Photography Lighting Basics

Understanding photography lighting basics is key to understanding photography. After all, photography means painting with light.

I have been recording a video series during social isolation to help people learn photography. On my very first video, I determined that explaining lighting was the key to understanding how to take the best photos. I have included that video here for you to watch. After the video below, I’ll go into more detail for you.

Here I explain lighting and give advice and a quick fix when lighting isn’t the best.

I hope you enjoyed the video, if you have any questions, just contact me. I am more than happy to help in any way I can. And, for anyone who is curious as to what I use to record videos, I purchased this ring light from Best Buy.

Now, let’s explain photography lighting basics!

What you’ll learn:

  • Indoor lighting, how to get the most out of it.
  • The position of the light will greatly impact your photos/video.
  • Ways to modify the light to make it more flattering.

Since we are mostly staying inside these days, I will focus first on inside lighting and how to get the most out of it.

Taking photos indoors might be a little more work, but it’s totally worth it. If you understand this part of photography lighting basics, you can understand anything. Since we all seem to be on more conference calls these days, you will get taken more seriously if you look good. I don’t necessarily mean perfect hair and makeup, but good lighting and an uncluttered background.

  1. Work with windows. Natural light does wonders for photos. If you can find a window or open door and use that light as front, side or back lighting it will give your photos a really nice look and feel. It also brings natural warmth to your images.
  2. Pay attention to your surroundings. While shooting photos inside a home gives you loads of great backdrops, you might need to move a few things around to clear the space.  Make sure that your space isn’t cluttered as this can shift the focus.
  3. Check the light sources. It’s very important to only stick to one light source. If you’re shooting photos or video in a room with strong overhead lights but there are also several windows, opt for the natural light and switch off any other light sources. It can cause color casts or unflattering shadows.
  4. Discover your space. If you’re shooting in an indoor setting, take a walk around the area and see if there aren’t spots that you can shoot in that you never thought of before. This is your chance to get creative. 
  5. What you wear still matters. You will often come across advice on what to wear when taking photos outside but what you wear to an indoor photo session matters just as much. Your clothing should complement your backdrop and the overall mood that you’re trying to create.  
  6. Of course, you can also find some artificial light sources to use inside to make pictures and video easier and don’t restrict you to window areas.

Examples of indoor portraits:

Choosing the Ideal Location for Austin Family Photo Session 0002
Indoor family portraits with lighting from windows on both sides.
Photography lighting basics indoor headshot using shoot through umbrella and strobe lighting
Indoor headshot using shoot through umbrella and strobe lightiing.

The position of the light will greatly impact your photos/videos.

  1. Front lighting: This type of lighting is easy and straightforward. It’s a good place to start when you are new to lighting. It basically means you place the subject directly in front of the light source. With the light in front, the shadows fall behind the subject and the subject is evenly lite from in front.
  2. Side lighting: This adds more shadow and depth to you or your subject. The subject is placed with the light on either side, not necessarily at a 90 degree angle. It can be any angle that gives you the flattering look you are going for. It’s up to you what works best. Move the light, or subject around and just watch how the light falls on the face. You can see what looks best. Everyone has a “good side” and “bad side.” Side lighting is one of the best ways to figure this out. Broad lighting and short lighting are common light terms for side lighting. Broad light tends to widen the face and doesn’t necessarily make for a flattering look. It’s generally not recommended for woman. This is achieved when the brighter side of the face is closer to the camera. Short lighting on the other hand tends to narrow the face. This puts more shadow on the part of the face that is closer to the camera.
  3. Back lighting: This one is the most difficult type of lighting to work with. But, once you understand it, it’s my favorite type of light! This is when the light source is placed behind you or your subject. When you use backlighting, you’ll need a light modifier of some kind, or you’ll need to understand manual mode and how to adjust for this. This light gives your subject a nice glow. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy equipment to bounce light back on your subject. My favorite quick tip is white poster board! It’s inexpensive and you can find it just about anywhere. You can use it in so many ways to bounce light back on your subject. You should always aim for a catch light in the eyes. A catch light is the bright highlight in the subject’s eyes. Even when it’s overcast outside, you still want to face your subject toward the light to achieve this catch light.
Photography Lighting Basics example of back lighting
Back lighting creating a beautiful glow in her hair.

Ways to modify the light to make it more flattering.

  1. When taking pictures or video outside, consider nature as the way to modify light. The sun is a huge, harsh light source. Most photographers refuse to take clients during the middle of the day. However, wedding photographers often don’t have this luxury. Yes, ideally you do you to have your session during the early morning or late evening hours. When the sun is lower to the horizon, it’s naturally filtered and just creates more flattering light. Sometimes you don’t have that convenience and you have to make do. The clouds are a great modifier! Cloudy days naturally diffuse the sun and help create soft, even lighting. Also, trees and buildings create open shade. What that means is a shady spot, but with access to the sun as fill light, or light filling in the subject to expose it properly.
  2. When you are working inside, a wall is a great modifier. You can bounce light off white or light colored walls to soften your light source. If you watched my video above, you even saw me use a white pillow to modify light when I was backlit. This is your time to get creative. Anything white or light colored makes a great modifier. I have used poster board, walls, soft boxes and even shoot through umbrellas.
  3. Another way to modify light is to move the subject to another position closer or farther from the light source. The closer the light is the softer it becomes. If you move the light farther away, it can be more direct or harsh. Depending on the look you are going for, you can easily play around with this as well.
Photography lighting basics family of four on a cloudy day
The clouds overhead created a soft, even light modifier for this lovely family session.


I hope these photography lighting basics have helped you to understand light a little better. Once you understand light, you can make just about anything magical. Please let me know if you have any questions or need anything explained better. I’m here to help.

Since I published this story, I have been interviewed a few times. I wanted to share this interview with Ad Meliora Coaching in case you find it helpful.

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