10 Photography Lighting Tips

Mastering photography first means learning to use the camera and light in order to capture stunning images. You have three ways of manipulating the light hitting the digital sensor or film. You can adjust the width of the lens aperture, adjust the shutter speed to let light in for a longer period of time, or adjust the ISO. Film cameras use a special emulsion recipe to adjust this, while digital cameras adjust the ISO electronically. However, there needs to be a balance between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to create proper exposure and capture images in the style and mood you want, no matter the location or time of day. Here are 11 photography lighting tips to help you become a master of manipulating light in and outside of your camera.

Photography Lighting Tips

1. Turn on the Shadow/Highlight Clipping Feature

Before you take steps to control the light in a photographic scene, you need a good idea of how the light is affecting your images. Look for a shadow/highlight clipping feature in your camera’s owner’s manual, learn how to turn it off and on, and experiment with it. This feature highlights the areas in your scene that have shadows or are too dark to provide any detail, as well as highlighted areas that are blown out. It is okay to have some areas of a photograph that have no detail, but being able to control which one is important.

2. Use the Histogram

Modern DSLR cameras have a histogram feature – a graph that shows how dark or bright the pixels in your image are. A spiky graph bunched up to the left indicates darkness or underexposure, while the spikes to the right with little to no points to the left indicate overexposure. Therefore, you can use the histogram to adjust exposure choices.  A proper exposure has detail in the deepest shadows and most of the brightest highlights and has a histogram with most of its spikes in the center. The histogram is by far one of the most overlooked photography lighting tips.

However, we need to take into account the color scheme we are shooting when analyzing the histogram since a portrait of a black cat, for instance, will naturally have a graph with most of its spikes in the left area of the histogram.

3. Relocate Your Subject

If you regularly photograph people, you are probably getting used to asking them to pose to bring out more drama in your images. You can use poses to accentuate anything from a whimsical smile to bank CEO seriousness in your portrait shots. Being able to successfully pose portrait subjects takes skill, so use these photography lighting tips to relocate them to better lighting conditions nearby. For example, will that family picture at a summer barbecue look better on the deck in the harsh noon light or under a tree where it is filtering through the branches and leaves? Will, the shadows from your flash distract from a picture of the family lined up against a wall, or will moving them away from it be better?

4. Use Low Light to Your Advantage

If you are struggling to get enough light for an indoor photo opportunity, try changing your approach. Instead of attempting a normal fully lit photo, try to see what you can do with a few candles or another light source, be it warm or cold. Play with the light to see how dark you can go and still capture details, texture, color, and emotion. Experiment with flashlights, lanterns, fireplace/campfire light, and close ups. If you cannot find a way to light the entire scene, then just light your subjects. This photography lighting tip is more and more used by today’s photographers. Experiment and see what you can make.

5. Avoid the Popup Flash

Most popup flash units seem to be an afterthought. You will find them on point-and-shoot cameras and some entry-level DSLR bodies. At most, they can provide a little fill light for shooting some portrait shots or using slow synchronization flash indoors. If your scene requires artificial light and all you have is a pop-up flash, you will have a difficult time capturing images that will please your eye as your photographic abilities progress. Gadgets that attach themselves to popup flashes to bounce or soften their effect may, at most, produce mixed results. If you want to pursue flash photography, start by renting a high-end flash made for your camera, whether it be a hot shoe mountable one or one that attaches to a tripod.

6. Try a Collapsible Reflector

This is one of the best investments you can make as far as affordable photography lighting tips are what you’re after. Collapsible photographic lighting reflectors are fabric over a thin frame that is fashioned into a circle. You can twist and fold a large reflector down to about the size of a serving dish. They come with a bag for storage. Some models offer three surface materials for one disk. The inner fabric is usually white, and it can be used to reflect or diffuse light. An outer zippered covering may be silver on one side and gold on the other to provide different nuances of lighting. Even the cheapest ones work very well.

7. Rent Pro Lighting Equipment for a Planned Shoot

If you are scouting a venue you want to shoot and you are thinking how a couple of $2,000 Profoto B1 lights with cordless TTL metering would be a game changer, just rent them. Maybe you need a really fast lens for your DSLR to capture some no-flash images at an art museum, at a historic church, or at another architectural wonder. Maybe you need a different camera body than what you own to be able to shoot street life in your town at night. Renting makes it so you can ensure and use gear that may cost more than a new car on an amateur photographer’s budget. This is one of the photography lighting tips even the pros use because an unlimited gear budget is a rare thing nowadays.

8. Be Smart when Using Backlight

One of the first things taught to amateur photographers is not to face the sun when shooting your subject. Nevertheless, backlighting from a sunset can create incredible dark silhouettes surrounded by golden colors. You can experiment with fill light to bring out more detail in your subject or leave your subject as a dark negative shape within the image for an artistic look.

9. Use a Little HDR

Have you ever wondered why your eyes see a scene completely different than how you can seem to capture it with your camera? Well, your eyes have much more range for capturing light in a scene and rendering it into usable images. The average human eye can detect a single photon of light and not even the best DSLR is able to do that. Your camera has a limited dynamic range it can utilize to capture light in one exposed image. If you shoot a string of images that go from underexposed to overexposed and use an algorithm to mix them, however, you will create surreal images. Be careful with how you use it because the surrealism of heavy HDR is overused and movement can cause blurring.

10. Use Catchlights to Bring Life to Eyes

When you want those incredible highlights in the eyes of your portrait subjects, you need to put it there. Do not rely on post-editing to improve the catchlights in your portrait subject’s eyes. Catchlights are the bright reflections bouncing off of wet eyes. They are probably the single most lively effect of any portrait. The living eye is wet and reflects. This symbol of life in the eyes is so iconic that catchlights are mimicked in drawings and even sculptures to enhance realism.

These were the best photography lighting tips that will improve your photos with a minimum of effort and time. Whether it is a photo of a grandchild playing in the sand at the beach or a kitten discovering the warm sunny spot on the living room floor for the first time, you are recording reflected light of a moment in time. Learn to manipulate that light and become the best photographer you can be.

Leave a Comment