Lighting is arguably the most important aspect of photography. After all, even the best camera equipment can’t function properly if there isn’t enough light!
The type of lighting you use can drastically change the look of your photographs.
Warm, golden hour sunlight filtered through the trees creates a very different effect from perfectly placed studio lights.
But at the end of the day, there is no such thing as “bad lighting.” Each type of lighting is simply different from the next. Deciding which one to use is a matter of taste and preference.
So today, we’re going to break down all of your options:
- natural light
- continuous light
- and strobe lights
We’ll highlight the pros and cons of each and tell you what kind of effect they create so you can choose the one that’s right for you.
But first, let’s talk about how camera settings can change lighting in photography.
How Camera Settings Affect Lighting
If you’re a brand new photographer, it’s tempting to use the automatic mode on your camera and never switch over to manual. But automatic mode gives you a lot less artistic control, especially over the lighting in your images.
The automatic mode on your camera accounts for all of the lighting in the scene you’re shooting and then sets the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO it thinks is best. These three settings control how bright or dark your photos are, so they’re super important!
Most of the time, your camera will get these three settings right and produce nicely lit photos. But in some situations, automatic mode can really mess up your photos!
‼️ For example:
If you’re taking a portrait of someone and there’s a lot of bright light in the background, the camera will try to adjust its settings to capture that bright light. But because your camera is focused on capturing the light and not your subject, they’ll end up looking dark and hard to see.
If you shot that same photo in manual mode, though, you’d be able to control the settings and make sure that the person you’re shooting doesn’t look underexposed.
Another problem with the automatic mode is consistency. Lighting is always changing, especially if you’re shooting outside and relying on natural light. If you move around or change the angle of your camera in any way, the amount of light coming through the lens will change, and so will the automatic settings on your camera. This makes each and every photo you take look different.
So if you want your photos to have a consistent mood (aka moodygrams!), having the settings on your camera change every time you snap a photo is definitely not ideal! Using your camera’s manual mode will allow you to keep your aperture, ISO and shutter speed consistent so you can create a cohesive photo collection that communicates your artistic vision.
It can take a while to get comfortable with manual mode, and for a lot of situations, automatic works just fine. But if you want more creative control over the lighting in your photos, try to learn your camera’s manual mode as soon as you can. We’re certainly not professional photographers, but we figured it out, and so can you!
How to Use Natural Lighting in Photography
Harnessing natural light is the cheapest and easiest way to illuminate your photographs. Getting the kind of effect you want under changing light conditions can be a challenge, though! The sun is always changing position in the sky and hiding behind the clouds, which affects the quality of light it provides.
You can’t control the weather, but you can take your photos during the time of day when you’re most likely to get the kind of lighting you want. There are two main kinds of lighting in photography:
- hard light
- soft light
Depending upon the time of day, you’ll get one or the other, but you can use tools like reflectors, diffusers, and even window blinds to help you get the lighting you want no matter what the weather is doing.
How to Get Hard Light
Hard light is best for things like landscape and documentary photography because it creates a lot of drama. By emphasizing shadows, textures, and details, hard light creates a high level of contrast that can enhance landscapes and make them more visually interesting.
You’ll get the hardest lighting in your photos if you take them in the early afternoon on a cloudless day. Hard light tends to come from light sources that are narrow rather than broad. The sun is huge, but because it’s so far away, it produces hard light unless there are clouds in the sky to diffuse its rays.
How to Get Soft Light
Soft, diffuse light, on the other hand, is best for portraits because it can smooth out imperfections like blemishes and wrinkles. It won’t create undesirable harsh shadows on your subject’s face like hard light will.
You’ll get soft light in your photos if you take them on a cloudy day. Clouds kind of act like a softbox, dispersing the sun’s rays over a larger surface area. This means that the light will hit your subject from more directions instead of beating down on them from directly overhead. You’ll get a soft, evenly lit look with fewer harsh shadows if you take your photos when it’s cloudy out.
You could wait until it’s cloudy out to shoot portraits, but you could also use reflectors and diffusers to soften the light and fill in shadows so that you can take them whenever you want. We’ll talk more about reflectors and diffusers later in this post.
Deciding on Color Temperature
One more thing to consider if you’re deciding when to take your photos is color temperature. At different times of day, the light coming from the sun will appear warmer or cooler.
During something called the golden hour the light will be redder and warmer, giving your photos a special kind of glow that you can’t get at any other time of the day. Even though it’s called “golden hour,” there are actually two golden hours that you can take advantage of — one before sunset and one right after the sun rises.
If you want to take photos that have a cooler tone (like the one above), you can shoot during blue hour. Blue hour is the period right after the sun sets and before the sun rises. The indirect light coming from the sun takes on a blue hue that can add a lot of contrast to your photos. The sky also turns a rich, deep blue that makes a gorgeous backdrop for photos, and you don’t have to contend with harsh shadows because there’s no sun in the sky. Sounds great, right?
Although the golden hour is thought by many to be the best time to take photographs, try taking some photos during blue hour too to give them a different, unique mood.
I also wrote a full guide on the best digital cameras you could definitely use right about now:
How to Use White Balance
If you know that you want your photos to have a warm glow, going out during golden hour is ideal. But what if you miss your window and still want to take photos with a nice, rosy hue?
You can use the white balance settings on your camera to change the tone of the light in your photos!
Your DSLR camera might have a few different white balance settings, including:
Woah, that’s a lot of settings!
Each setting is designed to add either warm or cool light to your photo to balance the tone of the photo and make it more neutral. So, for example, tungsten light bulbs have a reddish tone. To compensate, the tungsten setting on your camera adds blue to the photo appears more neutral and the colors look more true to life. But you can also use these settings to add a red or blue tone to pretty much any photo.
⁉️ How to remember all the hues?
It’s hard to remember which settings add blue light and which ones add red, but luckily, that info is readily available on Google. As a rough guide, use tungsten or fluorescent if you want to cool a photo, and shade, flash, or cloudy if you want to warm it.
White balance can help you achieve the artistic effect you want by adding red or blue tones to your photos. Try to master your camera’s white balance settings as soon as you can — they’ll give you a lot more control over the lighting. Plus, you won’t have to go out of your way to shoot at certain times of the day anymore!
How to Use Continuous Lighting in Photography
If you’d rather have consistent lighting in your photos, continuous artificial lights are what you should go for. Continuous lighting is any light source, like a ring light, that provides stable lighting that doesn’t change.
It’s probably the easiest studio lighting in photography to use because what you see is what you get. However the light looks to your eyes is how it’s going to look in the photograph.
‼️ Portability Might Be an Issue
A big disadvantage of using studio lighting, though, is that it isn’t very portable. It’s great for situations where your subject will stay relatively still, but imagine trying to set up studio lighting at a wedding reception where people are dancing and moving around. The lights would never be in the right position! Plus, they’re so big and bulky that they’d get in the way of all of the dancing people. In that situation, it would be much better to use strobe lights, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Although you can light your scenes with just one light, which is called a key light, using two or more lights is better. Your subject will be lit from multiple directions if you have more than one light, which will get you softer, more even lighting with fewer shadows.
One very common way that studio portraits are lit, for example, is with one main key light shining directly on the subject’s face and two fill lights. A fill light is any light that’s used alongside the key light to fill in shadows and make the lighting more even. In this setup, one fill light is placed about ninety degrees away from the key light to provide some side lighting, and a third light is placed behind the subject to illuminate the background.
Which type of studio light you get is really up to you:
- Ring lights are nice for portraits because they create a halo effect in the eyes of your subject that really brightens up their eye area. Because there’s nothing to diffuse the light coming from a ring light, though, they can create a harsh effect.
- Softbox lights, on the other hand, deliver nice and even lighting because they have a cover on them that disperses the light over a larger surface area.
Just like natural light, studio lights also have different colors and tones. Some light bulbs that come with studio lights, like tungsten light bulbs, cast a warm light. Other light bulbs, like LED, come in multiple models that each have a different color temperature.
Some LED bulbs mimic daylight while others cast a warm, incandescent glow. Either type of LED light will work—it just depends on the look you’re going for.
‼️ Look at what CRI your lights have!
Whichever type of bulb you pick, make sure it has a CRI of at least 90. CRI is a color rating index that measures how well a light source highlights the colors of the objects around them. Light bulbs with low CRI ratings can have green tints to them that can throw off the color balance in your photos, so make sure you choose bulbs with a high CRI.
How to Use a Strobe Light in Photography
If you want to take photos of landscapes or candid photos where your models are moving around a lot, strobe lights are your best option. One common strobe light is a flash that goes right on top of your DSLR camera. It’s easy to transport and set up, so it’s a great choice for you if you roam around a lot while taking photos.
There are also separate, standalone strobe lights that are similar to studio lights. Unlike continuous studio lights, strobes only light up while you’re taking a photo.
It can be hard to know what your photos are going to look like when you use a strobe because you can’t see them the same way you can see your continuous lights. You’ll have to take a lot of test photos to determine how to position your strobe light and how bright to make it.
The biggest advantage of using a stationary strobe light is that they’re a lot stronger than continuous lights. If you’re in a low light situation, strobe lights can be a huge asset.
Your camera flash is also a strobe light!
Our favorite strobe light, though, is definitely on camera flash. It provides most of the advantages of stationary strobe lights while still being very portable.
How to Soften a Strobe Light
Since strobe lights are so powerful, they can create harsh lighting. To eliminate some of the shadows, many photographers like to bounce the flash off of a wall or the ceiling. Doing so disperses the light over a larger surface area, which as you know softens the light and helps remove some of those harsh shadows.
This method only works if you have a white or light colored wall or ceiling available, so some photographers opt to use off-camera flash so that they can position it farther away from their subjects and hold it at different angles.
There are wireless systems that you can buy to trigger your off camera flash, but sync cords are much more common. These cords connect your flash to your camera so that the flash goes off whenever you trigger your camera and take a photo.
How to Use Light Reflectors in Photography
Light reflectors and diffusers are fantastic tools that can really change the lighting in your photography. They’re also a lot cheaper and more portable than studio lights. Pop up reflectors usually come in packs and include silver, gold, and translucent panels.
- The silver panel acts as a reflector. It bounces light from the sun or other light sources back onto your subject’s face. Silver panels bounce more light onto your subject’s face than gold panels, and they don’t really alter the tone of your photos.
- Gold reflectors, on the other hand, add a touch of warmth to photos and reflect slightly less light.
- The translucent panel actually acts as a diffuser— it’s like a big softbox that you can take with you and use anywhere. It’s great to have this type of panel on a sunny day to diffuse the sun’s rays, especially if you’re taking portraits. It can keep your subject from squinting their eyes, and it also helps to reduce harsh shadows on their face from the sun overhead.
Reflectors are also a great tool to have when you’re taking photos on a sunny day. They can fill in any areas where shadows are appearing on your subject’s face. It can take some time to get the angle right when you’re using a reflector, so don’t be afraid to play around with the placement.
If you’re going to be taking photos by yourself while using a reflector or diffuser, it’s best to have a stand to put it on. It can be really hard to try to juggle a camera and a reflector, so invest in a stand or bring along a friend who can act as your photography assistant and hold your reflector.
Do You Need Lots of Fancy Equipment?
Throughout this post, we’ve talked about a lot of equipment that you can invest in to make your photos better. But you absolutely do not need to buy studio lights, a fancy camera, or strobe lights to take nicely lit photos!
Lighting in photography is all about using what you have and making the most of it. So if all you have is a point and shoot camera and some natural light, you can still find a way to capture some great images.
- Floor lamps can be a great stand-in for studio lights.
- Window blinds can serve as diffusers that change the intensity of the natural light filtering through your windows.
- The leaves in the trees outside can also help filter and diffuse natural light and give you different, unique effects in your photos.
There’s so many ways to recreate the results that professional tools give without spending any money — you just have to get creative and use your imagination!
Just like any other art form, photography is all about experimentation. Grab your camera, head outside when you have some time, and start shooting.
Over time you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and train your eye to notice interesting lighting situations and scenery. The more you practice, the more you’ll develop as an artist and photographer, so hit the pavement and start taking some photos!
Rise up, It’s Time to Take a Shot!
We hope that this post has given you some ideas that will help you get the best possible lighting in your photography.
If you learned anything from this post that you’re going to implement the next time you go shooting, let us know in the comments below!
Vicky Monroe is an inspired wordsmith and savvy shopper. She’s always looking for the best deals on new tech and loves sharing them with others.