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Lighting, Composition and Subject
Subject Part 1: Introduction

by Roger N. Clark

The direction and quality of the light on the subject are the most important keys to image impact. The subject tells the story, the composition and lighting accentuate the subject.

The Lighting, Composition and Subject Series:

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Figure 1. Two approaching lions on the Serengeti. Which is the better subject? It depends on the story to be told.

The subject is the dominant element or elements in the scene. For example, it could be a canyon in a landscape image, an animal, two animals, or a group of animals. Generally the subject should be very sharp unless you want to illustrate blur due to motion. If you are trying for motion blur effects, the blur should be large rather than a small blur. Small blur appears to most viewers as a poor photo and sometimes hurts the eyes. If an image is to illustrate the view like you were standing at the scene, the image must be very sharp. The sharpness should match or exceed what you can see with your eyes.

The main subject should hold the viewer's attention and be something that attracts the viewer (it may be pleasing or repulsive, but should attract the viewer to the subject).

If the subject is an animal, it should be doing something that attracts the viewer. For example, if looking at the camera, the animal's eyes should engage the viewer. If two animals are in the image, they should be looking at the viewer or each other. Or the animals should be looking at something that also attracts the viewer.

There should be no distracting elements around the subject, such as a stick that appears to be coming out of the head of an animal. Bright elements detract from the subject. For example, a bright background shining through leaves in a tree next to an animal's head can ruin an otherwise good image. The subject should usually be the brightest thing in the scene, not a distracting element. Exceptions include silhouettes.

It is usually better to have space in front of an animal rather than behind the animal. For example, if the animal in facing the camera, it is usually better to include space in front at the bottom of the frame rather than above the animal at the top of the frame. (Examples below.)

A sparkle in the eye of an animal is called catchlight. Always try and get an angle with the sun or bright sky that shows some catchlight in the eyes. (Examples below.)

Head Angle. The angle of an animal's head is important. An animal's image generally has low impact if the animal's head is facing away from the camera. A tilt of the head toward the camera usually has greater impact. (Examples below.)

The eyes of animals should be very sharp. Showing clear definition of the pupil has greater impact.

Examples (Click on each image to see a larger version).
Example of diffuse light from clouds before sunrise. The horizon is at the rule of thirds as is the location where the sun is about to rise.
Example 90 degree phase angle. The trees are near the rule of thirds line, as is Chimney Rock. The high phase angle allows us to see some transmitted light from the yellow leaves, enhancing their color.
Example of flowers lit by light diffusely transmitted through a passing cloud. This is a good example of when you can image with the sun nearly overhead and not near sunrise or sunset like many advocate.
An approaching storm at 1 pm illustrates that photos with dramatic lighting can be obtained at any time of the day in the right conditions.
A lion imaged at about -90 degrees phase angle shows dramatic shadows. Notice the catchlight in the eye and the eyes are about the rule of thirds line. Focus is on the eyes (that is very important). The negative phase angle (see Figure 3 above) emphasizes the shadows.
A leopard imaged at about 30 degrees phase angle. Note the reduction in shadows compared to the lion image above. The positive phase angle de-emphasizes the shadows. This would have been a great image except for two things: 1) It would have been better if the leopard was looking more at the camera. 2) The thorned acacia branch coming out of the ear is a distraction. A better position for the camera would have been about 50 feet to the right. The light is wonderful afternoon warm light with broken clouds adding diffuse light to the shadows.
This bird was imaged at low phase angle so the color and texture of the feathers show nicely. Note the head angle towards the camera and the catchlight in the eye. The focus is on the eye and the pupil is clearly visible. The phase angle is low, about 20 degrees.
This image has great impact because the leopard is looking directly at the camera. The pupils are clearly seen and sharp as the focus is on the eyes. There is space in front of the animal inviting it to come closer. The phase angle is low, about +45 degrees, de-emphasizing shadows.
An image of a lion cub and its mother taken in diffuse early morning light. The soft light de-emphasizes shadows so the color and texture show nicely without high contrast.

Go to the photo galleries and see if you recognize some of the positive and negative aspects of lighting composition and the subject in these images. Note which has impact for you, the viewer.

Recommended Books and Web Sites

(There are a number of good books on studio lighting, but the subject of this article is natural light so references to studio lighting is not covered.)

All books by John Shaw

Ansel Adams, 1952, Natural Light Photography Morgan and Morgan, New York, 118 pages.

As usual, Adams, a master of capturing light, does a very good presentation. The book covers light and exposure along with the zone system, and while dated for the digital era, it covers the basics like few books in the 50+ years since it's publication.

For photography, a modern book that is probably the most in depth I've seen is:

Michael Freeman, 2007, The complete guide to light and lighting in digital photography, The Hex Press, 224 pages

Now, first I would say that any book with a title that says "complete guide" is a lie, and the above book is no exception. But it does have 58 pages of natural lighting discussion, and you can dig more out of the indoor and studio sections which are the bulk of the book. This is the book I would recommend for people trying to understand photography.

There are a number of things wrong in the beginning, like ISO changes sensitivity on a digital camera, or you can only get 8 or so f/stops with 8-bit encoding.

Freeman also does not discuss lighting for wildlife photography.

Another interesting read is: Transient Light by Ian Cameron, 2008.

It is not as complete as the Freeman book but has some interesting points. It makes similar errors as the Freeman book but also has some bizarre statements like film and digital have only 5 stops of dynamic range (wrong). It also says scenes lit by moonlight are somewhat monochromatic, which is also not correct.

While most lighting discussions pretty much say shoot in the golden hours, Cameron cites some exceptions, like deep canyons. But his treatment is focused on landscape photography and not wildlife, people of other subjects.

So despite these books being incomplete and having a few errors, I would still recommend them as they have more info than other photo books I've seen.

Links to photography composition articles:

If you want to get into the gory scientific details of light interaction with surfaces, see:
Hapke, B., 1993, Introduction to the Theory of reflectance and Emittance Spectroscopy, Cambridge University Press, New York.
Clark, R. N., Chapter 1: Spectroscopy of Rocks and Minerals, and Principles of Spectroscopy, in Manual of Remote Sensing Volume 3, Remote Sensing for the Earth Sciences, (A.N. Rencz, ed.) John Wiley and Sons, New York, p 3- 58, 1999.

The Lighting, Composition and Subject Series:

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Last updated October 30, 2015.