Light; Science and Magic


Light; Science and Magic, Hunter F, Biver S and Fuqua P, Elsevier, Oxford, 2007.

A few learning points after reading this set text.

The Principles

  1. The effective size of the light source is the single most important decision in lighting a photograph. It determines what types of shadows are produced and may affect the type of reflection
  2. Three types of reflections (see below) are possible from any surface. they determine why any surface looks the way it does
  3. Some of these reflections occur only if light strikes the surface from within a limited family of angles. After we decide what type of reflection is important, the family of angles determines where the light should or should not be;
    • Direct reflection – lighting from within the family of angles
    • Diffuse reflection – lighting from outside the family of angles

Primarily we are concerned with three things for photography;

Brightness          Colour          Contrast

The subject can affect the lighting in three different ways

Transmission (direct & diffuse)          Absorption          Reflection

Types of reflection;

      Diffuse reflection          Direct reflection          Glare

The source determines the type of light and the surface determines the type of reflection.

Light from a very shallow angle to one side (skimming) highlights texture – gives each part a highlight side and a shadow side. Emphasised even more by using a small light source (won’t show texture on black subjects however as you can’t see the shadows! – in this case a large light source within, and filling, the family of angles causes direct reflection and reveals the texture).

Use gobos to remove unwanted direct reflection from particular parts of a scene.

Revealing Shape and Contour

Depth clues – Perspective distortion,

                      Tonal variation

Perspective distortion    the closer we move the camera to the subject the greater the distortion will be – the further the camera is from the subject, the less the distortion.

Tonal variation  highlights and shadows are determined by the size and position of the light used. Hard shadow often increases the illusion of depth more than a soft one.

Front lighting shows the least possible depth because the visible part of the subject is entirely highlighted     -     often called flat lighting.

Adding depth to the background using ‘falloff’.

Photographing Buildings – Tend to photograph early morning or evening with light shining on the face of building to reduce shadows – decreases tonal variation but use wider angle lens to get closer and increase perspective distortion.

Photographing glass -          Bright field

                                             Dark field          lighting


Good lighting is the key to good portraiture.

The key triangle – base of the key triangle should run through the eye and its point should should extend down the cheek approximately to the lip line.

Generally light to the same side as the hair parting.

Broad Lighting – Puts the main light on the same side as the visible ear

Short Lighting – Puts the main light on the side opposite the visible ear

Fill light – usually give the subject about half the illumination as the main light.

Background lights provide a degree of tonal separation between the subject and the background

Hair lights Important to position it so that it does not cause flare

Kickers Adds extra illumination to or ‘kicks up’ the brightness on part of the face. Usually about half the brightness of the main light.

Rim lights Used to illuminate the edges of a subject. Places the light behind the subject but pointing towards it.

Low key lighting large, prominent areas of dark are characteristic of low-key lighting. Pictures made with this kind of lighting tend to be sombre, serious, formal and dignified in mood.

Requires more side and back lighting. Front lighting does not produce enough shadow areas to keep the key low.

High key lighting light and bright – conveys a youthful, open and happy mood. High-key portrait lighting always uses a great deal of front light.

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