Light is the foundation of photography. Learning how to control and shape light will take your images from mediocre snapshots to stunning works of art. In this in-depth guide, you’ll discover all the essential lighting techniques and skills every beginner photographer needs to master.
- Hard vs soft light and how to use both
- Essential lighting equipment and modifiers
- Classic portrait lighting patterns
- Balancing and blending multiple light sources
- Working with studio strobes and natural light
- Lighting for evocative still life and product shots
- Correcting color shifts from mixed lighting
- Overpowering the sun with flash
- Using continuous lights for creative effects
- Lighting white, black, and colored backgrounds
- Refining your lighting with flags and reflectors
- Crafting flattering light for any face or subject
Understanding and controlling light is challenging at first but immensely satisfying as you see your images transformed. So let’s get started with the fundamentals!
The most basic distinction in lighting is between hard and soft light. The quality and feeling of an image comes largely from whether it is lit with hard or soft light.
Hard light comes from a small, directed light source like direct sunlight or an undiffused strobe. It creates dark, defined shadows and high contrast. Hard light brings out vivid colors and textures. The crispness of shadows outlines shapes and gives bold visual impact.
Soft light originates from a larger, diffused source like overcast daylight or an enlarged strobe covered with a modifier. It minimizes shadows, reduces contrast, and creates more muted, blended colors. Subtle gradients of tone emerge rather than hard edges.
The relative size of the light source determines soft vs hard light. As a light gets larger compared to the subject, it becomes softer because the originating rays hit the subject from more varied angles. As a light gets smaller relative to the subject, a harder effect results.
For example, the sun is huge but so distant it acts as a small, direct light source for subjects on earth. That’s why sunlight creates hard, contrasty lighting. An expansive overcast sky, on the other hand, acts as one giant softbox encompassing the subjects below.
The takeaway: enlarging a light source softens it, while constricting it makes it harder. Use this principle to rig soft or hard effects with any strobe.
To make a strobe source larger and softer, diffuse it with modifiers like umbrellas, softboxes, or diffusion sheets. Back the strobe away from modifiers to make the light spread more. For a harder strobe light, use no modifier and keep the strobe close to your subject.
Study photographs to read the lighting. Crisp shadows indicate a small, hard light source. Subtle shadows and gradients reveal a larger, diffused light source. Can you tell when an image uses sunlight vs open shade?
Try creating distinctly different portraits of the same person - one using a small, undiffused strobe for hard light contrast, and another with a giant softbox close to them for ultra-soft lighting. Compare the mood and feel of the two. Seeing is understanding when it comes to light quality.
While natural light alone allows you to take photos, adding artificial sources like strobes or continuous lights opens many more creative possibilities. Building a starter lighting kit need not be expensive if you focus on basics. Here are the key essentials for beginners.
Light Meter - A handheld incident light meter is perhaps the most important lighting investment. It measures the actual light falling on your subject, allowing precise control of exposure and lighting ratios. This lets you craft lighting intentionally rather than just guessing.
Strobes - Small, off-camera flash units let you independently control brightness, position, and modifier of a light. Many entry choices like Speedlights work perfectly. Opt for a unit with manual power controls.
Stand - A sturdy stand lets you position strobes where needed. Light weight impacts tip-over risk. Sandbags further increase stability, which is vital for lighting equipment positioned high up.
Modifiers - Umbrellas, softboxes, flags, reflectors, and gels allow sculpting the light. Each produces a distinct effect. Start with a 45” convertible umbrella to make a soft, broad light.
With just these basic tools, you can learn to shape light like a pro. Quality matters more than quantity when building lighting gear. Master one modifier before getting more.
Using a Handheld Light Meter
While cameras have built-in metering, they only measure reflected light off the scene. For total control, you need a handheld incident light meter. This reads the actual light falling on your subject - not just the lighting brightness in general.
Incident metering is crucial for crafting specific lighting effects and ratios. Learning this skill early on will make you far more intentional and proficient with lighting.
To use an incident meter:
- Take readings up close to individual subjects rather than from behind the camera.
- Point the meter’s dome toward the camera position to measure the lighting the subject actually receives.
- For portraits, place the dome right against your model’s face! Light fall-off is gradual but reading close gives needed accuracy.
- For transparency film and digital capture, meter your subject’s brightest highlight that should retain detail. These overexpose easily.
- For negative film, average a highlight reading and a shadow reading to factor in the film’s exposure latitude.
- Remember to re-meter whenever you move the subject, camera, or lights! Position impacts illumination.
Using these techniques to read lighting values lets you precisely balance multiple lights. With practice, you develop an intuition for how a one-stop lighting change impacts the look of your subject. This sensitivity is invaluable for crafting perfect exposures.
Metering modes like cord, non-cord, and ambient teach you how your meter works with strobes or available light. Learn when to use incident vs. reflective metering for total mastery over exposure. The meter makes lighting a science rather than guesswork.
Modifiers attach to your strobe for shaping the light. Each creates a unique effect. Four classics to start with are:
- The 7” reflector included with strobes. It controls spill and concentrates light forward in a harder quality.
- Umbrellas soften by bouncing strobe light back out a diffusive surface. You control softness by adjusting the inner strobe distance. Further softens and spreads light.
- Softboxes surround the strobe with an outward diffuser panel creating soft directional lighting. Use sizes like 24” or 48”.
- Grid spots attach to reflectors or softboxes concentrating light into a controllable beam, like a spotlight.
Mixing modifiers and positions lets you sculpt stunning light. You can also make your own oversized modifiers. The key is learning the types of shadows each produces.
Try grid spots for rims, kicks, and hair lights. Use softboxes, umbrellas, or sheets as your key, fill, and background lights. Keep notes on what ratios you like with each.
And don’t buy the myth that you must have expensive gear for pro results. Ingenuity with simple, inexpensive tools can create incredible photos. Master the basics first.
Entire art forms like chiaroscuro painting were based on dramatic one light scenes. You too can craft pro-quality portraits with a single off-camera strobe, some modifiers, and attentive metering.
Place your strobe at a flattering 45 degree angle to your subject's face. Feather it off their cheek rather than direct frontal. Vary softness by distance - closer is softer. Position vertically just above eye level angled down, producing pleasing nose shadows.
Watch catchlights in eyes to see the lighting direction. Adjust height and angle to skim across facial contours, revealing form. Use grids, flags, the inverse square law, and your meter to fine tune contrast.
Classic single strobe portrait lighting patterns include:
- Rembrandt Light - Places the triangle of light on shadowed cheek below the eye. Creates depth and dimension.
- Loop Light - Shifts strobe closer to camera axis for more frontal face illumination with subtle nose shadow.
- Short Light - Positions subject's face partly turned from light, leaving the further cheek in shadow. Adds drama.
The possibilities with even minimal gear are endless. Allow the quality of light flatter your subject rather than forcing a rigid style. Follow the joy of discovery in lighting.
Metering and Balancing Multiple Lights
While one light strongly shapes subjects, adding more enables advanced control. Typical two-light portraits use a main and a fill light. The main light creates pattern and shadows. The fill lifts shadows for detail.
Metering technique with multiple lights:
- Turn off all but one light. Take an incident reading right at your subject. Record it.
- Repeat for each additional light. This ensures reading just that light's output, unaffected by others.
- For the final exposure, meter with all lights on and the subject in final position.
- Balance fill brightness to main light. A 2:1 difference between them is common. Less contrast means more fill.
Don't neglect metering if moving any light, subject, or camera. These all affect lighting ratios and require adjustment. Measure, balance, and expose with intention.
Besides main and fill roles, additional lights create more advanced effects:
- Back lights - Rim, kick, or hair lights separate subject from background visually. Often used harder and brighter.
- Background lights - Control exposure and tone of the backdrop area independently.
- Gobos - Flags, cucs, or cookes block light from spilling onto unwanted areas and cleanly shape your desired lighting pattern.
Once comfortable metering and balancing two lights, add modifiers like grids, snoots, barn doors, and gels to gain even greater mastery sculpting light.
Additional tools to precisely control lighting include gels, flags, and reflectors. Learning to incorporate these will refine your portrait lighting.
Gels - Thin colored transparent film that attaches to strobes or hot lights to alter color and mood of the emitted light. Useful examples include:
- CTO (color temperature orange) Warming gels - Add golden tones to light for natural, flattering skin tones. Full to 1/8th CTO strengths.
- CTB (color temperature blue) Cooling gels - For visual interest, light background elements cooler while keeping subject warm.
- Color effect gels - Deeply colored for drama. Used subtly they can just tint light rather than overwhelm.
Flags - Black cardboard or cloth that simply blocks light. Attach to stands with clips or clamps. This darkens exposure where placed. Flags shape light.
Reflectors - Bounce light onto shadow areas from opposite the main lights. Choose silver, gold, white sides. Can use foam boards or collapsible discs.
By adding gels, you'll find that different skin tones and hair colors require subtle warming gel differences. Customize your portrait lighting.
Reflectors fill overly contrasty lighting for a natural yet flattering look. Mix with negative fill shadows from flags for precise light painting.
Meter to ensure you balance hard and soft lighting as intended. These tools boost control over color, contrast, and shadow to elevate your images.
The interplay of highlight and shadow creates dimension and draws the eye through an image. The lighting ratio quantifies this relative difference.
For example, if your main light meters f/11 on your subject, and the shadow cast by it falls at f/5.6, that’s a 2:1 or 2-stop ratio. The higher the number, the more contrast.
Lighting ratios help you consistently reproduce lighting effects shot to shot. Instead of guessing, use your meter's readings to measure and calibrate the balance of illumination you desire.
Some classic portrait lighting ratios and when to apply them:
- 2:1 ratio - Moderate contrast gives a natural yet lively look. Shadows still read distinctly. Well suited to most portraits.
- 3:1 ratio - Increased drama and depth for character studies. Needs sufficient fill so shadows don't overpower the face.
- 4:1 ratio or higher - Maximum boldness where shadows become black. Use for dramatic impact. Accent lit faces emerge from darkness.
- 1:1 ratio - For high key, ethereal lighting. Reduced shadows can hide facial detail. Requires very soft, wraparound lighting.
Gauge ratios similarly when using multiple lights. A main, fill, and hair light may measure f/11, f/5.6, and f/8 respectively. This maintains detail while creating distinct modeling.
Lighting ratios help intentionally craft contrast and mood. They work magic complementing facial structure during portraits. Learn to see and measure them.
Subtractive lighting tools like flags, cards, and gobos refine results by blocking light exactly where needed. This requires practice to visualize.
A flag is simply any opaque object that casts a shadow when placed between light and subject. Flags attach to stands with clamps for positioning.
Flags create immediate contrast on your subject, accentuating texture and form. Position close to subject for sharp shadow transitions or feather far back for gradual.
Cards function like miniature flags to subtract light precisely. Use black cards to create distinct shadows or white cards to bounce subtle fill back onto subject.
A gobo refers to any device placed before a light to shape emitted beams by blocking them partially. The classic is a cucoloris or cuke - boards with cutout patterns.
Use these subtractive tools to add contrast and mystery. Combining gobo patterns and negative fill shadows builds dimensional moody lighting.
Here you take control. Meter to check values as you craft the scene lighting. Don't merely accept a flat, shadowless result. Sculpt. Shape. Light paint.
When blending light sources of differing color temperatures, uncorrected results will have an unattractive color cast. Here's how to balance it.
Match all colors to the same temperature with:
- Gels on the strobes - CTO gels warm. CTB gels cool. Use levels from full to 1/8th to fine tune.
- Camera white balance - Powerful but limits ability to color shift selectively.
- Color correction camera filters - Warming and cooling filters like the 80 series compensate overall.
For example, tungsten bulbs at 3200K mix with afternoon sun at 5500K. CTB gels attached to the strobes used would shift their output cooler to match the sun.
Or gels could warm the tungsten lights while leaving the sunlight white for a sunset look. Either way, the goal is intentional color balance.
For ultra precision, meter and record the exact kelvin color temperature of each contributing light. Then shift them all identically. This takes experience but creates perfect custom white balance in camera.
Practice combining strobe, sun, household bulb, and fluorescent lights. Get comfortable nullifying unwanted color shifts using gels, filters, and white balance. Mastery over color temperature leads to better lighting everywhere.
Sunlight seems infinitely bright, but adding strobe lights allows you to overpower and control the sun itself for stunning images.
Use small, hard lights like grids or snoots to punch sunlight. Place them near subjects to maximize intensity. Feather carefully.
Position subject in open shade for base exposure. Balance sun highlights and strobe shadows.
Meter the ambient sunlight with strobes off to set aperture for background. Then increase strobe power until foreground subject is 1 to 2 stops brighter than sunlit areas.
Now your shadows overpower the sun! The sunlit background will burn out 1 or 2 stops overexposed, but your subject is perfectly lit. This often photographs better than blandly balanced lighting.
You can create any lighting pattern imaginable with this technique. Mimic golden hour front light or side lighting with back rim accents. Light like the sun is low on the horizon when it's high overhead.
It just requires an exposure blend with priority on your strobes. As sun fades later in day, gradually reduce strobe power to continue matching the diminishing daylight.
Give your lighting consistent directionality and quality. With practice, you can simulate epic sunsets at high noon. Let strobes and sunlight complement each other for magical results.
Working With Continuous Lights
Strobes freeze motion instantly. But continuous lights like hot lights let you capture subtle motion blur creatively during longer exposures.
Tungsten and HMI continuous lights span from small 100W units to mammoth 24,000W lamps. Way beyond household bulbs.
- Motion conveys life and you want hint blur during the shot. Especially effective for busy backgrounds.
- You need to preview exactly how intense shadows render before shooting anything.
- Lighting subjects that trigger strobes inconsistently like welding, machinery in motion, breaking glass, splashing liquids.
Continuous lights produce consistent flicker-free illumination crucial for video capture too. This demands more lighting wattage for exposure compared to strobes.
Balance continuous and strobe lighting by:
- First expose only for the continuous lights. This should render subject as a silhouette.
- Now add your strobes balanced to properly expose subject.
- Take the shot with a shutter speed between both exposure durations to blend the strobe pop with continuous lighting in a single frame.
This causes the continuous-lit portions to blur in motion, while the strobe-lit subject stays frozen. Adjust blur amount by changing shutter speed.
The heat output of hot lights demands vigilant safety. Stick with modeling bulbs and LED alternatives for tabletop lighting. But when you need motion effects in-camera, continuous lights deliver.
Simple lighting produces simple results. But examining the dimensions of light reveals new possibilities for dramatic, evocative portraits.
Hard vs. soft light provides the most obvious contrast. Combining the two in a scene adds appeal. Use a small hot spot to accent eyes against a soft wraparound key light, for example.
Distance also sculpts light. A grid spot two feet from the subject appears
Distance also sculpts light. A grid spot two feet from the subject appears much harder than when feathered back six feet. Feather the edges of your lighting pattern.
Vary the height of lights rather than keeping them all at face level. Down low booms create ominous under lighting. High toplight skims over contours elegantly. Mix it up.
The angle of lights transforms impact, especially when exaggerated. A kicker light coming from far behind the subject makes them glow compared to a conservative 45 degree side light.
Quality, distance, height, and angle combine to paint light artfully. Don't be content with flat frontal illumination only. Your imagination is the limit.
Finally, control and balance fill lighting with intention too. Watch shadows graduate from black to gray when adding reflectors or fill cards. Use negative fill to accentuate. Sculpt with light.
Moving Beyond Flat Lighting
With experience comes an eye for dimensional lighting opportunities surrounding you. Flat lighting fails to maximize visual potential.
- Dappled light - Leafy shade, window treatments, structures creating patterns. Use as a gigantic natural gobo.
- Textured light - Weathered walls, foliage, textiles creating painterly illumination. Enhance with off-camera strobe.
- Silhouettes - Backlight subjects for separation from backgrounds, or photograph them as black outlines.
- Rim lighting - Position small hard lights behind to silhouette edges of subjects. Enhances the third dimension.
- Lens flares - Allow bright backlights to intentionally flare the camera for ethereal glow effects.
- Selective focus - Isolate subjects using depth of field. Throw backgrounds out of focus to draw attention forward.
- Color effects - Use gels or mixed temperature light creatively. Contrast color temperatures for vibrant images.
- Kinetic lighting - Paint, wave, or rotate lights during long exposure for abstract in-camera effects.
Constantly examine the world with lighting in mind. Flat lighting may be easy, but dimensional moody lighting is so much more engaging. Look for it.
Photographers first observed that motion blurs subjects shot with flash bulbs. Rather than avoiding it, innovators embraced blur as a new form of in-camera art.
Conceptual light painting long exposures completely transform spaces through introducing colorful patterns and shapes formed by handheld light sources during capture. This sculpts spaces visually in a way unrecognizable to the eye.
- Use long shutter speeds from several seconds to minutes in length. This gives time to create in-camera.
- Choose dark environments so additional illumination shapes the scene.
- Light paint by waving flashlights, cellphones, or other bright portable lights during exposures.
- Use gels over light sources to tint colors. Change gels as you paint if desired.
- Repeat exposures, refining your painting technique until desired outcome emerges.
- Paint subjects as well as surroundings. Use strobe pops to freeze motion creatively against blur.
This art form is only limited by your creativity. Use zooming during exposure to generate light trails. Incorporate mirrors or prisms. Make light your art and the camera your brush.
Fine portraits distill the essence of a person, revealing beauty, character, and humanity. Master painters perfected this timelessly. You too can create portrait magic.
The eyes are key. Without connection to the subject’s gaze, an image lacks soul. Light to create catchlights in the eyes to bring them to life. Watch for eyeglass glare though.
Observe how surrounding light affects faces dimensionally. Then mimic the most flattering light angles with your strobes. Don’t blindly light frontally - study the existing light for guidance first.
Use nose shadows to define facial contours. Watch how the mouth changes shape between smiles and neutral expressions. Follow the angles. Sculpt the face.
Follow the form. No flat lighting - wrap your illumination around subjects dimensionally. Let light and shadow interact to reveal the full volume of the head and shape of features. Use broad strokes.
Learn to see each individual’s best lighting. A light feathered high from the side may illuminate one subject’s face elegantly. Another may need a lower, more frontal approach. Follow their form.
The eyes and mouth attract the most attention. Compose to leave negative space around these focal points. Don't allow distracting background elements to emerge from the face. Watch your outlines.
Envision the flow of light falling on your subject. Don't just blast them head-on. Paint directional illumination across the volumes of the face. Let light and shadow shape the essence of your subject.
Great photographers don’t simply await perfect light. They recognize great illumination in unlikely places and refine it using calculated strobes and modifiers. Learn to discover diamond lighting.
Once recognized, you can recreate naturally occurring light with studio strobes and modifiers. Or blend ambient light with supplemental flash. Master light and make it your creative servant.
As Ansel Adams said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Your images are a conversation. Open new creative dialogues through light.
Have something meaningful to say, or at least feel. Emote through your imagery. Intention separates visceral art from idle snaps. You needn’t vocalize intent, but it must exist inside to emerge on output.
Great photos rarely reveal their secrets upfront. Suggest, don’t explicitly explain. Allow viewers to lean in to interpret your imagery. Mystery invites imagination to fill the gaps.
We each perceive the world uniquely. Photography distills human experience unlike any art before it. Let your distinct inner vision emerge. Celebrate differences.
Beginners learn rules to navigate the fundamentals, yet your vision transcends any rules. Know them in order to freely exercise instinct. Ideas unbounded by convention change everything.
Take the tools of light, modification, and exposure control you’ve learned and combine them in new ways. Blend. Bend. Break rules when inspiration moves you. Expect surprise results. Learn from them.
Evoke it in your viewers through mood and atmosphere. To feel is to be alive. Photographs that stir our feelings remind us of what it means to be human.
Constantly question. Why do I feel drawn to this scene, subject, technique? Ponder your work until new realms unfold organically. The curious mind discovers most.
It infuses everything worth doing. When photography moves you at a soulful level, the impulse to create overflows naturally. Stay passionate for light and image.
Light is the raw material that photography transforms into visual magic. It may take experience to see light at the sophisticated level of master painters. But passion speeds growth.
So explore, experiment, and engage purposefully with every image. Use your camera to communicate an inner vision of the world around you. Say something unique through creative light. The visual language of photography gives your ideas power.
Find beautiful light everywhere by seeing nothing as ordinary. Bring that light to viewers they would have otherwise overlooked. Use it to share an emotion you alone feel and long to transmit.
Photography links us all. One simple image connects photographer and viewer intimately through shared experience as few art forms can. Light up the shadows, open eyes and hearts, and change how we see the world.