01: Lighting Class: Light Principle One: The Size of the Light Source

01: Lighting Class: Light Principle One: The Size of the Light Source

Let’s look at light and the four principles of how light works.

First up, the size of the light source in relation to the size of the subject.

Imagine looking out the window at the front yard and without seeing the sky knowing whether it is sunny or cloudy. We do know, right?

We don’t have to see the sky to know if it is sunny or cloudy, we can tell from the way the light is behaving on the subjects in our yard. The car has a deep shadow below it if it is sunny and very little shadow at all if it is cloudy.

The plants are either casting long shadows or seemingly no shadows. The sun makes everything have a shadow, while the cloud cover acts as a shadow reliever.

We know this because we have observed the world for our whole lives and we understand how light works when it is sunny and when it is cloudy.

The sun is a tiny light source. (Yes, science nerds it is way huge, but I am talking about from where we look at it.) No more than a coin in the sky.

That is a very small light source. And it can be totally blocked out by the smallest of items: a branch, or a rose, or even a butterfly. That means that the light cannot go around the subject and is instead blocked by the subject.

Here is the equivalent of the sun in the studio. A small, unmodified light at a distance from a coffee cup.

And here is how the shadow falls on a small coffee cup when a very large light is applied. The light wraps around the coffee cup because the light is so much larger than the subject.

That is how the sun works as well.

The sun is the very small light source, and when the clouds come over the land, the sun lights the back of the clouds and they light the earth with no shadows because they go from horizon to horizon. Light is wrapping all around all the subjects it is seen by.


The image on the left shows how the small light source, the sun, creates hard shadows behind our subject. That is because the light source is tiny, about the size of a quarter and the window panes and the subject are much larger in relationship to that tiny light source.

A very large light source will provide very soft light since it will ‘wrap’ around the subject by the fact of it being larger than the subject.

Think of your softbox as a “cloud cover” for your light (the sun) and it makes more sense to you.

Now, this way of thinking about lighting begins to alter how we think about our lighting tools.

Question: is a 4’x5′ softbox a large softbox or a small softbox?

The answer is compared to what? Other softboxes? Yes.

The subject? Well – that depends. What is the subject?

If the subject is a Hot Air Popcorn Maker, then it is indeed a very large light source.

If our subject is a jetliner, then no – it is not a very big light source at all.

And then… how far will it be from our subject?

Distance makes the perceptual size of the light source diminish as it gets farther away. And it is that perceptual view is the one that matters.

A 20″ light source very close to a 1″ watch is a large light source. A 72″ x 72″ source far away from a 14′ square box is a small light source.

And the light will render that way as well.



  1. Choose a subject less than about 8″ – like a shoe or a water bottle. Light it with a small light source (speedlight) to see how the shadows fall. Then light it with a softbox (24″ or so) in close. Very close.
  2. Move the softbox 6″ away and take another shot. Then do it again at 6″ intervals until the softbox is 6 feet away. Notice the changes in how the subject responds to the light, and how the shadows get sharper and deeper.

The size of the light source in relationship to the subject is one of the four principles of light.

02: Lighting Class: Light Principle Two: The Distance of the Light Source

02: Lighting Class: Light Principle Two: The Distance of the Light Source


The second principle of light is the distance of the light source from the subject.

One thing for sure, if it is artificial light, the distance of the light source from the subject can change the size relationship, but there are other things that happen as well.

With artificial lights, one of the most important rules is The Inverse Square Law.

And it can be kinda scary that one. First, it’s a law. That seems pretty definite. And of course it has something to do with math – ‘squared[. But the word INVERSE? What the heck is that?

Let’s not sweat that right at the moment.

Let’s just acknowledge it for what it means to us.

Essentially, the Inverse Square Law (ISL) means that the farther the light is from the subject, the less bright it will appear. We know that, right. The closer we get to a light source, the brighter the reflectance of that source from whatever we are bringing close to the light.

Say you are in a very dark room, and there is only one small light in the corner. You are desperately trying to read the calory count on your small bag of Cheetos but it is way too dark where you are. Well – simple, we take the Cheetos bag over to the light and as we get close to the light, we can instantly read that we are never allowed to eat Cheetos again.

Now that is way too simple for any rule, or LAW, especially one that concerns math and something called Inverse.

The ISL is a way of measuring that light fall off and it shows us that there is actually a formula to how much that light falls off. Formulas are great. They are like systems. We can use them over and over to achieve the results we need.

This formula is way simpler than the name implies:

As you can see in the illustration above, at twice the distance the light has to cover four times as much space making it four times less powerful.

Four times less = 2 stops less in f-stops.

So if the light was f-8 on your subject at 4 feet, and you moved the light back to 8 feet, the amount of light on the subject would now equal f-4. If you started at f-4 at 8 ft and moved the light in to 4 ft it would be f-8.

What if instead of moving the light from 8 ft to 4 ft you decided to move it in 6 ft? Well, that would be half way between f-8 and f-4… f-5.6.

Now look at what happens when we apply the rule to a set of distances.


A reciprocal is simply understanding the relationships between all the numbers we throw around in photography.

F-stops, shutter speeds, ISO – all work hand in hand with each other to make the image with correct (for you) exposure. Changing any one of these three will necessitate a change in one of the others to compensate.

Let’s look at ISO:

f-4 / 1/125 @ ISO 100

If we change that to ISO 200 one of those above will have to change. Either the f-stop or the shutter speed. Since the ISO is now one stop more powerful, we either have to change to f-5.6 or change the shutter speed to 1/250. Both of these changes have the affect of decreasing the exposure setting one stop due to increasing the ISO by one stop.

Simply knowing the basics of one set will make it easy for you to re-configure for a new set.

I use ISO as my constant. In this case, I will use the settings of Sunny 16 (f-16 at 1/ISO).

ISO is 100 for these reciprocals.

f-16 @ 1/100
f-11 @ 1/200
f-8 @ 1/400
f-5.6 @ 1/800
f-4 @ 1/1600
f-2.8 @ 1/3200

These are committed to rote memory.

Changing the ISO compels me to make associated changes in these figures. If the ISO goes faster, I simply change the f-stop OR shutter speed to correlate to the amount of change in ISO. If the changes go out of the range of my camera, I will change one first, then catch up the other.


The light is getting a bit low, and I want to shoot with a shutter speed that allows me to hold the camera still. I take a meter reading and find that at ISO 100, my exposure for that shot is f-4 @ 1/15. Well, that aint’a gonna work for me handheld.

So first I decide that f-4 should be f-5.6 because of some Depth of Field issues (which moves the shutter speed down to 1/8), so that means I will have to move the ISO one stop for that aperture change to:

f-4 / ISO 100 @ 1/15 to f5.6 / ISO 100 @ 1/8 (reciprocal, one less stop in shutter speed to correlate with additional stop in aperture.

f-5.6 / ISO 200 @ 1/15
f-5.6 / ISO 400 @ 1/30
f-5.6 / ISO 800 @ 1/60

Learn your reciprocals for faster and more accurate decisions in the field.

Bri in Miami.

I didn’t want the old building to go too dark behind her so I moved her next to the column. This gave me the ability to move the light in close to her, and let the background fall off fast – but retain the light and the texture right around her so she didn’t ‘pop’ out and look too overly lit.

This is a 4ft softbox with a Profoto 300 WS head and a single diffusion panel in the softbox. It is just above camera viewpoint in this shot – very close to her. You can see the light falling off as it reaches her knees.

I wanted the shot to appear somewhat realistic and not “strobed” so a careful blend of one stop over the ambient was chosen.

Ivy in the Studio.

My studio had bright white walls in a cove. I didn’t want this image to be on a white background so I moved Ivy far enough away that the light on her had no effect at all on the white wall behind her. It was simply way too underexposed to render at all.

Controlling the exposure through the Inverse Square Law is one of the more important tools you will have at your disposal.

And get this – it doesn’t cost a penny.


  1. Using a light source of your own: (studio strobe, speedlight, continuous light) place the light close to the subject and then move the subject AND light source closer to and farther back from a single background. Notice how the image presents itself as you go closer to the background with your subject and light, and what happens when you take subject and light farther away.
  2. Place camera and background at a fixed point. Then move your subject into the f-16 and make an exposure. Move back to f-11, then f-8, f-5.6, f-4 and if you can f2.8. What happens to the background as you move the subject closer to it and adjust exposure.
  3. Build your string meter. See below.

Find a piece of good, smallish rope. Clothesline will do nicely.

Put your light on a stand, and run the string straight out from the flash. The flash should be set at 1/8 power if possible. Not full. It should be on “normal” zoom setting neither on telephoto or wide angle.

  1. Using a meter and a remote flash trigger, find the exposure point for f-4 by going down the rope and aiming the ambient light meter dome directly at the strobe. Keep going until you find the point where f-4 is noted on your meter.
  2. Using a knot or marker, note that point as f-4.
  3. Now find the middle of the rope and note it with knot or marker.
  4. Between the end of the rope and the middle (left side) put a knot or mark in the middle of that area.
  5. Between the middle of the rope and the end to the right put a knot or marker
  6. On the right side, now find the middle between the end and the first mark, and knot it or marker

You now have simple rope meter that will be incredibly accurate in all situations.

Finding f-4 is the most important part. Use a lightmeter for best results.

If you want to use a gray card, make sure it is at a very slight angle to the light source so it will not have a specular for the camera to see (the reflection of the light source). Shoot at f-4 until you find the distance that will render a single line of pixels in your histogram dead center. That is perfect exposure of a gray card.

Of course, you must fill the lens with the gray card, no extraneous stuff in the viewfinder – just the gray card.

03: Lighting Class: Lighting Principle Three: The Color of Light

03: Lighting Class: Lighting Principle Three: The Color of Light


We see light usually as a white source, or at least a neutral source.

It isn’t. neutral, it has a color to it and that color can influence all the parts of your image, from shadows to highlights. We don’t see the color of light because our brain changes it to a neutral “white” color as we see it.

Here is a wonderful article that explains the way that the color of light affects your image. Read it now.

When we look at the color of the scene in front of us we can change it globally by changing our color balance in the camera, or using a filter. What “globally’ means is that everything in the photo is changed to the same setting. All the colors are altered by this global change to the color of the light.

On the left is a photograph taken near Mable Canyon. The sun was quite bright, and there was a bit of warmth to the image because of all the warm browns and oranges of the topography all around us.

This image is as shot. I have applied global changes to the color of the light source so you can see what that does to the image.

Below from left to right:

Daylight / Shade / Tungsten / Flourescent


Changing from As Shot to Daylight shows very little difference, although the daylight color balance makes it a bit more warm.


Since the color of the light in the shade is a bit more blue, we add some warmth to the overall image to compensate for it. In this shot you can see the global warmth is not going to work because the image was not shot in the shade.


Tungsten light is very orange, so when we apply a tungsten color balance to a shot that is not too orange, we get this very blue looking shot. This is a good reminder of just how ‘warm’ tungsten light is if it takes this much blue to make it correct.


Fluorescent light is blue/green so it makes it difficult to compensate for. In this application of the fluorescent color balance, we can see the sky going a deep blue, while the desert mountains behind become more magenta.


Working with a secondary light source that may be a different color presents us with a challenge. We cannot change the image globally because adding a correction to the image to correct for the different light source will affect the entire image.

We must then change the different light source to the ambient (or overwhelming light) in order to ‘balance’ the subject in the ambient setting.

The ambient setting is the overwhelming light that we usually cannot change: the sun, a large warehouse, a home. Bringing in our own lights means we must know how to match what we bring to what is there.


  1. Using the color settings on your camera, take the same image with each of them. Shoot with Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, Flourescent at least and do this in places where those colors exist. In other words, shoot some images outside, inside with regular household lamps, and some place that has Flourescent. (NOTE: Many big box stores use a light source known as Mercury Vapor. Mercury Vapor is blue/green so it is very difficult to adequately address. We can add magenta to offset the green, but that turns the blue part of the light to purple. If we address the blue with something warm, we add that to the green part of the light.For Mercury Vapor correction, try “auto” on your camera setting. It is the best I have found for correcting most of that blue/green color shift.
  2. Using a strobe (speedlight), take a photograph of someone while the sun is going down behind them. Do not alter the strobe setting, just let it keep making the shot as the light turns warmer and warmer. You will then see how “blue” the light source seems coming from the flash.You may have to change the settings as the light gets dimmer, but I think you will see the changes pretty well.

We will be addressing color balance in all of the upcoming classes.

04: Lighting Principle Four: Angle of the Light Source to Subject / Camera

04: Lighting Principle Four: Angle of the Light Source to Subject / Camera

Lighting Principle Number Four: The Angle of the Light to the Subject and the Camera

Law of Physics: Angle of Incidence equals the Angle of Reflection.

This is an axiom that a lot of people hear and repeat without taking careful note of what it means to their photography.

And yet it is one of the most basic and important physical rules of subject centric lighting.

What does it mean and how can we use this to our advantage?

It means that if the light is angled toward a subject, the reflection of that light will be presented back to the camera at the same angle.

Think of the game of billiards or pool. If you hit a ball into the wall at a 30% angle, the ball will come off that wall at a 30% angle. And that completes a triangle. Understanding that triangle is key to making quicker, smarter lighting decisions.

It means that you have to be able to judge the angle of the light as it strikes the subject and understand what that light will do once it strikes the subject. If there is something being reflected in your subject, look at the camera angle from the other side and you will find what it is.


Some things reflect more than others, but everything you see is simply the reflection of the light from its surface.

I call it ‘presentation’, and when I discuss lighting, I use the word presentation to talk about how the light looks to the viewer.

Once we realize that the angle of the light source to the subject, and the incident angle of that light source to the subject is going to present to us in ways we can control, lighting becomes so much easier to create.

Think of the way the light strikes hair on a slightly backlit portrait. The reason the hair becomes so much brighter is because it is round in shape, and somewhere on that round, shiny hair is going to be that same angle of incidence that the camera is seeing.

An example.

You can see how bright that hair is with the sun shining on it, and each tiny hair reflecting that sun back to the camera.

In the image below, I used a large softbox in order to get a shiny, reflective area off of the wall behind the subject and create a gradient to the background. You can see in the illustration that the angles of reflection come back to the camera on the left side of the model, but not on the right side of the model. The wall is a semi-gloss wall and provides a nice, soft reflection of the light source.

Let’s take a closer look at that triangle that is formed by the light to the subject, the subject to the camera, and the light to the camera.

It is being able to see that triangle (shown above with the blue line) and to then visualize the presentation of the light that makes it easier to control. Once you begin to see those angles, and the way they will present back to the camera, lighting can become much more of a finessed technique rather than a flailing exercise.

Let’s talk about direction.

There are three major directions of light and one that doubles as a direction. I will explain.

This is front lighting. The light comes from the side of the camera, and it can be angled quite a bit (90 degrees). The presentation is full angle of incident / angle of reflection, and you can control that fall of incidence by where you place the camera in relationship to the light and to the subject angle.

Front light:

You can see that from right to left there is 180 degrees of placement that will allow you to have front light. There is one point in the middle, however, that is at the same angle as the camera. We call that “on-axis” lighting and is a favorite of beauty and fashion shooters.

On-axis lighting is from the position angle of the camera to the subject, not necessarily at the distance of the camera. That means there is no triangle (horizontally) from light to subject to camera. As you can imagine the reflection is straight back into the camera. A wide, soft light with few shadows.

In the diagram below we see side lighting and backlighting. Side lighting is as its name suggests, directly from the side of the subject creating a 90-degree angle to the camera angle.

When we move the lights farther back from sidelighting, we have backlight. Backlight has all the same angle variations as does the front lighting.

Top lighting from directly above is the same as side lighting if it is at a 90-degree angle to the subject/camera. If it is slightly in front it is front light, and slightly behind it is backlight.

Front Light One

Front Light Two

Side Light One

Side Light Two

As you can see above, the angle of the light to the subject, and to the camera, makes a big difference when you are working toward making the shot look a specific way.

Let’s wrap it up:

The four different properties of lighting are: 

  • Size of the light source in relationship to the subject.
  • Distance of the light source from the subject.
  • Color of the light, and its relationship (if any) to the prevailing ambient.
  • Angle of the light source to the subject, and to the camera.

And NONE of them are the most important – they are all equally important. We don’t think of them in an hierarchical way, we think of them in a holistic, symbiotic way. Change one, you may have to indeed change another. Change that one, and you may have to alter two others to make it work for you.

All of this only matters to you if you know what you want your image to look like. Do you want soft light, or do you want hard-edged light? Do you want a mixed light image that looks natural, or do you want to play with color temps in a creative way? If we move our light closer or farther away, what does that do to the look of the image? Do we need to bring out texture, or is a flatter look our goal?

These questions are usually not asked in order in our brains. All of them are asked at the same time, and we react to these creative decisions by utilizing the tools we have for creating them.

And now, with these basics, we can begin to create the images to present OUR vision of the subject in front of our lens.


  • Find a subject that allows you to move around it and make images from all the different lighting positions. Do this either early in the morning or late in the afternoon so the sunlight is closer to your head height to the subject.Shoot front light, side light, back light, axis light. Study the images to see how the subject changes in the different lighting positions. Print the images and make notations on how it, and the background, look to you. What changes do you see?
  • Using your flash or continuous lights, do the same thing with a subject inside. You can choose something as a still life, or – if you are a people shooter – grab a subject and start moving that light from on-axis to back.Note that when your light is backlight ONLY, the subject is quite dark, possibly even silhouette. You can adjust for that or not – your call. but remember that your adjustments will play the same role as the main light in the angle of light to subject to camera.
05: Subject Properties: Part One

05: Subject Properties: Part One


Let me say that again. Everything reflects.

Some things reflect more than others. Some surfaces are more reflective than others.

But since everything reflects, we are sometimes presenting what that subject reflects rather than ‘bouncing’ light into a dark area.

In portraiture, I think of providing the shadow side of the face something to reflect back to me rather than ‘filling’ as in creating light on a dark surface. The reason is that the cheek and chin and hair on the shadow side can be made to reflect the object I have placed there if it will indeed be within the angle of reflection to my camera.

I believe I get more control that way. The brighter the ‘reflectors’ the brighter the reflections back to me. Moving the reflector away from the subject increases the distance, and the reflection becomes less bright.

One of the chief reasons that things reflect the way they do is the surface of the subject. Smooth surfaces may reflect absolutely, with lots of contrast, while adding texture will cut down on the reflection of the light and actually cause it to be presented with less contrast.

It is this nature of the subject that I focus on first when deciding what kind of light to use.

I will say this before we go on… there is NO one way or right way or best way do make images. There is your way and my way and her way and his way and on and on. I will present to you what I do and you are free to take it and modify/adjust/deconstruct/start over or discard what I do. It’s OK. In fact it is what I want you to do. Take this information and make it yours. Utilize subject centric lighting in your own way and make better photographs.

Surfaces have a couple of distinct parameters for us to explore: rough, smooth matte, shiny and combinations of all three sometimes. And each one of them reflects light back to us in different and particular ways.

Shiny, glossy surfaces, matt surfaces, and textured surfaces.

We will first look at textured surfaces.

Texture is what I see first when I start to look at a subject. I just do. Of course color and shape and all play into it, but the light has its way with texture, and I notice how it is presented back to the camera. In nature it can help me decide the angle of my camera to subject and in the studio it helps me decide on what kind of lights/modifiers I will be using.

I can choose to either enhance or mitigate texture by using the angle of the light as it is presented to the subject and back to me. A very rough wood wall with light scraping down across it shows a lot of texture, and I can use that angle of light to reveal that texture to my viewers. If I decide to lessen the contrast I can wait for a cloud to come between the sun and the subject, or go around the subject to see if there is texture wood in the shade. It will still be a texture, but it will have less contrast between the bright part of the texture detail and the shadow side.

The cloud lowers the contrast just as being in the shade does. In simple form, the light source becomes larger than the detail of the texture, but we will discuss this further in the next chapter.

If the light is on either horizon, I can change the look of the texture by changing where I put the light in relation to the subject – in relation to the camera.

Light from the side shows more texture. Light from the camera means less texture. The reason is that there is more contrast between the highlights and the shadows cast on the sidelight than there is with the light coming from the same direction as the camera. The light behind the camera actually doesn’t show shadow to the camera (angle of incidence = angle of reflection) while the sidelight throws shadows and creates contrast.

Texture shows the viewer how rough an area is, or what kind of surface they would find if they were there. It delineates the shape of details and it gives us information beyond what we would see on the surface. Old things have lots of texture from the weather or the sun. Areas that are full of texture have lots of visual energy. The eye knows that the light is playing on something that shows itself with character and charm. Cookies have to have texture, as does old barn wood. We want to see the texture in an old book as we want to see it in a pasta dish or leather jacket.

In the picture below, I am using a hard light to emphasize the texture of the pods. A small light source placed at a side angle to the pods and camera gives me highlight and shadow with very little transition between.

You can see the side light in the stems and the rim of light that is created by the quick fall off from reflection of the light source to the shadow.

Texture gives us context, and it is nearly unconsciously understood. We have seen what light does to texture our whole lives, so when we go to photograph it, we are naturally drawn to those times of day and places where the texture is well rendered.

But there are places where texture may not be as welcome. A subject’s face or skin may not be considered a good thing when rendered with a lot of texture. Unless, of course, they are quite interesting with the texture rendered. Age is something we can show with texture – and along with that inspiration, wisdom and the universal knowledge of what aging does to us all.

The old brick wall that Jamie is running on shows lots of texture due to the sidelight (top light) giving us edges and shadows.

A close inspection shows us the highlights on top of the bricks and then the many indentations exacerbated by highlight and shadow with a fast fall off. This is created by using a small light source – the sun – and a large subject – the wall.

We want our things to be rendered as we expect them to be in real life. Water is wet, rough-hewn wood should look like it is a splinter waiting to happen, glassware should be very smooth, and skin should be smooth and attractive.

Sure there are examples of things being rendered in an un-natural state – and that’s fine. I am talking in a generality here, and one with a lot of history to back it up. While there may be an example of two of rough, scary skin on teenage girls, the vast majority will reject that image instantly.

This shot of cracked earth exhibits many of the properties of a subject / light relationship. Notice how much texture is shown due to the small light source side lighting the cracked earth. The sun is a small light source, and you see no soft, wrapping light, In addition, there is a bright spot in the middle of the image created by the specular – although it is a bit diffused, the dried mud is still reflective enough to show us a reflection of the sun at the same angle from camera. If I moved left or right, I would change where that bright spot was because it was locked into the same angle as my camera from the other side.

I chose to place my exposure one stop less than the recommended exposure to increase the feeling of a vignette.

Small lightsource, at a side (back) angle and a slightly reflective surface gives us more to work with than just a dried mud slab.

Texture is also shown by the angle of incidence rule. If we choose to include the light as a part of the composition, for instance, we may choose to include its direct reflection back into the lens. A highlight on a shiny surface will show us how shiny it is by the relationship of the light and the surface around it. A less smooth surface may make a softer reflection of the light source, and that will also tell us about the surface texture.

In this detail of an alto saxophone, the light is coming from the top back and it leaves small speculars on the areas that are efficient (shiny) and emphasizes the texture of the old keys and metal discoloration.

There are many places where we can use the reflection of the light source to create a cool looking gradation or highlight to create some interest as a point of composition as well.

The main point of this composition is the light on the wooden tools. By making sure the matte textured tools have a soft, directional light without any fill, the texture of the wood shows clearly in the image.

Ways to create texture:


Top light.

Hard light (small source).

Backlight can also be used in many situations.


  1. Shoot a textured item (product / thing) to show the texture and find ways to mitigate or lessen the texture. Hint – front light nearly always kills texture, and sidelight nearly always makes it stronger.
  2. Take a single textured item – like a shoe – and using your flashes or studio lighting, create as many different texture shots as you can using only one light – no fill.
  3. Look for texture in nature and shoot images that emphasize and also lessen the texture just by walking around the subject to see different angles of light to subject to camera.
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).