Photography Lighting: how to take control of everything from natural light to flash

Photography Lighting: take control of everything from natural light to off-camera flash

In our new Shoot Like A Pro series we take an in-depth look at photography lighting and how you can take control of the elements to get more balanced, beautiful pictures. We start this week by taking a closer look at the character of light and how the quality of light will affect your images.

Photography Lighting: take control of everything from natural light to off-camera flash

Light is more than just how bright or dark it is; it’s also the key to the look, mood and atmosphere of your images. The direction of the light will affect how the shape and texture of your subject appears, while the colour and how soft or harsh the light is can totally change a shot’s appearance.

Light’s very important, so in this series we’ll show how a few simple camera tricks and techniques can guarantee better images – from choosing the right time to visit a photo location to taking complete control of the light by using flash.

You’ll also discover how to alter the character and contrast of photography lighting by using diffusers and reflectors. As you’ll learn, there’s nothing esoteric about mastering light, as much of it comes down to careful planning…

Understanding the character of light

There are three basic characteristics of light that determine how your shot will look: how harsh or soft it is, the direction and the colour.

It’s easiest to tell the quality of the light by looking at the shadows, rather than the areas in the light. Harsh, direct light creates strong, well-defined shadows, while the shadows created by more diffuse lighting are much softer.

The location of the shadows tells you where the light is coming from, as they appear on the opposite side to the light.

Lighting positions

Lighting positions

How hard or soft the light appears is due to the apparent size of the light source from the subject’s position.
A small light source produces hard, directional light, while a very large light source produces much softer light.

Remember it isn’t the actual size of the light that matters; it’s how it appears to the subject that you are shooting.

For example, the sun is huge, but because it is so far from the subject it acts like a tiny light source.

The direction of a light source, and the shadows it creates, will affect how the texture and form of the subject will appear.

Light from the camera position (or behind it) will produce flat light on the subject, and also create shadows directly behind the subject.

This is good for capturing fine detail, but won’t reveal much of the texture or shape in the subject.

You’ll get much more interesting results when the light is coming from one side of the subject. This effect, known as side lighting, produces shadows on the opposite side to the position of the light, revealing texture and contours in the subject.

A common photography lighting situation you’ll encounter shooting outside during the middle of the day is when the light is falling from above the subject.

This can create unflattering results, especially when shooting portraits, as the eyes will be dark, and there will be shadows under the nose and chin.

How white balance affects the quality of photography lighting

Editing Raw Files: what you need to know about white balance correction

Along with the quality and direction of the light, the colour of different light sources can have an effect on the appearance and mood of your images.

This variation in light is known as the colour temperature, and it’s why your camera has a white balance setting to correct the colours from these different coloured light sources.

The colour temperature of light is measured using the Kelvin scale. The lower the colour temperature, the more red the light will be, while the higher it is the more blue.

Normally you’d set a white balance to get neutral coloured results, either by using the automatic setting, or a preset white balance such as Tungsten, Sunny or Cloudy. But by setting the ‘wrong’ white balance you can also use these presets to give warmer or cooler results.

PAGE 1: Understanding the character of light
PAGE 2: How to control your photography lighting
PAGE 3: Taking control of the light
PAGE 4: Use a reflector to fill in the shadows
PAGE 5: Using fill-in flash
PAGE 6: Making the most of natural light
PAGE 7: Predicting the natural light
PAGE 8: Shoot in the direction of light
PAGE 9 Exposing in low light
PAGE 10: Shooting in twilight vs complete darkness
PAGE 11: How to shoot handheld in low light
PAGE 12: Why you might want to use flash
PAGE 13: Soften the light from your flash
PAGE 14: How to use flash triggers


See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about using natural light
10 common exposure problems every photographer faces (and how to fix them)
DSLR Tips: the best settings for preserving detail in any situation
Bracketing Explained: how to capture fine detail in shadows and highlights
New Camera Anatomy: 12 key camera settings to get you started right