Lighting With a Purpose

To say light is essential for photography is to be so obvious as to be unnecessary. Whether the photons are reacting with chemicals on a film or with the sensors of a digital device, the light that passes through the aperture is the origin of a photograph.

The degree to which photographers understand light and use it determines how effective their photos will be. Rather than "getting lucky" sometimes and snapping a nice image, understanding light helps a photographer plan images to have the greatest impact, whether that is to inspire someone to buy a product or to induce a feeling or emotion.

Because of the wide availability for automatic, high-quality, camera phones, this discussion will focus on natural lighting. The use of flashes and strobes opens up a huge array of options to photographers who have access to such. However, topics related to artificial lighting will be reserved for another time.

Natural Indoor Lighting

If you can see something, it is because there is light present. For the photographer, the light that is already there is natural lighting.

Natural lighting indoors comes from all of the lights in a room and the light coming through windows. It also includes all of the light that bounces around the room once it gets in! Being able to anticipate the effect of the light is key to using it in photography. Foremost, photographers need to understand concepts of direct light and diffuse light.

Where there is nothing between the source and the subject, the light considered to be direct. The fewer the sources, the more likely one of them will appear to be direct. However, if there are many sources, the effect of one light or another is masked by the presence of many other lights. The greatest expression of direct lighting would be a single source of light in an otherwise dark room. In this case all of the light acts as if it come from nearly the same source and spreads out uniformly. Strong shadows and stark contrast is the result.

Where the light passes through something (like a lamp shade or veil) and where it reflects off of not-shiny surfaces, the light is considered to be diffuse (or indirect). As the light bends and bounces around, the angle of its travel becomes more and more varied. The result is some light coming from many different directions. Where there are numerous sources of light in a given space, the lighting is also more diffuse. The result of diffuse light is softened shadows and decreased contrast.

Beyond the general ideas above, there are endless variations! Several diffuse sources of light that all come from the same direction create a different look and feel than a single direct source, but are different still from what is created with several directs sources spread around the subject. Direct and indirect sources can be mixed together, too.

For most photographers, manipulating the light is less of a consideration than making the most of what is already there. Sunshine through a window can be a great source of direct light, but placing the subject to face a wall from which the same rays reflect could create a much softer, diffuse effect.

The keen photographer has to pay attention to what is available and make the most of it. How the subject is positioned is paramount in creating the desired effect.

Have a look at the following images and the comments that go along with them.

Here, sunlight streams through the window and illuminates the objects directly. The strong shadow of the pot  and the bright reflected light are the result of the objects being in direct light.

In the second image, the light is reflected first off the floor, and then off of a wall. The objects are more gently illuminated, and the pot casts no shadow at all. The reflection of the sunlit floor is the brightest part of the image, but otherwise, the lighting is gentle and the shadows all-but nonexistent.

Other variations of this could be contrived. For instance, if the overhead lights were on, in addition to the window light, the effect would have been different.

Two things to think about:  1. Direct light enhances details (like wrinkles, textures, bumps, etc.). 2. Diffuse light softens details.

Natural Outdoor Lighting

The principles of direct and diffuse lighting are the same outdoors. The difference is that, when the sun is present, pretty much everything else comes in second. The sun is a powerful direct source of light.

As such, it will create strong shadows. Eyes will fade into the shadow of the brow if the sun is overhead. At sunset, a face looking to the north or south will be half in shadow.

Attending to the power and directness of the sun is important to any photographer who wishes to create particular effects with their subjects. Sometimes, it is necessary to arrange for some reflected, diffuse light in order to get the kind of images desired.

This can be done by holding up a piece of cloth and reflecting the sun off of it. Standing the subject beside a light-colored wall and letting the sun bounce off of it is another technique. The key to taking great outdoor images is to be intentional. If you want harsh shadows, use the sun directly. If you want softer details, try to find a way to bounce the sun around before it lands on your subject. Positioning a subject in the shade will diffuse the direct sunlight (but will require attention to image exposure settings).

To ignore one aspect of outdoor lighting would be remiss. There is what photographers call the "golden hour" that occurs before sunset. It's not a precise sixty minutes, and the taste of the photographer will dictate exactly how much before sunset it is, but as the sun slants down toward the horizon, there is a quality to the light that is unmatched. It streams into the subject from the side eliminating any of the shadows that might come from above. There is a warmth or glow to the light's color at that time that is qualitatively different, too.

The image above is an example of golden hour photography. The sun was low, near the horizon, and as it bathed the subject, a soft, gentle contrast with minimal shadows resulted. (You can actually see the sun reflected in the glasses, to gauge where it was on the horizon.)

This, too, is a golden hour image. The light comes to the barn from the horizon, to the left. Where it falls on the surface, there is a warm, gentle illumination, but the side where it does not hit is strongly contrasted in brightness.

Taking advantage of the golden hour is a great way to create some striking, amazing images!


Being intentional about using light begins with understanding light. Once photographers settle in their mind that light is the ink of their images, they can begin to use light in creative ways to create the effect they wish to have.


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