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Lighting in photography

To know and use light as we see fit is one of the primary issues we should consider to become a good photographer.


Without light we don't have photography. Therefore, we need to know how to treat and handle it to obtain the results we desire, and for this, we need to understand it.


First, I want to talk about the different types of light:


1. Key light.

This is the most important light in the shot, the other lights are dependant on it. It is responsible of the basic clarity of the subject, this means it is encharge of the distribution of the other lights and of the shadows. This means that the shape and form of the source should adjust to the shape and form of the object. The decision to choose the key light should correspond with the desired effect of the photograph. This effect will also depend on the position of this light.


2. Fill light.

Also known as base light. It's a secondary light in th elight diagram in the studio and it helps fill in shadows and balance the exposure. Normally, we look for a small reduction to get detail in the darker parts of the image, therefore it's power will be less than that of the key light. The fill light should never alter the key light or the effect that we've created in the image. To obtain this kind of light, we can use sources that generate soft light, such as flash, strobe, continuous light, reflector or a soft box.


3. Effect light.

It consists of lights with a very controlled and reduced beam that's brings out certain parts of the subject and makes the primary effect lighter when used appropiately. If we put this light behind the subject, in a position of backlight, it will create a halo. Depending on its position, this light can create an outline or bring out details and structures. It should be used carefully and it musn't throw off balance the general lighting.


4. Background light.

This light can have different functions. It is used to iluminate evenly or to create a gradiant between figure and background. This allows us to separate the subject from it's background a create a 3D effect.



It is important to consider the contrast ratio when talking about lighting. The contrast ratio is the gifference between the key light plus the fill light and the fill light by itself. This is essential to give our subjects some volume, that is, 3D. The way to calculate this ratio is:

  • By calculating the direct light (incedental light) of the scene with the photometer

  • By calculating the reflected light with the spotmetre on the camera and the grey card at 18%.

Contrast ratio is expressed with the diaphragm of the camera. Example: 1:2, where the 1 represents the key light and the 2 represents the fill light. This means that the key light iluminates twice as much as the fill light.


The combination of lights, shadows and reflections determine the type of lighting of a scene. These three elements determine the atmosphere and expression of a portrait. Therefore, we must be clear about what kind of lighting we want to use in our photography. Types of lighting:

  1. Natural lighting. The only source of light there is in nature is the sun. This will be the key light. We can try to imitate this kind of light by placing the light source above the subject and sideways.

  2. Naturist lighting. This lighting is quite similar to natural lighting but it doesn't try to imitate it. It allows you to create different types of atmosphere, being soft or harsh. What it can't stop being is faithful to the natural light. This means that the lighting should never deform the shape, color, or structure of the subject.

  3. Abstract lighting. In a photograph with this kind of lighting the subject is still recognisable but the shape, color or sturcture have been altered because of the lighting.

  4. Surreal lighting. This is the type of lightiong that is furthest away from what we are used to seeing with our eyes. It is never present in nature and it causes a ghostly effect. To achieve this kind of lighting in a studio you need very specific spotlights, color sheets, proyected backgrounds or positioning the light sources in antinatural places (i.e. overhead lighting).


We can also consider different types of lighting depending on where we place the light source:


1. Frontal lighting.

This is the light that is infront of the subject and behind the photographer. It doesn't allow much texture and hardly any shadow. The result of this kind of lighting is of plain and 2D images.


2. Overhead lighting. As the name indicates, this kind of light is present when the light source is right above the subject and the photographer. It's the same kind of light we find in the middle of the day when the sun is at it's highest point. We can also aschieve this lighting in a studio but it isn't common due to the fact that it creates very harsh shadows.


3. Nadir lighting.

It's the exact opposite to overhead lighting. We obtain this kind of lighting when the light source is situated directly below the subject and it illuminates it from below upwards. It's also not very commonly used, but when it is it's to create very expressive photographs as we get very unnatural shadows.


4. Side lighting.

It's produced when the light source is beside the subject and photographer. The most remarkable aspect of this type of lighting is the shadows it produces. It brings out the shape of the subject. Every detail is accentuated. We can have different types of side lighting depending of the exact position of the light source. For example: ground light.


One of the most interesting side lights in photography. This type of lighting falls on the subject at a very sharp angle, from the side and low down regarding the horizon. It separates the subject from the background and gives it volume and detail. The best time to use this light is at sunrise and at sunset.




5. Backlighting.


We obtain this lighting when the source is positioned behind the subject and infront of the camera. With this kind of lightwe achieve silhoettes. If we combine this kind of lighting with atmospheric circumstances like mist we can get some really interesting and magical photographs.












6. Ambient lighting.

This references non direct lighting. When something (for example a light bulb in the center of a room) fills the space that we are using. It's normally a very soft light. As it isn't a direct light, the brightness of the subject isn't as promenent as it is when we use a different kind of lighting. This is the most common lighting in non proffessional photography. It is also commonly used for landscape photography. The trick with this kind of photography is to take advantage of the spaces where the light is best, or surfaces that lessen the contrast. The creative possibilities with this kind of lighting are infinite.


Light and lighting in photography are so extremely important that I could talk about it for hours on end, but as I don't want to bore you, for now, this is all.


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