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The Position Of Light Matters - Photographic Lighting For Beginners

written by: Lynda Mc Donald•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 11/13/2009

A lighting guide for beginner photographers. Learn the basic rules of lighting, about portrait lighting and how to build your own macro studio.

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    Lighting is one of the most important factors of whether a photograph will look good or not. Lighting can set the mood in an image and completely enhance any features you want to focus on. Unfortunately harnessing the photographic power of light can be a huge challenge for beginner photographers.

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    Basic Rules Of Lighting

    Generally your photographs will always work better when lit from the side.

    Avoid taking photos that include your light source in them e.g. the sun or a bulb – the glare will distract the viewer.

    Avoid taking photos with the sun directly behind you (this does depend on the time of day though) as it can lead to unwanted shadows.

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    Portrait Lighting

    In order to take a good portrait you absolutely need good lighting. 'Good lighting' isn't necessarily the same for everyone – everyone's face and features are different so you will find yourself wanted to highlight some features more than others.

    Avoid using a flash at all costs, to begin with, otherwise you will just end up with a flat snapshot image of your shockingly bright subject's face on a black background.

    Side-lighting is flattering on most people. Experiment with having the light closer for a harder image and farther away for a softer look. Larger lights will also give a softer look. If the light is too bright try hanging some white muslin (or another thin white material) between the light and your subject to soften the light.

    If you have the light very close to your subject it will create a lot of harsh shadows and your background will be very dark, while having your light farther away will spread the light between your subject and the background.

    Experiment with moving the light around the subject to create different shadows. If you place a harsh light overhead you will find that your subjects eyes may be cast in shadow; to counteract this simply have them hold a reflector under their chin to reflect the light upwards and fill the shadows. A reflector can be something as simple as a white sheet of card although coloured card also gives some interesting effects, you can also use mirrors and aluminum foil for variation.

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    A guide on building an using your own macro studio to take high-quality product photographs.
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    Macro Studio

    Macro photography is a good starting point for beginners because it's an easy way to learn about lighting. Taking good photos of products is also a very useful skill to have for both personal and employment reasons.

    Making a macro studio is simple. Find a large-ish cardboard box, cut off the flaps around the opening and cut two large square hole in the two sides (DO NOT do anything to the rear-end of the box. You can also cut a hole in the top as well if you want.

    Cover the squares you have cut into the box with white muslin (or an old thin t-shirt will do). This will filter the light you're going to be shining into the box. To get that pure white background that you always see in stock product photos you will need a sheet of white card. Make sure it is thoroughly clean with no marks otherwise they will show up in your photograph. Place the card in the box with one end at the farthest corner and the other at the bottom of the opening of the box. The card should be slightly curving towards the top of the box.

    Strong desk lamps and other concentrated light sources will usually yield good results for a macro studio. Avoid any bulbs that have a distinctive yellow glow or your images will all be yellow too.

    Place your object in the box and experiment by shining the light through the muslin covered holes until you are happy. Multiple lights can also give great results.

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    Finding the lighting that suits your style of photography will take a lot of time and experimentation. Don't be put off if you don't achieve professional results straight away.

    Remember that the mood and shadows in your images can change drastically depending on the time of day.

    Have fun experimenting and keep a record of what works for you.