Three Types of Light: Diffused, Backlight and Reflected – What are They and When to use Them

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Three Types of Light: Diffused, Backlight and Reflected – What are They and When to use Them

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Light: it is the main component for every image that you will take. It does however come in many different forms, producing very different results. Some of these types of light are diffused, backlit and reflected. There will be times when each of these types of light is more readily available than another, or even in some cases multiple types of light at once. Some people create their full photographic style by using a certain type more, or less, exclusively in their work. But, knowing how to first spot the different light forms will allow you to take full of advantage of every scenario and add depth, variety and a sense of individuality to your images.

Figure 3

Diffused Light

Diffused light that which is not harsh and direct, it has been softened in some way. A great example is when you are outside and the sun is shining, with no clouds in the sky. The light is harsh and you will notice that there will be a lot shadows falling on or around your subject. But, if clouds are in the sky and they block out some of that harsh sunlight, the light then becomes diffused.

You can use diffused lighting to your advantage in a great way. If you are shooting portraits on an overcast (diffused) day, you are pretty much shooting with nature’s own softbox. You will be able to work with your subject easier, and have different angles to shoot from, because you won’t be limited by the harsh lines and shadows that undiffused light can create. Overcast (diffused) lighting is preferred by many photographers, as it is a flat and even light. If it were a particularly sunny and bright day, shooting in the shade would also offer you some diffused lighting.

Figure 1

This particular image shows the use of diffused lighting, using the shade of the building to soften the light, while also reflecting light shades back to the subject.
Figure 2

Backlight

Backlighting is where you are illuminating your subject from the back, as opposed to from the front, or the side. Working with backlight you can silhouette your subject, or give them a glow. To Silhouette your subject, you would meter for the sky and to create a glow around your subject, you would meter for the subject itself. You need to place your subject in front of your preferred light source and allow that light to illuminate your subject. If you are using the sun as your light source, different times of the day will give you different types of backlighting. The lower the sun falls, the softer the light will feel. You may find that sometimes you will have to move yourself into a position where your camera can autofocus or switch to full manual, as the light can be so strong that your focusing point struggles to find what it is you want to focus on.

Figure 4

Reflected Light

Reflected light can be found everywhere, on most surfaces. Reflected light is literally the light that is reflected from a particular surface or material. If you were to shoot a portrait next to a white building, the light hitting the building would be reflected on to your subject, creating a soft light. If you were in the middle of the red Moroccan Atlas Mountains and you were to shoot a portrait, there would be a softer red reflection coming onto your subject from the ground. Or, if you were doing a portrait session outside and you wanted to bounce some additional light into your subject’s face, you could use an actual reflector. They normally come in two colours; one side gold, and one side white.

Reflected light tends to be quite soft and takes on the colour of the surface/material that it is being bounced off.

Figure 5

The reflector was being used with the gold side to reflect a warm glow onto the subject’s face.

Figure 6

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Natasha Cadman is a lifestyle photographer from Yorkshire, UK. She has owned her own photography business since 2011 and became seriously interested in photography in 2009. Her work has been featured in various magazines and blogs. You can view more of her portfolio on her website, and more of her personal work at on her blog.

  • my backlight photo

  • natasha cadman

    What a beautiful shot! I love the lens flare as well that you have been able to capture x

  • Great post. There’s something about backlight that tends to “glorify” the subject. I really like that look. Here’s a little tutorial I recorded that shows how I backlit a model on a rainy day with a speedlight to simulate sunlight: http://www.camerastupid.com/simulate-sunny-day-backlight-outdoor-portrait-flash/

  • Michael Owens

    As much as I do love backlit subjects, especially in sunlight, I feel your speedlite version lacks something, the subject is washed out, maybe another speedlite fired in front of the subject to lighten her up somewhat?

    I feel she gets lost in the ‘fog’.

  • Denitsa

    Great article

  • natasha cadman

    That’s a great use of flash setup Mark. Thanks for sharing,

  • natasha cadman

    Glad you like it. I hope it was helpful 😉

  • Pete Lebow

    Which one has speedlite? They’re all natural light from what I see.

  • KeyserSoze1001

    Really glad I stumbled onto this site, great tips.

  • All well done. Tweeted.

  • nfn13423

    Enjoyed the discussion very much. I find that if my flower photos have back lighting, they have a more pleasing appearance, as in this yellow-orange sunflower.

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