lighting in photography

A beginners guide to lighting in photography

Lighting in photography is key, in fact it is in the name – The etymology of the word ‘photography’ supposedly dates back to 1839 when it was coined by the British scientist Sir John Herschel. ‘Photography” comes from the Greek words phōtós, meaning “light”, and graphê meaning “drawing” or “writing”, and so “photography” literally means drawing with light.

Lighting a subject or scene is often one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome for many photographers and filmmakers. I’m Calum Morrison and I’m a photographer based in the UK and in this blog we will cover the different sources of light, light quality, different lighting styles, and some technical lighting points to help you get on your feet. A lot to get through so let’s jump into it.

So here is a, not so brief, insight into the fundamentals of lighting in photography.


Sources of lighting in photography

There are two sources of light, natural light and artificial light. Natural light produces a full spectrum, meaning it contains all the colours of ‘visible light’ in the electromagnetic spectrum, while also being dynamic – as the light’s colour and intensity change throughout the day.
Whereas, artificial light emits a static spectrum, as their mix of colours cannot change with time, which is why many artificial light sources are designed to replicate either daylight or evening light.

  • Examples of natural light sources: Candles. Stars. The Sun
  • Examples of artificial light sources: Televisions. Light Bulbs. LED lights

Fun fact: Unbeknownst to many, the Sun isn’t actually yellow, it’s white. It only appears yellow as Earth’s atmosphere scatters the visible colours. Due to the frequencies of red, orange, and yellow they are less easily scattered, which gives the sun it’s yellowish appearance in the day, and reddish hue near the horizon.

Light quality

Both natural and artificial light are capable of producing 4 types of light qualities. Hard light, soft light, specular light and diffused light. Differentiating these can be tough for the untrained eye, but once you know how to identify and replicate them, you’re on your way to mastering the medium.

Hard and soft light

Identifying hard and soft light lies in the subject’s shadow. Anything illuminated by hard light will cast a dark and well defined shadow. A soft light has the exact opposite effect, producing a softer, more muted shadow.

Specular and diffused light

These terms are at the end of a spectrum which refers to how light falls upon the subject, rather than the characteristics of the shadows created by the light’s presence.
At one end of this spectrum we have Specular light. This typically results in high-contrast images with strong highlights and shadows. At the other end is Diffused light. The defining attribute here is an even spread of light which leaves each part of the subject evenly lit.

Many photographers use ‘diffused light’ and ‘soft light’ interchangeably, but there is a nuance difference, and for good reason. Soft and hard light refer only to the lights effects on the subjects shadows, whereas specular and diffused refer to how the light falls on the subject. Diffused light can be created by increasing the surface of a light source; for example, a Softbox scatters the rays and disperses them more evenly on the subject. As such, they often create circumstances that are beneficial to softer light. However, the distance of the source from the subject plays an important role in the quality of light – The farther the light source is placed from the subject, the harder the light will become. Therefore it is very possible for a diffused light source to cast hard shadows.

Styles in lighting in photography

The possibilities are endless when it comes to lighting in photography, and the best way to learn your preference is through trial and error. Nevertheless, knowing some of the most commonly referenced styles could only help. I’m going to briefly go over the following styles:

  1. Flat Light
  2. Side lighting
  3. Backlight
  4. Rim Light
  5. Butterfly Light
  6. Loop Light

Flat light

The light source faces directly towards your subject. In other words the light is directly behind the camera and directed at the subject. Flat lighting in photography will result in your subject being well lit with no visible shadow. This style isn’t heavily desired in certain fields such as portraiture or product photography as shadows are a useful tool when making a piece of art. (Richard please link the ‘Elements of Art’ article here)


  • Broad Light —The face of your subject is at an angle and the most well-lit side of the face is closest to the camera, subsequently the shadow falls on the back side of the face. This type of light can make a face look fuller and is therefore ideal for those with narrower faces.
  • Short light — This is the opposite of broad light – the face is at an angle and the shadow falls on the side of the face closest to the camera. This type of light works well to thin a face and is flattering on most people. One thing to keep in mind is that shadows draw out textures and imperfections, such as acne and/or scars. With that being said, it is important to communicate with your subject to understand how they feel about this.
  • Split light — Level to the subject light that hits the side from a 90 degree angle. Consider carefully the subjects you use this lighting on as it evokes masculine traits.


It is in the name, lighting the comes from behind your subject.  Resulting in a silhouetted image of your subject, which may or may not be desirable. If you wish to counter this, reflect some of the light back onto your subject to add some filler light.

Rim light

Also known as ‘Hair lights’ or ‘Halo lighting’, a Rim light is stationed behind the subject to expose an outline of the subject which gives a dynamic and mysterious effect.

Butterfly light

A specific lighting type for portraiture. The name ‘butterfly light’ comes from the shadow created under the nose of the subject. This style is often used on female subjects to highlight prominent cheekbones, however, this lighting also emphasises the shadows under the eyes so choose your subject wisely. Simply place the light above and in front of your subject and shoot away.

Loop light

A loop light is a light source placed 45 degrees from your subject and slightly above eye height. This style is flattering to practically everyone and has very few negatives. It is a go-to for many photographers.

Technical points

Now you know what lighting is, where it comes from and how you might use it, we’re going to talk about how to go about achieving the results you want. Specifically: Equipment.

If you’re just about to invest in lights, the first thing you want to ask yourself is “is it portable?”. Studio based photographers will require different equipment than photographers who need to travel light, and travel far.

Depending on your needs, you will need to decide between continuous lighting and strobe/flash lighting. Put simply, strobe lights let out quick bursts of light, whereas continuous lights are on all the time. Continuous lighting is necessary for shooting video and beneficial for beginners who want to see how the light is effecting the subject in real time. However, continuous lighting is less powerful than strobe lighting, and therefore more ambient light will be in the final frame. On the other hand, strobe light photography requires more experience, but you end up with more control over the light on your subject.

Strobe lights and continuous lights can come with some serious wattage behind them, meaning the light emitted is very hard. Generally speaking, photographers will use a number of modifiers to diffuse the light. Here are your options:

  • Softboxes or diffusers: If you don’t know what type of light modifier to get, get a softbox or diffuser, they are great in any situation. Commonly white in colour, softboxes and diffusers are translucent pieces of material that spread the light more evenly across the subject.
  • Umbrellas: A shoot through umbrella is a type of diffuser, similar to the look of a softbox. You use it by aiming the light away from the subject and into the umbrella which in turn sends a more concentrated beam of light back to the subject.
  • Beauty dish: Most often used in portraits in fashion, a beauty dish creates a more vibrant light than a softbox, but doesn’t have the same extreme, hard shadows of a naked light.
  • Barn doors: By placing doors or panels on all four sides of the light source, you have a range of possible ways to illuminate your subject. Highly versatile and fun pieces of equipment to play around with.
  • Grids and snoots — These focus the light down to a smaller area. The light hits the subject then quickly falls off to leave the rest of the scene dark. Great at highlighting certain areas of a scene and directing the audiences eye.
  • Gels — Gels give the light source colour. A thin transparent sheet of plastic which come in many different colours. Gels work by allowing light of the same colour through – so if you have a blue gel placed over your light source, only blue light will pass.

There you have it. A beginners guide to lighting in photography. Although, the undisputed best way to learn how to light photographs is by practicing – which is to say you just wasted 3 minutes reading this when you could have been finessing your craft. So go experiment, test our ideas and analyse what you could be doing better. Happy shooting.