Photography Lighting Basics and Tips

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Welcome to my guide on photography lighting basics. Lighting has always been the photographer’s best friend, and biggest bugbear. Use it right, you get an award winning photo. Get it wrong, hide that photo, and never let people set eyes on it.

This guide will walk you through everything about light that is related to photography. It will explain things like shadows and highlights, the difference between blacks and whites, and also the laws of light.

We will address all of these mysteries, and hopefully you will have a better understanding of light at the end of the guide.



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Section A
Natural Light

Section B
Artificial Light

Section C
The Essentials

Section D
Lighting Tips

The macro world




There are 2 “kinds of light” in this world – natural light and artificial light. As “captain obvious” as this might be, not many people truly understand how to work with light, and use it to the fullest advantage. So let us now learn to see the sun in a different light.



So we get to see the sun everyday (unless you are a vampire), what is special about it? What is exciting about it? Some people probably don’t even pay any attention to it, but the quality of light is different at various times of the day.

Time Light Intensity Color Temperature
Sunrise Very soft Warm
Morning Soft Bluish
Midday Very harsh White
Afternoon Harsh White / Bluish
Sunset Very soft Warm
Twilight Very soft Blue

Well, the quality of light is still dependent on the weather conditions – A storm can destroy a nice sunset, and clouds can soften a harsh midday sun.



What is so exciting about natural light is that it changes throughout the day, giving you a different feel. Good photographers will choose when to shoot outdoors carefully.

Ever wonder why some photographers like to shoot during sunrise and sunset so much? It is because of the soft golden light that makes everything look awesome – The golden hour, as we like to call it.


Know why photographers tend to avoid shooting during mid-day? Because the lighting is very harsh, and can be very unflattering on people. But mind you, it is not wrong to shoot during the day. It is only during the day, that you can get that nice blue sky.

blue blue blue SKY.

Think that there is nothing nice to shoot when the sun goes down? Think again.
twilight portrait

So now that you know, keep an eye out for the time and weather conditions. Use that natural light to your best.



When the natural light falls short, we depend on artificial lights. Sadly, our level of technology is not quite enough to reproduce sunlight. Close enough, but not the same. So as a photographer, you have to learn the various kinds of artificial lights, and their traits.



A light bulb is a light bulb right? Nope… The technology of light has evolved over the years, and you need to know at least the common ones used in photography.

Incandescent : The old school filament bulb, usually warm in color.
Fluorescent : Has a bluish tint, and is a regular Joe that you find everywhere – clinics, super markets, offices, etc…
Halogen : Commonly used as headlights for vehicles. Closer to neutral white, but generates quite a lot of heat.
The newer technology that has been taking the world by storm. Low power consumption, low heat generation, and perfect for almost anything.
Flash : Portable lights that are commonly used in photography to give that extra boost of light.
Studio strobe
Strobe : The big gun used in studios, and there are some portable ones too. Whips out a lot of light.



Yep, there are plenty of artificial lights, but what about it? Just as natural light, each type of artificial light have a certain trait to it – Color temperature and intensity. As a smart photographer, you should really at least get to know and experiment with each type of lighting.

Always take note of the natural and environmental lights first. Don’t make the newbie mistake of clashing blue lights with a warm environment, and don’t expect a tiny flash to overpower a blazing sun.



How do we measure how “powerful” a flash, strobe or LED is? By a guide number (GN), and the formula goes : GN = distance X f-number. So for example, a flash with GN 40 at ISO 100, will mean that it can properly illuminate a subject at 5 meters, with f/8 and ISO 100 (f/8 X 5 meters = GN 40).

In the simpler terms, the higher the guide number, the more powerful the lighting device is.



Apart from the guide number, the other measuring unit that you will find on LED and light bulbs is Lumen and Lux. There is some pretty complex formula behind it, but generally again, the higher the number, the brighter the light bulb is.



Now that we have introduced some of the natural and artificial lights, let’s dive into the more “technical stuff”. These are the basics that every photographer need to know, and don’t skip over these…



Every time you shine a light on an object (that is not reflective), the following things will happen:

  • Shadow : I guess we are all not strangers to shadows. A dark area that is cast by light being blocked by an opaque object.
  • Highlight : This is sort of the opposite of shadows, and is the bright area where the light hits. Or as most like to say, the bright areas in the photo.
  • Core : This is the transition between highlight and shadow. A harsh intense light will have a very defined core, while a soft light will have a smooth transition.

So how about mid-tones, blacks and whites?

  • Mid-tones : As the name suggests, these are the spots in the photo that are neither highlights nor shadows – But somewhere in-between.
  • Blacks & whites : While highlights and shadows can be defined as the bright and dark spots of the photo, blacks and whites generally refer to all the darkness/brightness of the entire image.



Image source : Wikipedia

This law, you have to know, and the formula goes – Intensity of light = 1 / Distance². For example, the intensity of light will be 1/4 at a distance of 2, and 1/9 at a distance of 3. While this may seem very complicated, it is a very simple law. The further you place an object (or subject) away from the source of light :

  • The softer and less intense the light will be.
  • The more area the light will cover.

But just how do we use this law? I will cover this in the tips section below.



Front lighting : The most commonly used lighting position for beginners. Characteristically flat without shadows, and just overall well-lit.

Side lighting : One of my personal favorites. Lights a part of the subject, while adding some shadows and drama.

Back lighting : Lights the back of your subject, defining the edges and giving that rim light for added drama.




Natural light, artificial lights, shadows, highlights, core, and Square Inverse Law… These are a handful, and how do we use all of them in photography? My advice is that, these are just knowledge. Practical usage trumps, and here are a few quick tips to level up your lighting skills.



Some newbies are always in a rush to use the flash or add artificial lights to the photo, that they totally forget about the surrounding lights. Here’s the thing – There will always be some kind of environmental lights, and/or the sun that you cannot run away from… Unless you are in a totally dark room.

So always start by considering how to use the environmental lights first. Do you want to face your subject towards or away from the sun? How do you want to deal with the street lamps? Place your subject below a strong street light, or place the street lights behind the subject?

At times, you can get by with just the available light, without popping the flash. At times, it is so dark you can totally ignore the surround lights. But repeat – consider surrounding lights first, then use your own light setup to spice up everything.



Some beginners might be confused with this – But I thought flash is the only way to add more lights into photography? Wrong.

In photography, we commonly use flash, reflectors, LED panels and strobes. But remember this as well, you can add lights to your photo by switching on a table lamp. So if you are on a budget, even a simple light bulb works. Otherwise for beginners, I will recommend starting with :

  • Don’t need to spend hundreds on a top-of-the-cream flash. I usually get 2 decent Yong Nuo flashes – 2 of these adds more value than one expensive flash, and it is cheaper as well.
  • If you are really broke, here’s the cheapest flash – CY20 at $10.
  • Apart from the flash, get yourself an affordable 5 in 1 reflector. Super handy, and I still use mine until today.

Each artificial light has it’s own use, but for beginners, flash and reflector. That’s enough to last you a long time.



A common newbie mistake is to use a bare flash, flat in-your-face on a person. I call this nuclear flash (TM), and it is no good for various reasons :

  • Causes great discomfort to humans and animals.
  • Causes human subjects to squint.
  • Animals will start running away.
  • Remember the Square Inverse Law? A small intense flash equates to harsh, ugly, and sheet white badness.

So get yourself a simple diffuser to soften that flash, and I personally like the mini softbox. If you are on a budget again, you can try with a white translucent plastic bag or balloon.



Light has a very interesting property, that is it bounces off surfaces. If you find yourself in trouble with an overly intense flash, you can try to bounce the light off the walls and ceiling. It has the same effect of increasing the area, and softening the light… Just make sure that the wall does not have funky colors.

Alternatively, you can try bouncing the flash off a reflector. You might need more hands and people to help you though.



Need a little more fun with the flash? There are these cheap transparent color papers that we call color gels. A worthy investment. Adds drama to your photos, and also good for balancing the flash with the surrounding. I.E. If it is sunset, you will want to add a slight orange to the flash.

There is something called “color gel” in photography, and these cheap transparent color paper can really do some magic.



Not everyone has a stomach for flash photography, which is why we thankfully live in a more advanced age. Back in those days, photographers who do not want to use flash have to make their own lighting rig. Complete with light bulbs, and car batteries.

Today, it is as easy as a LED Light Panel. Personally, I am a flash / studio strobe guy, but one thing I can tell you about the LED panel is that – Although the LED does produce some nice soft lights, it is nowhere near the power of a strobe.

Not that it is bad, it’s just that I sometimes need a dramatic strong back light, and the LED sure cannot deliver that.



By now, you should already know – You are using the sun as the main light most of the time. But how about controlling the direction of the light from the sun? We probably can’t move the sun, but we can move the subject.

How about using the sun as the main light on one side, and a reflector to fill in the other side? How about using the sun as a back light? There are plenty of way around the sun.



All right, we have come to the end of this guide. Yep, I believe that we have scratched the surface, and there are plenty more to lighting in photography.

But that is a story for another time. For now, just concentrate on getting the basics right. Experiment, and get comfortable. If there are parts that you are unclear of, please feel free to comment below.

Hope this guide has helped you, have fun, and happy shooting!

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