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Sensitivity to Light >

28.4 - Watch an Old B&W Movie

Turn the sound off on a favorite 1930s or 40s black-and-white film.

Then, watch the lighting, not the film.

Pause the film occasionally, and study the lighting.

Shadows and Direction of the Light

Look at the shadows.

In the last exercise, you learned about how the direction of the light changes a scene.

Try to determine where the lights were placed in the scenes by looking for the shadows they create.

Shadows and Contrast

You can also look at the shadows to study contrast.

If the shadows are dark, with sharp edges, a small light source was used, such as a spotlight.

The lighting is high contrast.

If the shadows are bright, with indistinct edges, then a large light source was used, such as a light passing through a scrim.

The lighting is low contrast.

For example, female leads were often lighted with lower contrast lighting. Contrasty lighting was often used for male leads.

Watch as the film cuts between a male and female lead. The lighting often changes depending on the sex of the actor.


Highlights, especially on faces, will also reveal the lighting design to you.

A small light source produces small highlights.

For example, on-camera flash produces small highlights on your subjects nose tip, forehead, and cheeks.

If you photograph the subject in the shade on a sunny day, or under a cloudy sky, the highlights will be much broader.

Catch Lights

Catch lights are the reflections of lights in the eyes.

They often add vitality to a portrait.

Where they're located in the eye tells you the location of the light. If there are more than one catch light, there was more than one light.

The shape of a catch light can hint at what sort of light was used.

For example, a circular catch light may be from a white photography umbrella. If window light was used, the catch light may be rectangular, with windows dividers showing as well.


Light Size



Small, like the sun

More contrast

Darker shadows with sharp edges

Large, like an overcast sky

Less contrast

Brighter shadows with soft edges, or shadowless