Light and airy photography style – how to light, shoot and edit it

What is a light and airy photography style?

The light and airy look is a photography style associated with health, happiness, summer and love. In other words, all the good feels.

Light and airy is the most popular photography style for weddings, maternity, newborns and family lifestyle photography. So is very much associated with natural light photography.

However, the light and airy style isn’t just for natural light photographers.

You can also create bright and airy photos using flash.

Light and airy photography style tutorial

The light and airy style isn’t just for outdoor photography either. Indoor photography can just as easily be photographed in a light and airy style with:

  • Natural light
  • Flash
  • Both natural light and flash together

In a nutshell: in light and airy photos shadows are very faint, sometimes even non-existent, in a light and airy photo. They’re soft, with no hard edges.

Colors are mostly light and neutral.

Light and airy photography with flash

Photographed in my studio with high key lighting set up. I set up one light behind her, one in front and a fill light to fill in the shadows for a light and airy feel.

How do you get light and airy photos?

When photographing in a light and airy style it helps to plan ahead for the best results, because it’s not just about lighting and camera settings. Although light and airy photos aren’t difficult, there are quite a few factors to bear in mind.

Starting with the least technical, for light and airy photos consider:

  1. Location, background and clothing
  2. Lighting – natural and/or flash
  3. Camera settings and lens choice
  4. Editing in a light and airy style

Now let’s look at each of these elements in detail for creating a light and airy photography style. (Spoiler alert – you don’t need Lightroom presets to create a light and airy look!)

1. Ideal location, background & clothing choices for light and airy photos

When you’re assessing a scene for a light and airy style photo, the most important factor to bear in mind is that you don’t want lots of contrast in your photos. Contrast brings mood and you want to keep things light, so avoid deep shadows, dark colors and heavy textures.

This is true for location, background and clothing, which is why I’ve grouped these three together.

Part of creating a mood in a photo is how your viewer engages with the image.

Light and airy photos are light hearted, gentle and relaxing. 

We don’t want to challenge the viewer and pull their attention in different directions. We want them to go straight to the subject of the photo where their eyes can rest and share a moment captured.

See why it’s so great for wedding photography?

High key photography indoors

Photographed in their parents’ bedroom with natural light only indoors. There’s a large window behind the girls and another to camera left. Light is reflected back into their faces from the white sheet and white wall behind me. Edited in Lightroom fo enhance the light and airy feel. See the SOOC before and after comparison near the end of the this article.

No writing in the background or on clothing

To avoid contrast in photos, apart from avoiding strong, hard light and deep shadows, you also can’t have distracting elements like writing.

Humans are curious, so when we see writing it draws our attention away from the subject, because we want to read the sign, slogan or whatever the writing is.

No patterned backgrounds or clothes

Avoid busy patterns in either the background or on clothes of light and airy photos. Patterns are interesting, so our eyes are drawn to patterns, because our brains want to make sense of and follow the pattern.

We don’t want anything other than the subject to be interesting. So keep everything else clean and minimalist.

No hard/rough textures

Rough texture is also too overwhelming for a light and airy picture. To create texture in a 2 dimensional image you need alternating light and shade.

The deeper the shadow in contrast to the light, the rougher the texture will appear.

Our eyes love to linger on texture, but we want the viewer focused and resting on the subject.

Minimal contrast

Like tonal contrast, keep color contrast to a minimum. Bright colors are too overwhelming and dynamic for light and airy pictures.

Colors suited to light and airy photos

  • Pastels
  • Neutral colors, such as white, grey and beige
  • Lighter blues and greens.

So, now we know what to avoid, what do we need for light and airy photos?

light and airy vs dark and moody photo style

Left – she’s front lit with a large softbox and an umbrella as fill light filling in the shadows. The white background adds to the light and airy feel.
Right – for a completely different look I used a strip box to camera right and set the fill light low to retain most of the shadows. The dark background adds to dark and moody style.
Same model, same outfit, but different lighting and background for two very different looks.

Best locations for bright and airy photos outdoors

A light and airy photography style is ideally suited to photographing at the beach or in the countryside with neutral colored, preferably light, vegetation.

Thick, dark green forests are more suited to the dark and moody style. High grasses with leafy trees in the background is gorgeous for light and airy photos.

That said, don’t forget that you don’t have to be outdoors for light and airy photos. Just apply the same principles when it comes to:

  • Shadows
  • Texture
  • Contrast
  • Color

Light and airy photography natural light

Natural light photo taken in the golden hour and processed in Lightroom to lift the shadows. See SOOC before and after comparison with editing steps at the end.

2. Lighting for bright and airy pictures

Light and airy lighting can be natural light or artificial light and is achieve with a high key lighting setup. In other words, the main light on the subject is soft and the background is also light. Very often fill light is used to reduce shadows.

Backlight is best

Position your subject with the light coming from behind them for a backlit portrait.

When backlighting portraits there’ll be no hard shadows on your subject’s face. However, you’ll need to bounce light back into their face with a reflector, or risk blowing out the background.

Open shade

Photograph with natural light in open shade with additional light coming from behind your subject. Make sure that the background is light in color though for the light and airy look.

By placing your subject in open shade no direct light lands on them, which helps to avoid too bright or even blown out highlights. These can be just as distracting as dark shadows as our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of an image.

If your subject’s face isn’t the brightest part of the photo, the viewer’s eyes won’t rest on the subject, which defeats the relaxed experience of a light and airy image.

Ideally, you want to avoid including open sky with natural light photography, because, unless you reflect light back into your subject or use off camera flash to illuminate their face, the sky will be lighter.

So you’re left with a choice of either blowing out the sky or underexposing the subject.

Incorporate rim light

This is why light green, leafy trees in the background are better than sky. With the light source excluded from the image, a delicate rim light will be visible on your subject.

This adds to the light and airy feeling, but also, crucially, separates the subject from the background.

Shade your lens

As backlight is favored for the light and airy style, photographing in the shade of trees also prevents light hitting the front of your lens and causing unflattering lens flare or haze in your images.

So, not only will the backlit leaves have a translucent feel with the sun shining through, adding to the “airiness” of the image, they’ll also provide shade for your lens. Using a lens hood will of course also help.

Diffused light is best

Overcast days are wonderful for light and airy photos, because the clouds scatter light everywhere, which results in soft light with soft, pale shadows.

Best time of day

The best time of day for creating light and airy photos outdoors with natural light is in the golden hours at either end of the day. This is because during the golden hour the sun is:

  • Lower and therefore at a more flattering angle rather than overhead
  • Not as bright
  • And colors are warm

Even if you use trees in the background to block out an overexposed sky, you might still need to use a reflector to bounce light back into your subject. Ideally, you’ll have a reflector in your camera bag, but if not, even wearing a white shirt could work as a reflector.

I see many light and airy photographers blowing out the sky in photos. While I know that sometimes this is unavoidable, especially when the sky is just a mush of light grey clouds, it’s much better to find a way to exclude an overexposed sky.

3. Camera and Lens details for light and airy photos

RAW file format

The most important camera setting for the light and airy photographer is to set the file format to RAW rather than JPEG so that you have some wiggle room in post production to lighten shadows and reduce highlights.

Shallow depth of field

I often see other photography educators advising a wide aperture to achieve a creamy, blurilicious background, but that’s not essential.

There are other ways of manipulating depth of field for background blur. So if 5.6 is the widest your lens goes, don’t despair and don’t think you have to spend a fortune on a fast lens for light and airy photography.

In fact, if you photograph outdoors on a bright day, you might not have the luxury of photographing wide open. So, it helps to know other ways to nail a shallow depth of field. They are:

  • Distance from camera to subject and from subject to background
  • Lens focal length
  • And of course aperture

Spot metering

The last camera setting you need to use for light and airy photography is spot metering. Rather meter for your subject than the entire scene, or even part of the scene.


Conflict alert…

  • Some photographers will say you need to underexpose the subject to preserve the highlights in the background and then brighten the image in post production.
  • Other photographers advise you to overexpose the image so that the subject is correctly exposed, or even slightly overexposed to achieve a light and airy look.

I don’t advise this, even if you adjust the highlights later in Lightroom, because I really don’t think that overexposed necessarily equates to light and airy or high key photography.

Not that I’ve never overexposed an image, of course I have. I just prefer not to do it on purpose so avoid it if at all possible. I don’t want to spend any longer editing than necessary.

So, the next obvious suggestion is to get light and airy presets for Lightroom. Well, yes and no.

Create free light and airy presets

Left – after processing in Lightroom. I lightened the shadows, created a gentle s-curve tone curve and dragged the shadow point up a touch to fade the blacks slightly. I also warmed the white balance up slightly. Right – straight out of camera (SOOC).

4. Editing light and airy photos in Lightroom

Is it worth buying presets for Lightroom?

Lightroom presets and brushes are a great way to cut down on your editing time, but you should first know how to edit light and airy it manually. Then you can create your own presets.

I don’t say this as a way for you to save money, but rather as a way to save you time in the long run.

Just applying a preset without knowing how the sliders work means that when you do apply a preset and don’t get the result you want, you won’t know why. Put in the effort to learn light and airy editing now to save yourself time later.

Truth bomb – not every Lightroom preset suits every photo!

Further reading: Why buying Lightroom presets is a waste of money

A photography style comes from a combination of factors

Everything that we covered above impacts how your photo turns out. Just applying a preset won’t make an image light and airy if you haven’t followed at least some of the guidelines on how to create a light an airy photo.

Or put another way…

If you want a lemon drizzle cake, you have to follow a lemon drizzle cake recipe, starting with lemons. Using bananas instead won’t work, even if you drizzle lemon on afterwards. Bleh!

Create light and airy presets for Lightroom

Left – moved the white balance from cool to warm, then lifted the shadows by moving the shadow slider to the right and reduced highlights slightly. I added a gentle s-curve in the tone panel and lifted the shadow point slightly to fade blacks. I then used local adjustment brush to increase brightness of her face and the background. Right – SOOC.

How do you make a picture light and airy in Lightroom?

Every photo is different, so there’s no quick “do this and you’ll have light and airy photos just like that”. Instead, here are some guidelines on what you might need to adjust. How much you manipulate an image comes down to personal preference and photography style.

The number one rule when it comes to editing photos in Lightroom is that just because there are a gajillion sliders and tools for editing magic, doesn’t mean you have to fiddle with each and every one of them! Every one of them has a purpose, but not in every single photo.

Also, don’t go mad. Tread gently.

Maybe step away from the computer and come back with fresh eyes that haven’t adjusted to the colors on your screen. Refer back to the before photo to see how far you’ve taken your edits. hit the backslash key when in the Develop Module to toggle back and forth.

You’ll occasionally be surprised, possibly shocked.

high key photography editing in Lightroom

Photographed with natural light only on a white sandy beach in the golden hour. I placed her in the open shade created by the granite boulders behind the model as the sun set behind the rocks.
Left – straight out of camera. Right – added an s-curve in the tone panel and lifted the shadow point slightly. Added a sun flare to the top left corner using the radial filter. Reduced vibrance slightly and desaturated magenta slightly in HSL panel.

Possible Lightroom light and airy steps

  • Check your white balance. The light and airy style has the vibe of long summer days – you know those ones filled with laughter, the smell of freshly cut grass, bees humming and maybe a plane flying high up overhead? Those days are not full of cold, bluey shadows. So you might need to warm things up a bit.
  • You might want to bring down the highlights to recover some detail in the background highlights, or reduce the brightness of the rim light.
  • I imagine the most used Lightroom slider for light and airy pictures is the shadows slider. Well, maybe after the exposure slider, but that depends on how you exposed your image in camera. Either way, you want those shadows to be soft and light, so push the shadows slider to the right until you feel you’ve lifted the shadows enough.
  • Add to the airiness of the colors in the scene by reducing the richness of the colors. I suggest reducing the vibrance slider rather than the saturation slider for this. Click here to find out why.
  • In the tone curve panel I like to start with a gentle s-curve and then raise the black point to fade the blacks slightly and so avoid any absolute black. This again reduces contrast for the light and airy feel.
  • Shooting wide open will often cause vignetting. So, use the lens correction tool to help get rid of the vignette. Light and airy photos generally don’t benefit from a vignette.
  • You might need to use the local adjustment brush to increase the brightness of your subject slightly, but make sure you keep it believable.
  • A little bit of subtle fake lens flare can sometimes be just the finishing touch needed on a photo (see above). Use the radial filter for this – increase the exposure, select an orange that you like, set the saturation and drag it to where it feels believable in the image – i.e. approximately where you can expect the sun to be.

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

Summary of how to get light and airy photos

  1. Choose location and wardrobe to suit a light and airy style
  2. Ensure your subjects are even lit and shadows are at a minimum
  3. Use a shallow depth of field to blur the background
  4. Photograph in RAW and process in Lightroom (or similar) for a light and airy feel
  5. Create your own presets and brushes to speed up your workflow

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about the light and airy photography style, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my light and airy photography tips have helped you to understand how to photograph and edit light and airy photos in Lightroom, share that too.

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