Top 10 Photography Lighting Facts Beginner Photographers Need to Know
Understanding Photography Lighting
When it comes to creating any type of photo - a portrait, a landscape, a macro scene, and everything in between, lighting is the most important factor.
But as you've probably discovered, lighting is also one of the most difficult aspects of getting a high-quality photo.
In some cases, the lighting is too bright and harsh.
On other occasions, it's too dim and dark.
You might not know how to use continuous lighting to your advantage.
Using a flash or a strobe might be a little confusing as well.
So, there's lots to learn, to be sure!
Let's get started learning more about lighting with these 10 essential lighting facts.
Light Has Color
All light has color, or more specifically, a color temperature.
Our eyes are very skilled at seamlessly detecting these variations in color and adjusting our vision such that it usually goes unnoticed.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the sensor in your camera.
Your camera's sensor records the color of light as it sees it - that is unless you tell it otherwise.
For example, in the image above, the light is very "warm," with a golden tone to it that's common after sunrise and before sunset during Golden Hour.
Conversely, light during the middle of the day has a much cooler tone, with an almost blueish appearance and indoor tungsten lighting is very yellow.
You can control for these color casts by using the white balance controls on your camera to neutralize those colors. Learn how to do that by watching the in-depth video below by Mike Browne:
Distance Makes Your Lighting Dimmer
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it's still worth mentioning.
The further your subject is from a light source, the dimmer the lighting will be.
In fact, light falls off very quickly as it's moved away - at a rate of the square of the distance.
That means that if the light source is moved twice as far away, you get just one-fourth of the light you originally had.
If you find that the lighting is just too dim for what you need to do, either move the light closer to your subject or move the subject closer to the light.
Alternatively, you can use dim lighting as just one creative way to use lighting, as was done in the image above.
The Fall Off of Light Helps Define the Background
The manner in which the distance to a light source impacts its brightness doesn't just impact the subject. It also impacts the background.
For example, if your light source is very near your subject, they will be more brightly lit, but the background will be much more in shadow.
Conversely, if you move the light source further away from your subject, the subject will be more dimly lit, but the background will be brighter.
So, if you want to create an image in which the background is unseen, keep the lighting close to your subject.
However, if you want to show the relationship between the subject and the background, move your light source further away from the subject, as was done in the image above.
If the Lighting is Too Harsh, Broaden the Light Source
Let's say you're taking a portrait and find that there are harsh shadows on your subject's face.
This might occur because the subject is too near a bare source, like a flash or even a window through which the sun is shining.
An easy way to rectify this is to choose a broader light source, or one that is diffused in some way.
When a broader light source is used, the light hits the subject from more directions. That helps fill in shadows and provide a much more even lighting for the subject.
Looking at the image above, you can see how the lighting on the mom and her child is very even and broad.
This was accomplished by diffusing the intensity of the sunlight of the window by moving the subjects deeper into the house. This has the effect of broadening the light, making it much more pleasing for the portrait.
So, if you find the lighting to be too harsh, do what you can to diffuse the light - if indoors, pull the curtains to soften the light. If outdoors, seek shade or shoot on a cloudy day.
Speaking of Diffusion...It's Your Friend!
Diffusion is certainly your friend when you need to improve the lighting for your photos.
When diffusion occurs, the lighting source is scattered, making it more even.
So, when using a flash, the bare flash emits extremely intense, harsh lighting, which is often not flattering.
However, add a gadget like the 3D Flex Flash NEST, and you get soft, diffused lighting that results in a far more pleasing image.
The NEST works because its honeycomb lid allows plenty of light through, but scatters it around the scene for both indoor and outdoor usage.
All you have to do is slide it onto your hot-shoe mounted flash and you're ready to go! There's no complicated mounting brackets, no straps, and no velcro. It literally just slides right on!
The NEST even has a removable lid so if you need to increase the lighting to bounce it off the ceiling, for example, you can quickly and easily do that.
This gadget is also flexible - you can fold it flat for easy storage - and durable too, because it's 3D printed with a single piece of plastic.
If you need to diffuse light from your flash, there's not an easier way to do it than with the 3D Flex Flash NEST.
Bounced Light is Better Light
Another way to diffuse intense light is to bounce it off another surface.
For example, if lighting a portrait with a single flash, aiming the flash directly at your subject will result in intense and harsh light.
As noted above, you can diffuse that light by filtering it through a gadget like the NEST.
Another option you can try is to bounce the light.
3D Flex Flash has another handy lighting tool called the WYNG that does just that.
Like the NEST, the WYNG simply slides onto your hot-shoe mounted flash.
Once in place, the lightweight and flexible WYNG reflects light forward and bounces it off walls, ceilings, and the like, while also eliminating those ugly, harsh shadows. You can turn your flash 180-degrees for an even softer lighting effect.
And like the NEST, the WYNG is made of a single piece of 3D printed plastic, so it's strong and durable, yet flexible and easily stored in your camera bag.
Don't let bad lighting get in the way of your photos anymore. Add a WYNG to your kit so you can get the soft, reflected light you need for the most impactful photos. See the WYNG and the NEST in action in the video below:
Frontlighting Minimizes Shadows
If your goal is to minimize shadows, frontlighting is the way to go.
Frontlighting occurs when the light source shines directly onto the subject, like a flash in a portrait photography studio.
While frontlighting minimizes shadows, it also minimizes texture, which is often advantageous when creating portraits of older individuals that might want the appearance of wrinkles to be minimized.
As you can see in the image above, there are no shadows on the man's face because of the bright, even frontlighting that was used.
On the downside, frontlighting is quite flat, with very little dimension as a result of the absence of shadowing.
Just bear those qualities in mind when deciding how to light your subject.
Sidelighting Adds Drama
When light enters a scene from the side, it adds long shadows that give the image the depth and dimension that frontlighting lacks.
This is a popular type of lighting for landscapes, as it gives the image a more three-dimensional look.
It can also be used effectively for portraits with a more artistic flair, like the image above.
You can see how the light entering the scene from our left gives this image an incredible amount of drama, especially compared to the frontlit portrait example in the previous section.
If you're looking for lighting that gives your image tons of visual impact, try sidelighting.
Backlighting Reduces Detail, But Can Still Be Dramatic
When a portrait is backlit, the lighting source is behind the subject, shining directly towards your camera.
In the portrait world, this often results in a silhouette like the one shown above.
Note how backlighting minimizes detail of the subject, but there's still enough detail to determine that the subject is a man seated on a bench with his head in his hands.
But, despite not having all the detail you'd otherwise have if the scene were frontlit or lit from the side, this image still has tons of drama because of the shadows in the scene.
You can vary the effect of the silhouette, too. For a darker silhouette, expose for a brighter part of the sky. For more details in the subject, expose for a darker part of the scene. You can even use Photoshop to backlight your portraits!
Use Shadows to Create Volume
As noted above, sidelighting and backlighting often produce more dramatic images because of the inclusion of shadows.
That's because shadows create volume in the scene, which gives it a more three-dimensional look.
With that volume, your images - whether they are landscapes, portraits, or something in between - will have more visual impact.
That means that if you want to give your photos added punch, try lighting them from the side, from behind, or even from above or below.
The shadows that result from those lighting schemes, as you can see in the image above, can be quite pleasing.
And with that, you've got ten facts about lighting that will help you create more impactful portraits.
Give each of these tips a try and see how they change the quality of the photographs you create!