Lighting Techniques for Photography

In photography, you have to work with light to produce quality pictures. The color, direction, quantity, and quality of the light you use determines how your subjects appear. In the studio, with artificial light sources, you can precisely control these four effects. However, for outdoor photography, you have to creatively play with the available lighting sources to come up with a good photo. I've listed some of the lighting tips and techniques for you to apply in photography.

1. The broader the light source, the softer the light. The narrower the source, the harder the light

A broad light source lessens shadows, reduces contrast, and suppresses texture. A narrow light source does the opposite. This is because, with a broad source, light rays hit your subject from more directions, which tends to fill in shadows and give more even illumination to the scene.

Tip: Position a portrait subject near a large, bright window that does not receive direct sunlight. It makes for a no-cost soft box. No studio equipment necessary.


2. The closer the light source, the softer the light. The farther the source, the harder the light

Move a light closer, and you make it bigger, which is broader. Move it farther away and you make it relatively smaller and therefore narrower. Think about the sun, which is something like 100 times the diameter of the earth. But at 93 million miles away, it takes up a very small portion of the sky and hence casts very hard light when falling directly on a subject.

Tip: When you do indoors photography by available light, move lamps closer to your subject or vice versa for more flattering light.

lighting for photography

3. Diffusion scatters light

Diffusion makes the light source broader and therefore softer. When clouds drift in front of the sun, shadows get less distinct. Add fog, and the shadows disappear. Clouds, overcast skies, and fog act as diffusion (something that scatters the light in many directions). On overcast or foggy days, the entire sky becomes a single very broad light source or you can call it nature’s soft box.

Tip: Materials such as translucent plastic or white fabric can be used to diffuse a harsh light source. You can place a diffuser in front of an artificial light, such as a strobe. Or, if you’re in bright sun, use a light tent or white scrim to soften the light falling on your subject.


4. Bouncing light act as diffusion.

Aim a narrow light source at a broad matte surface such as a wall or ceiling, and it will not only reflects the light but also diffuses it by scattering it over a wider area. Use a shiny reflector, and the light will stay fairly narrow on the bounce. The most extreme type of shiny reflector (mirror) will keep the light focused pretty much as narrowly in the reflection.

Tip: Crumple a big piece of aluminum foil, spread in out again, and wrap it around a piece of cardboard, shiny side out. It makes a good reflector that’s not quite as soft in effect as a matte white surface. It is great for adding sparkly highlights.


5. The farther the light source, the more it falls off gets dimmers on your subject.

The rule says that light falls off as the square of the distance. That sounds complicated, but isn’t really. If you move alight twice as far from your subject, you end up with only one-quarter of the light on the subject. In other words, light gets dim fast when you move it away. This is something you must keep in mind if you’re moving your lights or your subject to change the quality of the light. Also remember that bouncing light, even into a shiny reflector that keeps light directional add to the distance it travels.

Tip: Set your camera’s flash (pop-up or hot-shoe) to fill flash for outdoor portraits photography on harshly lit days. This will lighten shadows on your subject’s face but won’t affect the background exposure.


6. Master the Light Falloff Technique

Light falloff can be used to vary the relationship between the light on your subject and your background. If you place a light close to your subject, the falloff from the subject to the background will be more pronounced. Move the light farther from your subject, and the background will be relatively brighter. The same holds true for side lighting. With a light close to the side of your subject, the falloff of light across the frame will be more pronounced than if the light is farther away.

Tip: If your subject is front lit by window light, keep the person close to the window to make the room’s back wall fall off in darkness. If you want some illumination on the wall, though, move the person back closer to it and away from the window.

Photography Lighting Techniques


7. Shadows create volume.

That’s how we describe three dimensionality in photography, the sense of seeing an image as an object in space, not projected on a flat surface. Again, lighting from the side, above, or below by casting deeper and longer shadows, creates the sense of volume. Still-life, product, and landscape photographers use angular lighting for this reason.

Tip: Try “Hollywood lighting” for a dramatic portrait. Position a light high above and slightly to the side of your subject, angled down, but not so much that the shadow of the nose falls more than midway down the upper lip.


8. Backlight can be used as highly diffused lighting.

Very few subjects are totally backlit, that is, in pure silhouette with no light at all failing from the front. A person with his back to a bright window will have light reflected from an opposite wall falling on him. Someone standing outside with her back to bright sunlight will have light falling on her from the open sky in front of her. In either case, you’ll need to increase exposure to record the light falling on the subject and this light will deemphasize facial texture and dimensionality.

Tip: For spark in a backlit portrait or silhouette, try compositions that include the light source. This can drive your meter crazy, though, so bracket your exposures.


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