January 15, 2017  •  Leave a Comment


Last assignment, it was dark in the beginning. Then a light was switched on. Photographers sat up and took notice, raced out their cave doors to buy film, along with iguana eggs and yak milk, then scattered across the globe to record everything everywhere.

Right off the bat, one of them said, "It's all about the light" and the race was on. The faithful said "Ooooooh" and almost immediately started hairsplitting arguments about the nature and behavior of light - natural versus artificial light, incident versus reflected light, hard versus soft light and so on and so on. We've seen all the YouTube videos and read all the books, some of which were great, others meh, and a few with way too many footnotes. Our time on earth is short enough, so let's boil light down to some basic characteristics that matter to us today when we're pointing a lens at something. In fact, let's cover only one this time.

But before we get started with this assignment, let's do a couple "look versus see" experiments. Step right outside your door; we don't have to go far. Regardless of whether it's sunny or cloudy, take note of where the sun is (it will be the brightest part of the sky). We'll call this "incident light." Then look around and note everything you see - sky, hills, houses, trees, roads, snow, walls, grass, sagebrush, more snow, your dog pulling your niece across the beach, and so on, and snow. All these things are visible because of only one attribute of light - reflection. Wavelength is absorbed or rejected by the atomic structure of these objects and determines the color of "reflected light."

After your neighborhood object scan, do it one more time, paying attention to the angle of reflected light.

Light has a number of interesting characteristics - it travels at a fixed rate in a single direction and rapidly falls off in intensity. It bounces off surfaces at exactly the same angle of the strike. It refracts into colors through a prism and is absorbed and/or reflected depending on the elemental makeup of the reflective surface. A large light source casts a softer shadow than a small light source. Stuff like that.

So why start with angle? Understanding incident and reflected light angle helps us locate the sweet spot where light behaves most elegantly.

When we're asked to shoot a portrait of someone, for example, what do we consider first? Location, right? We find a beautiful or striking setting and plop our subject into it. We adjust some camera settings and fire away, maybe with natural light, or by adding some additional help. And results vary, don't they?

But what if we don't care about location? Instead, what if we place more value on what the light is actually doing, and find the one spot where it behaves elegantly, then set up the shot there instead? These spots are easily overlooked, but become apparent as we begin to understand how light behaves.

Let's say we've taken Matilda to the park for her senior photos. We find a lush grassy area with some tall dark trees in the background. Maybe even a natural shade line to have her step into. Matilda sits, poses, elbows in the grass - beautiful shot! We might open up our aperture wide and get some pretty bokeh to set her off. We're happy. We even used a reflector, just like the other 88 photographers in the same park that day. So we must be doing it right.

But since we've shot for location instead of light we failed to notice a drastic (and common) problem. Because of light's perfectly predictable angle of reflection, the incident light struck the grass, absorbed some of the green cast, and bounced it right back up into Matilda's neck and chin. Oops. Green skin. 

Matilda does not like her green skin.

So we take Matilda back to the park for a reshoot. But this time we don't care so much about location. Instead, we're looking for reflected light that complements her skin tones. We spy a light colored building nearby. It's in the park but lacks the lush grass we found earlier. We don't care. Filtered sunlight is bouncing off the wall at a 30 degree angle. We set Matilda up next to the wall in just the right spot (paying attention to the reflected angle) to catch the wall light, which is acting like an expensive and huge softbox. She turns slightly into the camera where the shadows are buttery soft and the incident sunlight makes the perfect backlight through her hair. Oh. What a difference.

This way of seeing doesn't just work for Matilda and her friends; it works for anything we shoot. By taking the time to do a 360 examination of the light, where it's coming from and its reflection angles, as well as the resulting colors, can make a huge difference in what we consider to be photo-worthy. Location is nice, but should take a backseat to angles of light reflection.

In a nutshell, the assignment is this - study the source of light, see everything it reflects from or passes through, ask how it mutates with each direction change, then use your knowledge of angle to create photographs based on light behavior rather than location. Sounds easy, right? If you're lucky, yes. But chances are it will take some retraining in how to see a scene. Remember, it's all about the light, not about the stuff that gets in its way.


  • Use a flashlight for a simple way to study the angle of reflection.
  • Bounce a light off a white piece of paper, a tan paper, a green paper, and a black paper. What happens to the reflected light with each?
  • Shoot a subject against a light wall, placing him closer and further from the wall. What happens to your exposure with each move? Is it predictable? (extra credit - look up the inverse square law)
  • Find the sweet spot of reflected light (usually the brightest, most reflective range).
  • Trace the path of light from the original light source to your eye. It may take several direction changes before it reaches you. How does the first reflected surface affect a secondary surface? A third?
  • Use a strobe or flash with your knowledge of angle - where would you predict the best placement of your flash should be? If you find it difficult to imagine, use a ball of string to line out the angles (like they do with bullet paths on CSI).
  • Measure the reflective luminance off a smooth surface. Do the same from a highly textured surface. What's the difference?

ATTENTION ANGLERS! will run from Jan 14 through Jan 29.

Happy shooting!



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