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9 Lighting Types to Harness & Improve Your Photography

The following post on 9 Lighting Types is by San Francisco based photographer Jim M. Goldstein. Learn more about him at the end of this post.

In my previous article “Make the Best of Bad Weather – 6 Challenges for Photographers” I noted how photography is all about the light. Sounds easy enough on the surface but as photographers we tend to be subject focused rather than light focused. What I mean by that is we’ll see something unique or different and focus on that rather than the lighting and resulting exposure needed to transform your subject. The right lighting can make or break an image setting the stage for others to see it as a snapshot or a photograph.

Icer Air photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Just as finding and seeing a subject is challenging, so too is finding lighting conducive to taking dramatic photographs. The Golden Hour is always referenced as a great time to take photos, but its not the only time to take photos with dramatic lighting. Training your eye to see dramatic light and the different variations of it takes some self-training.

Side Lighting

As you might expect Side Lighting is when the lighting is coming from the side. This usually provides a great deal of contrast, can create long shadows and adds depth to the image. This type of lighting can add a dramatic flare to architectural and portraiture photography.

Back Lighting

Back lighting is when light is behind your subject and is directed at you and your camera. This type of lighting creates silhouettes quiet easily. Combined with certain atmospheric conditions such as fog or airborne dust you can get dramatic lighting effects.

Between You Me and the Trees photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Rim Lighting

When light comes in at an acute angle it can create highlights along the edges of your subject. The stark contrast that it provides highlights shape and form. This type of lighting adds impact to macro, wildlife, nature and fine art nude photography. Out of the Gloom 2 photo by Jim M. Goldstein

In Line, The Wave photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Ambient Light

Ambient light is non-direct soft lighting that often is bounced from one surface to another. As a result of the non-direct lighting, brightness of your subject is lower than with other types of lighting. In fact this type of lighting often tricks people the most as we seldom think about it consciously. Most photographers might just ignore it looking for other types of lighting. Ambient light works well for a variety of photographic genres particularly landscape photography.


Endless Color photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Soft or Diffuse Light

Soft light is diffuse providing lighting that is even. This type of lighting reduces contrast and minimizes shadows. Soft light is excellent for portraiture, macro, and nature photography.

Hard Light

Hard light is quite direct and can often be intense in brightness. This type of lighting creates strong shadows and high contrast. Highlights can be quiet intense under Hard lighting conditions so special care should be made with ones exposure. Hard light can be stylistically applied to most any photographic genre, but for many eyes it can be less appealing than other types of lighting.
Mavericks Big Wave Surf Competition photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Spotlight

Very simply Spot Light is when a focused amount of light highlights a particular section of your subject or scene. This type of lighting can create strong shadows and contrast. Spot light can add dramatic impact to all genres of photography.
White Sands Monsoon Reflections II photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Icer Air photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Artificial Lighting

The most obvious type of lighting is Artificial lighting. This can be generated from a variety studio lights, and built in or external flash units. There are few genres of photography that Artificial lighting cannot be used successfully. Artificial lighting provides a lot of flexibiltiy and creative opportunities. If interested in learning more about artificial lighting techniques check out the Strobist web site.

Out of the Gloom 2 photo by Jim M. Goldstein

Various Combinations of Lighting

Lastly there is the combination of any or all of these types of lighting. There is no rule that states you have to live with just one form of lighting. Creatively lighting your subject is an integral part of the photographic process.

Now that these various types of lighting have been called out, as you look at photos you like or as you go out to take new photos, keep this information in the back of your mind. Ask yourself what is the lighting that makes this image I’m viewing or about to take so appealing? Study and learn the lighting and soon you’ll find this knowledge filtering into your work both consciously and unconsciously. Setting up and/or finding the right light will help you accentuate your subject and create images with greater impact.


This post was written by Jim M. Goldstein. Jim’s landscape, nature, travel and photojournalism photography is featured on his web site JMG-Galleries.com, and blog. In addition Jim’s podcast “EXIF and Beyond” features photographer interviews and chronicles the creation of some of his images.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

  • http://www.niels-henriksen.blogspot.com/ My Camera World

    This article provides great detailed support to the latest article where I posted about the ‘10 Best Methods to Take Great Photographs’. The second item was about Understating Light and this article provides good descriptions of the various types of light that can either challenge us or provide wonderful opportunities to isolate and enhance the main subject.

    http://niels-henriksen.blogspot.com/2008/04/10-best-methods-to-take-great.html

    Niels Henriksen

  • http://www.klaidas.lt/ Klaidas

    A good place for lighting is http://www.strobist.com
    It focuses on off-camera flash work. A really useful resource.

  • http://shutter.antisoc.net D. T. North

    As always, Jim…great article. Nice and simple…scratching on the surface and giving me some things to think about. The other thing I love is that these are all aspects of photography that I often take for granted without really thinking about it – and I should.

    Thanks for reminding me of the things I need to think about.

  • http://6pixels.blogspot.com/ Six Pixels

    Nice article! Should low light (Think: candles, street lamps) be added to this list?

    On another note as an aspiring photographer it would be interesting to know what camera settings (ISO, shutter speed, flash on/off, etc.) would be suitable for each of the lighting situations mentioned above. I realize that the desired end result will vary greatly from photographer to photographer, but I still wanted to see if there are any recommended settings.

    As a start, would it be possible to get the EXIF information for the pictures in the article? (Don’t see how to retrieve that in flickr).

  • http://newyorkrat.blogspot.com taryn

    i’m a newbie myself and would also like to know what camera settings would be suitable for each of the lighting conditions.

  • http://www.xltphoto.net xlt

    Simple and nice article (though i already knew it all).

  • PRH

    Those images are truly impressive. Do you do much post production or is the image out of the camera almost spot on?

    I’m really looking forward to your next post.

  • http://www.quiethorseranch.com Quiet Horse

    The beauty of this article is that it reminds me to stay focused on the basics. After all photography is just painting with light.

  • http://www.jmg-galleries.com Jim Goldstein

    Thanks everyone for reading the article and taking the time to reply.

    @My Camera World nice article Niels

    @Klaidas great minds think a like. I noted the Strobist site under “Artificial Lighting”

    @D.T. North Glad the article was of use for you :)

    @Six Pixels I think there is room for interpretation, but I would consider “candle light” “ambient light”. It would be nearly impossible for me to give you exposure information for each lighting situation. It’s not a blanket setting for each lighting condition as each lighting condition is unique. I’ll look up some of my EXIF information as I have time and update the article with it. I know one image is a film photo so there will be no EXIF data for that.

    @taryn see my note to Six Pixels above.

    @xlt glad you liked the article (though no one knows it all ;)

    @PRH Thanks. Less the frame/watermark the only post-production done on these was to color correct the photos with a Curves adjustment, a contrast adjustment and a minor saturation adjustment. All of these images were exposed properly at the time of capture.

  • http://www.michaelsulock.com michael

    Thanks for the ideas. I feel master lighting and you will have mastered photography. Still working on it though. :)

  • http://www.davidsmeaton.com david

    great article … interesting to see that you have named the different lighting types. since natural lighting is so hard to control, i think it’s important to make the most of the lighting and use it to the best effect.

    you’ve illustrated that well in this article.

    cheers

    david
    http://www.davidsmeaton.com

  • only1cinn

    love this post…a good reminder that it is really all about lighting…to add that perfect effect to your pics.

    I’m a newbie..and need to play with the settings on my camera to adjust for each lighting situation…

    Thanks for sharing this! :)

  • Goldengoose

    Great Article, as an up coming photograhper, these too the point, cover the basics articles are fantastic info for people like me. Not to indepth that we can’t understand but enough to get us going and wanting more ;)

    thanks

  • http://www.MariaSabalaArt.com Maria Sabala

    Thanks for this article. It’s nice to have a sort of label to attach to each type of lighting. Makes it easier to look out for these specific types of lighting. Great photos to illustrate, too!

  • William

    Brilliant article and great photos.

  • http://FullSpectrumAntioch.com Jeff & Candace Painter

    BEAUTIFUL!!! We also like to “paint with light” I really enjoy all of the updates and info on this entry. Playing with the camera is fun!! It’s even cooler when the pictures turn out like those!

  • Gina

    Great article. Is there any place that tells how to meter for these different types of lighting? I’m talking about when shooting Manual or in Manual mode on DSLR.

    Thanks!!

  • George Kravis

    Good information and demonstration pictures. I find that when I come upon a unique lighting situation, of which I’m unsure, it is best to limit the exposure metering mode to “center weighted” or “partial metering”. Then I aim the selected AF point at the area of desired lighting, depress the shutter half way and recompose before taking the picture. In addition, I often set auto exposure bracketing for one or more stops plus and minus. This gives me a chance at getting the best overall exposure while capturing that special lighting before it’s lost.

Some older comments

  • George Kravis

    July 24, 2009 09:28 am

    Good information and demonstration pictures. I find that when I come upon a unique lighting situation, of which I'm unsure, it is best to limit the exposure metering mode to "center weighted" or "partial metering". Then I aim the selected AF point at the area of desired lighting, depress the shutter half way and recompose before taking the picture. In addition, I often set auto exposure bracketing for one or more stops plus and minus. This gives me a chance at getting the best overall exposure while capturing that special lighting before it's lost.

  • Gina

    May 2, 2008 05:38 am

    Great article. Is there any place that tells how to meter for these different types of lighting? I'm talking about when shooting Manual or in Manual mode on DSLR.

    Thanks!!

  • Jeff & Candace Painter

    May 1, 2008 03:12 pm

    BEAUTIFUL!!! We also like to "paint with light" I really enjoy all of the updates and info on this entry. Playing with the camera is fun!! It's even cooler when the pictures turn out like those!

  • William

    April 30, 2008 07:25 am

    Brilliant article and great photos.

  • Maria Sabala

    April 30, 2008 01:13 am

    Thanks for this article. It's nice to have a sort of label to attach to each type of lighting. Makes it easier to look out for these specific types of lighting. Great photos to illustrate, too!

  • Goldengoose

    April 30, 2008 12:21 am

    Great Article, as an up coming photograhper, these too the point, cover the basics articles are fantastic info for people like me. Not to indepth that we can't understand but enough to get us going and wanting more ;)

    thanks

  • only1cinn

    April 30, 2008 12:04 am

    love this post...a good reminder that it is really all about lighting...to add that perfect effect to your pics.

    I'm a newbie..and need to play with the settings on my camera to adjust for each lighting situation...

    Thanks for sharing this! :)

  • david

    April 29, 2008 01:57 pm

    great article ... interesting to see that you have named the different lighting types. since natural lighting is so hard to control, i think it's important to make the most of the lighting and use it to the best effect.

    you've illustrated that well in this article.

    cheers

    david
    www.davidsmeaton.com

  • michael

    April 29, 2008 01:52 pm

    Thanks for the ideas. I feel master lighting and you will have mastered photography. Still working on it though. :)

  • Jim Goldstein

    April 29, 2008 12:57 pm

    Thanks everyone for reading the article and taking the time to reply.

    @My Camera World nice article Niels

    @Klaidas great minds think a like. I noted the Strobist site under "Artificial Lighting"

    @D.T. North Glad the article was of use for you :)

    @Six Pixels I think there is room for interpretation, but I would consider "candle light" "ambient light". It would be nearly impossible for me to give you exposure information for each lighting situation. It's not a blanket setting for each lighting condition as each lighting condition is unique. I'll look up some of my EXIF information as I have time and update the article with it. I know one image is a film photo so there will be no EXIF data for that.

    @taryn see my note to Six Pixels above.

    @xlt glad you liked the article (though no one knows it all ;)

    @PRH Thanks. Less the frame/watermark the only post-production done on these was to color correct the photos with a Curves adjustment, a contrast adjustment and a minor saturation adjustment. All of these images were exposed properly at the time of capture.

  • Quiet Horse

    April 29, 2008 12:23 pm

    The beauty of this article is that it reminds me to stay focused on the basics. After all photography is just painting with light.

  • PRH

    April 29, 2008 08:14 am

    Those images are truly impressive. Do you do much post production or is the image out of the camera almost spot on?

    I'm really looking forward to your next post.

  • xlt

    April 29, 2008 05:46 am

    Simple and nice article (though i already knew it all).

  • taryn

    April 29, 2008 04:39 am

    i'm a newbie myself and would also like to know what camera settings would be suitable for each of the lighting conditions.

  • Six Pixels

    April 29, 2008 04:30 am

    Nice article! Should low light (Think: candles, street lamps) be added to this list?

    On another note as an aspiring photographer it would be interesting to know what camera settings (ISO, shutter speed, flash on/off, etc.) would be suitable for each of the lighting situations mentioned above. I realize that the desired end result will vary greatly from photographer to photographer, but I still wanted to see if there are any recommended settings.

    As a start, would it be possible to get the EXIF information for the pictures in the article? (Don't see how to retrieve that in flickr).

  • D. T. North

    April 29, 2008 03:44 am

    As always, Jim...great article. Nice and simple...scratching on the surface and giving me some things to think about. The other thing I love is that these are all aspects of photography that I often take for granted without really thinking about it - and I should.

    Thanks for reminding me of the things I need to think about.

  • Klaidas

    April 29, 2008 01:19 am

    A good place for lighting is http://www.strobist.com
    It focuses on off-camera flash work. A really useful resource.

  • My Camera World

    April 29, 2008 01:19 am

    This article provides great detailed support to the latest article where I posted about the ‘10 Best Methods to Take Great Photographs’. The second item was about Understating Light and this article provides good descriptions of the various types of light that can either challenge us or provide wonderful opportunities to isolate and enhance the main subject.

    http://niels-henriksen.blogspot.com/2008/04/10-best-methods-to-take-great.html

    Niels Henriksen

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