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Photography - the Basics of Lighting

One of the most important aspects of any photograph you take is lighting. You can have the perfect subject with the perfect composition, but without proper lighting the shot can be ruined. When you take a photo of any subject it's not really the subject you are photographing. What you are photographing is the way light reflects off the subject. Lighting is the fundamental principle behind photography. The two main manual adjustments you can make with your camera involve the amount of light that enters the camera, shutter speed and aperture. Understanding the type of available light and how to adjust your camera for it can make or break your photo. Lighting is an art unto itself. Briefly, there are two types of light, natural and artificial.

Natural Light

When photographing outdoors or in a sun lit room (or next to a window), it's important to understand how the light affects your subject.

Front Lighting - in this situation the sun is behind the camera. Front lighting is best used when your subject has strong colors and tones. Often though, direct sunlight can be too harsh. Direct sunight can wash out lighter colors and create shadows that are too dark. The worst time to photograph is midday. The best times are at sunrise and sunset when the sun in lower in the sky. If you need to shoot in the middle of the day you can wait until the sun plays peek-a-boo with a cloud. You can also place your subject in the shade. You can even try to create your own shade with an umbrella .   

Side Lighting - in this situation light illuminates your subject from either the left or right side, leaving the unlit side in shadow. Side lighting can add depth and texture to a photo. The perfect example of this would be placing a subject in front of a window sideways or at an angle. The side facing the window will be lit while the other side will be left in the dark so to speak. To properly expose this type of shot your camera needs to meter off of the lit side of the subject. If the unlit side is too dark for your tastes you can add some light by using some type of reflector to bounce light onto the dark side. A white sheet or piece of posterboard should work well.

Back Lighting - in this situation light comes from behind your subject. A camera will usually meter off the bright background causing your subject to be dark. In this case you will want to use a fill flash to illuminate your subject and remove any shadows caused by the bright background. However, if your goal is to create a silhouette effect then no fill flash is needed.

Artificial Light

There are basically two types of artificial light, flash (strobe), and continuous.

Flash - flash lighting is a brief, high intensity flash of light that fires when the shutter of the camera is open. There are several different types, built in flash, add on flash, and studio flash. The built in and add on flashes are easier to use, but are less flexible, can create red eye, and can sometimes create too harsh a light on the subject. Studio flashes are more expensive and can be more difficult to use when adjusting exposure, but allow for more creative lighting effects.

Continuous - continuous lighting is just that, lighting which is constant. The most common are tungsten (household lamps, studio lights) and fluorescent.  Most tungsten lights are warmer (yellow) in color and usually add a yellow cast to photos. Florescent lights are cooler (blue). Continuous lighting may be cheaper than flash, but has higher running costs, produces lower light output, and produces more heat. 






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