Beginners Light Guide- What Are The Different Types Of Light In Photography ( and how to use them)?

We all know the cliche that without light you cannot have photography, and therefore photography actually stems from Greek roots that mean “writing with light.” In order to truly take control over your photography, you have to understand the different types of light in photography and how to us them. In this light guide you’ll learn how to use lighting in photography:

[Tip #1] 3 biggest mistakes you are making!

[Tip #2] Understand the different types of light.

[Tip #3] Tips for Success

[Tip #4] Common Questions

[Tip #5] The Last Thing You Need to Know about

Let’s start by clearing up the 3 biggest mistakes you’re making:

#1st Mistake – It’s bad light today

There’s no such thing as bad light (position, and type of light (strength and colour)) the amount of times I hear clients say, I’m just waiting for some better light.
You’re gonna be waiting for long time for beautiful light to come knocking at your door. (Like forever)

#2nd Mistake – Not learning how light works.

Light is a lot like a toddler. It absorbs and reflects from its environment, and just like being able to anticipate your toddlers behaviour helps you predict and control them. It’s the same for how to use lighting in photography.

Take 5 to understand how light behaves, go grab a cuppa.

What can you change?

  • Light Sources (Temperature, intensity, direction and quality)
  • The position of the light and use it as part of your composition
  • The type of light – Soft vs hard

#3rd Mistake – Not learning how YOU can control the light

3 Ways to Control Light in Camera

  • Light meter – If the triangle is at 0, which means the image is neither under or overexposed, but changing the aperture, shutter speed or ISO would make the triangle move up or down the line accordingly and result in a picture that is either a little too bright or a little too dark. This allows you to adjust the exposure accordingly.

  • Exposure – Having read the current light using the light meter. You can adjust the aperture, shutter speed and / or ISO to correct the amount of light allowed through.

  • White Balance is all about colour correction and it’s so easy to achieve. In most cases it’s as simple as pushing one button. All light sources give off a colour depending on their kelvin value. The lower the value the warmer the light appears, the higher the cooler the light appears. The colour of the light will also impact the mood of the image.
  • Bonus Pro Tip – On really sunny days, use the right filters.

Understand the different types of light.

Quantity of light, of course, is how much light is present in a given scene. All of which you can control as above. But what is quality of light? As in most things quantity is how much or how many, and quality is how good it is. So how do you measure whether the light is good or not?

First you’ll need to determine where the light is soft or hard.

Hard light comes from a small light source such as a flashlight, candle, bulb, or even the sun. It’s intense and leads to a quick transition from light to dark, it has a high contrast and sometimes leads to blown out highlights or whites.

Great for emphasising texture, drama and a moody feeling

Soft light comes from a large light source such as overcast cloudy days, reflectors, window light or soft boxes. It’s the opposite of hard with long transitions from light to dark.

Great for a softer, flattering portrait.

The second aspect to look at is the direction of the light. This affects the mood of the piece, by shaping the subject.

You don’t need studio lighting to achieve these, you just need to know where the source of the light is in relation to the subject.

So which one is correct? Well that all depends on what you’re trying to achieve and how to use lighting in photography.

Lighting Tips

  • Pick the light that best suits your subject. For children’s photography “Golden Hour” is the best as the light is soft and diffused, casts golden magical hues and creates soft shadows. However, the long shadows add interest and depth to the images. While, hard light emphases the texture of winkles in a maturer subject. Try each one and see which you prefer.

  1. Food and product photography work will with a diffused, soft, side light.
  2. Window light is your best friend, don’t be afraid to be close to the window.
  3. Turn off all artificial lights (house lights) so they don’t taint/ conflict your natural light
  4. Make sure you own a diffuser and reflector. I recommend

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Common Questions/FAQ About Light

  • Question 1 What are catchlights and why do I want them?
    • Notice in this photo above that the baby’s eyes have a reflection of the actual light source in them. It shows up as a little white spot, but if we look closer we can actually see the shape of the light I used in this portrait.
  • Question 2 Why is my photo so yellow?
    • All light carries colour, so you need to look at the light source. You can tweak this using your white balance settings if you need to.
  • Question 3  What is dynamic range?
    • Dynamic range is a measure of the range of light intensities from the shadows to the highlights. Basically how much difference there is from the deep shadows through to the bright shadows. The histogram helps you see this at a glance. The better your camera is the more range it will capture.
  • Question 4 What light gear do I need?
    • A 5 in 1 like above. These are great, if money is tight then use a white sheet or parchment paper to diffuse and tinned foil to reflect.
  • Question 5 How do I find the light?
    • Quite literally, look for where the light sources are and identify them.
  • Question 6 How do shot wide for a blurry background, without it been overexposed on a sunny day?
    • This is where having the right filters comes in. Many start off with either a polarising or ND Neutral Density filter.
  • Question 7 Part of my photo is flashing on the LED, what does this mean?
    • It’s your highlight warning. It’s the camera telling you that part of your photo is too exposed (blown) and it can not capture the detail in that section. Hint: Change your settings to adjust the exposure. If you leave it and try and edit the photo after there will be no data there to work with.

The Last Thing You Need to Know about Light

For me light enhances a photo, but you need to ensure you master the composition first, however sometimes you’ll want to use light rays to help you do this.

“Photograph the light not the land.”

Having fun experimenting with how to use lighting in photography:

  • different types of light
  • Different colours to see how it affects the mood of your photo
  • Share your photos


Wanna learn more? Join my waiting list for my new mini course Finding the light.