Lighting in photography

Lighting in Photography – The Complete Guide

Do you want to add more drama and variety to your images? Lighting in photography is perhaps the steepest learning curve you will face. Once you master lighting though you are well on your way to producing breathtaking images.

In order to truly take control over your photography, you have to understand the light in front of you and how it works. But grasping lighting is a bit more complex than learning the controls of your cameras. Light bounces, casts shadows and even changes colours of objects.

The way a light is captured inside a photograph has a dramatic effect on the final image. This is why a professional photographer can shoot amazing images with a phone camera. This is why film sets hire lighting specialists solely to control the light on set.

The key to mastering lighting in photography begins with understanding four concepts:





Position of Lighting in Photography

Picture you, your subject and your camera in a completely dark room. No windows, no light at all. Then you light a candle.

Where that candle is in relation to the object you are shooting plays a dramatic role on the overall look of the final image. In photography, sometimes you can move that light source, and other times you have to move the subject to alter the position of the light.

Front lighting

Mainly used to add sharp detail.

Placing the subject so that light is directly in front of it brings out the detail. With the light directly in the front, the shadows fall behind the subject. This means there aren’t any shadows in the image to conceal any details. Front lighting in photography is the simplest to shoot and set up. Be careful though as sometimes it can make the image look flat and almost fake.

Side lighting

Placing the light source or the subject so that the light hits from the side. This approach will create purposeful shadows and add some depth to the image. It will also draw the eyes to one side of an image or another using the shadows as possible leading lines. The great thing about side lighting in photography is that the light doesn’t have to be at a 90 degree angle. Even small adjustments can change the way the shadows fall drastically. This means you can shoot the same subject and get really varied results.

Back lighting

Lighting your subject from behind. Definitely the hardest form of lighting to shoot as without understanding you can just end up with black silhouettes. A lot of people always try to avoid ending with backlighting. We always advise people to try but be prepared to have to test this a lot to get it right. With the light hitting the subject from behind, all of the light’s shadows are in the front of the subject, which often turns the subject into a dark silhouette.

Using manual modes you can adjust the exposure so that the subject will be properly exposed. This will leave the background overexposed, but that sometimes creates a neat effect and can always be changed in editing.

Once you’re comfortable in manual mode, backlighting can create spectacular images. The great thing about having a backlit image is that it can make the subject glow and look so interesting. Great for sunset images!

Strength of Lighting in Photography

Now we know how to manipulate shadows we need to understand just how light or dark are those shadows going to be. That’s where the strength of the light comes into play.

Hard Light

A hard light source produces shadows with minimal transition between the light and dark areas of the image. Basically hard lighting in photography is often (but not always) associated with creating deeper, darker shadows. Hard light can create quick contrasts in images and really add some dark drama.

Lighting in photography

Soft Light

Soft light, on the other hand, has a much more subtle transition between the light and dark areas of the image. Shooting with soft light has less drama, but the smoother shadows prevent details from being lost in the dark areas of the image. When shooting a portrait, hard light tends to emphasise imperfections in the skin. Soft light tends to disguise blemishes a bit better. Soft light is like the front lighting of light direction. It’s a great starting point for beginners because it’s easier to work with.

lighting in photography

How do I create the desired light?

So what makes a light source hard or soft?

A quick go to is to think how much of a room a light fills. Large light sources produce soft light. Smaller light sources create those harsh shadows.

Just imagine holding a flashlight underneath your face telling scary stories around the campfire. The creepiness comes from the light and dark areas with no transition between them. The effect would not be the same if you were sat round a campfire and someone shone a large light, from the same distance, over your face.

Top Tip: Camera flashes, without a modifier, create hard light because they are small light sources. One way to try to get your flash to produce a softer light is to point it up and try to avoid it bouncing off things.

Don’t forget that distance also plays a role. Close light sources are softer, while distant light sources often create a lot harsher shadows.

Our main light source, the Sun

The sun is a large light source but it’s so far away that it often becomes a hard light source. This is why on a sunny day we get very dark shadows.

On a cloudy day, however, that same sun produces a soft light. The clouds diffuse the light by spreading it out over a larger area. This is why you will often hear photographers talk about cloudy days as perfect days. The lighting is much easier to work with.

lighting in photography

Diffusers and reducing light strength

Clouds are not the only diffusers either. Lights such as flashes and studio strobes can use diffusers too. A white umbrella placed in between the light and the subject, called a shoot through umbrella, softens the light.

Bouncing a light source will often soften it. bouncing a flash off the ceiling or a white wall, for example will cause it to lose a bit of strength as it spreads out the light more.

A lot of studio photographers opt for using a flash soft box or taking the flash off camera. Putting the flash on a stand with an umbrella allows photographers to take a small, hard light source and create soft lighting.

Used together, the direction and softness of the light can be used to create different effects and moods in a photograph. Hard side lighting creates lots of drama, while a soft front light creates a calmer mood.

Colour of Lighting

Our eyes can often be tricked by the colour of light especially when it is very bright and hard to look at. Your camera however will read the light exactly as it sees it or is told to see it. This is what your cameras white balance is in place for. This is why it is important to understand lighting in photography.

White Balance

A white balance aims to correct the images white objects so that they still appear white in the photograph even under different light sources. Most cameras have an automatic white balance mode. They also have options named after the different types of light sources. For example sun mode or cloud mode. Manual white balance allows you to take a picture of a white object leaving the camera to determine the white balance from that image.

White balance is also one of the reasons many photographers shoot RAW files instead of JPEG. With a RAW file, adjusting the white balance is as simple as using a Lightroom slider. Literally. Getting it right in-camera is easier, but editing in post with a RAW file makes fixing white balance errors easy. RAW files also make it easy to remove a green or purple hue as well. More on hues another time though.

It is important to note that manual white balance doesn’t offer as much control as using the Kelvin scale. If you can familiarise yourself with this scale you will really start producing higher end photos.

Kelvin Scale

Adjusting the white balance on the Kelvin scale is the equivalent of manual mode for exposure. It gives photographers complete control over the white balance. Shade is often set at 7500K, while daylight is about 5500K and sunset 2500K. This image below is a brilliant scale identifier.

An accurate white balance means that objects that are white in real life are also white in the image. As photographers though we know that accurate isn’t always what’s right for the photograph. Using the Kelvin scale to skew the white balance to be more orange creates a warm feeling in an image, creating a look similar to shooting near sunset. On the other side, adjusting the white balance towards the blue end creates a cooler look, often used to create a somber mood in a photograph. Film photographers often used warming and cooling filters to create these effects. Digital photography makes it easy to simply adjust the white balance in camera or in post.

Photographers can also get creative with the source of their light using flash gels. These coloured pieces fit over the flash and create coloured lights. Like the lights on a dance floor. Since colour helps create mood in a photograph, using gels can be a fun way to experiment with the colour of lighting in photography. You can even start to experiment further and create some Bokeh if you are feeling up to the challenge.

Source of Lighting

Natural light refers to sunlight/daylight. Artificial light refers to all kinds of light sources. Including fluorescent lights, electric lights, flash, and so on.

Natural light

Natural light is less controllable, and it varies greatly depending on numerous conditions. Time of day, season, weather, and geographical location. To its credit, it does not require any equipment. The choice between using natural or artificial light is obviously more relevant for portrait or still life photography than it is for landscape or wildlife photography.

Long exposure

These are some factors that affect natural light:

  • Weather – A cloudy day generates soft light and is usually preferred in photography, as mentioned earlier. By contrast, sunny lighting conditions yield harder, brighter light with shadows that are more defined. However, this just scratches the surface. Cloud cover is almost never even, and this leads to varying patterns in the intensity of light. both as it shines on objects and in the sky. Weather phenomena, such as storms and fog, also alter the intensity and colour of light. This can create shots that vary from being totally unusable to exceptional images with spectacular effects. This is why you will often see photographers go back to the same place time and time again. You rarely get the same lighting twice in a row.
  • Time of day –  You can usually get softer lighting conditions early or late in the day. This light is generally warmer, producing images with less contrast compared to when the sun is high up in the sky. Sunrise and sunset are often considered ideal times for photography. Particularly for landscapes and portraits. This time of day is referred to as the golden hour. During this time of day, the lighting conditions change rapidly, both in terms of intensity and color, and allow for shooting images that are far more varied, often within the space of minutes. Shadows also change in shape and darkness, as the sun sets or rises, becoming longer and lighter as the sun sets and vice versa.
  • Location – In general, the further you are from the equator, the more time it takes for the sun to climb or set. Therefore, the soft light conditions found in the early morning and late evening can last much longer in such areas. You can also take advantage of weather phenomena like the northern and southern lights if you are in the right location
  • Air pollution – Similar to mist and clouds, pollution acts as a diffuser of sunlight as the beams of light are reflected and scattered by the airborne particles.

Artificial Light

The challenges of using natural light are quite similar to those faced when shooting in artificial light. You must still understand how various light sources act upon a subject and how to produce the desired effect. Different sources of light can produce soft or hard light when shooting in a studio, but in this case, the photographer has direct control over elements such as hardness, distance, intensity, and angle. Furthermore, artificial light from different sources yields different color heat signatures. For instance, halogen bulbs are colder and produce a light that is blue in color, while tungsten bulbs, being hotter, produce light with a reddish hue.

portrait photography

Keep in mind that when you use different sources of artificial light, these must produce the same color heat signature. The only exception to this is if you’re shooting in black and white.

When it comes down to controlling and manipulating light, there are many options within photography. Whether you’re dealing with artificial, natural, soft, or hard light. It comes down to understanding how images are affected by different lighting conditions. Setting up the desired lighting environment, adjusting your camera settings (e.g., the white balance), and post-processing your picture in programs such Lightroom or Photoshop.

Without lighting in photography there would be no photography. The key is being able to judge your light and work with it. Manipulating the way it hits your lens and camera sensor can produce free and unique perspectives. Don’t forget it is also so important to familiarise yourself with the exposure triangle so you can really master the light hitting your image sensor.


Leave your thoughts!