The Top 10 Photography Lighting Facts You Should Know
And tips on how you can apply them to your photography.
by Dan Richards
The farther the light source, the more it falls off— gets dimmer on your subject. The rule says that light falls off as the square of the distance. That sounds complicated, but isn’t really. If you move a light twice as far from your subject, you end up with only one-quarter of the light on the subject.
In other words, light gets dim fast when you move it away— something to keep in mind if you’re moving your lights or your subject to change the quality of the light.
Also remember that bouncing light—even into a shiny reflector that keeps light directional— adds to the distance it travels.
Tip: Set your camera’s flash (pop-up or hot-shoe) to fill flash for outdoor portraits on harshly lit days. This will lighten shadows on your subject’s face but won’t affect the background exposure—it will fall off by then.
The broader the light source, the softer the light. The narrower the source, the harder the light. A broad light source lessens shadows, reduces contrast, suppresses texture. A narrow light source does the opposite. This is because, with a broad source, light rays hit your subject from more directions, which tends to fill in shadows and give more even illumination to the scene.
Tip: Position a portrait subject near a large, bright window that does not receive direct sunlight. It makes for a no-cost softbox— no studio equipment necessary.
Shadows create volume. That’s how photographers describe threedimensionality, the sense of seeing an image as an object in space, not projected on a flat surface.
Again, lighting from the side, above, or below, by casting deeper and longer shadows, creates the sense of volume. Still-life, product, and landscape photographers use angular lighting for this reason.
Tip: Try “Hollywood lighting” for a dramatic portrait. Position a light high above and slightly to the side of your subject, angled down, but not so much that the shadow of the nose falls more than midway down the upper lip.
Diffusion scatters light, essentially making the light source broader and therefore softer. When clouds drift in front of the sun, shadows get less distinct. Add fog, and the shadows disappear. Clouds, overcast skies, and fog act as diffusion—something that scatters the light in many directions. On overcast or foggy days, the entire sky, in effect, becomes a single very broad light source—nature’s softbox.
Tip: Materials such as translucent plastic or white fabric can be used to diffuse a harsh light source. You can place a diffuser in front of an artiflcial light, such as a strobe. Or, if you’re in bright sun, use a light tent or white scrim to soften the light falling on your subject.
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