Before you picked up a camera there was just light. Then you hear about golden light and soft light and natural light and light direction and the list just keeps growing. Like how many different types of lighting in photography can there be? The short answer is a lot! So, it really helps to understand the vocabulary for all types of photography lighting.
After all, if you don’t know what something is, you can’t learn how to use it. In this article we’re covering everything you need to know to understand light in photography. I’ve grouped the lighting terminology in a logical way, namely:
- Characteristics of light – four really important facts about all types of light
- Light source – what’s providing the light
- How to use lighting styles – where to place light for a certain look
- Refining light position – taking lighting styles up a level
- How to manipulate light – how to make light do what you want
- Light modifiers – tools to manipulate and direct light
- Descriptions of common lighting scenarios in photos – a few handy terms to know
When you know these photography lighting basics and use them for portrait lighting, you’ll be able to produce images at the quality of professional photographers. So you might want to bookmark this page so you can keep coming back as your photography lighting knowledge grows.
1. Characteristics of light in photography
We all know that light is the key ingredient to a beautiful photograph, but we need to understand how light works to use it for maximum impact. More specifically, we need to know about the characteristics of light and how to use them in all types of photography lighting. They are:
- Quality of light
- Quantity of light
- Direction of light
- Color of light
Quality of light
Light quality in photography is whether the light is hard or soft and has nothing to do with how good or bad the light is. Choosing the right quality of light to suit the subject is the first step when planning how to light a portrait.
Hard lighting in photography is dynamic, edgy and energetic so it’s used in fashion photography more than portrait photography.
A small light source will create a hard light, as will direct light and light reflected off highly reflective surfaces such as water, glass or shiny metal.
Soft lighting is dreamy, gentle and flattering on older skin so is very popular in all types of portrait photography. The closer the light is to a subject, the larger it’ll be in relation to the subject and the softer it’ll be.
So for soft light portraits get your light close to your subject or increase the size of the light source (keep reading for tips on reflecting and diffusing light).
Quantity of light
The quantity of light in photographyis, as you’d expect, about the amount of light. Of course you know that there’s a difference in the amount of light between night and day. You can also easily see a difference in the quantity of light between a heavily overcast day in a forest and wall to wall sunshine on a white sandy beach in the summer.
But what about the quantity of natural light indoors vs outdoors? Or how much light is produced by a flash on half power vs full power? The amount of light available vs how much we need has a direct impact on our camera exposure settings.
Because our cameras have a lower dynamic range than our eyes, they can’t see highlights and shadows as well as we can. The two biggest challenges to photographing in low light are blurry images caused by subject motion blur or camera shake (shutter speed is too slow), and photos with too much noise (ISO is set too high).
In really low light the third challenge is getting sharp focus, because sometimes it’s too dark for the camera to lock focus. A flashlight can be really helpful to lock focus, but make sure you switch off the light after focusing and before taking the shot.
Further reading: Low light photography – top 8 questions answered
The bright light of a sunny day is just as challenging as photographing in low light. Because bright sunlight is harsh light, it produces harsh shadows, which are unflattering in portraits. So much light can also make it difficult to photograph with a wide aperture, favoured by portrait photographers for a blurry background outdoors.
Either avoid the midday sun by photographing in the open shade of a building or tree for soft even light, or position your subject with the light behind them so that their face is in shadow.
Further reading: 7 quick tips for photographing outdoors in bright sunlight
Direction of light
Now we’re getting into the really interesting part of portrait lighting, because the direction of light you choose to use has a huge impact on photos! Direction of light in photography gives a subject form and affects the mood of a photo.
- The quality of light on the subject and the quantity of light falling on the subject are especially affected by backlighting and front lighting
- For more dramatic portraits you’d use either side lighting or top down lighting.
Backlighting with natural light or flash in portrait photography can be breathtaking. When you backlight a subject you place your subject between you and the light, with your subject facing you.
- Because you’re photographing into the light you have to be careful that you don’t overexpose the background. A blue sky will appear white, so it helps to plan your shot so that the sky isn’t in frame.
- Try to shield the front of the lens from the light, otherwise you’ll get lens flare and your images will appear hazy, or cloudy. A lens hood helps, or holding your hand over the lens to cast shadow.
It can also be quite blinding when photographing with a low sun behind the subject, but it’s worth it!
Further reading: Backlight photography tips for magical photos
Side light is my favourite direction of light, because I love shadows in an image – they give depth and form to portraits. You can modify the light to lighten shadows so they’re not hard or dark.
Plus there’s great variety in side lighting, because you can use three different lighting patterns with light coming from the side to create different looks, flatter faces and create atmosphere. So it’s a very creative type of portrait lighting.
Keep reading to find out more about the different lighting styles of side light.
Further reading: How to use side lighting in photography – direction of light
Front light is the most familiar type of lighting and the first type of lighting new photographers use. It’s how we’re used to seeing the world. For the least amount of shadow in an image, use front lighting.
It’s not as easy using front light for flash photography, because as you can see from the image above, you have to work around the light.
Further reading: Direction of light in photography: how to use front lighting
Top down lighting
Overhead lighting, aka top-down lighting, is the perfect light for fitness photography and maternity photography.
To define muscle tone, like a six pack, you want the light to shine from above so the muscles are lit and cast shadow below. It’s the same for maternity photography – the change from light to shadow over the bump emphasizes her shape.
Color temperature of light
To explain how important color temperature is let me paint a scene. Imagine a cold winter’s day at the base of a snowy mountain. What colors do you see? Now imagine yourself relaxing next to a big open fire in a ski chalet. What colors do you see now?
If you want to convey a cold, distant or moody atmosphere in a photo you’d use cold tones, such as blues, maybe also greens. To portray a warm, happy vibe you’d use warm colors such as reds, oranges and yellows. If the color temperature of the light doesn’t match the feeling of the photo, it won’t work.
Every light source, both natural and artificial, has a color temperature, which is why we have a white balance setting on our cameras so that we can record to color correctly. The color of natural light changes depending on the time of day and artificial light color changes depending on the artificial light source.
You can make natural light appear warmer or cooler in an image with:
- Lens filters
- or by changing your camera’s white balance settings
With studio lights and speedlights you also have the added advantage of using color gels fitted to your flash to change the color of flash light to:
- Match the ambient light
- or add a color cast to an image
You can also opt to change the white balance of an image in post production and use the color grading tool and color tone curve to add atmosphere with color.
2. Light source for portrait photography
Light is light and adheres to the same principles for all different types of light, regardless of whether it comes from a natural light source or artificial light sources.
Natural light portrait photography
Natural lighting is the first type of light that most new photographers start with, because it’s all around us. It’s sunlight and can be:
Direct sunlight – when photographing in the direct light of the sun, whether that’s outdoors on a bright day with no clouds, or indoors in a beam of light coming through a window or door. Direct light is hard lighting, identified by the hard shadows it casts.
Indirect sunlight – when photographing outdoors in the open shade of a tree or building, or indoors using window light where the sun is not shining directly in, or using sunlight that is reflected off a surface such as a wall. Indirect light is soft lighting with either very soft shadows or even no shadows.
Artificial light portrait photography
Artificial light is any human made light source, so it includes everything from house lights to studio lights and can be divided into two categories – strobe light and continuous light.
A strobe light in photography emits a fast, bright pulse of light, so strobes include all types of flash photography such as studio lighting and speedlights. To use any kind of strobe lighting you need to photograph in manual mode.
For standard on or off camera flash your shutter speed must be set at below the sync speed of your camera. It varies from one brand to the next, but this is usually 1/200th or 1/250th.
You’ll know when you’ve exceeded the flash sync speed of your camera, because you’ll have a black bar at the bottom of the image.
High speed sync is also strobe lighting, but works different from standard flash and not all strobes are capable of high speed sync.
The advantage of continuous lighting is that you can photography in any mode, not just manual mode. Any light that stays on when you switch it on is a continuous light, so this includes:
- LED lights
- House lights
- Video lights
Continuous lighting isn’t as powerful as strobe lighting so isn’t suited to outdoor photography like strobe lighting is. However, for photographing outdoors in low light in the golden hour, blue hour or at night, continuous lighting works well.
Further reading: Flash vs continuous light photography- which is better for portraits?
Ambient light portrait photography
Ambient photography is lit by any type of light that was there before the photographer started adding light to the scene. So ambient light in photography can be anything, including:
- Street lights
- House lights
- Natural light
- Neon signs
When using flash light outdoors you’ll often hear the advice to first measure the ambient and then balance the flash to light the subject. Most times the ambient light being referred to is natural light. If photographing with artificial light after dark the ambient light might well be street lights or shop lights.
Further reading: Ambient light in photography – what is it and how do you use it?
3. How to use light – photography lighting styles
Once you understand how the direction of light impacts portrait lighting, it’s time to start learning lighting patterns for portraits. All faces are different and the lighting pattern you choose to light a subject can either flatter their facial features or detract from them.
Plus, lighting patterns are the most effective way to impact the mood of a photo – do you want a dramatic effect, or a gentle mood? Learn these different portrait lighting setups and lighting techniques for great portraits.
PS – you need just a single light for all of these light patterns. The trick is knowing the correct position of the light source for each lighting style for complete control!
Rim light is usually used in a backlight position, but can also be used from the side light position. The name describes the lighting technique well as it forms a highlight rim of light around the edge of a subject.
Split light is a form of side lighting with quite a dramatic effect as only half the face is lit. Most often the other half is in deep shadow, but the depth of the shadow can be controlled so that it’s not quite so dramatic. The trick with split lighting is to ensure that there’s a catchlight in the eye in the shadow side of the face.
The Rembrandt light pattern is one of the most popular ways of lighting dramatic portraits and is also a type of side lighting. The signature of Rembrandt lighting is the triangle of light under the eye on the shadow side of the face formed by the nose shadow joining with the cheek shadow.
Loop light is less dramatic than Rembrandt lighting and is probably the most common type of lighting. However, it’s similar in that the loop light setup creates a nose shadow extending towards the subject’s cheek. The difference is that the nose shadow doesn’t join with the cheek shadow.
Butterfly lighting (aka beauty lighting or paramount lighting)
Butterfly light is know also as beauty lighting, because it’s the type of lighting featured in most beauty shoots. You can see butterfly lighting in portraits by the small shadow in the shape of a butterfly beneath the subject’s nose.
Most fashion magazine covers are shot with beauty lighting and it’s used mainly for women. It’s also called paramount lighting, because it was the lighting pattern favoured by Hollywood stars in it’s glamorous black and white days.
Butterfly lighting is most often created using a beauty dish, which is a type of light modifier (keep on reading for more on light modifiers) and is a type of front lighting.
This is the one lighting pattern that requires a second light source, but it doesn’t have to be a second light. Instead of a fill light you could use a reflector below the subject’s chin to bounce light back up and brighten dark shadows. When using a second light as fill (in the lower light position) it should be at less power than the top light so that it doesn’t dominate the image. It’s the only time that you would light a subject from below.
The name clamshell describes the lighting setup as both lights are positioned in front of your subject with the top light at a 45 degree angle downwards and the bottom light angled upwards, with the subject’s face in the middle (the hinge of the clamshell).
Use flat light when you want little or no shadows on a subject’s face. Flat lighting is ideally suited to skin that isn’t smooth, because the lack of shadows and highlights makes bumps and dents less obvious.
Three ways to create flat light
- Backlighting a subject and exposing for the subject’s face. Because their face is in shadow the light on them is even and therefore considered flat. However, there’s a good chance the background will be overexposed, especially if you can see sky.
- Or use a front light direction – the light is placed in front of the subject. It’s essential that the light source is large and produces soft light aimed directly at the subject’s face so that there are no shadows.
- Place your subject in open shade – the bigger the shade, and the further in they are, the flatter the light will be.
4. Portrait light position
With lighting patterns that are from the side of the subject you can take lighting control a step further for even more flattering portraits. Widen your subject’s face or slim it down simply by changing the position of the lighting setup slightly.
Broad lighting and short lighting use the Rembrandt lighting and Loop lighting patterns to either widen or slim down a subject’s face depending on whether you photograph from the lit side or the shadow side of the subject.
With a butterfly or clamshell lighting setup, when the subject turns their head to either side they’ll be broad lit.
Broad light (for narrow faces)
Broad lighting is used to widen a narrow face and you photograph from the lit side of the subject. In other words the light is on the same side of the subject as the camera.
Short light (for wide faces)
This is the opposite of broad lighting in every way. Short lighting is used to slim down a wider face and you photograph from the shadow side of the subject. In other words the light is on the opposite side of the subject from the camera. Short lighting is used so much more than broad lighting that I would go so far as to say it’s the default position for both Rembrandt and Loop lighting.
Further reading: Short lighting and broad lighting for portrait photography
5. How to manipulate portrait lighting
Although light moves in a straight line, you can manipulate it by bouncing it and scattering it. Photography is as much about shadows as it is about light – it’s the play of light and shadow that gives form to subjects and sets the mood for an image:
- Deep shadows help to create a moody feeling in photos, which can be seen in the dark and moody style of photography.
- Images with very light shadows or even no shadows have an upbeat feeling and are referred to as a light and airy style of photography.
So for the ultimate control of light in an image you need to know how to manipulate light and control the shadows.
Every photograph is lit by a key light. It’s the main light lighting the subject, regardless of whether it’s natural light or artificial light. Like with all types of light in photography, key lighting can be modified (more on this further down) to reduce harsh shadows or in fact increase the contrast between light and dark.
A fill light is a second light used to fill in the shadows on a subject and is set at a lower power setting than the key light so that it doesn’t overpower the shadows.
Fill light doesn’t have to be an actual light. A reflector can be used both natural light and with artificial lighting as a fill to bounce light back into the shadow side of the subject.
An accent light is an additional light that highlights part of the subject or scene, such as a hair light or a rim light (in a multi light setup where a rim light isn’t the key light).
Further reading: What is a hair light? (and how to use it for more dramatic portrait lighting)
6. Light modifiers for photography lighting
While light modifiers are used most often with artificial lighting, some are also essential with natural light photography (reflectors, diffusers).
The most important thing with reflected light is that if it is the only light lighting your subject it’s very important that it comes from in front of or the side of the subject, not from below. A reflector held below a subject will create “monster lighting” – the same effect as when you hold a torch beneath your chin and shine it upwards.
While you can purchase an actual photography reflector, a reflector is anything that reflects light back into the subject’s face to soften dark shadows. Reflectors are often visible as a second catchlight in the subject’s eyes, especially with clamshell lighting.
Bear in mind that reflected light will be the same color as the surface reflecting it. Examples of reflective surfaces that you can use to fill in shadows are a white wall, white cardboard, a mirror etc.
Photography reflectors can be:
- White (for soft light)
- Silver (for hard light)
- Gold (for warm, hard light)
- Black (for negative fill to deepen shadows in high contrast images)
Light is diffused when it scatters and spreads evenly across a veil between the light source and the subject. This produces softer light and also reduces hot spots of light. Because diffused light is spread out it makes the light source larger and therefore softer. Examples of diffusion in photography are:
- Layer of clouds on an overcast day
- Sheer curtains in front of window light
- Diffusion panel of thin white material fitted to a softbox or umbrella, or a stand alone diffusion panel (scrim)
A photography umbrella produces softer light than a bare bulb and can be used in two ways for flash photography as either:
- Shoot through umbrella (the light is shone through a white translucent umbrella)
- Reflective umbrella (light is shone into the inside of an umbrella with a black outer cover and reflected back to the subject)
Photography umbrellas are versatile, cheap and easy to pack so are often the first type of light modifier photographers use.
They come in different sizes and depths and different colors. However, be aware that the umbrella’s color affects the light color on the subject. Like reflectors, reflective umbrella interiors can be:
- Gold (not used much)
Umbrellas can also be used outdoors with natural light to shield the subject from direct sunlight by being held over them and therefore casting a shadow over them.
Softboxes are fitted to artificial lighting to make the hard light of a bare bulb into a soft light source. Softbox light is diffused by a translucent layer of material, known as a diffusion panel, fitted to the front of the softbox.
Softboxes come in many shapes and sizes for different effects and lighting control in portrait photography. Light from a softbox is more controlled than with an umbrella as it doesn’t scatter as much.
Metal reflector (the other type)
We’ve already talked about reflectors, but there’s a second type of reflector and I’ve never understood why two very different things have the same name. Both are light modifiers, however, a metal reflector is used with flash photography and does the opposite of the type that bounces light.
Metal reflectors come in a variety of shapes and sizes for controlling both the quantity and quality of studio lighting. They’re fitted to strobe lights and, as with other modifiers, the size and interior finish affect the type of light produced. A traditional beauty dish is a type of metal reflector.
Standard reflector interiors can be:
- White (softer light)
- Matte silver (crisper light)
- Polished silver (hard light)
Speaking of hard light. A snoot is a light modifier that looks like a tube of metal fitted to the front of a flash like a metal reflector. It drastically reduces the spread of light and so produces a small, hard, round area of crisp light. Snoots concentrate light on a small part of the subject so can be used as a hair light or an accent light.
Barn doors restrict the spread of light and are most often used with a bare bulb or clipped to a metal reflector. They look and work like two doors on the sides of the light and can be opened and closed to control where the light falls. I often use barn doors on background lights in my photography studio behind the subject and adjust the doors to prevent light spilling onto my subject.
Grids restrict light by controlling the flow of light and preventing it from scattering sideways. They come in different sizes:
All studio lighting modifiers can be fitted with a grid, but the type of grid you use depends on the kind of lighting used. Some grids are hard and made of metal (honeycomb grid) and others are soft and made of black material with velcro fastenings (eggcrate grid):
- Reflector – honeycomb grid
- Softboxes and umbrellas – eggcrate grid
7. Descriptions of photography lighting in photos
You might have heard of dark and moody photography style, but that doesn’t describe the lighting, which is low key. On the other hand a light and airy photography style uses high key lighting. If you know the type of photography lighting used you can create the style.
Low key lighting (aka chiaroscuro lighting)
Low key photography is overall quite dark with deep shadows, high contrast and little to no fill used. This creates a moody, emotive feeling and is considered quite dramatic. It’s certainly eye catching.
Further reading: Low key photography lighting tips for dramatic photos
High key lighting
High key photography has minimal shadows with lots of highlights and not much contrast. The brightness of the images and lack of shadows creates a cheerful, happy and upbeat feeling, which is why it’s used a lot in family photography. And toothpaste adverts!
8. Examples of different lighting in portrait photography
Golden hour light
Many times with studio lighting professional photographers are trying to replicate natural light, but not always. Sometimes the fun part of studio lighting is being able to create light that’s completely different from natural light.
Different lighting setups for portraits
Once you understand all this, you can start getting into using different lighting setups for portrait photography instead of just a one light set up. Clamshell lighting is an example of a two light set up, as is cross lighting, also known as sandwich lighting. And we’ll explore these in greater detail another time.
Your lighting setup can be as complicated as you like, depending of course on how many lights you have. However, you can also over complicate lighting and it’s usually best to use only as much lighting as you absolutely need to achieve the look you want.
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Well that was kinda epic! Portrait Lighting 101, everything you need to know to get started with lighting in photography!
If my lighting tutorial on the different types of lighting in portrait photography has helped you to understand lighting, or if you have a question on portrait lighting, let us know in the comments.