A Beginners guide to Understanding Photography Lighting Basics

We all know the cliche that without light you cannot have photography, and the meaning of “photography” actually stems from Greek roots that mean “writing with light.” In order to truly take control over your photography, you have to understand the different types of light in photography and the fundamental photography lighting basics.

Why light is important in photography?

Lighting is one of the most important parts of photography. Without lighting, you can’t take a picture, but it does so much more as well. This beginner’s guide will introduce you to the basics of lighting, how it affects your photos and how to control it. But first we need to know about the different types of lighting; there are two schools of thought:

  1. Types of light sources
  2. Types of lighting techniques (ie, where to position the light to ensure it has the best qualities for your vision)

Types of light sources – Where is your light coming from?

Being able to identify where you light is coming from allows you to understand and control it better. There are 3 main sources of light: Natural Light, Artificial light, and ambient light.

  • Natural light is light that comes from a natural source, such as the sun or moon. (Best for capturing natural colours)
  • Artificial light is usually created by man-made lights like lamps and spotlights, but can also be emitted from sources such as flash or strobes. (Best for creating moods)
  • Ambient lighting is all of the other light around you in your surroundings that isn’t coming from one specific direction (like sunlight)

Types of Lighting in Photography

Lighting basic technique #1 – The importance of position

The position and direction of light will determine the quality and quantity of light in your photo.Knowing how to position lighting can make a huge difference between good photos and bad ones, simply because it is such an important factor that has so many different factors.There are 4 main types of lighting techniques:

  • Front or flat lighting is lighting that is coming from directly in front of the subject. This can be when using a flash or natural lighting. It fills in all the texture creating a very flat look.
  • Back lighting is when the light source is behind the subject, which creates shadows in front of them. This type of lighting gives a dramatic and artistic background to your photo that can be used for creative purposes
  • Side-lighting is where there’s one or more light sources pointing at an angle on either side of the camera creating diagonal patterns across all types of subjects.
  • Fill lighting is most often used to add a little brightness and detail in places your subject might otherwise be too dark, by using a reflector.

Lighting basic technique #2 – Soft Light vs. Hard Light

The main difference between these types of lighting is contrast; hard lights create harsh contrasts while soft ones don’t. Soft light comes from larger sources like large open windows and diffused flashlights whenSoft light is created by a diffused source like an overcast sky or a studio softbox – perfect for portrait lighting but not so great if you want to capture landscapes.Hard light on the other hand, creates shadows and contrast in your photo- perfect for landscape lighting and portraiture if you like your photos a little more edgy.

Lighting basic technique #3 – Natural vs artificial light

There is no simple answer here. For beginners I’ll always recommend you learn natural lighting first. Natural light is an important aspect of many different types of photography, but it does have a few disadvantages. There are times when natural lighting can be too harsh or unflattering- and there are also times where you just can’t get the shot because the time isn’t right for natural lighting. Artificial lighting has both advantages and disadvantages depending on the subject. If you are doing a photo shoot in the studio, for example – artificial lighting can be very helpful and precise.However, natural lighting is usually better if you’re shooting on location because it’s more representative of life as we know it.

Lighting basic technique #4 – Colour temperature aka white balance.

Colours of different bulb types and example of the effect colour temperature has on a landscape photo of cottages

Finally, all light carries colour temperature. Lighting may appear yellow or blue, for example; and this will have an impact on your photos just as it would in the natural world.

[Pro Tip #1]  Understanding light in photography

Light is a lot like a toddler. It absorbs and reflects from its environment, and just like being able to anticipate your toddlers behaviour helps you predict and control them. It’s the same for how to use lighting in photography you need to learn and predict the role lighting will have on your photo.

Your Lighting Assignment

Start by looking at a light and trying to describe it. (Use these questions to help get you started?

  • Where is light source coming from? Is it natural or artifical?
  • What direction is it coming from?
  • Is it hard or soft?
  • What colour is it? Warm? Cold?

Now does that match what you’re trying to portray or do you need to change it? Now that you understand how photography lighting behaves, you might find the following useful:

photo of  a lamp

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