13 must know photography lighting basics for portraits

Light is the essence of all photographs. All light and behaves the same way, regardless of the source, so these photography lighting basics are relevant for both natural light photographers and artificial light photographers.

Photography lighting is a big topic and can be confusing for beginner photographers. However, it’s never too soon to start learning about light and lighting terminology used to describe light in photography.

To become a good photographer, you must understand light and to understand light, you must first know some of the photography terms for lighting.

So, here’s an explanation of the essential concepts of photography lighting for beginner photographers, which I’ve split into three categories:

  • Light source – where’s your light coming from?
  • What’s your light doing?
  • Using and manipulating light

We’ll start with the easy photography lighting basics and build up from there.

Hard light photography lighting basics

Light source – what’s providing the light?

While light source matters, it also makes no difference, because all light behaves the same way and it’s just how you use it that changes the look of a photo. However, it helps to understand the different types of light sources in photography.

Light sources include:

  • Natural light
  • Artificial light
  • Ambient light

1. Natural light photography

Natural light is the first type of light we use when we start photography. Just to be clear, natural light is light from the sun and can be either direct or indirect light (shade).

You can use natural light outdoors and indoors. However, when using just natural light indoors the light won’t be as bright. Even though you can see fine indoors without switching on lights, your camera can’t, because it has a lower dynamic range than your eyes. 

So, to accommodate the lower light conditions, you must adjust your exposure settings with:

  • Higher ISO
  • Slower shutter speed
  • Wider aperture

Switching on the lights indoors won’t help to light your photo, in fact it’ll make things worse by creating a yellow color cast on photos. Different types of lighting have  different color temperatures.

The cool blue color temperature of natural light indoors is different from the warm golden tones of tungsten lighting (house lighting) and you’ll see both colors on your subject.

The color of light affects the color temperature of the image and you can’t set two different white balances at once. So, no matter what you do, one of your white balance settings will be wrong. However, with experience, you can use this to your advantage for creative results.

Plus, house lights aren’t as bright as you think, which comes back to my earlier point on your camera’s dynamic range.

So when using natural light indoors switch off the lights.

Then, once you’ve got the hang of using natural light indoors, start experimenting with what you can achieve with the lights in your house. Just remember to set your white balance accordingly.

photography lighting basics

2. Artificial light photography

Artificial light for photography is any light source that’s not the sun.

Flash lighting

Typically when we talk about artificial light we mean flash. Flash lighting can be anything from the speedlight you mount on the hotshoe of your camera, or off camera on a lightstand, to studio lighting, also called strobe lighting.

Flash produces a quick burst of light when you push the shutter on your camera and is triggered by a transmitter, or can be plugged in. 

When photographing in a studio environment you’ll use your strobes almost exclusively to light your subject. Unless it’s a natural light studio, of course.

However, you don’t have to be indoors to use flash. As photography lighting equipment has advanced it’s so much easier to use off camera flash outdoors, in which case you’ll have to juggle both natural light and flash.

Continuous lighting

Continuous lighting, in the form of LED lighting, is becoming more popular in photography. It’s not as powerful as flash, so is best used indoors or in low light conditions.

With the huge ISO performance improvements in camera technology any type of continuous light can be used. For example, you can even use street lighting and light from neon signs of shops when photographing at night.

This leads to our next light source, ambient light.

3. Ambient light in photography

The light that exists in the location where you’re photographing is the ambient light. You’ll also hear it referred to as available light.

Ambient lighting in photography can be natural light or artificial light. For example, if you’re:

  • On a city street at night, the ambient light will be predominantly street lighting
  • In a typical office, the ambient light will more than likely be fluorescent lighting
  • Outdoors during the day, the ambient light will be natural light, aka sunlight

Again, regardless of whether you use natural light or artificial light, all of the below tips for photography lighting basics are relevant.

So let’s move onto terminology related to how to use light in portrait photography.

flash and natural light photography

My main light source for the image on the left is flash from the front to camera right, with the setting sun behind her for rim light. On the right, I used natural light for the main light source, with a flash behind the model to camera left creating rim light.

What’s your light doing?

Most photographers start out in portrait photography thinking of lighting the subject as a one light setup. However, portrait lighting can become very complex. The first three types of lighting you’ll learn (and probably in this order) are:

  • Key light
  • Fill light
  • Accent light

Let’s take a closer look.

1. Key light

Regardless of what you’re lighting, or the source of your light, every subject in photography is lit by a key light. So even as a beginner photographer, you’ve used key lighting.

A key light is the main light that illuminates your subject, whether it’s:

  • The sun
  • Flash lighting
  • A desk lamp

Sometimes photographers use only one light, sometimes they use more, especially in studio photography. You might have heard of a two light setup or three light setup etc.

2. Fill light

Once your subject is lit by a key light, you can add fill light for a more advanced lighting setup. Adding a fill light makes it a two light setup. 

A fill light fills in the shadows created by the key light. So a fill light is never as bright as the key light.

Using a fill light is often a creative choice as not every portrait needs a fill light. However, sometimes it’s more flattering for the subject. Every portrait is different, so it’s up to you to decide if you need it.

Examples of the types of light you can use as a fill light:

  • The sun
  • Flash lighting
  • A desk lamp

So, just like you can use any light source as the main light (key light), you can use any light source as the fill light.

Just make when using two light sources that they’re the same color temperature so that you don’t end up with two different colors on your subject. Unless that’s the look you’re going for.

Fill light doesn’t necessarily have to come directly from a light source as you can also use reflected light to fill in the shadows on your subject. More on this in a moment.

3. Accent light

An accent light in photography is a light that enhances the subject in some way. Two examples of accent lighting in portrait photography are:

  • Rim light – to separate the subject from the background with a rim of light around the edge of the subject
  • Hair light – similar to rim light, but lights only the hair and possibly the shoulders

Just like with the other two types of lighting you can use natural or artificial lighting for accent lights. 

Using and manipulating light in photography

Learn to use and control light for the best results in portrait photography with the same techniques for natural light and artificial light. 

You could easily spend a fortune on lighting gear to manipulate light, but you really don’t need any fancy lighting equipment to become an expert in portrait photography lighting.

So don’t wait to buy the gear before you learn to light portraits. Use natural light.

1. Direction of light

Light direction has a huge impact on the look and feel of an image, so it’s vital you learn to see where the light is coming from. Then learn how to use the different light directions for different portrait lighting looks.

Portrait lighting directions beginner photographers need to learn include:

2. Direct light

Regardless of the type of light you use, if it’s directly illuminating your subject, it’s direct light. In other words, shining directly from the light source onto your subject.

Direct light, especially direct sunlight, can be unflattering in portrait photography. It all depends on how hard the light is, your subject and the direction of the light.

3. Indirect light

When light doesn’t directly shine onto the subject, it’s indirect light.

The benefit of indirect light is that it’s a soft light, so there are no hard shadows, making it ideal for portrait photography as it’s flattering on skin.

Indirect light is used a lot with natural light photography portraits outdoors. The trick is to find open shade for photos and position your subject facing away from the shade.

Reflector for fill light photography

I placed Sophie in open shade and used soft natural light filtering from an overcast sky through the leaves as a hair light (which is direct light). I then added extra light from the front with a reflector to camera right, by bouncing light back into her face and filling in the shadow.

4. Bounced light / reflected light

Photographers often talk about bouncing light, because that’s exactly what we do when we reflect light back onto the subject. While reflected light can be the key light, it’s often used as a fill light in portrait photography.

To bounce light you need a reflector, but you don’t have to use an actual photography reflector. While a reflector is easier and more versatile, if you’ve left it at home, look for any surface that reflects light to use as a reflector.

The type of surface you use to bounce light determines the type of light that it reflects.

Hard, shiny surfaces are the most effective at reflecting the most amount of light, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the shiniest surface possible is your best option. The hard light it produces might not suit to your subject. 

Textured surfaces, like a white wall, are great to use for reflected light as the light will be soft.

More on hard and soft light in a moment.

Natural light fill reflector

The boy’s face is brightly lit, even with the bright sunlight coming from behind him, because he’s lit by the reflected light of the sunshine bouncing off the bench into his face.

The color of reflected light is affected on the surface you use as a reflector, so be careful of your choice of reflector. 

So if the surface is green, the color of your light will be green. This is why people look a bit green when photographed on grass on a sunny day. For this reason I very rarely use the gold side of my reflector – I don’t want orangey-yellow light to be reflected back into my subject.

Most of the time I use the white side of my reflector.

Hard light from direct sunlight

It took this natural light photo at the end of the day during golden hour using hard light from direct sunlight on a cloudless day. See the clearly defined shadows on her face that indicate she was lit with hard light?

5. Hard light

You know how on really sunny days your shadow is clearly defined? That’s because on those days the light is hard and hard light creates hard, crisp shadows.

Hard light is created by a small light source relative to the size of the subject.

Direct sunlight is hard light, because, even though the sun is huge, it’s really far away, so in terms of lighting, it’s actually a small light source.

An easy way to test how the size of the light sources creates hard light is with your phone’s flashlight (or a normal flashlight of course) and your hand…

  • Hold your hand a little bit above a table, or any hard surface
  • Switch on your flashlight and hold it slightly above your hand pointing down
  • Now, as you move the flashlight upwards away from your hand watch how your hand’s shadow changes

The further away you move the flashlight the crisper the edge of the shadow becomes. That’s because the further away from your hand that it moves, the smaller the light source (flashlight) becomes relative to the size of your hand.

How to create soft light in photography

The soft light in the image on the left is natural light and on the right the soft light is from my Profoto strobe with a softbox positioned very close to the model – within arm’s reach

6. Soft light

Soft lighting is light that produces very soft shadows with soft edges and a gradual shift from dark to light. Sometimes soft light is so soft you can’t see any shadows.

If you just did the hand exercise, you’ll have noticed that the closer the torch is to your hand the softer the shadow is. This is the effect of soft light.

When light is really close to a subject it wraps around them, so shadow edges become softer and the transition from dark to light is more gradual.

So for soft light, get your subject close to the light, and/or use as big a light as possible.

Indoor photography with diffused light

I used indirect natural light from a large window to camera right for this natural light portrait indoors. Sheer curtains helped to soften the light further

7. Diffused light

When light is diffused, it’s prevented from directly hitting the subject by a layer of diffusion between the light source and the subject.

This layer of diffusion scatters the light and creates a very even spread of light. So it increases the size of the light source and, as we’ve just learned, the bigger the light source relative to the subject, the softer the light will be.

However, just because light is diffused, doesn’t mean that it’ll always be soft. Remember, the further you move your light from the the subject the smaller it becomes relative to the subject size, which changes soft light to hard light.

So bringing this back to photography lighting basics, what’s a diffuser? Here are some examples of portrait photography diffusers:

  • On an overcast day, the layer of clouds acts as a diffuser
  • Sheer curtains hanging in front of a window are a diffuser
  • Light modifiers like softboxes, umbrellas and shoot through umbrellas attached to flash lighting are diffusers

Overcast diffused light

I used early morning natural light for this soft light portrait when the sun was obscured by clouds for overcast lighting conditions, which are very flattering on skin

Photography lighting basics conclusion

Now that you know the photography lighting terms, you can learn how to use light and you’ll see your photography immediately start to improve.

You might eventually want to progress onto some form of photography lighting equipment, but first learn photography lighting basics with what you have.

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