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The Complete Guide to Lighting: 83 Tips

Photography lighting, or rather lighting for photography is the most important aspect of image capturing. Don’t believe me?
Close your eyes. what do you see? If the answer is nothing, that’s exactly what photography looks like without light.
The word photography comes from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos or phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”.
Altogether, it means “drawing with light”. Photography without light is like trying to write without ink, paint without paint and using your iPhone without battery.
You cant. As you can see, it’s not only important…it’s necessary.
There are two ways to capture light using your camera. One is natural light, which is the most widely used because its there!
The sun gives it to us for free, so it would be silly not to take advantage. The other is artificial light which, added to our scene from flash or continuous lighting.
Ambient light is another term that you need to be aware of, and it can be natural or artificially present.
By reading our fully extensive guide, you will learn how to fully utilise light in all its glory. Whether natural light or artificial, you will gain useful knowledge on its use for better images.

Natural Vs. Flash

There are two main light sources that we use in our photography. One is natural, which is always present, given to us by the sun, and also reflected by the moon.
The other is flash or strobe. These are best used while shooting but possibly added during the post-processing stage.
They both have their benefits, and you’ll find that you can use both at the same time. You just need to compensate to gain a correct white balance.
Natural light is free and useful for everything from street to architecture to portraits to wedding photography. It can be difficult to control.
Flash lighting is expensive, especially compared to natural lighting, yet it can be easily controlled. Typically used in fashion and product photography.
Read the article here for all the advantages and disadvantages of both, and how to use them.
Natural or artificial photography lighting will depend on your subject, the time of day and the mood you want to show

Best Lighting To Start With

There are many different lighting systems available. A studio tends to have big, powerful units. It’s also usually plugged into the wall.
Smaller versions, known as Speedlites, are portable and run off AA battery power. This thorough article gives you all the information you need to get started.
An LED light and speedlite for photography lighting

Slow Sync Flash

There will be many times where you’ll want to capture more ambient light in a scene. Photographing indoors means low light, and a slow shutter speed is necessary.
But as you use a slow shutter speed, everything becomes blurry. This is down to camera shake, as the shutter is open long enough to capture the slightest movement.
This is where slow sync comes in. A slow shutter speed adds more light, and the flash freezes the subject, eliminating the shake and blur.
Read our article here on how and when to use it.
A slow sync shutter helps freeze movement in low light conditions

Golden Hour Photography

The golden hour is like catnip for landscape, architectural and portrait photographers. This is the hour just before the sun sets, and before the sun rises.
It adds a beautiful, warm ambient light to the whole landscape. It isn’t as strong as direct light, so it is easier to balance against shadows and low light areas.
This is a great time to photograph silhouettes. The sky has beautiful, warm details exemplified by the counter-weighted shape doused in shadow.
Read our extensive article here on why you will love shooting in the golden hour.
The golden hour is a great time for photography lighting

Fast Action in Low Light

Low light is always a challenge for photographers, as we often need to trade quality for exposure. Action photography and low light are like bickering siblings.
They don’t go hand in hand, as the settings for both scenarios clash. Focusing on the light will present the blur, and obtaining the action means an underexposed image.
Here, you will need aperture, ISO and shutter speed to find a system to capture enough light while keeping the quality of the image high.
Read here on why your lenses are important for low light, and how to use your camera for higher quality images.
Fast action needs a comparative photography lighting concept

How to Use a Light Meter for Better Photography

There was a time where if you didn’t use a light meter in your photography, you would have to make an educated guess in capturing the correct exposure.
Fashion and portrait photography were the main users of these meters, working with complex lighting systems.
Not having a light meter meant following the sunny 16 rule. Now, all our cameras have an inbuilt light meter, helping you capture the right amount of light.
Read here on why you need a light meter, and which of the two different ways would suit you better.
A light meter helps yous know the exposure of a scene for better photography lighting

Food Photography

How To Improve Your Food Photography With Natural Light

Using natural light might be the best way to start and practice with. It is abundant, free and everyone has a window they can use as their source.
It is also available outside for shoots, for example, in a park or on-location. Here, a diffuser sits between the window and the food.
This creates an even light fall and to take away the intensity of the light source. Reflectors can be used to help bounce the light back towards the subject, softening harsh shadows.
By no means is it super easy, but it is by far the cheapest option that works (almost) any time of the day.
Natural photography lighting adds a beautiful tone to your food photography

One Light Set Up for Food Photography

Rather than using natural light, a softbox is a great option. Great for studios with no windows, or times when the sun just isn’t as strong as you want it to be.
The softboxes are pretty inexpensive, easy to put up and pack away. It is a viable choice.
Using one light will leave you one set of shadows. Combining the light source with reflectors help to minimalise these harsh areas and pull out the detail.
These give a constant flow of light, easily moved for different angles and the light either dims or becomes intensified.
Using one artificial photography lighting system in your food photography can help give it a boost

How to Shoot Fantastic Light Trails

A strobe or flash unit is not the only kind of artificial light that you can use. Anything that provides a light source can act as a great source for your subjects.
A small torch is sufficient enough to light a subject or a scene. It is even more effective during a long exposure, in what we call painting with light.
As your shutter stays open, the torch is free to move around the object, lighting as your camera captures. You are the one who decides how to light the situation.
Read here on how to create these for stunning, product photography.
Invisible cars on a motorway in Brussels with streaming light trails


Light Reflectors

Studio lighting can become very expensive, especially if you don’t know what you are doing. There are ways around most of the equipment that you think you need.
The main light in a studio setting is a key light, the second being the fill, as it fills in the shadows left by the key.
A fill light can be a separate light, but why spend the extra money? A reflective surface in the form of white foam board or a dedicated reflector works perfectly.
Read here on how you can use a reflector instead of a fill light.
Reflectors are perfect stand in's for better photography lighting

Getting the Most From Your Modifiers

A modifier is best described as an add-on to your studio lighting system. A studio light is a very plain tool until you add a modifier to it.
With these add-ons, you can diffuse the light, you can turn it into a very strong and intense spot for very precise lighting.
Any number of different lighting situations can come from a handful of these modifiers.
Read the article here on the different range and availability of these modifiers, and how to use them.
Modifiers turn your studio light into something usable and specific


Lighting Using a Torch

You will very often see that areas that look well lit, come out very dark when photographed. The main problem is that our eyes compensate a lot in low light conditions.
Photography in these situations needs a boost. Either adding the available ambient light or using an external light, such as flash unit or lamp.
What if you are in the middle of nowhere, and there are no plugs around? Well, a torch is a photographer’s friend. It’s lightweight and very portable.
Read our article here on how you can use a torch to light a model effectively.
A torch is a great way to light up a subject or object in cases of low light situations

Portrait Lighting Patterns & Tips

This is the fun part of fashion photography, and the most labour and research intensive. This guide is here to help you understand what lights will have what effect on your subject.
Some photographs are lit very simply.  Others can have up to and including 6 different lights to light the background, the hair, the face, etc.
They always start with one light and work up to the multiple lighting setup, testing the effect as they go.
A diagram and lighting guide for fashion photography lighting patterns

Portrait Lighting Terms

Ever wondered what a backlight is? Or how a gel affects a scene? You have come to the right place.
Here is a glossary of all the important lighting terms you will need. Feel free to use our article as much as you need to.

Boudoir Lighting Examples

This helpful article goes through five of the best lighting patterns to use for Boudoir photography. Either by using natural light, applying studio lights or a mixture of both.
Natural light is one of the most flattering forms of light. It is also easy to use. Have the model stand in front of a window. The distance depends on the harshness of the light.
Stand next to the window and in front of the model. Photograph from a perspective a little higher than her eye level.
Using one studio light and a backdrop, also known as a colourama, is also a very simple choice. The light should be just off of the camera, as it will give you complimentary shadows.
If you place the light slightly above the model, then the light will drop off. This is great for a transition on parts of the body that leave the frame.
Lighting patterns are a great base to use with your set ups for portraiture photography

Low Key Lighting

This is a very minimal lighting setup where the majority of the image is black. This is relatively easy to do if you have a lot of light.  The purpose is to highlight a specific area of the model where the viewer will place their focus.
The ambient light should be as low as possible. There should be no light other than the flash or ‘strobe’ unit you are working with.
Read through our article here and go experiment.
A night time portrait to show lowkey lighting for fashion photography

Beauty Dishes

Beauty dishes are a standard form of photography lighting in fashion image capturing. They are also inexpensive. They work either wired or wirelessly, depending on the system you prefer. Each beauty dish works in two ways, either with or without the grid.
These can really add dramatic lighting to a scene where a softbox or umbrella spreads the light out more. Read more about the dishes here and how they can benefit your work.
Using a beauty dish for dramatic lighting for fashion photography

How to Take Control of Natural Light with Photography

Most photographers love natural light. It is free, it’s abundant and easy to work with. To harness the full power, you will need to diffuse or even flag the light.
One recommendation is to know how you can use your reflectors effectively. By bending and warping the reflector, you can change how the light hits the subject.
By making it concave, you help to intensify the light and create a spotlight, rather than a soft lighting effect.

12 Tips for Natural Light Portraits: From Dull Photos To Dreamy Portraits

Photography is full of ‘How did they do that?’ Rarely can you find the details you need without joining an online course.
The one area that can become complicated is lighting for portraiture. There are probably more lighting systems possible than there are stars in the sky.
Having the recipes for these complicated systems will help create some of the best systems for creating stunning images.
Read the article on all the recipes you will need to start capturing perfectly lit portraiture.

7 Most Common Mistakes

Mistakes happen so that you learn from them and expand your photography lighting repertoire.
You do need to know where you are going wrong so that you can learn how to create better lighting systems.
One common mistake is having the fill light in the wrong position, or at the wrong power setting.
This can cause double catchlights in the eyes, or create an image where you can’t distinguish between key or fill light.
Read here on how to correct this mistake and other six common ones.

Product Photography

Natural Light in Product Photography

Natural light is great for product shots, it is abundant, constant and free to use. A diffuser is needed to soften the light to allow it to fall upon the product evenly.
Reflectors create ‘fill light’ by bouncing the light back into the image.
It can be difficult to harness and control. Yet you can do so with a material, such as a white curtain. This softens the sun’s brightness.
Flags, which stop light, can keep sunlight from reaching certain parts of the product.
Showing jars using natural light is a great choice for photography lighting

Studio Set-Up

A studio is a great way to photograph a product as you have complete control over the setting and the light.
This is by far the most expensive option as you will need to buy all the equipment yourself.
An alternative could be that you rent the studio, and have access to all the equipment. This may be cheaper, but still not cheap.
Creating a portable studio with a few lights is a viable option to keep costs down. This would allow you to pack the equipment away and take it along for an on-location photo shoot.
Read this article for a great guide to studio lighting for product photography.
A simple studio set-up with three lights to capture product photography


Complete Lighting Tips 

This extensive article looks at lighting an entire wedding, going from the dressing room to the end of the night reception (party!).
There are many different locations throwing different temperatures at you. Wedding photography lighting will need some thought.
The best way is to scout beforehand, looking for light and settings to capture powerful images.
Natural light is a great way to illuminate your subject without too much gear. Windows are very handy as they add a soft, spread out feel.
This light will also be abundant with the outside shots, where you might want to use reflectors.
Speedlites will help fill in dark areas, and freeze motion when people are dancing. Utilise the light, add where necessary.
Using natural light to show the bridge and gusts is a great way to improve your wedding photography

Off-Camera Flash Lighting

Off-camera flash lighting is a great help to your wedding photography. They can work with a Through-The-Lens (TTL) metering system.
The flash will expose the scene depending on the available light. This is a pretty smart way to add a touch of light, known as a fill when needed.
They sit on your camera’s hot-shoe, on a camera bracket, or even handheld for fast adjustments. You can even sync many flash units at the same time.
This is great for different lights hitting the same scene from different angles. Go through our article here for all the information you will ever need.
Using off-camera flash units can really boost the lighting in your wedding photography

Radio Flash Transmitter

To use these Speedlites or any off-camera lighting system, they need to connect to your camera. This happens either by infra-red signals or radio-waves.
Infra-red is standard. Yet if there is something between the transmitter and the receiver, the lights will not fire. Problem.
To combat a problem like this, you will find that a radio transmitter/receiver works better. This system certifies a correctly exposed shot.
They work and connect in a similar way,  as they work on transmitting the information to the flash unit that has a receiver attached to it.
This ensures you are confident it fires every time, with the correct amount of light.
Radio-transmitters can benefit your wedding photography


Reflectors are super useful for portraiture and wedding photography. They are great because they don’t need batteries or cables and they fold away into small, pockets.
They are pretty inexpensive too and can have dramatic effects on your photography.
Basically, they bounce and re-direct light back into the scene. They are great to add a fill light as if there is more than one light source.
They are flexible enough to bend and further shape the light and where it needs to go.
Read this article and you might find yourself modifying them into shoot-through reflectors soon enough.

Using reflectors to improve your wedding photography

Exciting Lighting Equipment

As you will find from your own research, there are always new tools and equipment making its way into the photographic world.
One of the items seen at the WPPI (Wedding & Portrait Photographers International ) for 2018 is the LitraTorch Light. 
This rugged little cube ranges from 100 to 2200 lumen depending on its use. It works underwater, up to 30m and will fit in your jacket pocket.
Read our article here on what else is coming out in 2018.
LitraTorch Light is a new and exciting piece of equipment for photography lighting


High and Low Key Wildlife Photography

More often than not, we photographers try to stay away from overcast days. For portraiture, the overcast sky acts as a diffuser, softening the light.
We tend to not include the sky in this manner as there is no detail present. The big, white empty space distracts the viewer from the intended subject.
Yet, in wildlife photography, it can be quite refreshing. As photographers stay away from this idea, they are also very interesting and unique.
Read our extensive article here on how to can create these high key images.

High key photography lighting helps to create really interesting and unique wildlife images
David Shaw

How to Light Macro Subjects

Whether you are photographing food or insects, your image might benefit from some extra light.
These can be in the form of natural light, used with a reflector or from an external unit like a flash gun or ring flash.
This article shows you what is available and how to harness this added light to get the best out of your macro photography.

A DIY photography lighting setup for photographing insects
Spencer Cox

DIY Lighting

10 DIY Lighting Ideas

Lighting is always needed in low-light situations, or if you want to create an interesting effect.
You’ll find them in sutiods most of the time, and they can cost a fortune.
Luckily for you, we have collected the best ten ideas you can use to make your own, DIY photography style.
You will need to get creative to save yourself those big bucks. Using a torchlight is a great place to start, with a diffuser made from a hole in a ping-pong ball.
The torch fits inside, and there you go. Perfect for close-up food photography shots. Read the other nine ideas here in our extensive article. You won’t need anything else.
Diy photography lighting can be made out of almost anything

Speedlite Modifiers

You might have seen the many different kinds and styles of lighting they have in professional studios. You might also have checked out how much they would all cost.
I know, they are very expensive. But all is not lost. You can create similar techniques for a fraction of the cost. All you need to start is a Speedlite.
One simple way of making a snoot (intense beam of light), for example, is to use a Pringles can and some straws. Did I mention you need to be creative?
Read our article here on how you can have fun while modifying your Speedlite.
A speedlite is a great addition for diy photography lighting as there are many modifiers you can make for them

Cheap DIY Diffuser

A diffuser is a handy accessory. Whether you are shooting portraits or people at events, you might find your flash is a little too strong.
Fret not, as what you need can be created cheaply and quickly. All you need is a few materials from a hardware store if you don’t already own them.
Using a little creativity, a little elbow grease and a little money, you can create a tool that you will come to love.
Your subjects too, as there is less flash in their faces. All the information you need, is in our article, here.
A diffuser is a great diy photography lighting accessory for macro photography

DIY Ringlight

Lighting your subjects can be tricky. Even having all the lights in the world means you need to know how to use them all, and where to put them.
Your idea, concept and creativity will determine these factors. You will need to think of the main light, and a fill to get a good, balanced exposure.
One of the simplest ways is to light the face directly. A ring light will do this really well. You don’t need to buy one, as we will tell you everything you need.
A ring light will help to light your subjects for your diy photography lighting shoots

DIY Lightbox

A lightbox is something you can make easily at home. Its purpose is to create a white space that allows that item to look as if it is floating in space.
This box, coupled with a few lights will help you create a beautiful, constructive product photography setup. And it won’t cost you an arm and a leg either.
Find out how to make one here and how it will benefit your DIY photography skills.
A homemade lightbox is a great way to use DIY photography lighting to capture your product

Adding Light During Post-Processing

Simulated Chiaroscuro Lighting

During the photography stage is not the only time where you can incorporate light into your image. This can also be completed during the post-processing period, by using an editing software package such as Photoshop.
One photography lighting technique that you may wish to incorporate is the chiaroscuro style, reminiscent of 1940’s noir films.
This style adds interest and helps you turn a photograph into a story. It also helps to add depth to an image, making the ambience feel a little warmer.

4 Lighting Effects in Photoshop

If you didn’t manage to capture the light while photographing, you can add it to the final stage of your image workflow.
One style that can be added later in Photoshop is the graduated filter. This allows you to add light to specific parts of the image.
By not applying the lighting style to the entire image, you keep the quality and the mood of the image.
Read here on how you can use this to the benefit of your photography.
Looking for more flash photography tips? Check out our new post about flash bracket next!

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