Have you ever struggled with bad lighting, leading to dark and grainy photos? You’re not the first person to grapple with this and you won’t be the last. Luckily there are a few ways you can improve your photography lighting.

Which type of light is used in photography?

There are two main types of lighting in photography: natural and artificial. My personal favourite is natural lighting but that doesn’t have to be yours! My dislike of artificial photography lighting originated from a poor grasp of how photography lighting setups work and frustration with my initial experimentation with flash. Even after learning a ton about flash through Cole’s Classroom, I still prefer natural lighting. However, there are times when using flash has saved me from giving poor photos to clients, so it is definitely a skill worth investing in.

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How important is lighting in photography?

photography lighting rembrandt

I would argue that lighting is the most important aspect of photography. If a client can’t see what is in their photo then it doesn’t matter how good the composition is, or how sharp the photo is, they will reject your work. You don’t need the newest camera model available to get fantastic photos, but you do need to understand what your camera’s limitations are so that you can work around them. If your older model camera doesn’t handle low light situations well, then schedule your photo sessions during bright daylight hours.

Even photos taken during daylight hours can turn out poorly if you’re not using the right camera settings. What newer photographers sometimes call poor lighting is actually problems with exposure. Take the time to learn how ISO, shutter speed and aperture work together to get you properly exposed photos. Once you master exposure settings, study how the available light is interacting with your subject. Are you getting shadows around your client’s eyes? Are there bright patches of light only hitting certain parts of your subject’s face? Here you need to figure out where your light is coming from and move your client around accordingly.

What is the best lighting for taking pictures?

photography lighting golden hour

The best natural photography lighting, hands down, is the soft lighting produced during golden hour! Golden hour occurs when the sun is rising or setting. Often the light has a slight orange, pink or golden yellow tinge, which is very flattering to your subjects. Golden hour light is also diffused which lights your client’s face much better than the directional lighting of the rest of the day. If clients can’t meet you during golden hour, then the next best thing is to choose a location with shade. During golden hour the sun is at a low angle giving you more freedom of where to shoot outdoors. You can shoot in an open field, or by a lake side.  When it comes to the best artificial lighting for taking photos, there is no one answer – it depends entirely on your preference! 

What are the different types of indoor studio lighting?

First off, I will explain some common types of photography lighting equipment used and what the equipment is used for. In the next section I will be exploring some studio lighting techniques. Studio lighting can be as complicated or simple as you like. Each light can be used to light up a specific part of your subject, giving you different effects. Just to be clear, many successful small business studio set ups involve only one or two lights!  So unless you have a lot of money lying around, I wouldn’t recommend buying all these pieces of equipment.


photography lighting umbrella

Studio lighting will either be continuous (always lighting up your subject) or strobe (where it goes off at the press of a button). Many studio lights are mounted with a diffuser to soften the effect of the light on your subject. Diffusers can be softboxes, oktobox, stripboxes and umbrellas. Other devices will limit the direction a light travels in so as not to leak into the camera at the wrong spot.

Key Light

If you could only use one artificial light source, you’re going to want to get a key light. Even with a multi light source set up, this is the “main” one. The key light does most or all of the work for lighting up your subjects face. Any other lights used will compliment the work done by the key light. This light is most often placed to one side of and pointed directly at your subject.

Fill Light

This light is used in conjunction with the key light. The fill light brightens the shadows cast on your subject by the key light. The fill light can be as bright as the key light but generally you want a little bit of shadow on your subject’s face to show some dimension in your shot.

Hair Light / Separation Light / Kicker

These light is has different names depending on if your subject is a human or an object but they provide the same purpose. This light is meant to only fall upon a small part of your subject, the hair for example. The light beam is narrow so as not to hit a large part of your subject. Of course, the closer your hair light is to your subject, the more narrow the highlight. So move your light further away from your subject if you want it to hit a slightly larger area. This light should be set as high as or higher than your key light. This light is meant to help your subject stand out from the background and potentially draw your eye to a certain part of the image.

Background light

With so many lights on your subjects, sometimes your background can turn out too dark. Here is where the background light comes in handy. Background lights can also help eliminate shadows cast on your backdrop by your subject. This light is most often dimmer than or equal to the power of the key light.

Camera Mounted Flash

Ok, so camera mounted flash isn’t necessarily studio lighting, although I am sure some photographers may be using it in their studios. Flash does fall within the artificial lighting category so I am going to talk about it here. The convenience of camera mounted flash is that it’s much more mobile than bulky light stands. This means you can quickly and somewhat discreetly move around and within crowds at concerts, wedding receptions and ceremonies. You can also swiftly and easily change which direction the flash is set off in.

Flash can be bounced off the ceiling to diffuse the light before it hits your subject. When the ceiling is so high that it doesn’t bounce the light back down, a flash diffuser can be used to soften the light. Flash diffusers come in many shapes and forms, from mini softboxes to semi transparent plastic domes to reflective flat cards. Flash is also often used outdoors as a fill light, set at a low enough power so it only lightens the shadows without overpowering your image.

What are the different studio lighting techniques?

Now that you know what different studio lights do, we can talk about how to place them to achieve certain looks. Some of these photography lighting techniques are dramatic and others soft. There are no rules stating which situations you can or can’t use them in, however certain industries use certain photography lighting techniques more than others.

Split Lighting

photography techniques split lighting

Place your light 90 degrees to your subject’s face. You will end up with one side of the face lit up and the other in dark shadow. The shadow line will fall vertically down your subject’s face, creating a very dramatic portrait.

Rembrandt Lighting

Place your subject slightly more than 90 degrees away from the light source. Your light source will also be slightly the head height of your subject. One side of the face will still be in shadow but one one triangle of light should fall on the cheek, no wider than the eye and not longer than the nose. The shadows cast by this type of lighting helps round faces look slimmer. This photography lighting technique is named after the painter Rembrandt because he used this type of lighting on many of his subjects.

Loop Lighting

Place your light source at a 30-45 degree angle from the back of your subject. A reflector is placed on the opposite side of the subject facing the light to bounce the light back onto your subject’s face. When the light is placed slightly higher than eye level, it gives a slight contouring look to your subject’s face. This type of lighting is very flattering on most people so it tends to be used a lot in portrait work.

Butterfly Lighting

Place your light directly behind and above your camera, shining directly on your subject facing the camera head on. This lighting casts a butterfly wing shaped shadow directly beneath the subjects nose. When the light is placed high enough, you may get shadows cast of the cheeks of subjects with prominent cheekbones.

Broad / Short lighting

photography lighting short lighting

This isn’t exactly a technique as is more or less used to describe how much of the face is in the light. When your subjects face is turned slightly in one direction, your lighting is broad if it casts the side of the face closest to the camera in light. Alternatively, if the side of the face closest to the camera is partially in shadow, your lighting is classified as short.

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Do you have experience with any of these lighting techniques? Which one is your favourite to use and under which circumstance? The lovely thing about photography is that there is so much variety in lighting and it can give us such diverse looks with our subjects! This type of knowledge is useful even for natural light photographers like myself, since it might help keep you in business during your slow winter season.