A View from a Window

The following schematic shows a lighting set-up which is very simple but highly effective. It can be adapted, with minimal equipment, to produce either beautifully soft light with gradual transition between light and shade, or dramatic hard light with immediate transition.

Lighting set-up

Subjects, placed in front of a background, are lit by a single source of light, a window (south-west facing) which is 45˚ front left of the subject (viewer’s point of view). Diffusion material (approximately 1.3 stops) is used as required, and light reflected from the room’s interior surfaces provides soft fill.

The key to success, in image terms, is in making the light from this source appear like light from a north facing window.

So, what’s so special about north facing windows anyway?

Direct sunlight, as observed from a south facing window is extremely bright, resulting in washed out colours and high contrast. Additionally, as the sun progresses through the sky during the day, the quantity and quality of the light varies enormously. Sometimes this harsh, volatile light can suit the subject or the mood of a painting and was widely favoured by the Impressionists.

But not always …

Indirect, or reflected light is a more stable in terms of both quantity and quality: having a steady output throughout the day and a colour temperature which is much more consistent.

From an artist’s point of view, indirect light has significant advantages over direct light. Reflected light has a strong diffused characteristic which bathes both the subject and the painting in the same light, greater control over values (the lightness or darkness of a colour), subtle colour changes (hue or saturation) and contrast (determined by the difference in the colour and brightness of an object compared to other objects within the same field of view).

Diffusing harsh, direct south light, giving it the characteristic appearance of north light, is relatively simple – at least in theory.

A variety of diffusion equipment is commercially available, but speaking from experience “one size does not fit all” – whatever size window aperture you have, the diffuser will either be too big, or too small, and whatever fittings the diffuser comes with, they won’t integrate with your window.

And that’s before you even start to consider adapting the diffuser because it only comes as a 1-stop diffuser and you calculate you need at least 2-stops of diffusion … …

As discussed, the set-up shown in the schematic is simple but effective. It is also repeatable.

What it is not, however, is robust.

I need to carry out further research, evaluating systems which are modular so that they can be adapted to fit different window apertures and are easily fitted – to fit into different window types.

They also need to customisable in terms of the amount and type of diffusion – clearly the number of stops of diffusion makes an enormous difference to the finished image, but so does the type of diffuser used.

And the final requirement is that the systems are robust enough to withstand repeated use.

Photographer Sue Bryce is highly skilled at creating mini-environments from wallpaper, textiles and other materials – the images she produces place the viewer in the scene, for all intents and purposes we are in the room with the model – and the room has presence. The reality, however, is that the scene extends only a short distance either side of the model. Bryce is also highly adept at working with natural light, modifying it to be beautifully soft with gradual transition from light to shade whilst retaining its ability to reveal form and value.

The following still image, taken from CreativeLive’s “Natural Light with Sue Bryce” shows one of the various types of diffusers available commercially (possibly a Lastolite Skylite Rapid).

Sue Bryce Diffuser

Natural Light with Sue Bryce” (CreativeLive, Photoweek 2015)

See also: Looking West

On Reflection: Week 10, Module Two

Dutch photographer Bas Meeuws specialises in creating floral still-life images in the style of the 17th century paintings.

Each still-life is carefully assembled, flower by flower, from a library of individually photographed flowers. This faithfully recreates the method of 17th century artists, van Oosterwijck for example, who were denied access to real flowers due to their excessively high cost and consequently painted from tulip books which were widely available at the time.

Where Meeuws’ differs from Dutch 17th century art is in the use of lighting.

Meeuws’ art employs quite harsh artificial lighting which is in contrast with the soft natural light employed by artists such as Rachel Ruysch. Meeuws still makes effective use of light and shade to create a sense of depth, and to separate the subject from its environment whilst emphasising colour and texture. But is something lacking in these images?

Quite clearly, Meeuws images have visual appealing. I wonder, however, how much more appealing Meeuws’ images would be if the lighting was softer and consequently they had a more painterly appearance?

And this leads me very nicely onto the story of the great diffuser caper.

I can never quite make my mind up as to whether it is harder to control natural light or artificial light. The easiest one always seems to be whichever one I am not working with at the time.

The past two weeks have brought some interesting challenges. Speaking from a still-life point of view, sometimes it’s possible to work with whatever natural lighting is available and make the subject “fit” in to it to achieve the desired effect – perhaps with just a minor tweak here and there.

But what about when the subject, the environment and the lighting won’t work together to achieve a particular aesthetic, at least not without major modification?

Then we are into shaping light.

And this is where diffusers come into it.

Various types of translucent paper, enough different kinds of textiles to make the studio look like the Old Bazaar in Cairo, masking tape, packing tape, Sellotape, blue tack, white tack, (don’t mention the glue) … …

Ultimately, I was able to rig something that was quite successful, I was pleased with the results (just don’t make any sudden movements should it all come crashing down).

What’s successful? Well, it has to (relatively) easy to use, don’t want it taking hours to set up and/or take down, it has to allow me to achieve the desired effect, and something which to me is essential but which is quite often overlooked, it has to be repeatable – if it isn’t repeatable, it isn’t controlling light, it’s blagging it.

For now, I have my method, it is fairly easy to set up but whether it is “robust” is another question, it does allow me to achieve the desired effect, and it is repeatable.

So, the next step is to design something which is much more robust.

Feedback from the (dreaded) video presentation was very encouraging. Again, as previously stated, it’s so often the case in life that the thought of doing something is much worse than the reality.

Consequently, I feel that I am in a much stronger position, not only in terms of the forthcoming Critical Review, but also looking ahead to future video presentations – success leads to success.

“Last Meal on Death Row” … Mat Collishaw

In 2011 the Analix Forever Art Gallery in Geneva hosted a photographic exhibition with a difference.


Mat Collishaw, 2011. Cornelius Gross

Artist Mat Collishaw’s innovative body of work was a photographic record of the last meals of death row prisoners.

Images for “Last Meal on Death Row” make great use of chiaroscuro, pools of soft light illuminating the subject whilst the background and surrounding environment is allowed to fall into deep shadow.

The contrast between light and dark creates not only a sense of drama but also a sense of depth within the images.

Named after the person who requested the meal, each of the 13 images is a simple, but effective, composition devoid of any props and portraying only the main subject.

Borrowing terminology from cinematography, the “crushed blacks” of the perhaps foreboding background are reminiscent of the style of Willem Kalf, the 17th century Dutch artist from whom Collishaw draws much inspiration.

Kalf regularly used a black background in order to emphasise the colours and textures of the subjects he painted. An effect Collishaw has recreated exceptionally well.

That Collishaw’s work is heavily influenced by the still-life paintings of the 17th century is very apparent. The image “Jonathan Nobles” has a definite painterly aesthetic – to the point it deceives the viewer’s eye as to whether it is a painting or a photograph.

Jonathan Noble

Mat Collishaw, 2011. Jonathan Nobles

Kalf, Willem, 1619-1693; Still Life: Fruit, Goblet and Salver

Willem Kalf, c. 1660. Still-life with Fruit, Goblet and Salver

This image, compared alongside Kalf’s “Still-life with Fruit, Goblet and Salver” (c. 1660), demonstrates very clearly Collishaw’s ability to define and portray in a photograph those characteristics which give paintings their visual appeal.

There is a great deal in Collishaw’s work which can be used to shape my own practice. “Still-life with Citrus Fruits” is one of the best examples to date of my ability to create the kind of chiaroscuro seen in many of the old masters and in Collishaw’s “Last Meal on Death Row”, but there is still ample opportunity for improvement and this is apparent when my work is evaluated alongside Collishaw’s.


Morris, 2016. Still-life with Citrus Fruits


“Silent Killer”

Silent Killer” is an image which aims to subvert the form, an image which aims to use food photography to achieve something different – to bring into question a socially relevant issue.


Morris, 2017. Sent Killer

Post-processing techniques have been applied to the digital image in an attempt to give the image a painterly aesthetic, that is to say portraying characteristics commonly regarded as giving paintings their appeal.

It is still early in the development phase, but attempts to produce a painterly effect using post-processing methods have met with only limited success – some images have been extremely successful, whilst others not so: pushed beyond a certain point, which is image dependent, the images take on an appearance of having “in-camera” artefacts.

Tizer - error

Morris, 2017. Silent Killer – over-edited

“One size does not fit all” and post-processing success lies in finding the correct treatment on an image by image basis, for example, the most appropriate background, texture or overlay. Greater success will be achieved as knowledge and experience increase in this area.

In essence, some images are more sensitive to post-processing than are others.

This was found to be the case with “Silent Killer”. The image demonstrated a very limited ability to withstand integration with a texture in order to produce a painting-like effect before the image became “corrupted”.

Silent Killer” does portray some of the characteristics which give paintings their visual appeal, post-processing is very lightly applied (for the reasons explained),it does benefit the image and it is best seen full screen, it could take more – I think it is quite a strong image – but only if a method could be found of applying a painterly aesthetic to this image without overcooking it.

Moving this forward, there are two areas I wish to explore.

The first is to clarify how and why some images are better suited to post-processing.

The second is to look for alternative, less invasive methods of post-processing.

Photographer Sergei Sogokon is particularly skilled at producing images which have a painting-like aesthetic – it is very subtle, but it there and it deceives the eye time and time again.

Still-life with fish

Sergei Sogokon, date unknown. Still-life with Fish

See also: Towards a Painterly Aesthetic