Different Types of Lighting

How to spot and control light

Different types of lighting - Let's start with assessing the scene;

Before you even raise the camera to your eye, stand back and have a look at what you want to photograph, experience will tell you how it should appear as a final image. Is the entire scene, including your main subject, well and evenly lit? Are there patches of shaded or dark areas? Is the main point of interest strongly backlit?

Do you have a dark grounded area alongside a bright skyline? Is the sun in front or behind you? You must teach yourself to not just point and shoot and hope for the best, old habits die hard in some people.

Move yourself around!

Don’t just settle for where you first stand, move around the subject, landscape or whatever. See it from different angles and perspectives; look behind you, see how the light alters as you move. Add some foreground interest to keep the end viewer happy.

Young Family Swinging Daughter Through Sea at the Beach

Different Types of Lighting - Fig. 1

Young Family Walking Along Beach With Daughter

Different Types of Lighting - Fig. 2

Maybe zooming in to crop out a particularly light or dark area will help the camera to meter the scene more evenly? You can always zoom in, take a reading, set the exposure lock, zoom back out and shoot like before!

If a scene appears too bright, add something a bit darker to the foreground of the image to level it out some. Remember, you are in control of the camera so get it to do what you want. Kneel down, jump on a wall, look at all the possible perspectives, you will be surprised how much the light and image changes from making a few small manoeuvres.

Different types of lighting - Backlighting

If your subject is heavily backlit, you have a few options open to you;

  • Take the picture as normal with "evaluative" metering leaving a well exposed background and underexposed or "silhouetted" subject. This is an effect that may suit the scene well, although you can lighten the subject in an editing program later. This will inevitably lead to the detail in the subject becoming grainy and deteriorated as you pull the details out.
  • Take the image as above but use fill-in flash to lighten the subject. This way you get a perfectly exposed all round image.
  • Instead of a flash, use a reflector to brighten the subject, very natural and effective. Lastolite make an excellent range of expandable circular reflectors.
  • Use center-weighted or spot metering to take a reading from just the subject. This will expose the subject well but leave the background over exposed.
Parents Holding Daughters Hands As They Walk Along The Beach

Different Types of Lighting - Fig. 3

If possible do a 180 turn and put the sun behind you and the subject in front. The lighting will change dramatically and you can take a normal reading and get a perfectly exposed image.

Side lighting

When shooting any subject with side lighting you are going to end up with deep shadows. These may well enhance the mood of some scenes and be quite welcome and effective, but for most "people photography" this can be quite unflattering unless again, you are aiming for a certain mood in the image.

Your options here are similar to those above; either move your subject around to use back or front lighting or use fill-in flash.

Top heavy lighting

As with side lighting, you are going to get shadows on most subjects. Use the above techniques to suit the mood. Take a few shots using different techniques; the beauty of photography is that no two subjects and no lighting situations are ever exactly the same.

Everyone has their own techniques and preferences and only practice will bring out your own personal and unique style. Remember that you don’t have to always follow the rules.

Full frontal lighting

Whilst this is the most pleasing of all lighting for everyday subjects (i.e. the light source is behind the camera), and is the easiest to expose correctly, there are times when it can cause its own problems.

Bright sunlight on a person can cause them to squint meaning facial lines and small eyes. Not very flattering. Unless you want the subject to wear sunglasses, you can use the back-lighting technique above using a reflector or fill-in flash.

If the subject is anything other than human, the standard evaluative metering is best with the sun behind to take an overall reading from the entire scene.

Of course there are times when you want to play with the light, i.e. shooting into the sun which is beaming through the Eiffel Tower or similar subject, creating a fantastic and impressive silhouette.

In this case, the camera will do a "digital squint" much like you would, and expose for the sun and the sky leaving the foreground darker.

All round lighting

When you have good, all round and even lighting, you can play a bit with your exposure settings. Try differing aperture settings to create dramatic depth of field variations. Again, the evaluative metering is best here for an average, all round reading.

Dusk or dawn/sunset sunrises

In any situation where you have dying or little light, your normal readings are going to give you slow shutter speeds and wide apertures. This means using a tripod. If there is no visible sun, but a nice even glow, take a normal reading of the entire scene.

When shooting into a setting or rising sun, I would also suggest using standard evaluative metering.

If you were to take a spot or center-weighted reading from the sun itself, you would end up with a beautiful, well exposed and dark orange/golden sun, framed by near darkness as the camera exposes for the sun only.

The evaluative setting would take an overall average giving you much more chance of a well exposed sunset/sunrise with a slightly overexposed sun. With an evenly spread exposure, especially when shooting RAW, you can really enhance and improve the image to get it spot on.

Beach Lookout Town at Sunset
Waves on Beach at Sunrise
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