Types of Photography Lighting

The choice of lighting is huge, it's how you use the light that counts...

Types of Photography Lighting

As with the previous section, knowing immediately;

  • Which types of photography lighting are available to you
  • How they work
  • How to use them to your advantage
  • Which would suit the image best

...is an acquired skill.

The ability to make an instant decision to use flash or not during a wedding shoot is of paramount importance. The correct lighting could make or break an all important shot. If in doubt, and if you have time, do both, with and without flash.

Natural - Natural + fill in flash - Flash - Ambient - Studio/Softbox

Types of Photography Lighting - Natural

Types of Photography Lighting Natural

Probably the most flattering form of lighting, perhaps because this is the way we see most things and most people every day.

I always try, when I am able, to make the most of any natural light. Whether it is outdoors, indoors or just a shaft of light coming in through a window. Even if I have to bounce it using a reflector.

Types of Photography Lighting - Window Light

Types of Photography Lighting Window Light

If shooting portraits of people or wedding portraits or church scenes etc, try using any available daylight, even if it means moving people to another room in their house.

Diffused window light, not direct beams of sunlight, can create a real sense of calm and mood to an image. If the daylight can’t quite reach the subject, use a reflector or two to bounce and throw the light like in this example. If the daylight can’t quite reach the subject, use a reflector or two to bounce and throw the light like in this example.

Types of Photography Lighting - Outdoors

The worst type of natural light for portraiture is direct sunlight. It can cause heavy lines and shadows as well as squinting and is very unflattering. If you have no choice, spin the subject around with the sunlight behind and fire away whilst exposing for the face.

Types of Photography Lighting Sunlight
Types of Photography Lighting Sunlight

Overcast days are perfect, especially for weddings (although not for the couple) as many of your shots will be outdoors. The light is nicely even and diffused and is most flattering for everyone, much like using a great big softbox.

Natural Plus Fill-in Flash

Types of Photography Lighting Outdoors Plus Flash

When shooting using available light, you only have so much control and there are times when you need to help out a little.

For example, sometimes you simply have to shoot in direct sunlight. Especially at weddings or events where many shots are outdoors.

If so, try "pinging" in a little fill in flash and keep the sun behind the subject.

For the shot of my daughter jumping here, I used a couple of speedlights on stands both aiming at her from different angles to counteract the sun.

To fire the strobes, I used my Pocket Wizards which are great and portable for this type of shot with bright backlit sunshine. If time is not on your side, set your camera to aperture priority mode and speedlight to E-TTL or equivalent (fully auto/dedicated). Then quickly take and lock a meter reading from behind your subject by aiming your camera there, half pressing the shutter and pressing "exposure lock" or "*".

Types of Photography Lighting Outdoors Plus Flash
Types of Photography Lighting Outdoors Plus Flash

Then re-frame the shot and fire. The background should be well exposed as that is where you metered for and the subject should be lit correctly from the burst of flash as in the examples above. Practice, practice, practice.


Personally, I only use direct flash if absolutely necessary (other than fill in). If I am indoors and the ceiling is low enough and fairly bright, I will always bounce the flash to diffuse the flashlight.

Direct flash indoors is horrible and tends to wash out the colours and leave nasty shadows behind your subject.

If you are using direct flash, to lose the shadows try and manoeuvre your subject so that they are a healthy distance away from any walls etc, and open up the aperture to blur the remaining background.

The options open to you to diffuse flash light are;

  • Bounce the flash from a ceiling or wall. Remember that by bouncing the light, you are effectively doubling the distance the light travels thereby the increasing the risk of underexposing the subject. To counteract this you can, if your camera is able, increase the FEC (or flash exposure compensation) by 2 or 3 stops until it looks correct. This adds power to the flash output to allow for the extra distance. If you don’t have that option, just increase the exposure using exposure compensation (open aperture or slow the shutter speed) and see if that helps.

Basically, this is an area you would do well to practice until you feel confident in any situation. Correct use of bounced flash can be very flattering, I use it all the time.

  • Attach a "mini softbox" to your speedlight. If you are creative, you can build your own or, like me, simply buy one from companies such as Gary Fong Diffuser or Stofen Diffuser.


What is ambient light and how does it affect your photography?

Ambient light is the general "man-made" background light shining all around us. It softens any contrasts between brightly lit "task" areas and their surroundings. Fluorescent, halogen or incandescent recessed lights for example, usually found in the ceiling, cast light directly downward and outward.

Wall sconces and halogen "torchiere" floor lamps shine their ambient light upwards at the ceiling. This reflects the light throughout the room. Table lamps with differing colours of translucent lampshades cast soft light in a room.

With each or these kinds of ambient lighting comes a problem for the digital photographer as they tend to leave a harsh colour cast in your images, usually yellow or red.

You can adjust for this at the time of shooting by switching to manual white balance and adjusting accordingly (see chapter 8) and/or adjusting the colour tones in post-processing later on.

Try combining ambient lighting with bounced or diffused flash. You will still need to adjust the white balance or colours but you will have much more evenly spread light than if you were to turn out the lights and use just the speedlight.

Types of Photography Lighting - Studio/Softbox

Maybe you intend to get serious with portrait, stock/close-up/macro/product or interior photography. If so, an investment in some good studio lights is highly recommended.

The next thing is to learn how to use them;

  • How to change the power output for different scenarios
  • Where to place them in different situations. I.e. portraits, interior etc
  • When to use both or just one
  • At what point do you use the softbox
  • When do you use accessories such as "barn doors" or "snoots" etc.

All of this takes time and practice but here are some tips for now;

Types of Photography Lighting - Interior Photography

Images of property interiors need to be well lit and natural looking in order to show off the rooms at their absolute best. Especially for real estate. It is sometimes an idea to turn on the ambient lighting to create a feeling of warmth and homeliness.

Use both lights on full power if shooting large rooms. Place both lights behind you, evenly spaced and as far back as possible. Use white, translucent umbrellas for good diffusion and fire the light through them. Do this rather than the traditional "reflected from the inside of a silver brolly".

Think about what the light will do. It will hit the inside of the brolly and explode out bouncing off the walls and ceiling. Thereby creating a nice even spread rather than a simple flash burst causing unsightly shadows. You just need to set the cameras exposure to account for this.

If shooting a small room, extend the light or softbox right up to the ceiling. Aim it directly upwards and fire that way. This will enable the light to hit the ceiling on full power, break itself up and fall nicely and diffused on the room and all the items in it. Just make sure you don't get the ceiling in your shot as it will obviously be completely over-exposed.

In both cases, you could use a light meter if you have one. If using digital, start at say 60th/sec at F8 and adjust accordingly until you get it right.

You can also learn to set the lights correctly in order to light the room perfectly whilst keeping the outside views attractive and well exposed. You can read more of this in my property photography section.

Types of Photography Lighting - Portraits

I did a one year apprenticeship at 16 back in Kent where I was born. I remember that some of the lighting set ups we used back then for shooting models were fairly simple. Some methods are a bit dated now but still work for many shots.

The most standard and widespread set up, was to have each studio light either side of the subject. Slightly in front with one light on full power with the second on half power.

Types of Photography Lighting Portraits

This lit one side of the face and "filled in" the other to create a certain mood whilst flattering the features and background.

Portrait photography is quite unique to each photographer who generally invents their own techniques and styles over time.

One method I personally enjoy is to simply use one large softbox aimed at the subject or group (see image of Ana Maria to the left). This tends to light evenly and uniformly and leaves no unsightly shadows on the face or background.

Portraiture is an area where you have no hard and fast rules and you can really experiment with lighting techniques to suit the subject. For example a nice, standard family portrait requires nice, even lighting.

Emphasise those wrinkles!

Whereas on the other hand you may have seen shots of miners, manual workers, elderly folk or even famous people where the light is harsh, one-sided and actually accentuates the lines in the face especially when converted to black and white.

This method can be used to portray a long life of hard graft or even extreme poverty and is normally used for lifestyle, travel or portfolio work.

Practice all kinds of techniques with your lights and learn how simple adjustments and set ups can greatly affect the mood of a shot. Study images of people you see and try to work out how the shot was taken. One tip is to look closely at the eyes to find the lighting set up.

Types of Photography Lighting Portraits

Types of Photography Lighting - Product/Still Life

Here again, you need evenly spread and flattering light. The importance is in the product itself and not the mood or background, although in some instances, the light may enhance the specific product.

For smaller products, a light tent is a useful piece of kit and again, you can either make your own or buy one ready made from Amazon. For the following shot, I used one softbox aimed directly at the product and one studio light from the side to help light the background.

Types of Photography Lighting Product Still Life

As lighting is the most important aspect of any photography, learn how light works. Learn how different lighting set ups can affect the same image dramatically if just moved or adjusted slightly.

Learn how moving around an object or subject outside can change the mood of a shot lit by daylight. Understand how all of your artificial lighting works and when best to use it for different types of photography.

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