The Basic Rules of Lighting in Photography



Welcome to part 1 of the photography lighting tutorial series – rules of lighting in photography. 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 first tutorial will run through the basic laws of light that are related to photography, which some of you guys may think is boring. But don’t skip it, or you will be left in the dark forever. 😆



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Section A
Natural & Artificial Light

Section B
The Rules

What’s Next?




As “captain obvious” as this might be, there are 2 “kinds of light” in this world – natural light and artificial light.

  • Natural light is mostly referring to the sun and all things that glow naturally.
  • Artificial light is referring to all the man-made lights, i.e. bulbs and glow sticks.

But regardless of whether it is natural or artificial, light is light. It has certain traits, follow the laws of physics and it works the same altogether.




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.



Infographic - The Laws of Light

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).



Infographic - Hard Light vs Soft Light

  • 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.



Infographic - Inverse Square Law

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.
Science buffs, feel free to read up more on this law on Wikipedia.


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


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


Back Lighting
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 around with different settings and just play around with the directions of light. If there are parts that you are unclear about, please feel free to comment below.

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



Want to learn more about flash photography? Here are 3 books that might interest you. I recommend The Flash Book by Scott KelbyGreat Photography with Just One Light by Tilo Gockel, and Creative Flash Photography also by Tilo Gockel.


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