Learning To See The Light

Above all other elements – composition, camera settings and camera equipment included – lighting will determine whether a shot goes from being pretty standard to perfectly stunning. For example, you can photograph someone with model looks, but if the noon sun is causing them to squint and casts dark shadows in their eye sockets and under their nose, they will look mediocre at best. Moving them to a shaded area or using a diffuser would quickly remedy the problem. Equally, when working with artificial light, the quality of the light can be vastly improved with readily available accessories that soften it. In addition, careful positioning of the light source will ensure that any shadows cast are flattering, help to shape the subject’s face and give the image a sense of depth.

To master the art of lighting you need to get in the habit of noticing its effects. Consciously force yourself to evaluate it regularly, until you automatically start to notice when it changes. For one day, you could set an alarm on your phone to to ring every 20 minutes and use the alarm as a reminder to look around and notice the light, wherever you may be. Where is the main source of light? How strong is it? Is it harsh and directional or soft and diffused? What colour is it? Study the way it falls on the faces of people nearby or ask a friend to pose for you. At which angle is it most flattering? Which sources of light are least and most appealing? How does daylight differ in its qualities from morning to afternoon, and from afternoon to evening? How does this change during the seasons?

Here are three elements to consider when judging light:

– Its strength (affected by the distance between the light source and your subject, and also your exposure settings)

– Its direction (angling and positioning of the light relative to your subject)

– Its quality (whether it is hard or soft).


Light loses its strength quickly, the further the source is from the subject. For broad light sources (such as large windows and softboxes), doubling the distance between the light source and the subject will cause the strength of that light to be halved. For point light sources (such as flash bulbs and the sun), the Inverse Square Law applies. This states that light falls off in inverse proportion to the square of the distance travelled.

This means that if at first your subject is one metre away from the light source, and then you move your subject so they are two metres away the light will be only one quarter of its strength compared to how strong it was at first (and not, as you might assume, half as strong). If you then move your subject three metres away from the light source, its strength will be one ninth of what it was in the first instance – simply multiple the distance by itself (3 x 3) to get 9, then put that figure as the denominator (the bottom number in a fraction), with the numerator (top number) as one: 1/9th.

This is why a dark background will appear pure black, if it’s sufficiently further behind your subject and away from the light source – the light’s fall off will mean it becomes underexposed in relation to the subject. Sometimes, you may want this, such as when you want to minimise the visibility of background clutter. Other times, you may want to include elements of the room too. The trick is to re-position the subject, so they are the same distance from the light source as any other element in the room that you wish to be correctly exposed.


The angle at which light falls on to the subject will affect the amount and placement of any shadows and catchlights (the reflection of the light source in the subjects’ eyes).

Some shadows are flattering – such as those that help to slim the subject and give the image a sense of depth – while others are unflattering – such as those that make the subjects’ eyes look sunken or highlight imperfections. Don’t underestimate the difference that a slight adjustment to the angle of the lighting can make!

‘Narrow lighting’ occurs when the side of your subject’s face furthest from the camera is lit by your light source, causing the near side to be more shaded. This slims the subject’s face, as the visible side looks narrower than it really is due to those shadows. ‘Broad lighting’ occurs when the side of the face nearest the camera is lit, making it appear wider.

When using natural light, you will need to reposition your subject in order to change how the light falls upon him or her, whereas you can move artificial lights around your subject to change the direction of their output. You can also use lighting aids such as reflectors to fill in shadows and bounce light, while black-coloured ‘reflectors’ absorb light, helping to create shadows.


Photographers often speak of the ‘quality of light’, by which they usually mean whether it is hard or soft. Hard lighting is directional, and high contrast, creating extremes of light areas and shadow areas. Examples include the midday sun and spotlights. This is good for low key portraits with prominent shadows.

Soft lighting is less directional, hitting the subject from multiple directions as it is bounced and diffused. It is more even and lower contrast. Examples include natural light on a cloudy day or a studio flash within a large softbox.

As a general rule, the smaller and more distant the light source (such as the sun, 93 million miles away), the harsher and less flattering it becomes. Large, close-by light (like a big window on a bright but cloudy day or studio flash in a big soft-box) is softer and therefore generally more flattering.