Close this search box.

Mastering Light: The Science and Art of Photography Lighting

Taking a great photo is about so much more than finding the right setting on your camera; it’s also about capturing your subject in the perfect light. Sometimes, as a photographer, you’ll be able to take full advantage of natural light. In other cases, you may need to provide your own lighting to capture the best shot.

At the end of the day, understanding photography lighting is one of the most essential skills you can have in this line of work. With a strong understanding of both natural light photography and how to use photography lighting equipment, you can highlight the best features in every shot.

Still relatively new to the concept of photography lighting? From the basics of light in photography to lighting techniques for beginners and beyond, there is much to illuminate about this subject.

The Basics of Light in Photography

Before diving into more advanced concepts in photography lighting, it’s important to understand the fundamentals. This includes the numerous different sources of light that are used in photography as well as some distinct properties of each type of light as it relates to capturing excellent photos.

Understanding Light Sources

Several different types of lighting are commonly used in photography. Whether you’re dabbling in photography or are looking to sharpen your professional skills, it’s key to understand each type and when to use it.

Some of the most common light sources in photography include:

  • Natural light – This refers to any type of light that occurs on its own, such as lighting from the sun. This type of lighting tends to be ideal for a more organic-looking shot, and the effect can vary depending on the amount of natural light that exists, how you position your subjects and the time of day.
  • Flat light – Flat light is a type of artificial lighting used in photography. In this lighting, the subject is illuminated directly with no shadows. Typically, flat lighting is used in portraits and headshots, but it can also be of use in product photography lighting.
  • Backlight – Another type of lighting often used in photography is known as backlighting. This occurs when a light source is placed behind a subject as a means of creating shadows or even silhouettes for the camera. This type of photography lighting may be used when the photographer is trying to highlight a specific feature or create a sense of mystery in a photo.

While those are a few of the most commonly used types of light in photography lighting setup, it is not a comprehensive list. Some other types of lighting photographers may use in their work include:

  • Split lighting
  • Rim lighting
  • Broad lighting
  • Fill lighting
  • Loop lighting
  • Butterfly lighting

You can read more about different types of photography lighting techniques here.

The Properties of Light

When it comes to lighting in photography, you should also have a strong sense of the different properties of light. Broadly speaking, photography lighting has three different qualities as follows:

  • Quantity – This refers to the amount of light that is visible or the intensity of the light.
  • Quality – In the photography world, not all light is the same. Hard lighting, for example, can be extremely harsh and can actually wash out your photos (if you’re not careful). In this sense, more isn’t always better. Softer light, on the other hand, tends to be of better quality for taking photos and preventing harsh shadows.
  • Direction – The direction of light can also have a major impact on the finished shot. Specifically, this refers to the direction in which light is hitting the subject you are photographing. Many photographers enjoy experimenting with different light directions to highlight specific features or downplay others.

Lighting Techniques for Beginners

If you are still relatively new to the world of photography, one of the first types of lighting you’ll probably want to become familiar with is that of natural lighting. Not only is natural lighting free (you don’t need to buy any special equipment to take advantage of it), but it is also highly versatile.

Using Natural Light

When working with natural light, there are several tips worth keeping in mind that will help you achieve your best shot. Start by understanding that natural light has different properties at different times of day. Photographers usually enjoy shooting during the “golden hour,” which occurs during the hour before sunset as well as the hour after sunrise. During this time, natural lighting tends to be at its warmest and most flattering.

No matter what time of day you’ll be shooting, you should understand how to use the right accessories to maximize and manipulate natural light to achieve your desired shot. For example, many professionals enjoy using reflectors in photography to redirect light as needed—along with diffusers to filter light sources and reduce shadows.

Playing around with outdoor photography lighting, in addition to familiarizing yourself with the settings on your camera (like ISO and shutter speed), can make all the difference.

Simple Artificial Lighting Setups

Once you start working with artificial light photography, you’ll also need to know how to set up your lighting to achieve desired results. This is where an understanding of some basic photography lighting diagrams comes into play.

You can read more in-depth about photography lighting setups here—specifically as they relate to using diffusers, reflectors and umbrellas as part of your lighting arrangement.

Advanced Lighting Techniques

As you become more familiar with using natural and artificial lighting in your work, you might start experimenting more with advanced lighting techniques that involve manipulating light further or even creating your own unique lighting configurations.

Manipulating Light

In order to manipulate light, you’ll need some special equipment and accessories that we’ve discussed above, including reflectors and diffusers. However, in addition to these pieces of equipment, more advanced photography techniques require you to understand manipulation through your camera’s settings. This includes using different camera features to set up the ideal shot, such as:

  • Flash
  • ISO (which increases or decreases the camera’s light sensitivity)
  • Aperture/shutter speed
  • White balance

As you experiment with these settings on your camera, you’ll start to learn what works for you and how to achieve your ideal lighting arrangement.

The Science Behind Good Lighting

In addition to photography being an art, it’s crucial not to overlook the science behind it. This is especially true regarding the science behind good lighting both indoors and outdoors.

The Physics of Light

In order to understand how lighting can affect other aspects of your photo (including color), it’s critical to grasp the basic physics of light. Consider that different types of light have different amounts of energy; red light, for instance, has less energy than blue light. With this in mind, the different types of lighting you use in your photography can very well affect the amount of visible light you end up with in your shot.

Creative Lighting Configurations

Capturing truly unique shots is all about getting creative with your lighting configurations. This remains true no matter if you’re working outdoors with natural light or indoors with artificial sources.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get creative with lighting. Take, for example, an atmospheric lighting setup that takes advantage of natural light during the so-called “blue hour,” as well as more dynamic lighting setups that use faster shutter speeds to capture moving objects with minimal blur.

Lighting in Different Photography Genres

It’s also worth noting that lighting is often used differently based on the specific photography genre being followed. For instance, landscape photography lighting will likely differ from portrait photography lighting in a number of ways.

Portrait Lighting

With portrait lighting, setup will depend largely on whether the photos are being taken indoors or outdoors. With an indoor setup, artificial light is usually set up to illuminate the subject directly while minimizing the appearance of shadows. In other cases, high-key lighting photography may be used to cast a softer light on the subject (as may be desired with, say, professional headshots).

Landscape Lighting

With landscape lighting, on the other hand, techniques are more about manipulating the natural light that is available rather than trying to create additional sources of artificial light. Landscape photographers might take advantage of the golden hour to capture subjects in the best possible light.

Product Photography Lighting

Product photography is a distinct subset of the field that requires special expertise and a thorough understanding of both outdoor and indoor photography lighting. This is especially essential for capturing the best possible shots of products to be used on websites and in other publications while minimizing shadows and other unwanted distractions.

Common Lighting Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Mastering the art and science of lighting ultimately requires a lot of trial and error—but there are some common mistakes photographers should be aware of and avoid in their own work.

Over- and Under-Exposure

Photos that are overexposed or underexposed can almost always be traced back to a simple lighting mistake. To avoid these kinds of errors, photographers should familiarize themselves with the settings on their cameras while also keeping a close eye on shutter speed. Additionally, backlighting can result in under-exposed shots, so this is something to watch out for in your work as well.

Dealing With Harsh Shadows and Highlights

Unwanted shadows or highlights can ruin even the best of shots, which is why photographers need to be aware of common lighting mistakes that can lead to these errors. Typically, the best way to avoid shadows with artificial lighting is to use two lamps and ensure they are placed at a 45-degree angle to the subject and off to one side of the subject.

Editing and Post-Processing Light

Even when you do your best to avoid common lighting mistakes and properly illuminate your subjects, there’s a good chance you’ll still need to do some editing and post-processing to perfect the lighting in your shots.

Enhancing Light in Post-Processing

These days, there are plenty of easy-to-use features in popular programs (such as Adobe Photoshop) that can quickly enhance lighting as needed. For example, some photographers will use these features to enhance the appearance of sunbeams in a landscape photo or even make urban light sources (such as those from neon lights and streetlights) more vibrant.

Advanced Editing Techniques

As you become more familiar with image-editing programs (like Photoshop and Lightroom), you can begin experimenting with more advanced editing techniques to get rid of unwanted shadows or add highlights to your photos as needed.

Take Your Photography Knowledge to the Next Level

Mastering the art and science of how to use lighting in photography won’t happen overnight. Instead, it takes years of practice and experimenting to gain confidence. Still, with these tips in mind along with the right educational foundation, you’ll be on your way to using lighting with greater confidence.

At Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, our Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography degree program (offered both on-campus and online) is designed to teach students the essentials of lighting and other technical approaches. Get in touch to learn more or get started with your application today.


We're accepting applications for our next session. No fee, Apply Today!

Classes Starting Soon!

Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design Campus

No Application fee