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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


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.

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Jim Goldstein
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

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