Whether you are taking snapshots for fun, you want to make a career out of it, or you are taking photographs of products and art pieces for your website or blog, lighting is everything. It can make or break your pictures, and in some cases, it could make or break your career. When you understand a little bit about photography lighting, it can help improve the quality of your photographs exponentially.
In this guide, we are going to talk to give you basic information about the fundamentals of photography lighting, basic photography lighting equipment and how they work, and useful photography lighting tips and techniques that will help you improve and make your photographs stand out.
Without further ado, let’s get started, shall we?
When we take photographs, we don’t realize how important lighting is until the photo is developed and the pictures don’t turn out as you’d hoped. They are either too dark, and you can’t see any details, or they are too light, and everything looks washed out. Because lighting can be tricky to control, many folks prefer to wait until they have ample natural lighting to provide them with the look they want.
Mastering lighting is going to take some time and practice, sure, but you can fortify that practice by learning a little bit about how lighting works and how to experiment with it.
Some basics of photography lighting that everyone should know include:
Exposure is what happens when light hits film or your camera’s sensor. The result of this is the lightness or darkness of your picture. Many times you’ll often hear exposures being talked about by using stops or exposure values (EV). On newer cameras, there is a scale that reflects these values and has up to 9 stops, with 0 being a balanced value that’s been judged by the camera.
Not only can light be light or dark, but it can also be hard or soft as well. This is typically is the result of how large the source of light is when compared to the subject of the photograph. A large source of light that is close to the subject will create a soft light with equally soft shadows (if any).
In essence, the light is hugging the subject. A smaller, brighter light that is further away from the subject is going to create hard light that is going to give you hard shadows that are defined.
When it comes to sunlight, you may think that it is a small light source. However, it is also able to give off soft light because our atmosphere will diffuse much of the light, allowing it to bounce and reflect off bright or light colored objects. Other natural diffusers include fog and clouds.
With photography lighting, the source of the light can come from a variety of sources such as:
Many photographers enjoy using outdoor lighting because can give you very different photographs, even if you take the same picture throughout the day. The changing daylight is able to alter the shape, color, tone, and even the form of the photo. The quality of the sunlight is going to depend on how strong the light is, and it's direct.
Hard sunlight is going to produce shadows that are dark and well defined. It is also going to create distinct highlights with the form of the subject being strong and prominent. Sunlight that is diffused and directionless is called “flat lighting” because it’ll give you fine details, but it flattens or weakens the form. This type of lighting is great for creating colors that are fully saturated and vibrant.
This type of lighting is what you get when you use whatever light is visible on the scene. Existing lighting is the light that exists around the house, the office, or inside any other building. You can also take pictures at twilight or after dark, and that will also be called existing light.
This type of lighting is most common when you’re working on a photo shoot, studio setup. This is when you are using fluorescent lighting to illuminate a photograph. To the eye, these scenes look natural, the pictures will have the same color cast which makes them look unnatural.
When you fluorescent lighting properly, it can be an asset because they’re brighter and create even lighting than other lamps like tungsten. These types of light make it much easier to be able to help you get all the detail that are usually lost in shadowy areas that are the result of using other forms of existing lighting.
Have you ever noticed that some photos you have, your background is bright, but your subject is dark? This is attributed to your camera’s metering. Typically, the camera is set to an evaluative metering mode.
This means it is going to meter the whole frame rather than one particular spot. To fix this, change the setting to “Spot Metering.” With this setting, the camera will meter the scene by focusing on a particular point, and you’ll get the desired picture that you were hoping for. Backlighting can help with this, too.
While it is important that you have ample lighting in your photographs, you’re going to have to be mindful of where the light is coming from. It’s important because although you see one thing, the camera is likely to pick up on something entirely different, which is called “dynamic range.”
To understand this, think of a subject that has a light coming from behind them. They aren’t going to have any light on their face, so when you take a picture, you’re going to have a subject with an unclear face. If this isn’t the look that you’re going for, you will have to light the face another way. Most professionals will use a reflector rather than another light.
As we previously stated, light is important in photography, but so are shadows. When you start taking notice of where the light is coming from, you’ll want to watch at how the shadows appear.
Depending on how you choreograph the photo, you’re going to see that the shadows are going to make the subject look fantastic, or terrible. This is attributed to the shape of the subject, how large the source of light is, or how much light is present.
If you are going to be taking photographs in a studio, you’re probably going to use some kind of studio photography lighting setup, which is going to require equipment. However, the type of equipment you need depends on what you are going to be taking pictures. Most people are going to use continuous studio lights rather than flash.
Continuous lighting is inexpensive, and it is a great starting point for those who are working with a smaller budget. It’s also good for beginners because you can see where the light is pointed and adjust it, so you get the shadows and highlights that you’re looking for.
However, continuous lighting does produce more heat, which can be uncomfortable if you’re photographing people for long periods of time. Also, the light that a continuous set up creates isn’t as balanced as natural daylight.
With flash, you aren’t going to know where the light is going to be, so the shadows and highlights on the subject are going to be a surprise. However, the benefits of using a flash include:
On a studio flash unit, you’re going to find that it is fitted with a continuous lamp. The continuous lamp additions to the flash units will give you an accurate indication of where the flash is going to go and the quality of light it is going to produce when the flash if fired. This is going to make your studio lighting easier to set up since it’s one of those “see what you get” type deals.
Also, these lamps don’t require a lot of power to work, so you or your subject isn’t going to experience the same discomfort because of the heat as you would normally feel with continuous lighting. You do have to remember that flash creates a bright burst of light, so your shadows are going to be darker, and your highlights are going to be brighter.
You can trick the natural compensation that your brain and eye will do by closing one eye and squint through your eyelashes. This simulates the contrast your camera sees, and it’ll give you an idea of how your photo is going to turn out.
Typically in continuous lighting set ups, they use tungsten bulbs. These bulbs have a tendency to give your photographs a yellowish color the more the bulbs burn. However, with a flash, the color of the flash is going to be the same each time, and it will look closer to daylight than tungsten. This means that you don’t have to worry about what kind of film use without worrying about needing to use a filter.
Modern flashes give you a lot of light within a tiny fraction of a second. Most people who are into photography for personal use are going to be fine with a unit that has a power of 600 watts per second, at the most. You can control that power by using power switch and even move the flash head down. Some more advanced flash heads will allow you to control the power reductions even more, depending on what you need.
When you choose your light source, you are also going to want to have some kind of light modifier to create the perfect lighting. The most common types of these modifiers are umbrella lighting and softbox light kits.
This type of light modifier is able to diffuse the harsh light from your electronic flash and turns it into something that looks natural and flattering—much like the light you’d get from sitting by a sunny window. However, unlike a sunny window, you can change the direction, the intensity, the angle, and even the color of the light. These are affordable, portable, and incredibly useful.
You can get two kinds of umbrellas for your photography. A reflective umbrella and a white optical umbrella. The reflective umbrellas are lined in the white or silver lining and have a black backing. You’ll want to shoot the flash into the reflective material, and this will make the “hard” light bounce back, creating a soft, broad, and even light onto your subject.
The white optical umbrellas are more versatile because you can control the power and softness of the light, even if you're inches from your subject.
You may be asking yourself, “What is Softbox lighting?” It’s a device that emulates the same sort of light that comes through a window during the day. It is used to soften and diffuse the light when it’s attached to a light source because it transmits the light through a diffusion panel.
These boxes are available in a rectangular, square, and octagonal shapes. They also come in a variety of sizes, even large ones that can direct a directional but soft light. When you use a Softbox, you are shooting through the light, thus allowing you to use flash that doesn’t use so much power. Softboxes also can utilize accessories like grids or louvers that’ll make your light a narrower and more even.
When trying to decide which modifier is going to be better to use, it really depends on what you are trying to achieve. A Softbox offers softer light, and an umbrella is going to give you photo more oomph. Because they offer different outcomes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have both on hand—if your budget allows for it, that is.
While an umbrella light and a Softbox light are the most common modifiers, there are some other tools that you could use to control and change the lighting of your photographs.
Naturally, when you are setting up your studio lighting kits, you’re going to need something to support the light sources, your modifiers, and even your backdrops. You’ll probably be choosing one of two types of stands for your lights: lightweight stands and heavy-duty C-Stands. Both are available in a variety of sizes, lengths and of course, price points.
As you start looking around for a lightweight stand, you are going to want to keep in mind that an air-shock stand is going to be more expensive, but they are worth it. The air shock is going to decrease the impact of the light if it falls over because of an accident. Sometimes the air-shock will prevent any damage to your light system altogether. Also, we want to recommend that you find a stand where the legs are spaced far apart, thus giving your setup more stability.
C-Stands are typical pieces of equipment found in video lighting kits. They are heavy duty and incredibly stable but, you should know that this stability comes at a price—a hefty one. And, unfortunately, with that price, they usually don’t have air shocks like the lightweight stands, so that means you’re going to have to be mindful around your equipment.
With that said, these stands are generally found with video lighting equipment because they are durable and they are pretty darn stable. There are some attachments that can be mounted on the stand, allowing them to perform some duties, not just hold up your lights.
Now that we’ve covered the different types of equipment that are generally used for photography lighting and video lighting let’s get to the good stuff—photography lighting techniques!
If you happen to be photographing people, you’re going to want to put them in the best lighting possible, right? Especially if they are modeling a certain outfit, hairstyle, or makeup look. If you’re unfamiliar with lighting techniques in a studio, it may seem a little challenging. However, these tips are going to help you make the most out of your photography, and even your videography.
When you have a broad light source, the light is going to be softer. With a broad light source, shadows decrease, there is less contrast, and it diminishes the appearance of texture. On the other hand, with a narrow light source, you are going to have the complete opposite.
The narrow light is hitting your subject directly, thus creating more defined shadows and even highlighting the texture. With the broad light, the light is coming from many directions, filling in the shadowy areas and giving more illumination to the frame.
When a light source is far away, it is going to be hard light. So, the logical thing would be to move the light closer to your subject. This makes the light broader about the subject you’re photographing. When you move the light source further from the subject, it is going to be relatively smaller, and so it is going to be more narrow.
Okay, let’s think of it this way. We know that the sun is exponentially larger than the Earth, but because it is so far away, it only takes up a tiny piece of the sky. So it casts a hard light when it is “falling” on any single object.
Have you ever noticed that when the clouds cover the sun, the light isn’t as bright and the shadows tend to get softer and less defined? Add a bit of fog into the mix, and the shadows disappear completely.
When you’re outside, clouds, overcast skies, and the fog are going to act like a diffuser. It is going to make the light scatter into multiple directions. When you’re setting up for an indoor photography shoot, you can use Softbox light kits to achieve the same effect.
If you direct a narrow source of light at a wall, ceiling or some other matte background, it is going to reflect that light, but it is also going to diffuse it and scatter it back over a broader area. If you use a reflective material, the light isn’t going to spread out nearly as much and remain relatively narrow.
There is a rule that suggests light is going to fall away as the square of the distance. Before you think we’re crazy and making things more complicated than helping to simplify things, hear us out. If you are twice as far from the subject, you are only going to have a quarter of the amount of light illuminating your subject.
In other words, the light is going to become much dimmer the further you move away from whatever you’re photographing. This is something that you’re going to want to keep in mind when you’re rearranging your lights.
If you have your source of light close to your subject, that shadow your subject creates the backdrop is going to be more detailed. If you move the light away from your subject, the backdrop is going to appear brighter.
This can be said the same for side lighting. If you choose to put the light source closer to one side of your subject, the shadow is going to be more pronounced.
If you put a source of light in front of your subject, you are going to reduce the look of texture. For example, if you’re taking a photo of your mother, the closer the light is to her face, the less you will see wrinkles and other imperfections (she’ll love you for that!).
However, if you want to take a photo of a beautiful landscape, you’re going to want light coming from the side so that it emphasizes the various textures of the rocks, flora, and even the sand! Remember, the greater the angle the light is to the subject, the more pronounced the textures are going to be.
Shadows are important to your photography, especially if you are trying to make your photos come to life and not look so flat. When you illuminate something from any side or from the top or bottom, it is going to create a deep and long shadow, thus giving the illusion of volume and dimension. The use of angular light is popular for still-life, landscape, and product photography.
It is uncommon for people to have the subject of their photography backlit completely, creating a total silhouette and the entire front of the subject is basically covered in shadow. Let’s say there is someone standing with their back facing the setting sun.
The brilliant light from the sun is going to be falling from the vast sky above that person. A photo with this as it’s light source is going to have a subject where the facial texture and dimension of the subject are going to be greatly deemphasized.
When we talk about the color of light, it is called “color temperature.” Our brain and eyes are able to adjust our perception, so we don’t notice all the different colors. However, digital sensors and film are still able to capture that color.
Photos that are taken in the early hours of the morning and later in the afternoon the sun creates a warm tone, while midday, there is a blueish tone to photos. Digital cameras are able to control and neutralize the color, thanks to white-balance. But, cameras can also be used to enhance the tones, too.
Every day, more and more people are picking up the camera and taking videos or photographs. If you are taking photographs or video for a living, be it as a professional photographer, a blogger, a product reviewer, or a seller, you’re going to want to make the subject of your photographs stand out.
How do you do that? With lighting, of course. Lighting can be an element that can turn a flat, lifeless photo into something awe-inspiring, as long as you know how to manipulate and use the light to achieve the look you want.
Lighting equipment isn’t cheap; but if this is a career path you wish to follow or a hobby that you are passionate about, you are going to want to make the investment and purchase quality photography lighting equipment. In the beginning, you’re going to want to start with basic pieces of equipment like grips, stands, a Softbox or an umbrella lighting set up. Then, you can add and upgrade your gear when you can.
If you’re uncertain about the gear that is going to work for you, you can try renting the equipment before you make the commitment and purchasing something. By renting, you can get a feel for how the item works and perfect your technique.
For example, maybe you’re a product reviewer, and you create a big elaborate setting to take a photo. Maybe you want to simplify your style so that the product is front and center. So you decide to try a lighting tent because it’ll give you a beautiful picture that is lit well without any distracting backgrounds.
In closing, we hope that you find the tips we provided about lighting and how to manipulate it to get the perfect shot helpful. With a little bit of patience and practice, you can turn any shot into a beautiful photography with the right lighting!