Photography Lighting – The Essential Beginner’s Guide


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Photography with lights doesn’t have to be complicated as many would have you believe. If you begin with the complicated lighting setups found in some studios, your head might spin. But if you start with the underlying principles that apply to photography lighting and work your way up, learning the skills of photography with these photography lighting tips will be easy and fun. 

Photography Lighting Tips and Basics: 

Lighting Setup: The Importance of Position

Understanding light in photography depends on where the photographer places the light source, be it natural or artificial. And doing this affects the final image more than anything. Putting the light in front of the subject usually produces a flat image, with little or no depth or contour. By moving the light a bit to the side, shadows and texture appear. Keep in mind that when working with natural light, you might be moving the subject rather than the light. The result is the same, and the essential factor is always the position of the lights relative to your subject. 

Lighting a subject from the side will produce the most dramatic pictures, with deep shadows and a lot of depth. This look is very specific, with emotional and moody undertones.

When the light is behind your subject, the subject usually appears shadowed or silhouetted. If you work the settings of your camera carefully, you can expose these images properly and use lights behind your subject as a rim light. These are accent lights that add an extra element of interest and depth to pull your subject out of the frame. They are especially appealing in portraits and some product photography.

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Types of Lighting in Photography

Soft Light vs. Hard Light

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Different light sources have different qualities. These qualities are most noticeable in the shadows produced on photographs. If the light is diffuse, it creates fewer shadows with a softer differentiation between light and shadow. This is soft light. While it comes from a source, the light is spread out in many directions from that source. That is another way of saying that it isn’t directional. A cloudy day is an excellent example of soft light. It can be a very desirable look for many images and is usually preferable to hard light.

If you’re trying to make the light softer on your subject, you can use a diffuser. If you are shooting with a speedlight, many have diffuser boxes that you can attach. These pieces of white plastic spread out the light and soften shadows. One of the important photography lighting techniques in soft-light photography is to use a bounce flash. By directing your flash at a larger object, you effectively create a flash out of that object. You can use a wall or a ceiling opposite your subject, which in effect diffuses the light hitting your subject. Professional photographers working with models often use what is known as a beauty box. These are large light setups that disperse a lot of light onto the subject but still produce a soft light look.

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Hard light comes from a directional light, like a spotlight, a flash, or the sun. Shadows are very harsh, and there is a big difference between the lit areas and the dark. On portraits, the result is a sharp look that is usually not what your clients are looking for. Hard light has its place in photography, but it often inspires a moody or dark feeling in your images.

Flash and Natural Light

Don’t leap to the conclusion that photography lighting is only about flashes and strobes. Sure, speedlights play a vital role in a lot of photo light setups, but the sun and moon are much more critical part of natural light photography. Natural light is one of the types of lighting in photography, in which the use of light is already present in the natural environment. If you’re outdoors, that’s light from the sun and everything the sun is bouncing off of. Indoors, it might be the light coming through the windows and those light sources already present, like lamps, candles, or fluorescent bulbs. You could make an entire career in photography and never use a strobe light.

Most photographers want a little more control over their photos, however. Speedlight are flashes that attach to your camera and use your camera’s metering system. They can usually be paired with other units around the scene to produce multiple light sources. They are flexible in that they can be positioned from any angle, any direction, and almost any distance from your subject.

There’s also more advanced studio lighting available, which lights up specific areas of the frame like the background. Specialty lights can also have a particular purpose, such as to soften shadows, creating catch light, or producing a color tint.

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Color Temperature

All light sources have an associated color temperature which measures in degrees Kelvin. Warmer colors have a lower temperature than cooler colors. They come from candles and incandescent lights. The color temperature of Natural sunlight falls somewhere in the middle. When sunlight diffuses on cloudy days, it generally gets cooler. Fluorescent lights are very cool, with an almost blue cast to them.

Your camera’s white balance controls how it captures the temperature of the light. You can usually set the white balance several ways, and there’s nearly always an automatic setting. Once you begin working with several different light source, however, it becomes tough for the camera to pick the color you want.

Here is how to set the white balance manually. Most cameras also have a manual setting mode. You can use a light meter to check the temperature of light on your subject in Kelvin and then input that. You can also take a sample image of a white object, like a square of fabric, and use that to set the camera.

Another great tip for dealing with color temperature is to shoot in RAW mode. Files saved as JPEGs will not contain enough data to change the color temperature after the fact. You can adjust the image hue and tint, but the results will always be less than satisfactory. A RAW file, on the other hand, will contain enough data to easily adjust the color temperature as if you were still there taking the picture. Lightroom and other RAW editors have a slider to experiment with the color temperature and fine tune it as necessary.

Photography Lighting Basics: Shoot in Natural Light

By far, the best starting place is using natural light to learn how to do professional photography lighting. This removes a variable for the photographer: you can’t move or control the light source itself. But what you can do is move around, change the time of day, filter the light through a window with shades, and move the light behind the subject or in front of it.

By keeping it basic, you will learn the fundamentals of light. Shoot outdoors, and play with different lighting setups like direct sunlight, cloudy days, filtered light under trees, and shooting in dark shadows.

But what happens to this theory when there’s not enough light, you ask? For example, when you want to shoot indoors in a small room? Well, the photographer can add more light by creatively using the light sources already there. Lamps and candles can help you produce intimate portraits or delicate still-lifes. Consider what light sources are already in the room, and arrange your shoot around them. Filter the light coming through the windows. You can make some cool effects with blinds and control the light hitting your subject at the same time.

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There are a few tools in the photographer’s toolkit that can help you modify and control natural light. Diffusers, which are held between the subject and the light, distribute the light to make it softer, avoiding deep shadows. Reflectors can help you add extra light to specific areas of a photo. They act as a mirror and can shine more light onto a subject’s face, for example. The great news about shooting with natural light and using these simple tools is that it’s almost free!

Use Strobes When Relevant

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Even if you are a natural light photographer, photography lighting equipment such as a flash or Speedlight has a place in your camera bag. You can also do for continuous lighting photography where continuous lights are used. These are beneficial when a photographer has to see how a photo will look when the shoot is in process. This advantage is not there when you are using flash or strobe lights as the lights come in short bursts. 

While shooting with natural light sources produces beautiful photographs, sometimes it’s not the look you’re going for. Most portrait and fashion work are now done with artificial light so that the photographer can control every aspect of how the light falls on the subject. As a result, naturally lit portraits are becoming more and more the realm of fine art photographers.

Use multiple light sources

The more you play with photography lighting basics, the more you will start using and thinking about multiple light sources. Multiple strobes give you the ability to control every aspect of photo light falling on your model, from the highlights to the shadows.

In strobe light photography, the best lighting for photography is to have two light sources on each side the camera, 45-degrees between being a straight-on light source and a sidelight when you are taking portraits. This placement produces a soft shadow and depth while leaving out harsh dark shadows. The two lights balance each other out, so the light source will ideally appear diffuse and soft on the subject’s face.

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With all your light in front of the model, dark shadows may appear on the background when you are setting up indoor photography lighting. A third light source is often used to light the background. Just like the model, this light could be in front of or behind the background. If you are thinking of outdoor photography lighting, then the background (third) light source might well be the sun. Practising such setups will help you to move towards professional photography lighting. 

High Key vs. Low Key Lighting

If you flip through the pages of your favorite photography or fashion magazine, you’ll notice that most of the photos are bright and well lit. In fashion photography, in particular, the trend is towards more light and fewer shadows. These images seldom have much depth to them, but they have just enough shadow to keep things looking real. This is known in the industry as high key lighting.

The opposite of high key is low key. In low key photos, photography lighting setup is more natural and perhaps even darker. Images of this style are more intimate and usually used to give a more raw feeling to the picture. Read more about low-key lighting

Low Light Photography

As the amount of light entering the camera change, the camera settings must change to capture the image correctly. What doesn’t necessarily charge are the photography lighting basics discussed above. Light placement, direction, hardness, and temperature all still apply. But your camera might capture it better than you can see it.

Low light photography requires the use of a tripod, even though that’s a good practice almost all of the time. The longer shutter speeds necessary to capture low light images will pick up blur and camera shake, so it’s mandatory to have the camera mounted securely and your subject’s movements carefully controlled. Read about night photography

When your exposure lasts more than a few seconds, strobes no longer help the image significantly. They can, however, be used to illuminate the front-end or back-end of long exposure with special settings. More useful is the concept of light painting. By using a powerful photo light, you can illuminate a subject or a foreground area for an extended period. If you’re shooting astrophotography or lightning, you will often find that the foreground landscape is too dark. You can fix this by light painting the dark parts of the image while the shutter is still open. You will have to experiment with the amount of light, and it’s the duration to get the perfect exposure.

Final thoughts:

Photography lighting isn’t as mysterious as it sounds. By starting with the basics of photography lighting techniques and playing with a photo light or two, you’ll master getting the perfect exposure in no time. Learning from these photography lighting tips to control your photography with lights is one of the best things you can do to improve your photography skills. The photos you will take after learning new things through lighting will improve the value of your portfolio.