The Da Vinci Shadow Theory for Depth in Photography

According to Leonardo Da Vinci’s theories, if you want the maximum depth in your photos, your subject’s shadow should be about the same length as his or her height. Daniel Norton experiments with this theory:

To help him achieve the effect, Norton used a Profoto B1 with a reflector.

profoto light reflector

The idea was to experiment with the positioning of the light and the camera angle and to make a series of images to test this hypothesis.

the Da Vinci lighting exeperiment

Test Shot

For the first test shot, the reflector was positioned a bit lower against the subject to ensure a longer shadow. Notice how Norton consciously produced a shadow that was the same length as the height of the subject.

A light fired bare without a diffuser is a hard light, and that was evident when Norton took a close-up of the subject.

how to work with a single light

Same bare lighting with a tighter composition

Next, he brought in a Westcott Scrim Jim to soften the light.

one light setup in a studio

Scrim Jim Modifier

The next step was to make the shadow longer, which meant the light had to come down a fair bit. The composition had to go wider, too.

one light setup

Longer shadow with the light lowered

This is the result with the same light and a tighter composition:

experimenting with a single light

Contrasting result with the same lighting

This image, comparatively, was taken with the scrim again coming between the subject and the light.

working with one light in a studio

Westcott Scrim Jim

Notice how the shadows have been minimized. However, now the light definitely looks a lot more flat.

Finally, Norton set up the lone light to mimic the sun at the middle of the day when you’d typically find short shadows.

Da Vinci lighting

Short shadows with the higher light position

A portrait in such a light would typically show long shadows across the subject’s face:

strong shadows with hard lighting setup

Once you’ve set up a particular light to work with, you can experiment with it. Change things around to see what works and how you can make things better. Go ahead and try this technique to improve your studio portrait photography.

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