10 must know photography lighting basics

Light is the essence of all photographs. Photography lighting basics can be confusing to new photographers, but it’s never too soon to start learning about light.

I’m not talking about how to light a photo, but the terminology of lighting in photography. Because light is essential to any image, it’s a huge topic and there are many, many ways to describe light.

So here’s an explanation of the essential concepts of photography lighting.

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

Hard light photography lighting basics

I’ve split these photography lighting basics into two categories:

  • Where is your light coming from?
  • What is your light doing?

We’ll start with the easy stuff and build up from there, so if you’re a little more advanced, skip down to the more advanced photography lighting basics.

photography lighting basics

Where is your light coming from?

It makes no difference if you photograph with natural light or flash, all these photography lighting basics are relevant. So, let’s first get clear on types of light sources:

  • Natural light
  • Artificial light
  • Ambient light

1. Natural light photography

This is the very first type of light we use when we start photography, so we all know that natural light is light from the sun.

It can be used outdoors, as well as indoors. However, when using just natural light indoors the light won’t be as bright. Even though you can see find indoors without switching on lights, your camera can’t so you’ll have to adjust your exposure settings with:

  • Higher ISO
  • Slower shutter speed
  • Wider aperture

Further reading: Top tips for photographing with natural light indoors

At first, really important to switch off the lights when using natural light indoors, because the cool blue color of natural light indoors is very different from the warm golden tones of tungsten lighting (house lighting) and you’ll see both colors on your subject. When this happens it affects the white balance of the image as you can’t set two different white balances at once.

No matter what you do, one of them will be wrong.

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.

Further reading: What is white balance in photography and does it matter?

2. Artificial light photography

This type of light can be any light source that’s not the sun.

Typically when we talk about artificial light we mean flash, also referred to as strobe lighting, which flashes when you push the shutter on your camera. Strobe lighting can be anything from the speedlight you mount on the hotshoe of your camera, or off camera on a lightstand, to studio lighting.

When photographing in a studio environment you’ll use your strobes almost exclusively to light your subject. 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.

In addition to flash, continuous lighting, in the form of LED lighting, is becoming more popular in photography.

Plus, with the huge ISO performance improvements in camera technology very often any type of light can be used, even at night to light photos, such as street lighting and light from neon signs of shops. This leads us so our next light source, ambient light.

Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash

flash and natural light photography

On the left – main light source is flash from the front to camera right, with the setting sun behind her creating rim light. On the right, main light source is natural light with a flash behind the model to camera left creating rim 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 the available light.

Ambient light 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 flash, all of the below photography lighting basics are relevant.

For a better understanding of the impact of light in a photo, learn to see and then experiment with these 7 forms of light. You don’t need to buy anything to do this.

Although you could easily spend a fortune on tools to manipulate light to achieve these effects, you really don’t need any fancy lighting equipment to become an expert in photography lighting.

Further reading: Ambient light in photography – what is it and how do you use it?

What is your light doing?

Eventually, you’ll might want to progress onto some form of photography lighting equipment, but first learn these photography lighting basics with what you have.

4. Direct light

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

Reflector for fill light photography

Soft natural light filtering from an overcast sky and then through the leaves is lighting her hair from behind. She is lit from the front by a reflector to camera right bouncing light back into her face and filling in the shadow.

5. 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. To do this you need a reflector, but you don’t have to go out and buy an actual photography reflector. Any surface that reflects light is in fact a reflector.

The type of surface you use will determine 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. It might produce an effect that’s not suited to your subject. More on this in a moment.

Natural light fill reflector

Sun was pouring onto the back of the bench which is reflecting light back into the boy’s face.

Another important point when it comes to bouncing light is that you have to be very careful about the color of the material you use, because this will be the color of the light that it reflects. For this reason I very 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.

Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Hard light from direct sunlight

Natural light photo with hard light from direct sunlight on a cloudless day. See the clearly defined shadows on her face?

6. 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 the result of a small light source relative to the size of the subject. 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 this is with your phone’s torch (or a normal torch of course) and your hand…

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

The further away you move the torch the crisper the shadow becomes. That’s because the further away from your hand that it moves, the smaller the light source (torch) 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 a strobe mounted with a softbox and position very close to the model. If she stretched out her arm she would touch the light.

7. Soft light

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 it, 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.

Further reading: Soft light photography – 4 facts every photographer should know

Indoor photography with diffused light

Naturally lit with diffused light entering through a large window with sheer curtains to camera right.

8. Diffused light

This is where many photographers get a little confused. Just because light is diffused, doesn’t mean that it will be soft. Remember, the closer the light is to your subject the softer it will be.

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. As a result it effectively 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.

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

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

Overcast diffused light

This photo was taken with natural light when the sun was obscured by clouds for overcast lighting conditions.

Further reading: Using light in photography – 4 ways to control natural light

9. Key light

Regardless of what you’re lighting, or the source of your light, every subject in photography is lit by a key light. Sometimes there’s only one light, sometimes there are more, especially in studio photography.

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

  • The sun
  • Flash lighting
  • A desk lamp

Further reading: What is a key light in photography and how do you use it?

10 Fill light

Once your subject is lit by a key light, you can add fill light. A fill light quite literally does what it says on the tin – it fills in the shadows with light. So a fill light is never as bright as the key light.

Examples of a fill light can also be:

  • The sun
  • Flash lighting
  • A desk lamp

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

Just make sure that the two light sources are the same color so that you don’t end up with two different colors on your subject…unless that’s the look you’re going for.

Further reading: Using fill light – essentials you need to know

Photography lighting basics conclusion

All of these photography lighting basics are relevant to all photographers, regardless of what you photograph or whether you use natural light, flash or continuous light.

Understand these photography lighting terms and how to apply them and you’ll see your photography immediately start to improve.

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Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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