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Breaking Down a Photo: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering

By Tom Miles on January 06, 2014


Reverse engineering is a term in common use, and it generally means taking something apart to see how it works and reassembling it for your own use. In photographic terms, it refers to looking at an image and then working out how it was made.

Why would you want to do this? Well, in my experience, there are two main reasons:

  1. To learn how someone has taken a certain shot, and, from that, broaden your own craft and skill base.
  2. To fulfill a client's brief. Before starting a new job, it is very common for the client to show you photos they like or that are in line with the sort of thing they want. If you can reverse engineer these, you should be able to do the job the way they want it done.

As you can imagine, given the enormous range of technical options when shooting an image, coupled with the scope of software like Photoshop, reverse engineering photos is not an exact science. It's also a skill that takes time to develop. Hopefully in this short post I can start you on your way to looking under the hood of lots of images.


Probably the first thing you should look at is the light used in the photograph, as not only is it vital to your own interpretation of how to recreate an effect like the shot in question, but it's also usually one of the easiest things to decode.

Start with one of the basics: shadows. First off, are there any at all? If not, that should straight away indicate that the shot was taken with very diffused light that doesn't cast a strong shadow, such as on an overcast day or with the light from a very large softbox or light panel. If there are shadows, how many are there? How hard and distinct are they? And what direction are they in? The number of shadows will tell you how many light sources were used, and the shadow edge will tell you how hard or soft the light source was. The direction they're in will tell you what direction the light was falling from.

Nick Dempsey, Olympic Medalist Windsurfer, and Katie, Yoga Teacher. Nick was clearly shot in very soft light (in fact, on an overcast day, with the sand of the beach acting as a reflector), and Katie was shot at sunset and lit with a soft light from camera right. Look at the edges and direction of the shadow on the left, as well as (obviously) the sun behind her head!

Next, if they're visible in shot, look for catchlights and reflections. These will show you what was used to light the subject and can give really useful clues. A close-in portrait will often show catchlights in the subject's eyes, and you may be able to make out the reflection of the reflector, softbox, beauty dish, or similar equipment that was used to light the shot. In any shot with reflective surfaces, it can often be very easy to spot what the light is and where it's coming from. Don't forget that light must obey the laws of physics — the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection — so it should be easy to “track back” from a reflected light on a window or piece of polished metal.

Anne, personal shoot, and James May, TV Presenter for Maxim. Look closely in Anne's eyes, and you should make out the shape of the light used. Both of the shadows on James, plus the reflection on the shiny wood behind him, should hint at how he was lit.

Lenses and Depth of Field

Whilst it will be impossible to predict with perfect accuracy which lens was used in a shot, you can often get a good idea from a combination of the amount of distortion in a shot and the depth of field. Something shot very close in with a wide-angle lens will look quite distorted, but it may also be sharp from close in all the way back to infinity. At the other end of the scale, a medium telephoto lens, relatively close in and even at an average aperture, will have a very shallow depth of field but will present someone's features in a more flattering way. There are, strictly speaking, more factors at work governing depth of field, including subject distance and sensor size, but these can be very hard — if not impossible — to gauge from just looking at a photo.

Peter Crouch, England Footballer for Men's Fitness, and Gus Hansen, Poker Pro. Peter was shot low down with a 24mm lens and is distorted slightly due to being near the edge of the frame — the shot is also sharp almost all the way to the back. By comparison, Gus was shot with a short telephoto lens at f5.6, from close in, and, although his eyes are sharp, even his ears are soft.

The Dark Arts of Photoshop

To anyone who's even dabbled slightly in Photoshop, it will be obvious how easy it is to manipulate images after the event, from basic corrections of tone and colour, right through to complete compositing of separate images that seem otherwise impossible. Good Photoshopping will be very hard to spot, and it can often be a brick wall as far as reverse engineering goes. However, average or poor Photoshop work is often easily betrayed, and something that at first glance appears to be incredibly expensive to put together, rapidly starts to look like the work of an hour or so in front of a screen. Obviously the scale and scope of what can be achieved in Photoshop is way beyond what I can talk about here, but I mention it merely so you're aware of its presence.

Ugo Monye, England Rugby Player for Men's Health. Although I've made subtle alterations to tone and sharpness in Photoshop, the main “cheat” are the lights in the background. They weren't lit on the day, and close inspection will show that they're all pretty identical and aren't casting any light on the ground, (or on Ugo)!


I've only scratched the surface here, as it's obvious that this topic is essentially the entire craft of photography but in reverse, so it's not the sort of thing you can learn in one afternoon. However, once you start to look under the hood of images, you'll often realize how simply made some stunning images are, and, on occasions, how far out of your reach some shots are on a technical level. I assure you you'll never quite look at photos the same way again!

Bonus: You can learn photography online with a photography course from the New York Institute of Photography! Get started today.

About the Author

Tom Miles is a London-based photographer who first picked up an SLR at 13, and, after getting hooked on the photography bug good and proper by the nice folk at his local paper, started shooting seriously at the ripe old age of 15. After 3 years at Blackpool College studying a photography degree, he moved to London to work as a photographer's assistant. After 3 more years, roughly 30 different photographers, and some lucky breaks, he started shooting in his own right for various magazines. These days he shoots extensively for Men's Health, Runner's World, Men's Fitness, Golf Monthly, many other magazines, PR companies, book publishers, and even the occasional advertising job. He's shot more than 100 magazine covers and generally wears a camera body out once every few years! You can find him at and, , or on Twitter @photosmudger.