Tech Tip Tuesday: Reverse Engineering the Lighting in a Photo

Replicating light setups is possible if you know what to look for

We all look at the work of other photographers to get inspired. I love to look at all different kinds of photography in order to get ideas for how to light a scene. Product photography often offers good examples of lighting with tactical precision, while lifestyle images often carry a more candid “believable” feel (even if it’s not natural light). Whether it’s natural light from a window, or artificial studio lights, everything leaves a trace.

If you find light you like, try these two methods to figure out how to recreate it.

1. Look at something shiny

Just about every shiny object with have some reflections showing in it, and often, you can see the light source that was used. An easy place to start is looking at a model’s eyes. Eyes are round and shiny, so as long as they’re looking forward, it’s likely the light will be reflecting in their eyes. You can see what lighting modifier was used (if any), as well as sometimes get an idea of the distance.

The light was a reflective umbrella with diffusion fabric across the front, positioned camera left. You can gauge it’s relative position and height by the reflection in his eyes, and you can tell it’s fairly large because the light on his face is soft and smooth.

If there is no model, or their eyes aren’t helpful, other objects can offer the same reflections: coffee mugs, jewelry, water, cars, etc. These clues will show you the positioning of the light, as well as the shape usually.

Below, you’ll see the bottle on the left is smooth and curved, a perfect thing to look for to gauge lighting. A big, even light source camera right which wraps across the front, with another narrow, tall one to the left. Essentially the same setup was used for both images. In the right image, you’ll see that the light coming from the right smoothly fades into shadow, but in the image on the left, the perfectly smooth glass bottle is less forgiving and shows the line of the edge of the light source.

Photo shot for №4 St. James.

2. Look at the shadows

Big light sources (relative to the subject) create soft shadows. Small light sources create hard shadows. Harsh, crisp shadows indicates a direct, small light source. Soft and smooth gradients indicate soft, indirect light. How quickly a curved surface (like a face) transitions from light to shadow indicates how large the light source is.

Below: Super crisp shadows. Light source was extremely small (cut a 1" hole in a piece of cardboard to make as small a source as possible).

Below: look at that big soft shadow behind her. Light source is pretty big and diffused. Light was a beauty dish on Profoto USA B1.

I hope this has been helpful! Leave a comment if you’ve got any questions and I’ll do what I can to help!


Caleb Kerr is a lifestyle + athletic + commercial freelance photographer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow his work on Instagram, or view his portfolio on his website.