Lighting 102: Unit 1.1 - Position (Angle)

Summary: Lighting angle reveals form in a three-dimensional object. To see how light from a particular angle will affect your subject, view the subject from the position of the light.

We live in a world of off-axis light. The sun does not stay right behind us. Our lighting fixtures at home illuminate us from above and other various angles. And we are constantly exposed to imagery - both still and moving - that makes use of very sophisticated off-camera lighting techniques.

Yet so many photographers, when they take the time to compose and illuminate their photos, settle for the bland, flat, on-axis (i.e., on-camera) light. Because that is the path of least resistance.

The biggest failing of on-camera flash is that the light, which comes from a point very near to the camera's optical axis, does not have the ability to reveal the three-dimensional quality of the subject.

Granted, most flashes can be tilted to bounce the light off of walls or ceilings while still attached to the camera. But those are very limited choices out of a wide variety of lighting angles available to the off-camera lighting designer.

For the purposes of this discussion we'll think in terms of only hard, bare light from a typical electronic flash. (No worries, we'll be softening it up soon.) But the idea at this point is not to create flattering light for a subject, but to explore the way off-axis light reveals and defines an object.

The first thing that you have to consider when visualizing (or pre-visualizing) the effects of off-axis light is to remember that there are two points of view in play. The first is that of your camera, which defines what you will be able to see in the photograph. But just as important is the second, which is the point of view of your primary light source.

What your light can see will define what is lit in your photo. If your light cannot see it, it will not be directly lit.

The ability to visualize the difference between these two points of view is the key to understanding how changing your light position will alter the way your subject appears.

Look, You Already Know This Stuff.

As we start this process, it is important to begin to merge the way you think about continuous light and the way you think about flash. I really cannot overstate the importance of learning to think of strobe the same way you think of continuous light.

Why? Because you are already a seasoned pro at dealing with continuous light. You experience it and react to it all of the time. You see a shadow and instinctively know where the light came from. You know by the edges of the shadow whether the light was hard or soft.

If you can learn to think about flash as a very bright, continuous light source, you will be able to make use of all of your experience with light that you have been subconsciously building for your entire life. Thinking of a flash as a very bright continuous light source is not so easy for some people. But it will get you past the math-anxiety-type fears you may have about learning how to light.

Heck, even a little mouse munching on lunch in a field knows it had better haul butt when it is suddenly darkened by a shadow. It very well could be an approaching hawk. And the mouse likely knows which way to run when the shadow appears if it has a situational awareness of the lighting environment it is in.

Here is simple exercise that will improve your light visualization skills. Stand in front of a mirror, holding a (lit) table lamp in one hand. Move the light around so that it falls on your face from a series of angles and observe the results.

Yeah, you might feel (and look) a little goofy doing this. Oh, and you might want to have a good response ready for when your significant other pops in and gives you one off those "What the...?" looks, too. But I can vouch for the fact that it works very efficiently to train your eye to light.

Reverse Engineer Photos to Sharpen Your Perception of Light

Let's see what we can tell about the light in this photo just from studying the shadow:

1. Well, right off of the bat we know that the light is coming from camera right, because the shadow goes to camera left. (Don't get cocky. The mouse could have figured that out.)
2. We know the light is hard because the shadow edge is hard. (We're not there yet, but you know that info all the same.)
3. We know the light is slightly higher than the subject because the shadow goes slightly down.
4. We know the light is fairly close to side light (i.e., close to the wall) because of the length of the shadow.

(Note that there is a very dim secondary shadow at camera right. This is coming from the ambient light, which is not totally overpowered.)

It's just a dumb, quick little exercise. But the more you make it a habit to look at photos with an eye toward analyzing the light, the easier it becomes to create any effect you are looking for with your own light.

Here's a little home experiment to try without even making a photo. Position a household lamp so that it illuminates an object. Look at the object from the position of the lamp. See what the lamp sees. Now move away from the lamp and study the changes in your subject as the lamp reveals the object in relief while you move your point of reference further away from the axis of the light source.

Compare the lit portion of the object (as you move away from the lamp) with what you were able to see of the object from the position of the lamp. That's the first step to pre-visualizing light.

Do this kind of exercise enough, and you'll be able to know exactly how a subject will look when lit from any direction before you ever position your light. Better yet, when you pre-visualize a photo you'll know at what angle to position your light to get the effect that you want.

There are actually two variables to consider when deciding where to position a light. The first is at what angle to light your object. The second is at what distance to light your subject. Each variable offers a different form of control for a photographer to exploit.

Let's Try it with Some Live Ammo

For the first little shooting exercise, we'll be dealing only with angular position of the light. This experiment is going to be so simple that many of you will not even want to do it. But I really hope that you do.

Take a person or object (in my case, Combat Camera photog Jason Robertson, from the DINFOS workshop earlier this month) and shoot it/him/her with the light very near the camera axis. You can even stick the flash directly fired on camera for the first shot. You should have a wall behind the subject (with a few feet of separation between the two) as a reference for any shadows.

As for exposure, try this method as a way to start to learn to light without a flash meter. Shoot in a normally lit, indoor room. Set your ASA on 200 and your camera at your normal max synch speed. For most of you, this will be somewhere between 1/125th and 1/500th. Set your aperture on f/5.6.

Start with your flash on manual at, say, 1/16th power, about five feet away from your subject. (If you keep the flash-to-subject distance the same as you change the angle, your exposure will not change.)

Now do a test shot. You subject will likely be a little too light or too dark. Adjust the aperture on your lens until the exposure looks right. If this seems clunky, understand that working this way will soon turn your brain into a built-in flash meter. With a little experience, your first tries will get closer and closer and exposure adjustments will be more and more minor.

Back to the exercise.

After adjusting for a good exposure for your on-camera light, move the flash around the subject and shoot it from a variety of lighting angles. For the example above, I just put up a straight-on and a 45-degree lit shot. But you'll want to play with it more than that. Experiment with some hard angles, in addition to the normal stuff. Look at the different ways in which your light reveals the subject. Again, keeping the distance constant will help keep your exposure constant, too.

Try a shot with the light at about 45 degrees to one side. Have your subject look directly into the camera. (Or have your inanimate object continue to be inanimate.) Now, keeping the subject looking in the same direction, walk over to your light and shoot the subject from the perspective of the light.

Compare the two photos, noting what you see from the position of the light with what portion of the subject was lit in the straight-on photo when the light was hitting it at a 45-degree angle. This may seem like rote, boring stuff. But the goal is to learn to light in a more intuitive manner. And observing your subject from the position of your light source is a great first step in that direction.

There is no need to stick these in the Strobist Flickr pool, but you are welcome to do so if you want. The important thing is to start actually doing this stuff and to learn to use the tagging process. Then we can easily tag, group and view the more challenging assignments later.

When uploading this exercise to Flickr, your photos should have the following tags:

• strobist
• lighting102 (note that there are no embedded spaces)
• position
• angle

If you do that, everyone will be able to easily find them with by clicking here. We'll be talking about this exercise next Monday (June 25th) and moving on to discussion of Unit 1.2 - Position (Distance).

Questions, answers, etc: Please use the discussion-specific Flickr thread for further discussion.

Related Archive Pages:

L101 See the Flash
L101 Be the Flash
Hard Light
L101 Reverse Engineering Light

Bloggers/Vloggers: If you are blogging your exercises/assignments online, or posting videos about the process, you can include your efforts in the Technorati Trackbacks by linking to the permalink of this post.

NEXT: Lighting 102, 1.2 - Position | Distance


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Anonymous Jeff Geerling said...

Heck, even a little mouse munching on lunch in a field knows it had better haul butt when it is suddenly darkened by a shadow.

That was one of the funniest lines I've read this week!

June 18, 2007 1:03 AM  
Blogger SeanMcC said...

Off we go.

Believe it or not I'd already planned to do exactly this, to build up a series of images showing how moving the flash off camera changes to look.

Love the concept of looking from the light too David!

June 18, 2007 5:53 AM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

I love the use of the photo of the earth and thinking about how three dimensional it looks when it is partly in shadow and partly in light. That really nails the concept of flat lighting and three dimensional lighting you are trying to get across.
Thanks Dave

June 18, 2007 8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the fact that you are starting from the very basics!

June 18, 2007 9:05 AM  
Anonymous brentj said...

Is there anything special about ASA 200? Other than the fact the some cameras start there instead of with ASA 100? I shoot almost everything with ASA 100 out of habit.

June 18, 2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger David said...

Nope. Just picked a moderate ASA that would ensure you were reasonably close on your exposure settings.

(Might be a little hot at ASA 6400, for example...)

June 18, 2007 12:27 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks. I shot that one on vacation.

June 18, 2007 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure I understand the sync speeds. My camera's max sync is 1/180. Does this mean that I can not shoot anything slower than 1/180? or visa-versa I can not shoot at faster shutter speeds? If you could answer or point me in the right direction that would be appreciated. Thanks.

June 19, 2007 1:22 AM  
Anonymous claude said...

You can even stick the flash directly fired on camera

That must be the first time in your life that you said these words!! SCARY!!

June 19, 2007 5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May be a bit early in lighting 102, but surely the light modifier is an expensive plastic milk bottle:)

A good start David, thanks - loved the idea of holding a light to my own face!!


June 19, 2007 7:25 AM  
Blogger Max said...

To anon, asking about sync speed:
If your sync speed is 1/180, you can sync at that shutter speed and slower.

Going above 1/180 will result in less than full frame flash coverage, which may or may not be an issue: check out the recent strobist posts on sync speeds (hit the June 2007 archive link and scroll to nearly the bottom).

June 19, 2007 9:16 AM  
Blogger Herman said...

> May be a bit early in lighting 102, > but surely the light modifier is an > expensive plastic milk bottle:)

Looks like it, I think I still have an half-empty milk bottle in the fridge, I should try this out tonight. Will post pics.

June 19, 2007 11:58 AM  
Blogger -Matt said...

Just a note to those putting stuff up on Flickr - it would be great if you could only tag things as "position" and "angle" if you followed David's directions and only modified those variables. That way we don't get a whole lot of stuff in the tagged group that has umbrellas etc. I noticed at least 4 or 5 pics where the details say "umbrella" which sort of defeats the purpose doesn't it?

Anyways - not trying to be a flickr nazi, I just want to be able to follow along & understand what we are doing with each assignment. :)


June 19, 2007 12:37 PM  
Anonymous Gerhard Uys said...

Just like to say strobist has another reader hailing from South Africa. I'll be using some of your techniques on a shoot tomorrow. You'd better start selling Strobist T-shirts. Cause i'll be buying.

June 19, 2007 1:56 PM  
Anonymous brentj said...


I agree. If people want to use umbrellas, then fine, just don't tag it as the assignment. If you soften your light, you start to lose sense of direction that this assignment is trying to teach. Start with the basics people. Milk before meat.

June 19, 2007 2:33 PM  
Blogger Mariano said...

Matt>>Anyways - not trying to be a flickr nazi, I just want to be able to follow along & understand what we are doing with each assignment. :)

I removed my umbrella shot, but I think this wasn't really necessary as I clearly stated the use of an umbrella. So there shouldn't be any confusion.

David, the linked blog entries don't seem to work when clicking them ... Blogger 404 Error.

June 19, 2007 2:54 PM  
Blogger -Matt said...

Hi Mariano,

I don't even know that it was one of your shots I was looking at. I was just glancing at the thumbs and someone did two almost-similar portraits and one just looked GREAT compared to the other. So I had to see why - and it was the umbrella. Once I clicked on the images there was no confusion. Sorry again if I came off strongly I just want to learn this stuff even better! :)


June 19, 2007 6:48 PM  
Blogger Herman said...

some pictures taken with and without the plastic milkbottle on top of the flash. (with obligatory setup shots).
As promised :)

June 19, 2007 7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superb introduction. Posted to at:

June 20, 2007 6:21 AM  
Anonymous Quegozalla said...

Hi there, Just got a question, is my first time uploading to flicker on strobist lighting102 and i can see my picture in the pool but not in the ligting102 folder, how can i do it?
Thnaks in advance

June 20, 2007 6:47 PM  
Blogger Billy Higginbotham said...

When the next lesson gets published will there be a link at the end of this lesson or do I have to look elsewhere?

June 22, 2007 6:56 PM  
Anonymous Jean said...

You know all those times in your posts where you would say "adding a little light behind your subject really adds flare!" and I would read your post and go "yeah.. I know" and sorta forget about it when I was taking photos? Um.. yeah.. about that. Just wanna say sorry, wow were you right. And how :)

June 27, 2007 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Pamela said...

David....I have been reading articles on your site for a few weeks now and have been blown away. I just discovered Lighting 102 tonight and am up for the challenge. Controlling lighting has always been my challenge. You are funny and knowledgeable. What a great combo! Thanks for putting this information out there..Pam Vasquez

June 27, 2007 10:22 PM  
Anonymous Joe Lencioni said...

DH, I just came across this great little web app called light cage that shows you the effect of different light angles. I thought it was pretty sweet, and that maybe strobist readers would find it helpful.

February 29, 2008 5:11 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I did the exercise and posted my results and thoughts here. Thanks for putting up such a great site; I've learned a lot in the past few days I've been reading it.

March 01, 2008 11:23 PM  
Blogger Emmett Photography said...

I've lurked for a while thinking that this would be beyond me, but I finally decided to make the plunge and have a go at it.

I can honestly say that this is one of the best sites I have discovered online and the information found here is just tremendous.

I've started to keep a record of my journey into the world of the "strobist" mainly to encourage other people like myself to stop lurking and know that taken a step at a time this course will open up my world of photography which will only be limited by my imagination.

Keep up the great work David. Thanks.

March 10, 2008 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Bandoras said...

Found this site,
Lighting cage
Thought it would help people who have trouble visualizing the effect the angle of light affects the way the camera sees it

August 03, 2008 9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From your tutorial:

"Shoot in a normally lit, indoor room. Set your ASA on 200 and your camera at your normal max synch speed. For most of you, this will be somewhere between 1/125th and 1/500th. Set your aperture on f/5.6.

Start with your flash on manual at, say, 1/16th"

I am a newbie and my question is are we working in manual flash only, or TTL, or AA, and should the camera be on manual - I am using an Sb-800 - the manual is a challenge to fathom. Thanks.

August 17, 2008 8:10 PM  
Anonymous SN said...

Here's my submission of this exercise:

August 26, 2008 9:01 AM  
Blogger comatose said...

Alrighty, I'm in! I've been reading these brilliantly informative posts for a while now. I was just gonna take out my camera and play this evening and then figured why not learn something new and apply it. So here goes, thanks for inspiring me. I'll be posting my angle shots shortly.


December 08, 2008 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

• strobist
• lighting102 (note that there are no embedded spaces)
• position
• angle
I actually did this using a love seat;it was very enlightening because when I angle my SB900 backwards away from the seat I actually came up with the most light it nearly was out the whole image. When I angled to the side it looked less threating...I learned a lot .lethunder

March 09, 2009 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did the first lesson. I think these are going to be great. I tried to post on flickr. They show up under my things, but not in the groups. I used the tags. I have no idea what I'm doing wrong.

June 09, 2009 10:31 PM  
Blogger digitaldruid said...

David, I'm very much a Johnny-come-lately but I'm blown away by your insight as well as willingness and ability to teach. Even I can understand what you're saying! The imposing and daunting prospect of lighting is turning into an exciting challenge.

I've made my first posts in the group for this exercise to keep the ball rolling, and hopefully to encourage other newcomers to have a go and stick with the exercises.

Kind regards from Blighty! :-)

September 11, 2009 3:18 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I have bought a maniquin head and wig from a store that handled used display items. Mounted on a tripod, it porvides a constant subject that doesn't move or get bored with the experimentation. I did this back in the 101 lessions.

December 03, 2009 11:52 AM  
Blogger Imran Ali Dina said...

Hi, I'm very much new to this blog. Thanks a lot Mr. David for sharing and teaching us. I respect you a lot.
Well just wanted to share one thing with everyone here. I found a software to test light angle and some features of lights on predefined models. Its a free software plz do check and Sir David if possible plz post a blog entry about this wonderful application. Here is the link:

October 01, 2010 1:48 AM  
Blogger Sherri Graves Photography & Design said...

I have just seen the light! It isn't coming from the top of my camera anymore either! Thank you, now I know what the cavemen felt like when they discovered fire! Thank you so much!

November 26, 2011 10:37 AM  
Blogger Sherri Graves Photography & Design said...

I see the light and it isn't coming from my inboard flash!!! Thank you so much for showing me how to be the master of my domain-I am so excited! Now I know how the cavemen felt when they discovered fire!

November 26, 2011 10:40 AM  
Blogger dan said...

You say "You subject will likely be a little too light or too dark. Adjust the aperture on your lens until the exposure looks right. "
This maybe comes later, but...
How far do you adjust your aperture before changing the power on the flash? Obviously at some point the two are connected and aperture affects depth of field as well.

April 19, 2014 4:06 AM  

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