photo lighting
the four elements of lighting in photography

Photography can be defined as the recording of light.

If you understand photo lighting you've got a jump start on being a better photographer. This applies to digital photography, film photography and video photography.

Learning photography lighting can be challenging for most people. If you take the time to learn just a few basics, it will make a world of difference to you in taking better pictures.

I am going to go over 4 elements of light. Understanding these lighting elements will help you "see" light better and make better decisions on the lighting in your photos.

  • Direction of Light
  • Intensity or Brightness
  • Quality of Light
  • Continuous or Flash

direction of light

Learning to look and see the direction of the source of light is the first step to do.  It is a very powerful exercise to pause in your busy day and just observe the lighting around you.  

The lighting scenario below is quite staged, but learning to "see the light" and how it is affecting your subject is what master photographers do all the time. 

Example of a big contrast in lighting stylesThree very different lighting effects

I placed this female mannequin head on the work bench in my office where I assemble my client's portrait packages. In the "Rembrandt" photo, the light source is a plain old 60 watt bulb screwed into a 6 inch parabolic reflector.

Named after the famous painter, Rembrandt lighting is recognized by the triangular patch of light on the model's cheek bone on the shadowed (left side) of her face. The light was held in front, up high to the right.

In the middle image, a glamorous Hollywood style lighting was used. The light was a smaller halogen, desk lamp that was held directly above and in front of the mannequin. Notice how the cheek bones look more pronounced.

The scary, ghoulish effect on the right is not an attractive way to light a human subject. the light was held in front and below the level of the table. It is even more dramatic because none of the light was hitting the back wall, so the dark background makes it very contrasty.

intensity or brightness

The amount of light will effect your camera settings more than any other of the elements of light. Intense or bright light requires the camera to have a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture to avoid overexposure.

If the light is weak or dim, you will avoid underexposure by slowing down the shutter speed or by having a bigger aperture to allow more light into the camera.  

Cameras can do this for you through auto-exposure of course, but understanding the effect of shutter speed and aperture on your final photograph is vital.

quality of light

This photography definition does have to do with whether light is good or bad. The quality of light refers to the size and characteristics of the light. We think of the sun as a big source of light. Direct sunlight is actually a very small light source and creates harsh, distinct shadows.

Light reflected from a large wall is scattered and produces a completely different effect on your subject than a direct light source.

The direction of light - where it is coming from has a big effect on how your subject appears to your eyes.

The window lighting used in the first photo on the left has a soft lighting quality.

The window is to the left of my work bench and is 3 feet wide, so it is a large light source. Notice how the shadows are gradual.

In the photo on the right, I covered up my office window and used my 60 watt light bulb.

The lighting in the right photo is from a smaller source and produces sharper shadows.

The triangular patch on the mode's right cheek is small because the 6 inch bulb and reflector are far to the left.

continuous light or flash

Light that stays "on" is continuous light that we can see. We cannot "see" the flash until we take our photo. This kind of photo lighting is so very brief in time that it is very difficult to judge how it will illuminate our subject. Lighting using flash is often chosen to freeze the action if the shutter speed is not fast enough to stop motion blur.

With the "existing light", we can see how the light effects our subject in real time. In the portrait photographer's studio, both types of photo lighting are used.

The continuous lights are called modeling lights and are used to observe how the subject is lit. Then the electronic flash is used to actually photograph the subject.

Photo lighting is one of the three main components you need to know when trying to take better digital pictures. The other two components are exposure and composition. These three tips are covered briefly in this article with links to more thorough information: Take Better Digital Pictures.

resources related to photo lighting

There are many photo lighting, composition and exposure tips available on this Better Digital Photo Tips web site at your disposal. Take advantage of learning these photography techniques as well as advance tips on posing, editing, retouching and camera equipment.

Portrait Photography Tips. Portrait tips on posing the individual and links on how to photograph babies, families and other groups. Also added a section on how to improve your portrait photography by using a model to practice with.

Play with light

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