5 Photography Lighting Techniques To Master Before Going Pro
If anyone can take a picture, what sets a photographer apart from a toddler toting a kids camera or a selfie-taking gorilla or a tourist-snapping octopus?
A casual shooter knows how to use a camera, but a photographer knows how to use light. “If you don’t understand anything about lighting, you don’t understand photography,” says Jeff Shaffer, a 25-year commercial photography veteran. “Lighting is key. You can take the most mundane thing and with the right lighting on it, make it look fantastic. Lighting is a hugely important aspect and something that really, as photographers, we should be observing and recording every day.”
But, understanding light is multi-faceted—light comes from different directions, from different sources, and in different temperatures. Here are five techniques that budding photographers should master before they go pro.
Hard Vs. Soft Lighting Techniques
Understanding light is just as much about understanding the shadows as it is light. Light can be broadly categorized into two types based on the shadows it produces: Hard and soft.
What is hard light?
Hard light will produce dark shadows that are well-defined. Hard shadows don’t have much of a gradation between light and dark—the transition from shadow to light is much more abrupt. Because there’s much more of a difference between the light and dark portions of the image, hard light produces excellent contrast.
What is soft light?
Soft light, on the other hand, has much less definition among the shadows. That doesn’t mean the shadows aren’t there or even that they aren’t dark, just that the transition from light to shadow is gradual. While soft light is often preferred for most scenarios, there’s no right or wrong in choosing hard or soft light over the other. Hard light, for example, often works well for black and white because of the high contrast it offers.
Controlling hard and soft light
Understanding how hard and soft light is created is essential to controlling the overall feel an image has. Distance plays a big role in whether a light source appears hard or soft. The closer a light source is, the softer it is. Light sources that are farther from the subject (like the sun) create much deeper shadows and a hard light.
Size comes into play as well. A larger light source will create a softer light—that’s why you see shoot-through umbrellas in the studio, to spread the light out over a larger area for more gradual shadows. A smaller light source will create those deeper shadows. (In case you are wondering, the distance of the sun overpowers its big size, so sunlight is usually classified as hard light). Using both size and distance together, photographers can control the intensity of the shadows in their image.
If you’re having trouble remembering what creates hard and soft light, just picture holding a flashlight underneath your chin while telling scary stories around a campfire. The small light source placed close to your face creates dark, abrupt shadows—or hard light. That creepy effect is also why you won’t see a professional photo lit from underneath—which brings us to light direction.
Lighting Techniques: Direction
One of the first things budding photographers discover is the role that light direction plays in photography. Shoot on auto with the light coming from behind the subject, and you have a dark, shadowy figure. But, shoot that same subject again with the light behind you instead and the picture is entirely different. The direction that light is coming from plays a role both in the overall feel of the image and the tools and settings you need to actually get a good photo.
Using Front Lighting
Front lighting is one of the easiest lighting techniques to master. While simple, front lighting typically leaves an image feeling flat, without a lot of dimension. Using front lighting with bright light sources, like the sun, in a portrait will cause squinting. Regardless, it offers even lighting with minimal shadows and can be without any extra tools.
Working With Side Light
Side lighting, on the other hand, offers a much bigger sense of depth because of the shadows it introduces. There’s a number of ways to use side lighting—different angles will produce different effects. The Rembrandt and Split lighting patterns, for example, are both created by placing the light source to one side, but at different angles.
In portraits where the subject is positioned at an angle, side lighting can also be described as broad or short. When the light is on the side of the face that’s towards the camera (so it appears broader), that’s a broad side light. When the light is on the side of the face that’s away from the camera (so it appears smaller), that’s a short side light.
Understanding side light takes a bit of practice and hands-on experience to see how different angles of side lighting change the way that the subject looks. When working with side light, a reflector or lower powered light on the opposite side helps achieve a softer light by filling in the shadows.
Backlighting is one of the trickiest to achieve, but, done right, will produce a nice halo effect around the subject. To use backlighting, you’ll need the camera set to spot metering so that the built-in meter only measures the light from your subject (or, you can use a dedicated light meter with manual modes to read the light close to the subject). Left alone on evaluative metering, backlighting will produce a silhouette.
Getting an even exposure with backlighting is tricky, and sometimes impossible. A fill light, or secondary light, is usually used in front of the subject to prevent overexposing the background—often in the form of a reflector or flash. Outdoors, a graduated neutral density filter can help keep the sky from being overexposed as well.
Light Sources & Modifiers
Different light sources will also create different effects in photographs. Light sources are either continuous (like the sun or a video light) or short bursts of light (like flashes and triggered studio strobes). While using a continuous light and flash will produce the same lighting patterns, there are a few differences to grasp among the two. For example, when lighting a portrait, a continuous light source will enlarge the subject’s pupils (which tends to diminish the appearance of the eye’s color), where a quick burst of light won’t.
Light sources differ from each other for two big reasons: their temperature (which we’ll talk about next) and their flexibility. Each type of light has a few pros and cons in how they can be used—you can’t put a shoot-through umbrella over the sun to soften the light. Sunlight can be softened by shooting on a cloudy day or moving into the shade, but it’s much harder to manipulate. Built-in camera flashes are also limited—while you can soften them with a small diffuser, you can’t change their position without moving the camera.
Using Studio Strobes and Wireless Flash
The two most flexible types of light are wireless flashes and studio strobes—and, used right, they can actually produce very similar light, with only subtle differences. Wireless flashes are portable and easy to take on location to create studio effects outdoors. Strobe lights are tougher to transport, but they also tend to have a bit more power and have both a flash and continuous mode.
Another big advantage of studio strobes is that they are easier to modify. Strobe lights are designed to be mounted on a stand and used with diffusers like umbrellas and softboxes. Options to modify the light doesn’t just stop there—tools like barn doors and grids help create very specific lighting effects. There are some flash diffusers, such as pop-up softboxes, and using stands, you can use shoot through umbrellas and achieve multi-light settings with them. But, there are fewer modifying options for flash than strobes.
Light & Color Temperature
If you know your way around the camera, you know from the white balance settings that different light sources appear (at least to the camera) to be different colors. Shoot on the wrong white balance setting, and you’ll end up with photos that have a blue or orange tint to them.
Color Temperature & Mood
But understanding light goes well beyond simply knowing how to change your camera’s white balance settings. Color has long been understood to affect mood, so light temperature plays a big role in creating emotion in an image. That orange hue from a “wrong” white balance can be manipulated to create a warm feel and tends to create emotions of optimism and energy. Cooler light temperatures, which have a blue hue, on the other hand, tend to create more calming feelings. Cool light is often used to create a sad or mellow mood.
Choosing your light source, then, plays a big role in the emotion the final photograph portrays. Just before sunset offers a warm hue (often called golden hour), just after a blue hue. But these same effects can be mimicked in the studio with the right know-how and equipment. An orange gel, for example can recreate the feeling of golden hour any time of the day.
Troubleshooting Tricky Lighting
A true photographer understands light—and a professional knows how to troubleshoot the most difficult lighting scenarios and still get good photos in the worst conditions. Working in bright sunlight and photographing reflective objects are just two of many tricky lighting scenarios.
Working in Bright Sunlight
Bright sunlight is difficult to shoot in—most photographers avoid scheduling shoots in the middle of the day because of just how tough it is to shoot with the sun directly overhead. But in some cases, shooting in sunlight at mid-day is unavoidable, like at an outdoor wedding. By understanding how to compensate for the brightness of the sun and knowing how to use flash or portable strobes as a fill light, photographers can fight the hard shadows of the sun and still get solid images.
Lighting Reflective Objects
One of the trickiest lighting scenarios actually isn’t from lighting at all, but a subject with a reflective surface. “If you can learn how to light glass and metal, you can light anything,” says Shaffer. Successfully photographing a reflective object involves a bit of science: according to the angle of incidence, light will bounce off a surface at the same angle that it came in. Often, that means that positioning yourself 45 degrees from a mirror will allow you to photograph the mirror without actually being in the photo. The same idea can be used to effectively light a reflective object by using different angles and light diffusion techniques. A glass object, on the other hand, requires placing the light in a way that helps define the edges, making the clear object much more apparent.
In today’s high tech world, learning how to use a camera is easy, but learning light is a different story. Mastering lighting techniques involves not just understanding how a camera and flash or strobe light works, but learning how light functions and how factors like distance, size, direction, source and temperature influence the overall photograph. Learning light is a matter of understanding both scientific and artistic concepts. Tough? Sure. Worth it? Absolutely.
Learn Lighting Techniques Hands On
Understanding basic photography lighting techniques is a great start to becoming a true photographer instead of just someone who knows how to use a camera. But the best way to learn light is by working inside a studio, where you can have full control over the light and experiment with different angles, sources and modifiers—and to see how each small change makes a difference in the final image.
That’s why Project Basho is hosting an Essential Studio Lighting class. Led by commercial photography veteran Jeff Shaffer, the class allows aspiring photographers to get inside a fully equipped studio and discover light as well as retouching. You’ll learn how to light reflective objects (and as Shaffer says, once you can light a reflective object, you can light anything), other still life and portraits. You’ll use a wide range of lighting gear (without actually having to buy lighting gear), learn how to troubleshoot difficult lighting and work under an instructor with 25 years of experience lighting every scenario.
“If you know what you are doing, you could light something with a flashlight,” Shaffer says. “You just have to understand the limitations of the tools you choose to use. Going into the studio, you have the ultimate control—you can create things that you’ve seen even in nature. You can create any lighting condition that you’ve ever seen with the right knowledge.”
For more information or to register, head to the Essential Studio Lighting class page.