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12 Photography Lighting Facts You Should Know

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Lighting a scene or subject can be tricky. Portraits, landscapes and macro photography scenes all need a workable lighting set-up. So just how do you get the mood and feeling from a scene or subject across to the viewers?
We created a list of 12 photography lighting facts to help you get the most from your photography, in the best possible light.
Sometimes you will find the light is too harsh. At other times, it may be too dim or dark. You may not know how the lighting affects the shadows in the portraits you are capturing.
This is a difficult area to master, but with our help, you’ll be able to understand and light your subjects better.
a black and white headshot of a young man

1. Front Lighting Minimalises Shadows

If you are looking for an image with no shadows, look no further than front lighting. Front lighting is created by having a light source focus directly on the subject, face on. This could be a flash or strobe found in photographic studios.
It minimises shadows and also texture (see next point), which eliminates moody, charged images.
On the downside, front lighting can appear quite flat as there isn’t a three-dimensional feeling to it. This is why shadows are important.
a playful of a young man in white shirt against a yellow background

2. Front Lighting De-Emphasises Texture

As we stated above, front lighting removes textures from a subject. This is achieved by keeping the light source on the same axis as the lens. This style helps to suppress wrinkles, perfect for those older subjects.
If you are looking for more texture in your image, try side lighting. This will emphasise those textures, where more is revealed with the light source moved at increasingly greater angles.
A portrait of a smiling bearded man with dark portrait background

3. Side Lighting Adds Drama

Side lighting adds drama to a scene as it creates long shadows. These shadows help to give the scene depth and dimensions. Front lighting lacks this, so side lighting is used for emotionally charged images.
This is a popular lighting style for landscape photographers as it adds a more three-dimensional look.

4. Backlighting Defines Shapes

When a portrait is backlit, the light source comes from behind the subject, aimed towards your camera. This will give you a silhouette, as you can see in our example.
This type of lighting reduces the detail of the subject, yet it emphasises their shape.
Despite the lack of detail, this style of lighting fills in the gap with drama. This could be from the added shadows, or from the lack of details you feel you need to see.
A silhouette of a girl standing in the middle of steel railings achieved through photography side lighting

5. Distance Makes Lighting Dimmer

This might sound like an obvious photography fact, but only when you know it. A light source further away from your subject will be dimmer than a closer light source. The light spreads out more the further it is away, so less light hits your subject.
In fact, light falls off very quickly as it’s moved away – at a rate of the square of the distance. That means that if the light source is moved twice as far away, you get just one-fourth of the light you originally had.
If the lighting is too dim, bring it closer, and vice versa.
A studio portrait of a dark haired woman against a blue background

6. Light Falloff Helps Define the Background

Light falloff helps illuminate the entire area, not just your model. As it ‘falls off’ the subject and hits the backdrop, there isn’t such a big distinction between the two.
This takes away the importance of the background, letting your subject soak up all of those rays of attention. Here, distance from the light source is very important.
The closer the light to the subject, the strong the light on the subject, yet the background will gain more shadows.
Conversely, if you move the light source further away from your subject, the subject will be more dimly lit, but the background will be brighter. If you want to hide the background, bring the light closer.
A studio portrait of a young woman posing with large green hair bow and a teacup against a grey background

7. Broaden Harsh Light to Soften

When lighting a subject, a narrow beam of light will create a low-key portrait, where blacks and shadows become the main parts of the image. A broad light source lessens the shadows, reduces the contrast and suppresses the texture.
It will hit your subject from more directions than the narrow source. This helps to fill in the shadows and leave the scene more illuminated.
Atmospheric portrait of a dark haired woman against a sunset sky

8. Diffuse the Situation

A diffuser is your best friend at a portrait session. Harsh light is used to create a specific mood through shadows and a high-key setup. When you want your light to spread more evenly, use a diffuser.
This broadens the light source and also makes it softer. These images are more pleasing, and the model will thank you for not having the sun in their eyes.
A close up portrait of a young man against a great background - perfect lighting

9. Bounced Light Is Better

Bounced light is better because direct light is usually very harsh. If you point a narrow-light source at a wall, you will find a very intense spot, yet the light bounces and diffuses outwards, and back towards the subject.
By using a reflector to bounce the light, it becomes diffused, softer and spreads out more evenly.
A studio portrait of a dark haired woman with someone holding a red portrait background behind her

10. Shadows Create Depth

Photographers are constantly trying to create a three dimensional image that pops out from their flat surface. Depth and volume are terms we use to achieve this three-dimensional feeling.
By lighting from the side, above or below, you can cast deeper and longer shadows. This is widely used in Still-Life, product and landscape photography.
A close up portrait of a curly haired woman covered by dramatic shadows

11. Chiaroscuro Lighting Is Awesome

Chiaroscuro lighting is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. These bold contrasts affect a whole composition.
It is also a technical term used by artists and photographers to achieve a sense of volume in giving a three-dimensional feel to subjects. In Italian, it literally means light and dark, where others take it to mean ‘pattern’.
Moody chiaroscuro light portrait of a girl covered by striped shadows

12. Light Has a Colour

We saved the best and most important to last. All light has a colour. Whether the source is natural light, in the form of the sun, or from a flash unit.
The light hitting a subject is measured in Kelvin, where 10,000 Kelvin is extreme daylight colour, and 3,500 is a household bulb. This is extremely important in colour correcting images through the use of white balance.
A close up portrait of a blone woman with blue and red colored light - photography lighting facts

For more great lighting tips, check out our article on low key lighting for more dramatic images.

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