”……..knowing what kind of light serves your communication purposes best will allow you the extra creative opportunity to guide the viewer to the elements you want to emphasize in your image.

Always remember, there is no bad light.  The only bad light is the absence of it (and even that can be good if used creatively).”   

Jacob James in Beyond Basics: Getting To Grips With Natural Light II  – EyeVoyage website

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For this Assignment I am asked to use the knowledge I have gained on lighting techniques to explore the physical properties of an object and to illustrate four qualities through two photographs of each.  Those four qualities are : –  shape; form; texture; and colour.

I approached this Assignment with some trepidation as photographing objects in what is, in effect, a studio environment is not my usual method of working, and I have neither a space that could be called a studio nor any studio equipment.  Setting it all up therefore required considerable time and ingenuity, so while it was set up, I photographed a few subjects to see which worked best.  I have included a selection of the resulting shots of two subjects below to demonstrate different aspects of the Assignment.

The main subject that I finally chose to illustrate this Assignment is a large modern variation of a kifwebe mask of the Songye people of the Congo basin in Africa.  These mystical objects carved from wood and coloured with earth pigments merge a number of distinct animal characteristics (in this case the colouring of an okapi, the eyes of a chameleon, the mouth of an aardvark and the crest of a cockerel) within the context of a basically human face as a means to represent unusual / exceptional virtue or high status.   I chose this piece because of its striking shape and construction, and for the challenge of capturing its moods in my images.

I have also included a smaller selection of shots of another African tribal piece to demonstrate a few other lighting effects. This is a Kota Mahongwe reliquary figure made of carved wood covered in thin strips of brass and copper sheet which would have originally been placed on a basket containing the remains of a tribal elder or chief to act as a guardian.  Both objects have symbolic and deep significance in the spiritual and social life of their respective cultures and I was keen to try to use my lighting to communicate some of this deeper significance.  African masks and Kota figures like these are believed to have been what inspired Pablo Picasso during his ‘African Period’ and led to the subsequent Cubist style of painting.

I used my Canon 7D with a Canon 28 – 70mm lens mounted on a tripod for stability because I was intending to shoot under relatively low light conditions at slower shutter speeds.  After some experimentation, for lighting for the indoor shots in the living room I used both ambient natural light, on occasions with the curtains drawn to reduce the light levels, and a light fitment comprising 4 small halogen spotlights mounted on a tripod.  I also experimented with lighting with a candle for some shots of the Kota reliquary figure.  For the outdoor shots I used a mix of ambient natural evening light and camera mounted flash.

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f13 1/5th sec ISO 160 White Balance on Cloudy + – 0 stops

This is a general view of the mask to show what it looks like. In order to capture the generality of the subject I photographed it from the front using frontal horizontal lighting to prevent shadows in order to make the image appear as flat as possible.  I left the aperture as indicated by the camera’s sensor to again minimise shadow and contrast.  So that the shape was clear, I put the mask against a very dark indigo dyed hand made textile form Mali so that it stood out. 


The first quality to depict is shape.  Effectively a two-dimensional representation of the object, the shape   is related to its outline and limits rather than to any detail although some features may be prominent enough to contribute to the shape.  In the case of the mask, the shape from the front is a circle with a small ridge on the top.  From the side, the shape is more complex being convex with protrusions on one surface and flat across the back.

I had some difficulty working out an effective way of depicting the shape of the mask without showing too much detail.  I tried a number of techniques both indoors and outside and with natural light and artificial light.  I was trying to capture the primitive, dramatic element of the shape without the distraction of detail.    Amongst the lighting methods that I used are the following : –

i).    backlighting with artificial light to create a silhouette; ii).   backlighting with natural light by shooting against the sky again to create a silhouette; iii).  shooting the mask lit by artificial light against a white background and using camera settings to                       under-expose the mask; iv).   as for iii). above but attempting to keep the mask in shadow through the use of a gobo (as suggested in ‘Light, Science & Magic‘ by Fil Hunter and Paul Fuqua).

I spent a number of hours on this and by and large the results were disappointing.  I eventually managed to achieve some reasonable images close to what I was looking for by shooting against the sky outdoors and then tweaking in Photoshop.  The results are shown below.

04Jun2015_4656 copy

f22  1/80th sec  ISO 160 White Balance on Cloudy   – 2 stops

To show the complete shape of the mask effectively it was clear that I would need to portray both the frontal and lateral views.  For this shot of the front view I used a small aperture (f22) to minimise the amount of light reaching the sensor and to achieve greatest depth of field as I wanted to capture the patterns of the clouds behind.  I also wanted to show the eye slits as part of the overall shape and this was achieved.  Shot in this way against the sky, the mask takes on a rather totemic appearance and reminds me of the ‘beast’, the pig’s head on a stick, worshipped by the boys in William Golding’s novel ‘Lord of the Flies‘.

04Jun2015_4658 copy

f13  1/25th sec ISO 160  White Balance on Cloudy   – 2 stops 

For this side view, I again shot the mask against the evening sky to create a silhouette. The effect was enhanced somewhat by making it almost monochrome in post-production.  This gives a monumental feel to the image which I like and which I think brings out some of the strength and power that the object holds in the traditions of the people who made it.

03Jun2015_4598 copy

 f13  1/800th sec  ISO 160  White Balance on Cloudy  -3 stops

As well as taking shots of the whole object, I also experimented with taking shots of significant parts to focus on certain elements of the shape.  I have included this one in which I have concentrated on the eye slits because again, although it appears flat and two-dimensional, it still has a powerful shape and presence.  The light showing through the eyes and the rim highlight were important to heighten the sense of drama.

2.  FORM

The form of an object is its three-dimensional structure.  A way of capturing form is by angling a naked light to create shadows that will pick out the highs and lows and irregularities of the object.


 f13 1/5th sec ISO 160 White Balance on Cloudy -2 stops

Lit from above, the glancing light results in shadows which accentuate the curved, convex nature of the overall shape of the subject, the slits of the eyes and other details.  It also allows some of the surface detail, which has a form of its own, to be apparent. I reduced the aperture by two stops in order to darken the image and create greater shadowing and contrast.


f13 1/4th sec ISO 160 White Balance on Cloudy   -1 and 1/3 stops

Side lighting again casts shadows across the face of the mask, but this time picking out the prominent features of the nose and mouth.  Again, I reduced the aperture, this time by 1 and 1/3rd stops, in order to accentuate the contrast and shadow.

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 The texture of an object can be both a visual and a tactile sensation.  It relates to the fine structure of the surface and is best picked out photographically by shooting with angled, non-diffuse light to create shadows and contrast.  The ridged surface of the main areas of the mask has a coarse texture that is apparent even at a distance, but the smooth textured areas around the eyes and on the crest and nose show only minor variations where the carver’s tools have left marks.  These only become apparent close up under raking light.


 f13 1/25th sec ISO 160 White Balance on Cloudy -2 2/3 stops

By placing the lighting above the subject, a slanting light is created which increases the shadow and contrast.  This, and the close focusing,  brings out the detail and texture of the surface of the subject.  I have focussed on the eye area in order to show the marked difference in detail and texture between the smooth wood with its white paint flecks surrounding the eye and the highly ridged surface of the remaining area.  Under this light, even the apparently smooth areas can be seen to have surface variations.


f13 1/4th sec ISO 160 White Balance on Cloudy  -2 2/3 stops 

In this image the subject has been lit by naked artificial light from the right hand side which has created shadows which show up the detail of the macro structure of the mask as well as the micro structure of its surface.  Again, the differences in texture between the different parts are clearly shown, including the tool marks on the nose.  These would not be so apparent if the lighting was diffuse and / or from the front rather than the side.

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 f13  1/25th sec ISO  160 White Balance on Cloudy  -2 2/3 stops

In order to bring out the colours in the subject, in this shot I chose to ensure that the background was dark.  To do this I removed three of the bulbs from the light fixture retaining only one so that a small spotlight effect could be used to highlight a small area of the subject leaving the surrounding area dark.  The fact that a large part of the subject is effectively hidden from sight and the eye is highlighted gives the image a heightened sense of mystery and power which I was aiming for.  I had to decrease the aperture by 2 and 2/3rd stops to prevent the white areas from being blown out which would have lost the detail.

03Jun2015_4617 copy

f13  1/13th sec  ISO 160  White Balance on Cloudy   -1 2/3 stops 

For this shot I positioned the subject outside against the setting sun so that the light from the sun would be reflected off the lower edges of the eye slits. This creates warm highlights in an otherwise low key, low contrast image and gives a sense of an inner life behind the mask.

03Jun2015_4613 copy

f 13   1/40th sec   ISO 160  WB on Cloudy   – 3 stops

Taking the shot above a stage further I then changed the angle of the camera slightly so that the setting sun was directly in line with one of the eye slits to create a bright and hot highlight.  I had to drop 3 stops on the aperture in order to get the effect that I wanted.

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As an extension to the theme of colour I thought I would include a small selection of the shots that I took of the Kota Mahongwe reliquary figure as these show elements of lighting that were not effective with the mask, the two being made of very different materials.

The Kota figure is constructed of a wooden core with the broad, let-like top section being covered in thin strips of sheet brass and copper. 03Jun2015_4516

f 9   0.4 sec  ISO 160  White balance on Tungsten  – 1 stop

This general shot of the reliquary figure was taken with direct artificial halogen light from the front with the White Balance set to Tungsten.  This has given the image a bluish cast, but the overall hue is close to the actual colour of the piece. It is interesting to compare this with the next image which was taken with the same lighting but with the White Balance set to Cloudy. 03Jun2015_4515

f 9  1/10th sec   ISO 160   White balance on Cloudy – 1 stop

In order to make the metallic construction of the subject more apparent, I used the same halogen lighting from the front but this time set the White Balance to Cloudy, a setting which tends to intensify colours, making them richer.  In this case, it gives the subject a bright golden hue which highlights the metallic quality of its construction.


f 9  1.0 sec  ISO 160  White balance on Cloudy  – 2 stops

To further enhance the appearance of the metal surface of the subject I experimented with lighting it with a candle.  As can be seen from the resulting image above, this gives a rich, warm depth to the colour.  The effect is further enhanced by the fact that the candle light, whilst being strong enough to illuminate the figure, is not strong enough to light the background textile making the subject stand out strongly.

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Before setting out on this Assignment I briefly explored the way that photographers had portrayed African masks in their work.  The New York photographer Phyllis Galembo spent a number of years travelling throughout Africa recording the use of masks in ceremony and culture and her work in this field has been published in her book Maske (published in 2010 by Chris Boot; ISBN: 978-1-905712-17-5).  Galembo worked in colour and  her subjects were photographed in front of walls or fences in full costume including their masks.  The masks were therefore an element, albeit an important one, of a larger whole rather than the subject in their own right.  In contrast, Walker Evans, an American photographer, was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to compile a photographic portfolio of the masks and other African sculptures on display in the Museum’s ground breaking ‘African Negro Art Exhibition, 1935.’  These photographs, which were the subject of an exhibition ‘Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935‘ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in the year 2000, focus solely on the mask as an art form in isolation from its function and deeper meaning.  I wanted to try to bring out some of this deeper meaning through the use of light in my photographs for this Assignment.




Interestingly, Evans’ original portfolio has been the subject of a body of work by the American photographer, Sherrie Levine, who is known for her practice of re-photographing photographs, and which is to form the exhibition ‘African Masks after Walker Evans‘ due to open this week at the Simon Lee Gallery, London, this week.

For this Assignment, I allowed the subject(s) to suggest to me what I wanted to capture and how.  From the outset I decided that I wanted to portray the strength and mystery of the objects as well as their physical structures and that this would require certain forms of lighting to produce shadow, sharpness and silhouette rather than softness,  diffusion and blandness.  Whilst I have not used any fancy and expensive studio lighting set ups and have kept things simple, I believe that I have succeeded to some extent in my original aim.  In retrospect, I overcame some of my initial fear and trepidation and I warmed to the task of experimenting with different lighting scenarios.  Whereas many of them did not work for these subjects, I can see that there would be considerable reward in looking more closely into studio photography and lighting techniques in the future to explore the natures of smaller subjects in greater detail and sensitivity.

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Article ‘Beyond Basics: Getting To Grips With Natural Light II‘ written by Jacob James on the EyeVoyage website

The Complete Guide to Light & Lighting in Digital Photography‘ by Michael Freeman published by Ilex  ISBN 10 – 1-904705-88-X     ISBN 13 – 978-1-904705-88-8

‘Light, Science & Magic – An Introduction to Photographic Lighting’ by Fil Hunter and  Paul Fuqua published by Focal Press 1990   ISBN  0-240-51796-2’s_African_Period

sherrielevine_pressrelease.pdf    re Phyllis Galembo’s photography and publications

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