Updated: 7 Dec 2021
During our everyday lives, we all take natural and artificial light sources for granted. However, there are many factors that contribute to great photography, but none is more important than light.
So, did you know the definition of the word photography is “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor)”.
Even the word photography derives from the Greek words “photos” meaning light and “graphie” meaning lines or drawing; together meaning “drawing with light”.
Whether you are beginner to photography or have been taking images for years, it’s always a good idea to brush up on some popular, versatile and commonly used forms of lighting in photography.
“When you’re deciding what type of light works for your project, it’s going to come down to your subject and the concept and mood you are attempting to execute in camera”.
There is no universally perfect light for every different scenario, but during this article I will address the basics and you will start to learn about the importance of different types of natural and artificial lighting and how you can determine which one will work best for your specific image.
While many professional photographers have made a career from shooting portraits in a studio, other photographers favour the type of light you can only get from nature.
Always remember, we are trying to get the right light onto your camera sensor.
When it comes to photography, the type of lighting that you use is the most important element in the composition of any image. Light in photography refers to how the light source, natural or artificial and how the position of light source relates to your subject.
The position and quality of light can affect any number of things in your final image, from clarity to tone to emotion and so much more. By paying attention to how light plays off the angles and curves of your subject and which parts of the subject are illuminated and which are in darkness, you will become a stronger photographer because you’ll start to learn how to harness your light source in the most effective way for any given composition and project.
Whether you’re shooting portrait or landscape photography, so much of your lighting choices will depend on the features of the subject and how you want them to be portrayed in your photos. For example, hard light is more severe and will emphasize angles and any surface that are not perfectly flat, like the waves at a beach, whilst soft light will always smooth over these features.
Understanding how to make the best use of natural and artificial lighting in every situation will be a huge step forward in your journey to improving and producing the best possible images.
There are two main kinds of light are natural and artificial.
Natural light is anything that occurs without human intervention, so it can be the direct light of the sun on a bright day, the diffused light created by a cloudy or foggy day or even the light of the moon at night.
On the other side of things, artificial light can often be moved around and adjusted to fit your situation. It is easier to position artificial light in relation to your subject than with natural lighting, where you would have to move the subject and camera according to the lighting technique that you want to use.
Both artificial and natural lighting can be manipulated to create any number of styles of lighting, as long as you know how to use them.
“There are so many types of lights in photography and they each create different effects”.
There are so many types of lights in photography and they each create different effects. Here are some of the most common types of light and how to use them. (Remember: You can always use filters to control the different types of light)
If you want to use natural light in your photography, it’s important to understand the angle of the sun and how that will affect your composition. For example, for most of the day, the sun is directly overhead so your subject will be lit from above. A sunny day without clouds will result in more intense shadows, whilst a sky full of clouds will diffuse the sunlight so that the contrast of light on your subject is less harsh.
For natural lighting that is softer, you may want to make use of the hour’s closest to sunrise and sunset, when the sun will be off to a slight angle as opposed to directly above your subject and the brightness of the sun may be less extreme. These times of the day are when professional landscape photographers most like to shoot.
Front Light (or Flat Light)
Front light occurs when the light source is directly in front of your subject. Since the light is not at an angle, this can result in a limited number of shadows. The light will be spread evenly across the photo, with no section more or less exposed than the rest.
Flat light can be good for portraits. However, if you are attempting to create a portrait that shows a lot of personality, front lighting will not provide the detail you need in order to bring the subject’s character to life.
Another benefit of using front lighting is if you are exploring symmetry photography, as the lack of shadows helps to make both sides of the face appear more symmetrical.
Backlit photos are when the light source is behind the subject with the subject in between the light and your camera. This can be a great opportunity to play with silhouette and long shadows in your photography. The potential downside to backlit photos is that the white balance will be off, resulting in a loss of detail in your subject. This works well for silhouettes, but if you still want to see some detail on your subject, this is the time to pull out your light diffuser to reflect some of the light from the background onto the front of the subject.
Soft lighting occurs when your light source is diffused, so that the effect is more subtle than it would be with a direct source of light. By using soft light, you will end up with less intense shadows, if any at all and a lower contrast between the darks and lights in your photo.
If you’re working in a photography studio, you can use a diffusion panel between the light source and your subject. If you’re shooting outside, soft light will occur naturally on an overcast day, as the clouds in the sky diffuse the direct light from the sun.
The opposite of soft or diffused light, hard lighting is when your light source is pointed directly at your subject. It results in high contrast and intensity, bright whites and dark shadow and is often created by making use of the midday sun. You can also manufacture this type of light in a studio by using a spotlight or other source of light that is not diffused.
Rim light can be created using a form of backlighting, where the light is at an angle from behind or above. The light will hit your subject in a way that creates a glowing outline or highlight around the subject, depending on the direction that your light is coming from. This technique is useful for distinguishing the subject from the background by providing definition.
Position your light source above and behind your subject and adjust until you see the light rim appear. A higher contrast will bring out the rim light while a low contrast will dull the overall effect.
Loop lighting is a specific technique used for portraits. The name refers to a “loop” of shadow from the nose on the cheek. It is generally considered a less dramatic and intense option for portraits than some of the other options listed.
Loop lighting is pretty universally flattering. Position your light slightly higher than the subject and at a 45-degree angle. You can experiment with a more or less defined loop by moving the light up and down, and can adjust the intensity of the shadow by moving the light closer or farther away from the subject.
Often used for graduation photos, broad light for photography is a type of side lighting where the side of the subject closest to the camera is lit and the side farther away is in shadow. This technique can be useful as the side with the light on it will appear larger than the side in shadow. Position your subject at an angle, turned slightly away from the camera, to achieve this look.
Short lighting is pretty much the exact opposite of broad lighting. In this case, the side of the subject that is closest to the camera is in shadow, whereas the farthest side is in the light. Instead of creating a fuller subject image, short lighting will thin out the subject, so be cautious of how and when you make use of both of these techniques.
Like loop lighting, butterfly lighting is named after the specific type of shadow that is created on your subject . Position your light in front and above your subject to create a butterfly-shaped shadow under the subject. This lighting is often seen in glamour shots and particularly with headshots.
When the light hits your subject at a 90-degree angle, that is called split lighting. This results in a straight line down the centre of your subject with one side entirely lit and the other side completely in shadow. This is a great option for a dramatic portrait, particularly if you are using a hard light as opposed to soft.
This style of lighting is named after the way that Rembrandt used light in his portrait paintings. It is a type of side lighting, similar to split lighting, except that the side of the subject is in shadow and has a triangle of light. This can be highly effective in making a two-dimensional image appear three dimensional.
No one method of lighting will be effective in every scenario. For example, you will need a much different lighting setup if you are photographing “the milky way” as opposed to doing a portrait shoot in your photography studio. As you practice and get more confident in identifying which types of light are best for which situations, you will be able to quickly determine what lighting to use based on your subject, setting and overall concept.
Indoor Photography Lighting
While there are many types of artificial light that you can purchase for your studio, natural light is always a great option for portraits, even when you are shooting inside. Set up your subject near a window, and see how the colour of light changes throughout the day and alters the effect of your photo.
If you do use outdoor light while indoors, make sure to turn off your indoor lights, as they may be two different colours and can create an uneven tone. Use a light-coloured backdrop or lightbox so that the light will reflect off of it, brightening up the overall composition.
The importance of light in photography
Lighting is a key factor in creating a successful image. Lighting determines not only brightness and darkness, but also tone, mood, and atmosphere. Therefore, it is necessary to control and manipulate light correctly in order to get the best texture, vibrancy of colour, and luminosity on your subjects. By distributing shadow and highlights accurately, you can create stylised professional-looking photographs.
The source your light is coming from has a huge impact on how it falls on your subject. Light originating from behind the camera, and pointing directly onwards, gives very flat lighting. It will also cause shadows to fall in the background of the image. Side lighting produces a far more interesting light, as it shows the shape of the subject much more and casts it in partial shadow, giving it a more dramatic look. Rembrandt lighting is an effective common example of this lighting type. Lighting sourced from the back of your subject gives an alternative effect. This time most of the light is hitting the side of the subject making it brighter, which creates a more distinctive and dramatic photo.
Adding a diffuser to your light source can reduce glare and harsh shadows and also diminishes blemishes on your subject. It gives your artificial light a softer more natural-looking result. You can diffuse light in numerous ways. Using softboxes, umbrellas and sheer heatproof material work really well to achieve this result.
Light can be manipulated to fall on a particular area of interest on your subject. This can be achieved through the use of diffusers and photography reflectors. Collapsible reflectors shape sunlight or bounce flash light with an area you’d prefer to highlight. Spotlights can also be covered in light shapers that enable you to have more control over the direction the light will fall and how broad the light spans.
Once you’ve achieved the best possible result with your lighting setup, you can also create more effects through Adobe Creative Cloud. This software has the capability to enhance and improve your digital photographs, giving you options to change the colour balance and temperature, improve tones, sharpen, reduce noise, crop and even convert to black and white.
Lighting can be the difference between a breath-taking photo and a poor one. Mastering how to use light to your advantage and getting the best possible result out of your setup will separate your work from your contemporaries and put you on the path to achieving professional-looking imagery.
How do you describe light in photography?
There are a number of types of natural photography light. These are categorized by position (front, back, top, side), degree of light diffusion (harsh–little or no diffusion and soft—diffused light), and whether the light is direct or indirect (e.g., reflected light).
What is the use of light in photography?
Lighting is a key factor in creating a successful image. Lighting determines not only brightness and darkness, but also tone, mood, and atmosphere. Therefore, it is necessary to control and manipulate light correctly in order to get the best texture, vibrancy of colour and luminosity on your subjects.
How does light create a photograph?
A photographic image is created by capturing various amounts of light reflected from the various parts of a scene. Dark objects absorb more part of the light and reflect less into the camera, while bright objects reflect more light. Objects with different hues reflect light of different wavelengths and frequencies.
What is top light in photography?
Top Light. This one may not be useful for all subjects all the time, but it can create very dramatic scenes. A harsh beam of light coming from directly above your subject can make for an air of mystery or darkness that a more flattering light will not.
Light is a wave
Not only is light a wave, it is an electromagnetic wave
Different wavelengths of light interact differently with matter
A human can see objects when light passes through the eye
All objects produce light (electromagnetic waves)
Lighting can of course be altered “in camera” by the use of filters, which will be a future subject I will be addressing on the road to improving your photography.
The subject of light is a large part of any photographers work, so I plan to record a video on the subject in the foreseeable future. Watch this space!
As always, many thanks for your time,
Related link: Photography Tuition with Mark Brion