Photography Lighting: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

As a beginning photographer, you probably started shooting in natural light. Maybe you picked up your camera during the golden hour when the light was its most beautiful but didn’t give it much more thought than that. 

But, just like a photographer who masters manual mode, once you learn how to use light to your advantage, you can finally use your camera any time of day or night – in any lighting conditions, to shoot anything you want.

This beginner’s guide to photography lighting will explain the fundamentals of light, the different types of photography lighting, and how to set up your own studio. With the information you learn here, you’ll soon be on your way to using light to your advantage.

Photo studio
Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Understanding Light

Before we go into great detail about setting up your studio lighting, there are some common fundamentals you need to understand when it comes to light and photography lighting. So first, let’s go over a few basic principles:

Soft light vs. hard light

When we talk about hard light or soft light, we’re referring to how bright the light is or how dark the shadows are. In other words, the harshness of the contrast between light and dark. 

For example, a photo shot at blue hour is said to have soft light, whereas one shot during high noon on a cloudless day will have hard light.

Below is an example of an image with hard light. Notice the high contrast between light and dark? There is a sharp transition from light to dark, not soft and smooth. 

hard light
Photo by Kerim Ayar on Unsplash

Hard light is the result of directional light, like a spotlight or even the sun. It’s often undesirable in portraits. But, as you can see from the example above, it can create an interesting, moody feeling. 

Large light sources produce soft light, while smaller light sources produce harder light. Distance also plays a role. As an example, point a flashlight at a wall from a distance and begin walking toward the wall. The closer you move to the wall, the smaller and more defined the beam of light becomes focused. In other words, the closer you are, the harder the light becomes.

Natural light vs. artificial light

Natural light is just that — light that’s already present in nature. If you’re outside, it’s light from the sun, moon, stars, or streetlamps. If you’re inside, it’s light that’s coming in through the windows and light that’s already present in the room like a lamp, candle, or fireplace.

Many photographers make entire careers out of only shooting with natural light. However, others want to harness total control over their shooting environment, and that means using artificial light. 

Artificial light in photography could be your camera’s built-in flash, a Speedlight, or a fully equipped photo studio. We’ll explain these lights in greater detail later in this guide.

Natural light photographer
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Color temperature and white balance

All light has an associated color temperature that is measured in degrees Kelvin. On the scale, warmer colors, like those from candles and incandescent lightbulbs, have a lower temperature than cooler colors. Natural sunlight falls somewhere in the middle at 5500K. Sunlight on a cloudy day is slightly cooler. Fluorescent light is very cool, almost blue.

You can set your camera’s white balance to control how it captures the temperature of the light by telling it what kind of light you’re shooting in; set it manually using a gray card; or set it to automatically detect the white balance. However, if you shoot in RAW, you can easily fine-tune the white balance in post-processing no matter what your white balance is set to.

High key vs. low key

These are two distinctive styles of lighting. With low key lighting, about 80% of the image is dark. The result is an image that’s moody, powerful, mysterious, and dramatic. 

The opposite is true of a high key image — most of the tones are light and bright. The result is a photo that is lively, joyful, clean, crisp, and happy. 

See in the example below how the same subject matter can convey a different emotion, and tell a different story, just by lighting it differently? 

Photography lighting: High key vs. low key
High key vs. low key

Types of Photography Lighting

If you’re new to studio lighting it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options and all the things you need to learn. Fortunately, once you get a handle on the basics, you’ll realize it’s not all that complicated. 

Studio lighting all comes down to a few essentials: the lights, their functions, and the light modifiers. First, let’s dive into the different types of studio lights and the benefits of each.

Strobes

A strobe, sometimes called a monolight, is a standalone flash unit. They’re usually AC-powered, as they often require too much power to run off of a battery. 

Pros: Strobe lights are extremely effective at lighting your subject. They are the industry standard for professional studio lighting.

Cons: Strobes can be expensive. They require a lot of accessories, like light modifiers, stands, and replacement bulbs. They are bulky and, since they require AC power, this makes them difficult to use in settings other than a studio.

Continuous lights

Continuous lighting, otherwise known as hotlights, are high-powered lamps that don’t flash. Instead, they are always on and always bright. 

Pros: Continuous lights are a budget option that’s great for beginners. They’re always on, so you have a visual of what the light will look like on your subject before you shoot. Adjusting white balance is much easier for beginners with a continuous light kit. They are almost always used with video.

Cons: The “hotlight” nickname comes from the fact that these lights tend to get extremely hot. Be careful with modifiers that get too close to the bulbs as they can become a fire hazard.

Speedlights

Speedlights are portable, lightweight flashguns that can mount to your camera’s hot shoe. They are perfect for photographers who want to take their flash outside of the studio.

Pros: Speedlights produce a faster flash than a standard camera flash. You can use light modifiers, like flash diffusers, with them. They can be used on camera or off. You can link several of them together to flash at the same time, creating a mini photo studio on the go. 

Cons: They are not as powerful as studio strobe lights. Since they run off of batteries, they need to be recharged often.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Light Functions

Now that you know the different types of photography lighting, let’s examine what purpose the light is meant to serve. Understand these concepts and you’ll be able to beautifully light your subject, create depth, shape, contrast. You can use different light functions to add drama, lighten or darken shadows, eliminate reflections, and more.

  • Key light: This is the main light that illuminates your subject. It’s usually the brightest and most prominent.
  • Fill light: This is used to reduce shadows and fill in dark areas created by the key light. It will decrease the overall contrast in a scene. 
  • Rim light: Placed behind the subject, a rim light helps separate the subject from the background.
  • Background light: This is used to light up the background.
  • Hairlight: Similar to a rim light, this is used to emphasize the subject’s hair. It will help separate them from the background. 
  • Ambient: This describes any light that’s present in the room before adding any flash. For example, light coming in from a window. Most studio flash will overpower the ambient light.
photography lighting
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Light Modifiers

So, you’ve learned the types of photography lighting and their functions. Now, the next fundamental element of lighting in photography about is light modifiers. Light modifiers are devices that are used to control the light. 

Most often, modifiers are used to soften the harsh, bright light of a flash. However, they can also be used to change the shape of the light, to change its direction, or even to change the color. There are literally thousands of light modifiers on the market. Still, many photographers DIY their own, too. 

Here are some of the most common light modifiers:

  • Umbrellas: These are extremely common and budget-friendly. Commonly silver or white, shoot-through or reflective. They spread the light out in all directions from the source.
  • Softboxes: Available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, softboxes are very popular for diffusing and creating directional, soft light.
  • Stripboxes: These are softboxes that are long and narrow. They are particularly useful for rim lighting. 
  • Octaboxes: These are a type of softbox that are octagonal in shape. Large octaboxes are popular for portraits.
  • Reflectors: Used to reflect light onto or away from your subject. 
  • Snoots: Designed to focus the light into a very narrow beam. They are commonly used for hair lights.
  • Barndoors: These have flaps, like barn doors, that open to manually adjust the amount of light that hits your subject. Close to block light from hitting something.
  • Grids: Used to narrow the beam of light.
  • Beauty dish: Specifically designed for up-close beauty portrait photography
  • Gels: To change the color of the light, either to correct color or for creative color.
  • Gobo: Place in front of the light to change its shape. For example, to look like light beaming through mini blinds in a window.
  • Scrim: Translucent material used to diffuse, or soften, the light.
  • Flag: Used to block light. For example, to reduce unwanted reflections on glasses.

Other studio lighting accessories

When setting up your photo studio, in addition to your lights and modifiers there are a few other accessories you’re going to want. Wireless flash triggers, light stands, clamps, sync cable, boom arms, backdrops, to name a few. 

Many companies, like Paul C. Buff and Godox have complete studio kits that come with all the basics to get you started. For a beginner, that’s often the easiest way to go, rather than having to figure out exactly what you need to buy, piece by piece.


Using multiple lights

When you first start practicing with studio lighting, start simple with one or two lights. The more experienced you get, you’ll want to add additional light sources. More lights give you more control over your images.

If you’re going to start with strobe lights, it’s best to start with two lights. Then, consider adding a third light to the background or as a rim light. 


Basic studio lighting setup

So you’ve committed to setting up a studio! Next, you need to know how to set up your lights. This will largely depend on what you’re shooting, how many lights, what type of lights you have, and the look you want to achieve. 

There are endless ways to set up your studio lights to achieve different looks. Here are a few basic setup recommendations to get you started, depending on how many lights you have.

photography lighting
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

With one light

If your studio has just one light, you have plenty of creative options to take gorgeous, perfectly lit shots. However, you’ll need a reflector. That will act as a second light source.

Place your light at a 45-degree angle from the subject. Place your reflector next to the subject, opposite the light, to bring up the shadows.

With two lights

If you’ve got two lights, you’ve got endless possibilities! A popular choice that works extremely well for portraits is clamshell lighting. Use modifiers like softboxes to soften the light.

Place each light at a 45-degree angle from your subject. Your key light (the main, brighter light) should be facing downward toward the subject at a 45-degree angle. Your fill light (not as bright) will face upward toward the subject also at a 45-degree angle.

With three lights

Set up three-point lighting the same way as two lights, but with the addition of the third light. Use it to illuminate your background or point it at the back of your subject to separate them from the background.

To use it as a rim light, place the third light at a 45-degree angle behind the subject, pointed toward your subject.


Final thoughts

Without light, there would be no photography. And, while you can be a photographer without ever picking up a flash, learning how to use photography lighting can only make you a better photographer. By mastering studio lighting, you’ll be in complete control — no matter the time of day or the number of clouds in the sky.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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