I didn’t really have to look that far, but I did have to think about the light. Lots of contrast in the scenes. With the sun being nearly full on, and the dark backgrounds that were naturally occurring, I did have to think closely about exposure and processing.

Aspen trees against the backdrop of forest.

You can see the widely varying exposure from the light cloud cover foreground, the white Aspen trees and the dark forest just beyond. I like the way it seems to make heroes of our intrepid trees.

The silence of the area was punctuated by the sounds of birds and rushing water. Everywhere there were small creeks leading to larger ones with waterfalls. Below us was a river that flowed with abandon with rapids seemingly at every turn.

Rivers with water in them… coming from Phoenix, I can tell you how rare that is there. LOL.

Erosion and Tree Roots, Cascades: Washington State

Rushing water can take its toll as well. A slide has taken this trees base and washed it away. The exposed roots hang far above the water’s edge. Tenaciously it hangs on… but for how long?

I was also in love with the forest floor. So many colors of green mixed with the light that would fight its way through.

There are places where thoughts run to change, and the patterns of a fast moving world. And there are places that give us pause to consider that not everything moves at that pace. Some things take their time.

Time. One of the most misunderstood values of our lives.

I see people wasting it, taking it for granted, and ignoring its value all around me.

I see it in myself.

The forest floor takes its time. Things happen slowly there, and with great purpose. And while that purpose may be not totally revealed to me, or you, it is still the guiding hand.

At the Forest Floor: Cascades, Washington State

Light, shadow, design and purpose. Are there metaphors in the images we are drawn to make? Do we see beyond the surface with our subconscious and make photographs that have a deeper meaning than the pretty colors?

The image as metaphor? The image as an allegory, as Minor White suggested?

Yes, I think so… but I also know that the allegories can have different meanings for each that view. Perhaps the underlying basis is there, but the stories we tell ourselves are different from each other.

As similar as the leaves in the above photograph, but upon close inspection no two leaves will be an exact match – and that is where the true understanding of the allegory comes into focus.

I have no idea what your story will be when you see my photographs. I only want to make photographs that are capable of creating a story inside you.

One last image and I am off to a busy Saturday.

Pines on the Olympic Peninsula

We found these trees on a road through the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. I will post more images from that trek at a later date. I felt the image belonged with this group, though, so I included it.

Yes, I kind of fell in infatuation with the forests and mountains of Washington State. It would remain to be seen if I could actually go from the wide open spaces to something so nearly claustrophobic as these mighty forests.

I don’t know. My affinity for the desert, its dry wind and open skies is pretty deep.

But I do love the forests, I do.



I was recently on creativeLIVE and have received some rave reviews of the workshop. If you are interested in taking a look at the workshop, you can find it on creativeLIVE’s web site here. I think it is a tremendous value and if you are unable to attend any of my workshops, this may give you a ton of information you will want to have to push your photography to the next level.

Seat-o-the-Pants Shooting… Yeah, It Happens.

Seat-o-the-Pants Shooting… Yeah, It Happens.

I am working on a big project with the Phoenix Children’s Choir, and need to get some new shots of the kids and the choirs and the performances. So when last weekend’s final concert came along, I knew I had to get some shots.

The venue was amazing, and I checked it out for lighting. There was so much wonderful natural light in the church main room, that lights were not needed. I was pretty pleased with that, as trying to light 300+ chorus members in a 5 minute window with strobes was going to be a bit of a challenge.

The test shots looked good and the huge pipe organ pipes made a very cool background.

We were set… camera at the ready, tests made, images double checked and ISO/aperture/shutter speed nailed down.

“Hey, I have an idea…”, I heard from behind me.

“All the choirs have shots taken in these kinds of halls, let’s do ours in the courtyard.”


At 3:30 in the afternoon?

“Sure, let’s see if it can work…”

Outside in the mid-day sun.

No strobes, no scrims, very little shade.

Did I mention it was outside – in the crappy part of the day?


Thoughts On A Couple of Portraits

Thoughts On A Couple of Portraits

I was asked about my portraiture by a reader who wanted to know what I am thinking about when shooting.

I decided to break down a couple of shots I did of Natalie in Seattle the Sunday after my creativeLIVE presentation.

We were on the waterfront and the sun was out in full force. Yes, it was out in full in Seattle in April. Maybe it was me, maybe it was Bri… who knows.

The girls were taking turns standing by a metal building with some glass in order to get warm. Even though the sun had just burned off all the clouds, there was still a very chilly breeze coming off the water.

I was taken with the light that fell across Natalie’s face as she was facing away from the full sun. The area we were in had a lot of patio that was very light concrete. It served as a fantastic fill.


Looking at Natalie in the sun and taking a meter reading of all of her would naturally include some sunlight. And that sunlight would skew the reading toward being darker than I wanted. I was not interested in anything but her face. I took a reading of her face, opened up a stop and 2/3 and did my test shot. I found that a little hot, so I closed down a third of a stop. That seemed right to me.

Yep, the hair blows out. Yep, the background seems really bright.

That is the look I wanted to portray… what I saw in my minds eye was the shot playing out against the bright sun, and letting that sun BE bright and open and airy.

What I didn’t want was to get any sun on her face. The contrast of the sun on the tip of her nose or on a part of her cheek would have been terribly difficult to remove.


“Sea Shell” Improvisation: 1 Hour Challenge

“Sea Shell” Improvisation: 1 Hour Challenge

I often say that photography is “Jazz with a camera.” And I say that because I believe it to be absolutely true.

A Jazz performer has to know their instrument so well, that it is second nature for them to simply play it. Jazz requires improvisation (and if it doesn’t, it ain’t jazz…) and photography is all about improvisation. Imagine the mastery it takes to not only play the instrument, but make the music up on the fly with other players accompanying you. Trying new and daring twists and turns while the drummer and bass lay down a sweeeet groove… yeah.

Photographers do the same thing. They get to know their instruments so well, that they can simply start to make stuff up on the fly, while not losing the goal or reason for the photograph. Let’s try this- or that, or change lenses for a different POV. What happens if we get down low and bring a shiny card in from the edge here…? Choices flying by and we have to be able to choose them quickly to keep time.

See – a jazz player is playing a couple of bars ahead in their minds, and they can keep the chord structures and the ‘changes’ fluid. They hear the music to come before it is played. All the while being totally aware of the other musicians and what they are doing.

A photographer does the same thing visually. A photographer ‘sees’ the image as a it will be seen from their camera and lens combination even before they put it together. They begin to ‘play’ the images by composing elements, trying this and trying that. Knowing the final image (or close) before tripping the shutter.


Jazz, baby.

This is something I used to do a lot. And I mean A LOT. We used to call it ‘testing’, but now it is called “creative”. Shooting creative is like working that axe in the woodshed. Woodshed’n makes you play better because it keeps your mind and instrument in tune.

“Creative” shooting keeps your vision tuned up as well. There is no substitute for shooting… ABS, as Nick Onken says: Always Be Shooting.

So this is my first of the year improvisation. It will not be the last. I plan on doing these at least once per week (next week is a fork… a single fork).

My rule to myself is to not shoot more than one hour, and to shoot within a single set or area. Working the shot out and making as many variations as possible. Hopefully we can keep the setup included in that hour. As a jazz musician too, I expect I will break said rules and do whatever the hell I want – but, we gotta start somewhere.

Today I went outside and noticed my daughters shell collection. She collects them as she visits different beaches when we are on vacation. I think they each have a name… or did when she was younger.

One was filled with gunk and water and it caught my eye.

I decided right then to make those shells the subject of my improv. I set up on the front porch area and decided to use the sun as my source. A 5-in-one reflector kit scrim was the single modifier, and a piece of white fome core was my surface. Clean and graphic. I spent 45 minutes from setup to tear down.

Here are the shots:

I used two basic lighting setups: One with the scrim vertical in back of the set to create more shadow in front of the shells. And one with the scrim over the top of the shells for a broad, soft source. The sun was my main light source today.

Vertical Light Panel creates more shadow to the front of the shells as the light is not seen from that position.

You can see in this shot that the light is not covering the front of the shells, so it creates more shadow.

With the scrim over the top, more light comes to the front part of the shells and eliminates the shadows in front.

The top scrim brings the light to the front of the shells. The sun was fairly high in the south sky and we had moderately scattered clouds. I had to work with the sun, not the clouds ad it made the light too flat. Having a bright, powerful source behind the scrim made the light a bit more punchy.

Thanks for coming out today.

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