4 Less Popular Types of Lighting Every Photographer Should Know

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How can you, as a photographer, best use lighting to your advantage? Working with different kinds of light can be a challenge for even the most seasoned photographers. This often leads to a common suggestion: “Point your shadow at the subject.” Yet certain underutilized less popular types of lighting can actually enhance your photographs.

macro photography bokeh flower dahlia - Types of Lighting

In this article, you’ll get tips for working with four different types of natural lighting, including shade, overcast light, and strong backlighting. Hopefully, you’ll come away with the know-how and inspiration to start using more creative lighting in your own photographs.

macro photography bokeh flower tulip - Types of Lighting

1. Shade plus front light

By “shade plus front light” I’m referring to the lighting situation when the sun is behind you (and coming over your shoulder), but the subject is shaded. That is, the sun would normally front light the subject, but it is blocked by an object.

macro photography bokeh flower trout lily - Types of Lighting

I shaded this trout lily with my body, resulting in a shaded subject and a well-lit background.

Many photographers like to ignore shaded subjects. However, I love this lighting situation for a few reasons.

The first is that it is easier to expose for a shaded subject. You don’t have to deal with intense highlights and shadows. Instead, you can rest easy knowing that the range of lights and darks in your image will be rendered properly by your camera’s sensor.

purple flower - Types of Lighting

Another shaded but front lit situation. Notice the brighter background here.

The second is that this lighting scenario offers up wonderful backgrounds. This is an especially powerful technique when shooting during the “golden hours”, the time just after sunrise and just before sunset.

If you can position the subject so that the sun falls behind it, you can take images with rich, warm background colors. The key is to expose for the main subject (i.e., meter off it), and let the background remain bright. Use a wide aperture to ensure that the background is thrown out of focus.

macro photography bokeh flower cosmos - Types of Lighting

Shading this cosmos flower allowed me to produce a more subtle looking subject with a beautiful background.

Shaded subjects can make for great photographs if you know how to use them!

2. Shade plus backlight

To continue with the “shade” theme, let’s discuss another underutilized type of light: shade and backlight.

By this, I am referring to a situation with a shaded subject where the sun is positioned behind that subject so that you are pointed toward the sun. In this situation, you cannot do the shading yourself. Instead, you have to rely on environmental features to block the light.

macro photography bokeh flower - Types of Lighting

This flower was shaded by some nearby grasses. I was able to get these background highlights by including the edge of the sun in the frame.

What does this type of lighting offer you? Similar to a shaded and front lit subject, a shaded but backlit subject is easier to expose.

If you’re struggling to photograph a brightly colored flower, for instance, it might be beneficial to find a similar specimen in a shaded area. This will help prevent you from blowing out the highlights on the flower’s petals.

macro photography bokeh flower aster - Types of Lighting

Another compelling reason to use this particular type of lighting is that it can create beautiful bokeh. I’m not really talking about bokeh in the sense of that smooth, creamy look that we photographers love (for that, go back to shade plus front light).

Rather, I’m referring to those beautiful geometric shapes that occasionally appear in the background of photographs.

macro photography bokeh flower tulip - Types of Lighting

Notice the slight highlights in the background, created by the shade-sun combination.

How do you do this?

In a backlit environment, the light is often filtered through the surrounding greenery. These are often leaves, but also grasses, shrubs, branches, tree trunks, etc. The rays of the sun are broken up into small points of light, which are then rendered in that geometric fashion when incorporated into your images.

This is a beautiful effect that can add an extra punch to your photographs.

3. Overcast lighting

This type of lighting is more commonly used than the two mentioned above, but overcast light (i.e., light on cloudy days) deserves a mention.

macro photography bokeh flower aster - Types of Lighting

I photographed these flowers on a cloudy afternoon.

You might think that the camera should stay inside on overcast days. After all, the subjects aren’t very well lit, and everything seems a bit gloomy and bland.

Actually, overcast days are fantastic for photography. Especially if you go out toward the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky (and blocked by clouds), you’ll find wonderfully diffused lighting.

The clouds act as a giant softbox, subtly lighting the entire landscape. This results in colors that are deeply saturated. Macro photographers such as myself love overcast lighting because our flower photographs become much more colorful.

macro photography bokeh flower tulip - Types of Lighting

Another advantage to shooting on overcast days is similar to that of shaded lighting in that the subjects are easier to expose well. There is no bright sunlight to create harsh shadows and unpleasant highlights.

Therefore, overcast days can be a great choice for photographing brightly colored subjects.

4. Direct backlighting

Direct backlighting refers to situations where the sun is directly behind the subject (and therefore directly in front of the photographer).

macro photography bokeh flower tulip - Types of Lighting

The sun is just out of the frame here, above the tulip.

This type of lighting is difficult to work with. Photographers often come away with unwanted flare and a drastically underexposed subject. However, using backlighting is simpler than you might think. Just remember a few key guidelines.

The first thing to note is that I don’t like to use direct backlighting unless the sun is low in the sky. Otherwise, instead of achieving a charming, warm look, you’ll find yourself with a harsh, contrasty image. Sunrise and sunset are your windows, so you’ll need to work quickly and efficiently.

Second, don’t put the sun in the image itself. This will result in a nearly impossible lighting situation. Instead, block the sun with your subject. Move around a bit. Get down low. If you do decide to include the sun in the image, put it at the very edge of the frame (as I did in one of the photos above).

macro photography bokeh flower bleeding heart - Types of Lighting

Backlighting (the sun was in the background on the right-hand side) produced some really interesting bokeh in this bleeding heart photograph.

Third, make sure that your subject stands out against the background. I often try to compose with the subject against the sky.

Fourth, expose for your main subject. Don’t worry about the bright background. Then, once you’ve settled on an accurate exposure for the subject itself, feel free to raise or lower the exposure. Lower it for a slightly darker, more dramatic look (and if you lower it a significant amount, you’ll end up shooting a silhouette). Raise it for a slightly brighter, in-your-face type image.

While there are certainly variations in backlighting conditions, these four guidelines will get you well on your way to shooting some creative backlit images.

Conclusion

While it can be difficult to think outside the box and take risks when it comes to lighting, the rewards can be great.

Try using some of the lighting scenarios discussed above: shade and front light or backlight, overcast light, or even direct backlighting.

Your images will become far more diverse and a lot more impressive!

macro photography bokeh flower aster - Types of Lighting

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Jaymes Dempsey is a macro photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work and read about his time in the field check out his website and blog or follow him on Facebook.

  • Tom Cooper

    Something to keep in mind with all of these (mentioned for #4) is that the exposure the camera’s meter gives may not be “correct.”

    Something else to keep in mind is that even though all of the examples are close-up / macro shots of flowers, that does not mean they can only be used for macro or close-up. Interesting photos can be had with these methods on other subjects as well. They can be more challenging (how do you put an old church building into shadow?) but if you can get it to work the results can be interesting and unique.

    Also, correct exposure for any subject is the exposure that gives the results you want. This is even more true when using the techniques in the article.

    Excellent photos, BTW.

  • benkoerita

    When backlit, the facade is in its own shadow;-)

  • I’d been very pleased by a photo I’d taken of a white and lavender orchid against a white wall and stumbled around trying to figure out why this type of photo sometimes works really well, but often just looks incorrectly exposed. This article has helped me figure out how to make the bright background w/ shaded subject type of lighting work more consistently. Even so, one of the more difficult things for me is to actually notice a shaded subject against a bright background – I seem to be hardwired to notice bright subjects against dark backgrounds rather than the reverse. Teaching myself to find subjects and then learn the techniques is my current favorite photo project. Thanks for the inspiration!

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