Complete Guide on How to Use Lighting in Photography
written by: Nicole Silvester•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/20/2011
All photographs need light, whether it's artificial or natural, but sometimes the light you're given just doesn't work. Fortunately, lighting for photography doesn't have to be complicated.
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Like a lot of concepts in photography, lighting seems complicated but is actually pretty simple once you have a good grasp of the basics. There are lighting setups that can be used in many different situations, and there are variations and techniques to address any light problem you might encounter.
While you may come across situations as diverse as studio lighting where you can control every photon, to outdoor shoots with harsh overhead sunlight, to night scenes with very little available light, once you understand how lighting works, you'll be able to find a solution. You'll find information on those basic concepts here, as well as useful tips and instructions for very specific situations.
Follow the advice and diagrams here, but never be afraid to experiment. You never know when tweaking the angle or intensity of a single light might make the difference between a good photograph and a great one. And if you're shooting digital, the only thing you'll waste is a bit of time.
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The Basics of Lighting for Photography
The essence of photography is the creation of images by capturing light on a photosensitive surface, so choosing the best lighting for your subject is vital. Before you get entangled in specific lighting techniques for particular situations, there are some basic concepts to understand and some simple setups that you can use in many situations.
The easiest way to control lighting is to shoot in a studio setting. That way, you can choose and place your lights, diffusers, and reflectors. But you don't have to know everything about lighting to get good results in the studio if you learn the basics and are willing to experiment a little.
Most new cameras have built-in flash, but you can also get hot-shoe-mounted flash units and off-camera flashes for SLRs (digital and analog) and some rangefinder cameras. To get the best results with flash lighting, you'll want to do a little more than just turn the flash on and let the camera do everything else. Like all photography lighting, flash lighting is based on a few simple concepts with variations for particular situations.
Outside the studio, you'll have less control over the lighting of your subject, but there are portable lighting options as well as techniques to make the best use of available light. To get great images, learn what your options are and how to use them with the ambient light of the scene, to best effect.
Taking photographs at night introduces its own set of difficulties, as if getting good lighting weren't already hard enough. But night photography also has interesting qualities that daytime shooting can't capture, and presents unique opportunities to play with light. You'll need to learn about aperture and exposure times, too, which become even more vital in the often low-light situations you find at night.
Many of the general lighting techniques you can learn from the articles above will also apply to shooting people, but portrait photography has its own considerations. There are qualities you'll want to aim for, and some you'll want to avoid, when taking portraits. There are also some simple lighting arrangements you can use over and over, adding subtle variations to get just the effect you desire.
The photography of products and objects is often done from closer up than other subjects, which can present different challenges. The aim is also often to isolate the object from its surroundings or background, and there are tried-and-true methods for that. Glass has difficulties all its own in photography, but there are simple ways to overcome them.
Lights, specialized flashes and other lighting equipment can get pretty expensive, but if you've got steady hands and a bit of ingenuity you can make quite a few things yourself. These articles have instructions and information on finding materials - often from second-hand stores or even your own recycling or trash bin - so you can make some basic, and not-so-basic, lighting equipment for much less that buying a commercial product.