The Importance of Lighting in Photography

You’ve heard me talk about how important lighting in photography is, but do you really know why? You may know that getting enough light is important, but there is a lot more to the story. Light comes in a couple of ways. The first is direct light from a light source, such as the sun. The second way is reflected, such as light reflections off water or another surface.

In order for your photos to look good you need the right lighting. You don’t just need enough lighting, but you need the right light to help create the story for your photo. The temperature (colour) of light, the intensity of light and whether it’s soft or hard play a crucial role in your photography.

Let’s look at the four main things to take into consideration when examining your light:

  1. Intensity (brightness)
  2. Direction (what angle the light is coming from)
  3. Hard or soft (how much contrast this light creates)
  4. Temperature (what colour the light appears).

Digital photography lighting techniques

I can tell you how to light something a certain way, that’s easy. Yet this doesn’t teach you how to develop your own sense of observation. I was compelled to write this article after someone emailed me last week. She asked “I have to photograph my grandchildren and I want to know what settings to use, can you help?” I was sad to read this because she had misunderstood what photography is all about. Photography is not totally about settings. Let me repeat that; photography is not totally about settings. You make the decision to use certain settings because of the effects you want to create. We need to start with an understanding of light.

As photographers we use light to convey feeling. If we want a story to convey a feeling of romance for example we use soft, warm light. If we want to convey a story that tells of a life that has been hard, difficult and challenging, then we could use hard light with deep shadows. It’s all in the way you use light that matters. Would you photography a prison block and a wedding the same way? Of course not! Why? Because they are different stories.

Light has a powerful impact on how we emotionally interpret what’s going on in that story. There are certain things you can do to enhance certain feelings such as using the flash, not using the flash, using window light and using different temperatures of light.

Lets look at what certain types of light convey.

Low light photography without flash

Many photos that have low light (dim and soft light without strong shadow) have been used in many stories that represent sadness, loss, secrets and even intimacy. Light such as this can reflect introversion of some kind; whether it is positive or negative.

Artificial light photography

Artificial light comes in the form of continuous light, like lights in a photography studio. This light is often reminiscent of daylight conditions. Bright, white light can represent optimism, joy, extroversion and energy. Flash is also artificial light. Depending on how you use this light (i.e. direction and the angle you fire it from) you can recreate these feelings. (Flash can look very clinical due to its tendency to diminish colour and detail. This is why the light from the flash may not match every story.)

Morning light photography

Morning light is usually soft and does not contain as much intensity as high noon. Remember that your seasons play a crucial role in the intensity of light too. On a sunny day in the summer time the light is very bright and very white. This means that there could be a lot of contrast in your scenes, such as bright areas and strong shadows. This might work well if you want to include shadows to tell your story. It doesn’t work for soft, romantic portraits.

Dramatic lighting photography

Dramatic lighting usually consists of strong light and strong shadow. This is a high contrast situation where the light creates and impacts the mood. It is also very dependent on how many light sources and at what angle the light is coming from. If you place one light source next to a persons face you can create a lot of hard shadows across their face. This will create a very different feeling from a softly light portrait at sunset.

Hard light photography

Using hard light that creates many bright areas and dark shadows can be used to convey a story, just as soft light can. You can use this type of light to enhance introversion, secrets, sadness and other emotions similar to this. Alternatively you might want to create a black and white portrait with hard shadows in the background and keep your subject well lit. This style means that there might be an edge to the subject’s life or environment. This “edge” could represent things that are hidden from plain view, yet still a significant part of the subjects life.

Lighting is not just about exposure- it’s about mood and feeling. Once you understand light you can then move forward to create many different types of moods for your images. When you photograph the same thing with different light, that object takes on a completely different feeling. The way you feel about it changes, and that’s the power of photography. This is why photography is not just about settings. It’s about creating powerful, emotive images. You definitely use settings like aperture and shutter speed to control the light, there is no doubt about that.

The reason you control the light is so that you can control the emotion and story. If you want your viewer to feel happiness then control the light with the type of light that we associate this feeling with. If you want to create a sombre or sad feeling, then try using a different kind of light altogether.

Start examining light today. Look at the light you see right now. This will help you so much.



Have a look at these two images. They are exactly the same. I have not cropped, changed or altered the composition in any way. I simply have left colour in one and created a second copy with black and white, containing string shadows.

Examine them. Think about why you feel differently about them.


IMG_9963- light-small


About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (11)

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  1. Martha Johnson says:

    Hey I signed up for the magazine I think so do we get a hard copy or just on the computer.

    And do I get billed every month or once a year.

    Thank I

    • Hi Martha,

      Thanks for coming on board, it’s great to have you with us. The ezine is an electronic publication that’s billed monthly. If you need more information, please email me and I can help further.


  2. Penni says:

    Thanks for some great tips. :)

  3. Laura says:

    Wow, what a difference in the mood. Pic.1. suggest a warm,bright,relaxed atmosphere,may suggest the person has a busy lifestyle that needed to make/checks the to do list,have coffee to get energized and the other pic.2, suggest a xtremely different feel or mood to it. I think of dark,drama,suspense or spooky and cold. Its like a ‘Norman Bates”or an old mystery, or a private detective or private eye show.Like the “Turner Classics Movies”. This is a great illustration of the point you are making. It also influences me to photograph some of my coffee cups in different lighting situations. Awsome.

  4. Julie says:

    Amy that is a brilliant article. I never really though to look at light that way I always concentrate on settings :(

  5. Adam says:

    I like the first one, seems more friendly.

  6. Andi says:

    Just when I thought it was safe to go back on front of the cmaera! Thanks for pointing out the emotive aspects of photography. I will try and experiement with what you have said.

  7. Wendy says:

    I love this info, thanks so much Amy!

  8. Tony wilson says:

    It’s amazing what a difference So minor changes can make, love the blank and white tones.

  9. Tony wilson says:

    Love the mood of the black and white, such a simple change.

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