The Expert Guide to Photography Lighting
Photography Tips

The Expert Guide to Photography Lighting

Light plays a massive role in how your photos turn out. Changing the quality of light and its position relative to your subject and the camera can completely change the way your photo looks. But how can you choose the optimal conditions if you don’t know how lighting works? We’ve broken down the basics of photography lighting to help you understand how to use—and change—light to get that perfect photo.

Ambient light means the light available to shoot in (without adding a flash or studio lighting). This could be natural light such as sunlight or moonlight, or artificial light such as lightbulbs.

Key light or main light is just that—the principal light source you use for your photo. You can use sunlight (either outdoors or through a window) or a flash (on-camera or in a studio setting) as your key light source.

Fill light is used to illuminate the areas where the key light creates shadows. It increases the exposure in that area and “fills” the area with light. A fill light can either be a second light source or a reflector that bounces some of the key light back onto the subject from a different angle. We aren’t looking to remove shadows and contrast altogether. We want to soften them and reduce the high contrast in the image.

Backlight is light that’s positioned behind the subject and pointed towards the camera. This could be natural or artificial light. To set up a backlit photo, you would point a light towards your camera and then place the subject between you and this light source. Don’t confuse this with background light—that’s when the light source illuminates the background, not the subject.

Hard light is harsh, undiffused light that creates sharp and unflattering shadows with hard edges and high contrast. On-camera flashes pointed straight at the subject create hard light, which is why you should diffuse the light and bounce it off another source. Bright sunlight, such as the middle of the afternoon, is also a hard light source.

Soft light is just the opposite of hard light—it’s soft, diffused light that creates flattering shadows with a soft edge and lower contrast. You can use a diffuser or bounce the light to create soft light. In daylight, you’ll naturally find soft light during golden hour or on an overcast day.

Bounce light is when the light source illuminates your subject after it reflects or bounces off another surface or object. You can bounce light off a reflector, wall, or ceiling when shooting indoors. Outdoors, you can use a reflector or another nearby surface—you’ll have to get creative and see what’s available! This technique is common in portrait photography and while shooting indoor events.

Pro tip: Are you shooting outdoors or in a room with a high ceiling? Attach a white business card to your flash and bounce the light off it! 

Reflectors are objects you use to reflect light onto your subject. For a DIY reflector, you could use a sheet of white cardboard or styrofoam. You can take it up a notch and add a gold- or silver-colored sheet on top of the reflector. Gold will make the light warmer, while silver will make it cooler. 

Diffusers are translucent devices that soften the light hitting your subject. They’re so called because they “diffuse” or spread out the light. They’re often attached to the light source and made of materials such as nylon or plastic.

Golden
Hour is the time just after sunrise and before sunset when the warm natural light creates beautiful, long shadows. How long it lasts depends on where you live—it can range from just under an hour to over 90 minutes! What time golden hour falls at changes depending on time of year. You can download apps that let you enter a location and find the sunrise and sunset times so you can prepare to catch that coveted light.

Hot Shoe is a connector on top of your camera where you can connect a flash, wireless trigger, or electronic viewfinder. While point and shoot cameras are unlikely to have a hot shoe, you can find them on DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

Speedlight (Speedlite for Canon users) is a portable flash you can connect to your camera’s hot shoe. Speedlights give you more control over the light than an on-camera flash since they can bend at different angles, letting you easily bounce light off walls and ceilings. You can also connect the speedlight to a light stand to act as an off-camera flash. This lets you be more creative with your lighting since you can light a scene from different angles.

Flash triggers are devices that fire the speedlight when you use it as an off-camera flash. In a wireless flash trigger, you’ll have a transmitter (which you attach to your camera’s hot shoe) and a receiver (which you attach to the flash). They communicate with one another to fire the flash when you press the shutter.

With these lighting basics mastered, you’re ready to take your photography to the next level! Tag us in your Instagram photos and let us know how you experimented with lighting in your favorite photos.

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