Exercise – Evidence of action

Showing a narrative through a sequence of images can tell the story that the photographer has in mind, leading the audience through the narrative from start to finish, showing plenty of detail and leaving no room for misunderstanding.

However, a sequence is not always possible or desirable. We may want the viewer to do some of the work.

Fig.01 - Evidence of action.  Canon 5d2. ISO125, 50mm, -2/3ev, f/2.5, 1/50

Fig.01 – Evidence of action.
Canon 5d2. ISO125, 50mm, -2/3ev, f/2.5, 1/50

As an example, fig.01 shows evidence of action and that something has happened. The deer is dead and we assume from the information provided that it has been hit by a vehicle (as it’s on the road) and probably the red van in the picture. Some of this information is true and we can see evidence of it (the deer is definitely dead). But other information has been assumed because of the visual clues we are presented with (it wasn’t hit by my red van). We need to be aware of this difference and concious of what we read into an image.

However, as photographers, we can use this effect in our favour. Photographic art often asks the viewer to create their own narrative in an image and this can range from the obvious to the bafflingly conceptual. Occasionally, a photograph can do both at the same time and appeal to different viewers who read entirely different stories into the same image.

In advertising, photography is rarely used simply to show only a pleasing view of the product. Often, a story needs to be told in one image and the reasons why the consumer would want to buy the product need to be communicated. Symbolism will be used as a visual short-hand and in this exercise we are asked to think of some examples.

We are offered the symbolism used by insurance companies. Their product cannot be photographed literally and so instead we see shields, umbrellas, fortifications and cupped hands, all implying protection and security.

There is often a lack of subtlety in such symbolism with growth shown by acorns and oak trees for example; powerful people who we are encouraged to aspire to be being are photographed from below, with warm lighting; people who don’t use ‘the product’ are usually overweight, might have bad skin and generally dress in grey/brown and the sun shines on those that do; and freshness is implied by bright white and billowing net curtains, even if there is a pig farm just out of shot.


Assignment 4 – Applying lighting techniques

This assignment comes at the end of a series of exercises that investigate the use of different lighting techniques. I’ve explored the colour and temperature of light in different weather conditions and through various times of the day; looking at both available light, natural and man-made, as well as photographic lighting.

To demonstrate some of the theory learned, this assignment requires 8 photographs that use different lighting techniques to bring out particular physical properties of the same object.

(Click on the pictures below for the full-sized version)


The shape of an object is an easier quality to understand. It is to do with the outline or edges of an object. The simplest way to use lighting to show the shape of a subject is to increase the contrast between it and it’s background or surroundings.

As we saw in the exercise on lighting angle, when the light was directly behind the subject, giving the greatest contrast, the outline was clearest. In fig.01, rather than using a bright background, I’ve kept the image low hey by using the last of the sun’s light to provide that back-lighting, showing the shape of the upper branches. The lower half of the trunk was below the height of the horizon and would have been lost against it (no contrast), so instead, I lit the bottom half of the tree with my flashgun and softbox.

Fig.01 Shape - using artificial light

Fig.01 Shape – using artificial light

In fig.02, I used diffused afternoon sunlight to provide back lighting of the subject, to show a the shape of the tree’s leaves. The clouds act as a diffuser to the sun’s light meaning that the contrast is not so great between the leaves and sky as it would be in full sunlight (see fig.08), which in turn allows detail to be kept in the subject rather than creating a silhouette.

Fig.02 Shape - using natural light

Fig.02 Shape – using natural light


Form is another way of describing the volume of an object or how three-dimensional it looks. In fig.03, the diffused evening sun light lit the right side of the tree meaning that because the trunk is a hollow arc, the centre and right side would have been in shadow, and the form would not have been obvious.

The softbox to the left was positioned at a distance that gave just enough light on the left of the trunk to cause diffused reflection back to the camera from a small area of the trunk and leaves. Being lit from both sides, the centre is still dark, informing us that it is missing and the trunk isn’t a more usual cylindrical shape.

Fig.03 Form - artificial light

Fig.03 Form – artificial light

Later in the evening, with less ambient light, I moved the softbox to a position 60° from the camera (fig.04). Exposing for the sky to retain detail, I used the flash to light the trunk and part of inside of the tree through one of the holes near the base. The parts of the trunk closest to the light are recorded brightest while those further away are darker. Those out of direct sight of the flash are completely dark. This gradient of brightness shows us the form of an object.

The area inside the trunk that is lit again provides the viewer with information that this area of the trunk sits behind the more brightly lit area to the right, indicating its three-dimensional nature.

Fig.04 Form - artificial light

Fig.04 Form – artificial light


Texture is the quality of the surface detail. In fig.05, by positioning the light at 90° to the weathering of the bark, dark shadows were created in the weathered surface of the trunk.

Fig.05 Texture - artificial light

Fig.05 Texture – artificial light

The sun acts as a small, high contrast light source. Shooting the tree’s surface with the sun, camera and subject at similar angles to those in fig.05 (but rotated through 90°), a similar effect is created.

Fig. 06 Texture - natural light

Fig. 06 Texture – natural light

These pictures show that the bark is heavily textured, but because of the lighting, there is no detail in the dark areas of shadow caused by the high-contrast light sources. To show texture and increased detail, the surface could have been photographed with a lower-contrast light source (on a cloudy day or with a large softbox) to light all areas and angles of the surface more evenly. Or, the shadows could have been softened as we learned in an earlier exercise.


In fig.07, the colour of the leaves has been emphasised by moving the flash close to them. Again, to add interest to the shot the exposure levels were set for the clouds in the background that were lit by the sun that had set moments earlier.

Fig.07 Colour - artificial light

Fig.07 Colour – artificial light

In fig.08, rather than shoot with the light at a similar angle to the camera which is the more conventional method of reproducing colour (as seen in the lighting angle exercise), I photographed the leaves with the sun behind. The translucence of the leaves meaning that they have transmitted light through them showing off their colour.

Fig.08 Colour - natural light

Fig.08 Colour – natural light

Subject Choice

For this assignment, I didn’t want to be confined to a spare bedroom with a flashgun taking pictures of an ornament. I wanted to use a subject that I might be interested in shooting other than for this course. I also wanted to use both natural and photographic lighting as we’d studied both during the exercises.

I live a mile from a country park that began as a medieval deer park and is home to several ancient, pollarded oaks that are ‘many centuries old’. One in particular (I used a picture of the tree in my second assignment) has a prominent position overlooking the city at the junction of several paths and has always fascinated me. The trunk has split and twisted over the years and is now only a fragile arc of pockmarked, weathered wood. When spring arrives each year, I’m surprised (and relieved) to see that it is still healthy enough to grow leaves. It seemed an ideal subject and although it may be around for any more centuries, I wanted to photograph it as it was now. Just in case. I suggested the subject to my tutor who liked the idea, suggesting I look at the work three other photographers who have studied trees.

Because the tree is a couple of miles into the park (all up hill), each trip to photograph it, especially carrying tripod, lenses and lighting gear, became an expedition. I began setting the alarm for 4am to get up and check the sky, hoping for the magical light that dawn can provide. More often than not, I went back to bed disappointed. I also visited a couple of times late in the day and while it is a beautiful place to be, it can frustrating to give a couple of hours of my day up waiting for light that doesn’t actually materialise. I made almost 150 pictures across 6 separate visits.

Another difficulty caused by my subject choice was the the practicalities of a using small (90cm) reflector, smaller softbox (60cm) and a standard flash gun to light such a large subject. As a result, I used the flash only to light small areas of the tree or to provide a small amount of fill-in.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I’m happy that the images fulfil the brief and that I have used a variety of lighting to bring out the qualities of shape, form, texture and colour. I’ve used direct flash as the main light source, as a fill-in to supplement natural light, and daylight that is both direct sunlight and diffused by cloud. I have resisted my usual temptation to apply post-processing. Additional contrast could have been added to show texture for example, but I’ve allowed the lighting alone to provide this information to the viewer.

Quality of outcome

I’m pleased with the set overall and a couple of pictures particularly. However, while the subject is the same tree in each picture, I would have preferred the set to look more cohesive. Because of the requirement for a range of lighting techniques and my self-imposed desire to use both natural and artificial lighting, the set doesn’t sit together as well as I’d have liked. I didn’t give this as much thought as I should have in advance of taking the pictures, concentrating instead (again) on ‘ticking the boxes’.

I did want a degree of contrast in the set to show the relative permanence of the tree and the delicacy and evanescence of the leaves. This theme would have been better explored in spring or autumn and without the other limitations imposed by the brief.

On street photography blogger Eric Kim’s Facebook page, he lists (he likes lists) 103 lessons that he has learned. It feels like his 57th lesson has applied to me during this assignment. I found the editing of the images difficult for this assignment, repeatedly replacing those selected, particularly for the texture images.

Lesson 57. Spend 99% of your time editing your photos (choosing your best images) and only 1% of your time post processing them.

Demonstration of creativity

The choice of subject in the first place showed some creativity in my approach and rather than simply shooting into the sunset to show shape for example, I’ve tried other lighting techniques. I’ve also selected parts of the tree that showed the various properties that I was looking to emphasis, rather than middle-distance views of the whole tree at different times of the day. I experimented with shooting only the shadow of the tree and using its shape out of focus at the edge of the frame to show shape, but wasn’t satisfied enough with them to make the final cut.


I read about several photographers whose work had studied trees and found many, varied interpretations. My favourites included:

  • Simon Norfolk’s study of the oak trees at Blenheim. This was the closest of these works to my original intent. The large lighting set-up that he had obviously used (and smoke machine!) was way beyond anything that I could create with my limited equipment. His set has that cohesion that I was looking for, and he has managed to bring out the shape, form, texture and colour of the trees in each shot, despite shooting from a similar distance each time and in similar ambient lighting conditions.
  • Martin Stravars has a similar rigour to his ‘portraits of trees’, resulting in a set that of photographs that look very similar to each other. His use of long-exposure, infra-red and heavy processing makes for striking images and does an excellent job of showing texture and the shape of the trunks and branches.
  • A set that really stuck with me was Korean photographer Myoung Ho Lee’s technique of isolating the tree from its surroundings by hanging large backdrops behind them, again really emphasising shape. It is a fascinating method of isolating a subject while at the same time, showing its original surroundings; somehow separating the two but in the same frame.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Further reflection

Comparing these pictures to others that I’ve taken of the tree in the past, it’s satisfying to see that my creativity and technical abilities have improved as a result of this course directly and the wider experience I’ve gained by looking at other work and considering other methods. The course has brought me a long way so far, but as I’ve written a couple of times, the next section on narrative is one that I’m very much looking forward to.

This appears to be the last assignment focussed technical skills with which I’m fairly comfortable, and has us concentrate more on content in future. That said, the use of flash in a ‘studio’ setting was something new to me and learned much from the exercises covering these techniques.

I still enjoy writing this blog and especially looking back through old posts to see my progress and changing attitudes.

I’m now reading more varied sources on photography, visiting every exhibition I have the opportunity to and creating a valuable collection of photobooks. The course has led me to several photographers whose work is inspirational and aspirational and who I tell people about at every opportunity.

Finally, I still need to make more use of the OCA network. I have almost no interaction with fellow students or with tutors as I’ve struggled to find time between the exercises and other research. Whenever I have, and particularly at study visits, it has been valuable.


Gibson, D (2014) The street photographer’s manual. London; Thames and Hudson

Hunter, F et al. (2012) Light – Science and magic. An introduction to photographic lighting. Oxford; Elsevier Inc.

Bradgate Park website [online] Available from: http://bradgatepark.org/ [Accessed: 28 July 2014]

Kim, E (2014) Facebook [online] Available from : https://www.facebook.com/erickimphotography/posts/10151695315447717 [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Institute (unknown) Feature: Blenheim Oaks // Simon Norfolk [online] Available from: http://www.instituteartist.com/feature-Blenheim-Oaks-Simon-Norfolk [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Lens Culture (unknown) Tree. Photographs by Myoung Ho Lee [online] Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/myoung-ho-lee-tree [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Stavars, M (unknown) Portraits of trees [online] Available from: http://www.martinstavars.com/gallery/portraits_of_trees [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Exercise – concentrating light

Keeping the set-up from the previous exercise on lighting angle, the next photographs taken were using a concentrated light rather than diffused. Fig.01 shows the result when a large, diffused light source is used close to the subject. Soft-edged shadows are present, providing visual clues to the texture, form and shape of the figure. The light is next to the camera and looking down at approximately 45 degrees, meaning that the whole figure is evenly lit with good detail and colour information.

Fig. 05 - Light in front and 45 degree above

Fig. 01 – Light in front and 45 degree above

If the intent  is to draw attention to only a limited part of the scene, then one option is to concentrate the light produced by the light source – a speedlight in this example. So instead of a diffuser that is much bigger than the light source, an inverted cone is used that effectively funnels the light. These snoots can be bought to fit over the flash gun, or made from card and attached to the light. Fig.02 shows the effect of this lighting with the light in a similar position as the picture above. Only a small area is lit and because of the absence of any diffusion, shadows are very hard (under the cravat for example). There is a small amount of light that has bled onto the white box that the figure is sitting on and we can just about make out his hands. The edges of the pool of light are slightly soft.


Fig. 02 – Concentrated

Further concentration is possible by using a honeycombed grid in the front of the snoot (fig.03). This is an array of hexagonal channels fitted to the front of the snoot down which the light shines. Where normally light beams would be able to spread into a wide pattern, here they can only travel in a reduced spread, straight down the channels. Even though the material used is matt black, some light does bounce off the walls of the tubes causing softening of the edges of the spot of light. These grids are often used in low-key portrait photography for just this effect.

Concentrated Grid

Fig. 03 – Concentrated with grid

Exercise – Contrast and shadow fill

Having learnt to soften light using diffusers in the previous exercise, this explores how we can change the contrast in a scene that is lit by photographic lighting by filling the shadows and reducing the difference between light and shade.

The camera was mounted on a tripod with a 100mm lens looking at a pile of junk on my shed floor carefully constructed still-life arrangement with the flash 90cm to the right of the shot and slightly higher than the subject, set at full power. Camera settings remained the same throughout the shoot.

Naked flash only - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Naked flash only – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

First off, I photographed the scene with the flash gun only. As seen previously, this high-contrast light gives sharp-edged shadows and high contrast – that is a big difference between the lightest highlights and darkest shadows. It means that any part of the scene that is in the shadow of the saddle and cogs to the right of the image are invisible in shadow.

Diffuser - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Diffuser – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Next up, I fitted the same 60cm square diffuser used in the previous exercise. It softens the edges of the shadows and because the size of the light source is bigger, it is able to light areas that were in shadow when only using the flash. The contrast is reduced, but at the same time, because the same exposure settings were used, the image is slightly darker overall.

Reflector 90cm - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Reflector 90cm – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

For the third image, a circular reflector was positioned to the left of the scene, opposite the flash at about 90cm from the saddle, roughly the same distance as the flash is to the right. The reflector was white material with a matt finish but reflects enough light to begin to give some detail in the shadows. For example, we can now see some shape in the front part of the saddle and the curve of the leather.

Reflector 50cm - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Reflector 50cm – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Next, the same reflector was then moved closer, to around 50cm from the saddle. The intensity of a diffuse reflection, such as the one bounced from the reflector, follows the inverse square law meaning that a source at any particular distance will light an object with and intensity four times as bright at the same source, twice as far away. Or more simply, move the reflector closer, it’ll have a greater effect. This is demonstrated in the image above that is now much more balanced with good detail in the areas of the image that are not lit by the main light.

Silver reflector - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Silver reflector – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

The white reflector was then swapped for a silver reflector with a shiny surface, meaning that even more light is being reflected back towards the scene from the main light. There is still a gradient (the flash is still brighter than the reflected light) but the balance is much better. We can now see colour and form in the saddle and highlights on the rails showing is that they are a tubular shape. We can now identify each individual part in the scene.

Gold reflector - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Gold reflector – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Swapping the reflector for a gold coloured shiny surface means that all of the reflected light is now coloured. This demonstrates what we have learned above in that all area lit only by the reflector are gold. Surfaces lit by both are less coloured and to greater or lesser extent.


Fill flash full power - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Fill flash full power – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Rather than using reflectors, the same effect can be achieved by using a second light source. Here, I positioned a second flash gun opposite the first, at the same distance from the scene and used a hand held diffuser in front of it. Guide numbers of flash guns is probably a topic for another time, but suffice to say, the Canon light on the right, used as the main light (guide number 43) is slightly brighter than the Jessops unit on the left (GN36). The resulting image is well balanced and pleasantly lit. There are still some areas of shadow, but they are very soft edged. It is the lowest contrast image of the set.

Fill flash half power - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Fill flash half power – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

This time, the second flash was not diffused, but reduced to half-power. The highlights (on the inner curve of the leather) are bright and some detail is lost.

Fill Flash 1/16th - Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Fill Flash 1/16th – Canon 5d2, iso 200, 100mm, 0ev, f/16, 1/100s

Finally, the same arrangement but with the flash at 1/16th power. The small, high contrast light source does little to to reduce the contrast of the scene or soften shadows. It only contributes some highlights and edge lighting (to the spanner for example), improving from the earlier single diffused light picture.

This was an extremely useful and satisfying exercise. A high contrast image can be powerful and useful to show outline and shape, but often at the expense of detail that will show us form and colour. Understanding how to reduce contrast is valuable.

The set-up

2014-07-12 13.24.52


Hunter, F et al. (2012) Light – Science and magic. An introduction to photographic lighting. Oxford; Elsevier Inc.