The “principles” of lighting are an important foundation to understanding what “good” light looks like. With this understanding, you’ll discover that the ability to recognize “good light” will allow you to apply these principles in often-simple ways.
Watch how different this shot becomes when the subject shifts just two feet to her left. The shot on the left has the same pleasant color and contrast as the one on the right, but the harsh sunlight is distracting. I haven’t set anything fancy up, there’s no gear involved, it’s a simple matter of the placement of the subject. This is why I say simply being conscious of light already available to you is an important first step. That’s the importance of lighting, and evidence that just a bit of well-applied knowledge can go a long way toward improving the quality of your images .
In this section, you’ll meet our good friend Mr. SQuID-C, his name spells out the most important things you can remember about lighting:
The Size, QUality, Intensity, Direction and Color of light determine your subject’s appearance. If you want “cinematic lighting”, aim to create depth and volume, and learn to really look at your image. We’ll talk about lighting gear as well, from big lights to small ones, both photo and video-specific. Continuous lighting is rapidly becoming a viable option for still photographers as well as videographers, and it can make learning lighting much easier. But even without access to any gear, you’ll learn principles of light you can apply immediately, and how to take advantage of common items you already have access to. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting on a system costing thousands of dollars or just taking pictures with your phone, these principles apply everywhere, and good lighting matters more than the camera you shoot with.
You’ll learn that broad sources create soft light, that outdoor shots of people often look best with the sun at your subject’s back, or simply shot in the shade. You’ll learn objective ways of “metering” the amount of light in your shot and why some people use a dedicated tool for this. You’ll see how the direction of light can quickly become very important in product photography. We’ll first talk about really learning to use the available light you’ve got, then you’ll learn the importance of balancing the color and intensity of any light you add to the existing light of your scene. We’ll cover other simple techniques, like bouncing a cheap LED off a white wall and/or ceiling to make an instantly-beautiful light. Again, this is one area where you can really see dramatic differences applying simple techniques, and it’s one of the most fun aspects of visual image making to master.
Light not only illuminates your subject so we can see it, but conveys a mood at the same time. It’s most important that you learn how to analyze and reproduce what looks good, how to create or reduce depth and volume or texture, and how to control the brightness of your lights relative to each other and the scene.
We’ll get to Mr. SQuID-C shortly, but let’s first bring up a term you’ll hear repeatedly called “3-point-lighting”. This is a general term used to discuss lighting but don’t fixate on it. It simply means that the main light illuminating your subject is called the “key” light. That key light will create shadows, and the light that controls how dark those shadows from the key are, is called the “fill”light–it’s filling in the shadows the key light creates. The third light separates the subject from the background and it’s usually called the “rim” light, which you may also hear called a “backlight”, “hairlight”, or “kicker”–these all serve a similar purpose and that is to separate the subject from the background. Please don’t think that every shot needs three lights, or that every one of these must be present in every scene. Or that if you have all three of these your lighting is good. Any one of these lights might come from less-than-obvious sources, like fill from sunlight bouncing off a building or the ground. “Ambient light” refers to the light naturally available in the environment you’re shooting in. That ambient light can act easily act as your key or your fill, or even both. The reason I bring this 3-pt-lighting thing up isn’t for you to always light with three lights; it’s simply an easy way for me to say “key” and for you to know I’m talking about the main light; or “fill” and you know I’m referring the the amount of lighting “filling in” the shadows which is important, because that determines how much contrast we see.
Now for the fun part, meet your newest friend, Mr. Squid-C. He’s aptly named to make your understanding of light and its parameters elementary. His name is an acronym for all the parameters of light: Size, Quality, Intensity, Direction and Color. These attributes sit above the 3-point-lighting idea in importance. They are governing principles that will help us discuss the use of light in depth.
Remember the concept of “metering” discussed in the camera section. Again, your camera contains a reflective meter, meaning it’s measuring the amount of light bounced off a subject and into the lens. See the ‘measuring and metering’ section below for more information on objective measurements of a light’s intensity.
The first two parameters, size and quality we’ll lump together because they interrelate. Relative size of the light source to subject is one of your most important considerations because it directly affects the quality of light. Large sources make for soft light. Small sources make for hard light with clearly defined shadows. Light from a speedlight (a small source), but it’s diffused twice: once by bouncing and a second time through a layer of diffusion making it extremely soft.
Soft light makes for fuzzy shadows because larger sources hit your subject from multiple angles, and these multi-directional “diffused” light rays don’t cast a hard even line. This “softness” or “hardness” is referred to as the quality of the light: the next letters in SQuID-C’s name. It’s important to group these two parameters, size and quality together because they are interrelated: the larger the size of the light source the softer the quality of the light.
But look at the shadows in these outdoor shots. They’re extremely hard even though they come from a gigantic sun. The catch here is that a big light is only big if it’s close to the subject. While the sun is a massive light source, it’s 93 million miles away making it very small relative to all of us. So, the sun produces hard shadows unless something which sits much closer to us, say a layer of cloud cover, diffuses the sun’s light and becomes the light source itself. This is the reason many photographers and DPs prefer taking pictures of people on overcast days. Most faces look better under diffused light than hard light. Placing a layer of semi transparent material between sun and subject simulates what overcast clouds might do. We call it table-topping. See how the light immediately becomes much more soft and flattering? Light behaves the exact same way in the studio. Here’s a small light source casting very unflattering light. But placing a light modifier in front of it makes for a more gradual transition between light and shadow: a softer light. Now, if you don’t have anything to diffuse with, here’s a simple solution: consider shooting in the shade. Just a couple steps to the right in this case makes a huge difference. So now that the sun is being blocked by a nearby building, what’s lighting our subject? It’s the sky, or the blue atmospheric light, bouncing the light of the sun all around the sky and landing on our subject in a much more pleasing way. Placing your subject in the shade is one of the easiest lighting solutions on a bright sunny day, so remember, “shoot the shade”. The light won’t be very dynamic or “three-dimensional”, but a bit of black fill can be used to block light hitting one side of the subject to bring some of that sense of form back. This is a very common technique we call “negative fill” because instead of filling in the key light’s shadows we’re removing ambient light. You’ll also want to warm up your white balance to compensate for the cool color of that blue atmospheric light. Another easy fix is to simply put your subject’s back to the sun. Though this is opposite what a lot of people do naturally, the light on the face will be much softer, once again because it’s now in the shade, this time shade created by the person’s head. And though the face will again be a bit flat since it’s in shadow, the hard sunlight will help restore some depth to the shot by adding a nice glowing perimeter around the subject. Putting the hard light of the sun on the back of the person rather than the front is another quick tip for outdoor shooting. Remember to be conscious of where the sun is when shooting indoors in a room with windows. Hard light coming through a window casts hard shadows unless it’s diffused by semi-transparent drapes or something. But the same principle applies; look at this shot of light coming not directly from the sun, but from the sky: soft, cool, diffused, ambient light from a north-facing window (since I’m above the equator the sun’s light comes from the south). This soft sky-light-through-a-window technique is used all the time for bridal portraits, and works equally well with cats.
Now you don’t always want soft light. Hard light can be extremely dynamic and interesting in many situations. We talk more about soft light because it’s such a common way to light people. But hard light can reveal surface texture without the muddying, averaging tendencies of soft light. It can make hair and fabric really pop. Long shadows on the floor or in a landscape are often more interesting with hard light. Shadow information can lend visual interest and storytelling to a shot. You are the one responsible for making the creative choice of the quality of light to be used. Just remember, the biggest key to soft shadows and diffused light is getting the light source nice and big and as close to the subject as possible. Big light = soft light and small light=hard light.
In this example, natural atmospheric fog makes for very soft, diffused light. Notice how soft the light to shadow transition is on the tree trunks and how smooth the edges of the cast shadows become.
The hardness or softness of light is what we’ll call its quality. This light is hard in the examples below, but desirably so. The hard-edged long shadow assists the photo’s composition and the direction of the light makes it flattering on the subject and reveals texture in the ice.
There’s a trend in modern lighting to avoid hard light for portraits, but it’s not always bad. Though it’s certainly harder to work with than soft light, it’s well worth the effort to master.
This one’s simple: How bright is your light? This light’s intensity is designed to complement the ambient light so the actress is well-illuminated with soft light. The ratio of light on the subject vs outside light coming through the door and windows is very consciously chosen. Without supplemental light, this actress would be a silhouette.
Obviously a light has to be bright enough to properly ‘expose’ the subject. You learned lots about that when we discussed exposure. The intensity of each of a scene’s light sources relative to each other is also important. Lighting is often discussed in terms of ratios, or how bright is one light compared to others in a scene. It’s important to have a sense of the “ambient” or available light so you know how your lighting will complement it. Sometimes lights don’t have to be all that powerful. If they match the color of the ambient light then they can be used in tandem to creative effect, maybe as a fill to simply lift the density of the shadows. Different levels of light can be used to really separate a subject and background, once again, adding depth to an image. Brighten up the overall level of your subject to make them pop from the background. Lighting the background with a gradient of dark to light that’s opposite the dark and light sides of your subject will make the subject stand out even more. It’s a technique called “checkerboard” lighting. See here how the dark side of this roguish subject has a bit lighter background behind, while the light side on the right where the light hits my shirt contrasts the dark background?
Direction is just what it sounds like: where does the light come relative to the subject? Before even discussing this, I’d recommend turning off the lights in your bathroom, turning on your cell phone, and just moving it all around your head and face and watching what happens in the mirror. There are a ton of different terms for classic lighting techniques for portraits. You’ll hear butterfly lighting, where the light is just in front of and slightly above the subject’s face. Loop lighting where the light is pulled to the side a bit for a small diagonal shadow off the nose, or pulling the light even further to get the classic “Rembrandt triangle”. Or pulled even farther to the side for “split lighting”. I don’t see a lot of value in memorizing these terms. Again, instead, learn to recognize the principle of using light to create depth and volume. “Front light” means the light is close to the camera so the light is coming along the axis of the lens and hitting the subject. This makes for very “flat” lighting because you’re not allowing for contrast of light and shadow in order to add dimension to the face. This is a look that can work in corporate stuff, high fashion, or simulating a candid shot or paparazzi effect. Just recognize that it’s very flat. On-camera flashes are frequent culprits behind this effect; you’ve likely seen the ‘deer in the headlights’ look on-axis front light can produce. Most common key light placement on a person is about 45º from the front, also known at ¾ lighting, keeping the light’s height just low enough to reveal the eyes but no lower. While most photographers know that light coming from below a face looks creepy, many of them still hold their 5-in-1 reflector below the subject resulting perhaps a less obvious creepiness, but still an undesired look. If you’re bouncing sunlight back towards a subject, try to keep your bounce coming from the top. Moving the light behind the subject, we get back lighting, like we looked at with our outdoor example in the light quality section. This makes the light visible only along the edges of the subject and can be a great way to help them pop from the background. It almost makes the subject look like they’re on another layer, again, adding depth to the image which can make for more ‘cinematic’ lighting. Backlighting with the sun also tends to flare your lens if that’s your thing. While people often look great backlit by the sun, sometimes wide, colorful landscapes will look better front lit. Notice that the sky is more blue pretty well everywhere but nearest the sun, so if you’re going for an ultra-deep-blue sky shooting into the sun might hurt you. In general just avoid shooting outdoors at mid-day. The overhead light is generally not pleasing at all on people (see the racoon eyes) and the stubby shadows don’t reveal landscape features in a pleasing way. Food photography looks great shot with a strong, low backlight. This low angle lighting reveal texture, an important part of making food look appetizing. Remember, side lighting accentuates texture: The more you graze a light across the surface of an object, the more you accentuate the peaks and valleys or bright and dark spots of the surface texture of that object. This is easy to see on something like a piece of fabric, where the effect might be desirable, but also applies to something like a face where surface texture is generally not something to accentuate. Much “beauty lighting” is incredibly flat with lighting from the front which minimizes skin texture.
Product photographers also care a lot about direction. Many products will have shiny, reflective surfaces. When lighting shiny things you’re essentially lighting the environment and not the object. This is confusing but it’s because all that’s visible is the reflection of the environment in the object. If light hits a flat surface at a given angle, it will reflect off that surface at the exact same angle, something we call the “angle of incidence” if you want to impress your in-laws. The direct reflection of a light source, visible in a shiny object is termed a “specular highlight”. The shiny object has a smooth surface that bounces a mirror image of the light back at the camera, rather than bouncing the light in a thousand directions like a diffuse surface would. If the source of light is small, the form of the product won’t be well revealed, you’ll just get ugly bright spots where you’re light’s being reflected, but if the light source is large and positioned to where it will bounce off the product and into the camera lens, these large specular highlights can be very appealing. So you want to be conscious of where the lights are, how they hit the subject, and how they bounce into the camera.
Outside product photography, these direct specular reflections can be distracting–on someone’s glasses for example. An easy way to fix this is to be conscious of this direction idea. Light hitting the glasses is bouncing off at the same angle it came in at and subsequently into the camera. If we move the light, or the person so that the reflective glasses are no longer within the “family of angles” of that light source, the direct reflection avoids the camera. In this case, however, we’ve also changed from what’s called a “short side” to a “broad side” key. The half of the face less visible to camera is the short side, and placing our strongest light closer to that side is often preferred. It generally adds more depth to the image, allowing for more shadow which provides more volume information on the subject. Keeping a large part of the face in shadow also makes the face look more narrow. Moving the key light to the “broad side” makes the subject’s face feel more wide and flat, with a reduced sense of depth.
These highlights are highly useful for reverse engineering the lighting of any photo. The lighting used on a person can often be figured out by looking at the reflections of the lights themselves in the person’s eyes. These specular highlights we call “catch lights” and they add a lot of life to the subject. Look at the final shot and see if you can discover anything about the lights used before looking at the next shot of my setup.
What color is the light hitting your subject? Remember to use white balance creatively. Auto-white balance can kill a good photo.
The squid is among the few of earth’s animals that can change its color, and color is light’s final parameter. First of all, think of the predominant light in your scene and recall the importance of white balance. Starting with the ambient light of your scene, choose white balance values consciously to ensure the look you’re going for. Again, know the color temperature of the ambient light of the environment and make sure your lights match. This is one of the biggest mistakes of amateur lighting. Make sure to turn the lights in a room off before adding your own if you’re sure the color of light between the two matches. If you don’t have colored lights or gels, you can still experiment with color by paying attention to the variety of colors that exist in the natural world. As the sun sets lower and lower it punches through more layers of atmosphere and smog and only the long wavelengths make it through. Those are the warmer colors like red and orange. Because of this, about half hour before and after sunrise and sunset you get a golden light termed “golden hour” which can be a beautiful time to get a unique but dreamy color as well as long shadows which again help accentual depth and form. Twilight refers to the time just before the sun rises or just after it sets. The color of the sky is beautiful and rich, and not completely blown out by the sun. Because the sky is so much brighter than your scene it can be the perfect time to get the camera low and shoot some silhouettes against the sky or a reflective ground. With regards to color, make sure your lights match not only the ambient light, but also each other. Mixing color temperatures on a face can look very bad when not done intentionally, and it can be a big problem in the modern world of mismatched LEDs. Also be aware that everything light bounces off becomes a light source, and that includes foliage. Subjects standing on grass or surrounded by verdant leaves will often take on an unsightly green cast. Sometimes it takes a trained eye to notice it right away, but fixing the green color in post makes a huge difference. Color can also be used to convey mood, but we’ll cover those psychological aspects of color choice later. From my experience, conveying that mood more through production design will make your shots look much higher quality than simply trying to use light to color a film.
So those are the parameters of lighting, size, quality, intensity, direction and color. We don’t talk about what lights and light modifiers to buy until the next section, and that’s intentional. These tips are universal, and don’t require you to buy any gear to apply them. While I recommend that everyone buy a 5-in-1 collapsible reflector, it certainly isn’t the only tool that can bounce or diffuse light. You can use props, like a white towel in a scene, to bounce the key back into the face of an actor. I’ve seen pillows, tables and bed sheets used before. Again, pay attention to light-colored walls inside and outside and bounce small lights off them to create big sources. A 1′ LED panel can look very ugly as it’s essentially lots of tiny sources combined into one not-so-large source. Pointing it against a white ceiling or wall is an easy way to make the light ten times the size. Entire buildings can be massively soft light sources.
Whether you’re diffusing with shower curtains or channeling light with mirrors, remember the principles and pay attention to them in practice around you. Again, keep in mind this idea of adding depth, much like we discussed with composition. Creating layers of depth and using both light and shadow to accentuate form are oft-used techniques for compelling imagery. And that doesn’t always require you to do much. Take a minimalist approach to lighting. Especially in our modern day of highly sensitive cameras, experiment with what the ambient light gives you, don’t forget negative fill, and only bring out lights that serve a specific purpose. Natural lighting is free and underrated and the same principles apply.
This is a term you’ll hear thrown around enough we’d better talk about it. The lights referred to are the following: