Photography Lighting Basics #1 : The Concepts



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, just hide that photo, and never let people set eyes on it.

This will be an ongoing series to walk you through the basics, taking you from “what?!” to “aha!”. This first guide will walk you through the basic concepts of light that are related to photography. It will be quite boring, but hopefully, you will have a better understanding of light at the end of it.



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Section A
Natural Light

Section B
Artificial Light

Section C
The Essentials

What’s Next?




There are 2 “kinds of light” in this world – natural light and artificial light. As “captain obvious” as this might be, “natural light” is mostly referring to the sun, moon, and things that glow naturally.

But sadly, not many people truly understand how to work with natural light and use it to the fullest advantage. Let us now learn to see the sun in a different light.



We get to see the sun every day (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 also dependent on the weather conditions – A storm can destroy a nice sunset, and clouds can soften a harsh midday sun.



What is exciting is that it changes throughout the day, giving you a different feel. Good photographers know when to choose the best time to bring out their shots 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.

Golden Hour: Perfect for photography

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.

Midday: Harsh sun, but blue sky.

Think that there is nothing nice to shoot when the sun goes down? Think again. Even twilight has a nice distinct blue with a streak of orange.

Twilight: Blue, with a streak of orange.

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




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



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


Just as natural light, each type of artificial light has a certain trait to it – Color temperature and intensity. As a photographer, you should really know and experiment with each type of lighting.

Type Light Intensity Color Temperature
Incandescent Soft Warm
Fluorescent Harsh Warm / Cold
Halogen Very Harsh Almost neutral
Flash Very Harsh Almost neutral
LED Soft Warm / Cold
Strobe Very Harsh Almost neutral



How do we measure how “powerful” a flash, strobe or LED is? One of the most common ways is by the guide number (GN), and this formula goes GN = distance X f-number. 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 both natural and artificial lights, it’s time for some of the “technical stuff”. Yep, these are the terms, basic rules and laws of light that every photographer should know.



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

  • Shadow: I guess we already know what shadows are. 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 of the photo.
  • Core: This is the transition between highlight and shadow.

What is the big deal with this?

  • An intense light source will cast a very defined core.
  • A soft light source will cast a smooth transition core.
  • It is vital to learn where to place the lights, and not to cast ugly shadows (e.g. casting “eyebags” on people).



  • Hard Light: Created by a strong and bright light source. Harsh highlights, defined core, and strong shadows.
  • Soft Light: Created by a “gentle soft” light source. Gentle highlights, smooth core, and soft shadows.



The next law that every photographer needs to know and the formula goes – Intensity of light = 1 / Distance². For example, the intensity of a light source will be 1/4 at a distance of 2, and 1/9 at a distance of 3. If you are bad with numbers, here is the “human version” :

  • The further you place a light, the softer and less intense it will be. It will also cover more area.
  • If you place a light closer to the subject, it becomes more intense and covers less area.


Remember a few seconds ago when I mentioned the direction and distance of light are vital? Here’s how placing a few lights at a different position can change your photo drastically.

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.


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



Catchlight refers to the reflection of light in the eyes of the subject. While some beginners probably ignore this tiny detail, catchlights can really bring attention to the eyes of your subject when done correctly… Which is why some photographers deliberately position a light in front of the subject.



For this final section, I shall address something that is not lighting but closely related. Mid-tones, blacks, and whites. You might have already come across these terms, or soon if you dabble with editing. What are they all about?

  • Mid-tones: As the name suggests, these are the spots in the photo that are neither highlights nor shadows – But somewhere in-between (the greys).
  • Blacks & whites: Generally refers to all the black/white of the entire image, often confused with shadows and highlights. Best way to explain – Shadows are cast light being blocked. Blacks refer to everything dark in the frame – dark hair, dark blue clothing, shadow areas, etc… Whites refers to everything bright – Yellow gloves, bright green clothing, all the highlight areas.



We have come to the end of this guide, and congrats on scratching the surface of photography lighting. Yep, scratch. 😐 But don’t be discouraged, just focus on getting the basics right first, and worry about all of that difficult stuff later.

The best thing to do as a beginner is to try out different types of lights – Flash, reflector, or LED. Just get comfortable, and experiment with different settings. 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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