Category Archives: 3 – Experimenting with Light

Experimenting with Light

For this exercise I again decided to follow the route of taking self-portraits, this allowed me to try different experiments without a sitter or model becoming bored and starting to complain. I must admit many of the experiments I made were not too successful but all the same they were valuable as a learning exercise.

The first self-portrait below was taken in very bright harsh sunlight, in fact this was taken mid-morning in Southern California on the balcony of a hotel room I was staying in. the light in California is much brighter that we usually see in the UK so this really emphasises the harsh shadows and fairly bleached out skin tone. It is certainly not a very flattering portrait but certainly one that highlights the problems of strong direct sunlight in portraiture. I remember when I was taking this picture I was trying very hard not to squint in the bright sunlight and it was quite painful to force myself to keep my eyes open and this is probably reflected in my expression. I took a series of picture in this light and thought this one was the best. Certainly from doing this I learnt that I would need to be careful if I wanted to pose someone else in this type of bright light.


The second self-portrait I took was taken at the same time of day on the same balcony as the one above but here I stood at the other end of the balcony largely in shade. Even though in this portrait my face is in total shade there are still some soft shadows and the left hand side of my face (in the picture) is visibly brighter than the right side which was close to the window. I quite like this soft lighting and I believe that this is a more successful portrait than the previous one.


My third self-portrait is another photograph I took in California although this was taken inside the hotel room using a small portable “soft box” on a Speed light mounted off the camera and slightly to the right of the frame (my left as I faced the camera). Even with the diffusion of the soft box there are still quite harsh shadows but to me it is a much better portrait that the one taken outside in the direct sunlight.


The fourth portrait below was one of the many lighting experiments I made here of I used a speed light looking up at my face from the lower right. With this lighting I was trying to get a very dramatic effect perhaps reminiscent of an old horror movie. The effect was made a little more pronounced by using a grid on the flash to concentrate the light into a fairly narrow beam so that it just picked out part of my face. The narrow beam meant that a lot of trial and error was required here to get enough of my face lit at the same time as getting reasonable framing. In the end I selected this as the one to include because I felt that having my face partially clipped by the edge of the frame added a little more drama to the lighting.


The final portrait from my session in California below used two speed lights one from quite high up on the right of the frame (my left as I looked at the camera) and one behind me, obscured by my body, pointed towards the camera. I think that this is the best of the self-portraits I took for this exercise although I could have had a happier expression. Perhaps I was getting bored by the time I took this. I really like the rim lighting effect generated by the light behind me and I like the effect of the light high and to the right. If I was taking a portrait of someone else, I would potentially us this lighting style. However, I think that a reflector to the left would soften the shadows and result in a better portrait.


I think I learnt a lot from this exercise about lighting and the different feels it can give to a portrait, portraiture has never been an area of photography that I have enjoyed and hence on in which I have little experience. I was pleased with the lighting in final portrait I think the use of the second flash behind me really makes a huge difference  compared to the third portrait in this section that only used a flash in front of me. I think that these experiments have also given me more confidence to experiment taking portraits of other people.