Whether you are a professional photographer or a part-time enthusiast, you probably already know the importance of great lighting when it comes to capturing really great shots.
However, sometimes it helps to go back to the basics and remind ourselves of the fundamental properties of light and lighting. So let us do just that.
Read on as we give you our top lighting tips for improving your photography and capturing some amazing shots.
For a softer light, broaden the light source
A broad lamp or other light source will reduce shadows, contrast, and conceal textures. Because light rays are hitting the subject from a wider range of angles, shadowed areas are more likely to get filled in, contrasts get downplayed and the scene as a whole receives the same level of illumination across the board. Narrow light sources, by contrast, will generate a hard light.
For a softer light, move your light source closer to the subject
Following on from the last point, if you move your light source closer to the subject, it becomes bigger, ie. broader, relative to the subject. Move it away from the subject, on the other hand, and it becomes smaller relative to your subject, and thus narrower.
Scattered light is broader and thus softer
You see this when clouds and/or fog block the path of the sun’s rays. The light streaming from the sun hits the clouds/fog and diffuses in every direction creating a softer glow – see the way shadows tend to disappear when skies are overcast or foggy.
Bouncing the light off another surface scatters it and makes it softer
If you point a narrow light source towards a broad, flat surface like a wall, ceiling, or perhaps a matte reflector, the light will not just reflect off the surface but also scatter in a multitude of different directions.
The exception is if you utilize a shiny reflector – in that case, the light will remain ‘narrow’ even after bouncing. In the most extreme case – where you use a perfectly shiny surface like a mirror – the light will remain just as narrowly focused after reflection as before. A hint for photographers: If you want your subjects illuminated by a softer more even light, don’t bounce the light from the light source off of mirrors and the like!
The greater the distance between the light source and the subject, the less the light will illuminate your subject
As a general rule of thumb, light dims or falls away as the square of what distance it is from the subject. In other words, if you double the distance between the light source and your subject, just one quarter of that original light will make it to the subject.
Another thing to keep in mind when moving around your light source – and/or your subject – as you snap your photographs! Remember also that bouncing the light actually adds to the overall distance it travels before reaching the subject, and thus generates some dimming also.
Move the light towards or away from the subject to vary the brightness of the subject relative to the background and vice versa
If you want the background to be brighter and more pronounced relative to the subject of your photographs, then move the light source further away from the subject. This follows from the falling away phenomenon described above.
On the other hand, if you want the subject to be brighter than the background, then move the light closer to the subject – light will hit the subject first before falling away a bit THEN illuminating the background.
The greater the angle between the light source and the subject, the more texture is enhanced
Generally speaking, front-lighting suppresses texture; light from above, below, or to the side enhances it. If you specialize in portrait photography, then you will want to keep your light source aligned with the main axis of the lens in order to conceal wrinkles.
By contrast, if you are a landscape photographer, you may prefer side-lighting as a way of emphasizing the textures of the natural environment.
Shadows enhance volume
If you want to create a sense of volume in your photographs, for example, a three-dimensional object in space, not a simple projection onto a flat surface, then light from above, below or to the side of the subject – which generate shadows that are longer and deeper. This is the reason angular lighting is utilized by the landscape and still-life photographers.
Use backlighting to generate a softer frontal light
It sounds counter-intuitive, but the reason is that it’s very hard to get a picture in which the subject is completely backlit with no light whatsoever hitting it from the front-on. Take a subject whose back is turned to a bright window: there will still be reflected light from the wall opposite falling on them from the front.
Use this effect to create a softer frontal light and photographs in which texture and dimensionality are suppressed.
Even ‘white’ light has a color
Every beam of light has a certain color temperature. Whilst our eyes and brains are very good at overlooking these slight variations and different ‘shades of grey’ in order to create a simplified picture of the world, film and digital sensors may register what we fail to detect. Tungsten bulbs tend to cast a very ‘warm’, yellow colored light.
The color quality of natural light varies depending on the time of the day as well: the light of early morning or late afternoon has a warm tone, whilst at midday it can be rather blue. If you take your photos with a digital camera, utilize the white-balance control feature to either enhance or suppress these color casts – you can add a warmer color tone to a portrait or landscape shot at midday or in overcast conditions. With slide film, you would have to select the correct film for the type of light you are shooting with or correct any deficiencies with a filter.