Creative Lighting Tips to Make Your Photography Stand Out

Yoshiko Yap

If you’re looking to make your photography stand out it’s time to get creative with light. The longer I’ve been a photographer, the more I’ve come to appreciate good light. Good light makes my job so much easier, but interesting light makes my job more creative.

I love nothing more than when an image comes together with great composition, interesting light, and an engaging subject or storyline. What I’ve come to learn is that images don’t always just come together, we as the photographers have to focus on putting them together. And as we’re inundated with photography at every turn, it’s more important than ever to find ways for our photography to stand out.

In this article, we’ll walk through the importance of understanding light and then familiarize ourselves with lighting techniques. From there we’ll discuss how to work with what we have while also knowing how and when to add light. To come up with new and creative ideas, we first need an understanding of the tools and techniques at our disposal.

Understanding Light

Before we talk about lighting techniques, we have to understand the light that’s around us. Then we’ll be able to better utilize it or create it. This means understanding things like color, angle, intensity, and quality.

As you start to practice seeing light, you’ll start to notice it has a color temperature from warm yellowish light to cool blueish. Light also generally has an angle and direction such as coming in from right above your subject versus a more attractive 45-degree angle that doesn’t create eye socket shadows. The intensity of the light is also an important factor as there is definitely such a thing as too much or too little light.

Next, you’ll notice the quality of light and whether it’s hard or soft light. The quality of light is often dependent on the distance of the light source and how diffused it is. The more you practice seeing how light works the more prepared you will be when to start to try to use it or create it.

Here are some lighting terms you should know:

  1. Color: The color of light in photography depends on the light source. Color temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of the light.
  2. Hardness: In photography, light has a level of hardness from a hard focused light or soft diffused light often based on the size and distance of the light source.
  3. Intensity: Intensity in photography is the measurement of how bright the light is.
  4. Angle: In photography, light has an angle or direction that can create different effects or impact on the subject.

Familiarize Yourself With Lighting Techniques

There are a variety of natural lighting techniques, meaning ways to use the light that exists. On the simple end of the spectrum, you can control the light by deciding what time of day to photograph your subject. The color temperature, intensity, quality, and angle of light are all different in the early morning than they are in mid-day.

Unless the sun is directly overhead, you can control the direction of light by changing the direction you’re shooting. Put the sun behind your subject for a backlight effect, in front for frontlight, or to the side for sidelight. You can also move into open shade or use modifiers to alter the quality of light by diffusing it.

There are also artificial lighting techniques that photographers utilize. You may have heard terms such as catchlight, key light, fill light, and backlight. The key light is the primary light source, catch light is the highlights you see in a subject’s eyes, and back and fill light are just like they sound. From there, studio photographers use different lighting patterns to create different effects, some terms you might familiarize yourself with are: butterfly, clamshell, split, loop, Rembrandt, and rim lighting.

Work With What You Have

The first task, as I alluded to above, is to learn to utilize the light that you have in a variety of ways. Practicing shooting different angles and noticing the different effects it has. Play with finding soft light such as window light but also consider when there might be a good time to utilize hard light.

Spend some time considering how the quality, color, intensity, or angle of light tell a story or create a certain ambiance. With the same scene, you can create entirely different pictures by changing how you’re using the light. You might even consider including some ambient light from the background.

To get more creative, draw on different industries. For example, how do interior designers use light? Think of tasks lights on a nightstand that aren’t the main subject but add to the overall look and feel of the scene, how can you include more light to tell more of a story?

Know When to Add Light and Do It With Purpose

At some point, you’ll want to create more effects than what’s available to you naturally in the moment. At that point, you will want to familiarize yourself with various artificial lighting techniques. More importantly, you’ll want to know when you would want to use one technique over another.

You might simply add light to make your subject stand out, use modifiers to change the quality of light, or add in additional light sources. You might use a backlight to light up steam from a coffee or incorporate some ambient lighting like Christmas lights in the background. Using gels or adding colored light can tell a story by changing the color.

Finally, we need to remember how the whole picture fits together. How does your lighting choice connect with your composition? Maybe you’re using lighting as part of a pattern to create leading lines, a contrast of color, or to make your foreground or background more dynamic.

Creative Lighting Tips in Review

Hopefully walking through the steps above gave you some new ideas for how to see, use, or create light in your photography. Let’s review some of the tips and pick something to try. What else would you add to this list, how can you combine what you know to come up with something new and creative?

Utilizing light well in your photographs will make them stand out as consistent, interesting, thoughtful, or creative. You don’t always have to do something far outside of the box to make a big impact. Sometimes it’s just about being intentional and purposeful.

  1. Understand light: color, intensity, quality, and direction.
  2. Plan for the type of light you want based on weather, location, or time of day.
  3. Practice creating different lighting effects from the same scene by changing the angle or diffusing the light.
  4. Draw inspiration from other industries and specialties.
  5. Decide when and why to add light.
  6. Utilize light modifiers for different effects.
  7. Use different artificial lighting techniques for different purposes.
  8. Add additional lights for ambiance or secondary effects.
  9. Consider using light in combination with your composition techniques.
  10. Play with the color, intensity, quality, and direction in a variety of different combinations.

About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” they are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.

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