5 Easy Tips to Master Photographic Lighting

Written by Robert Lowdon

Robert Lowdon is an internationally published commercial photographer based out of Toronto, Canada. He spends his time photographing architecture and industrial projects for the most part.

Published December 30, 2013

woodworker industrial photography

Lighting a subject can sound extremely technical. Which is very well can be, but the basics are very simple. The three main areas to think about when lighting a subject are the Key light, Fill light and Backlight. The Key light is the brightest of the three and is meant to illuminate the subject the most. The Fill light is dimmer than the Key and is used to “fill in” any shadows that the Key may create. The Backlight is the dimmest of the three and is used to create a halo or “backlighting” effect around the subject.

Now that you know the basics of lighting, let’s talk about how to actually light a subject. The first thing you need to do is decide where you want your Key light to be coming from. This will largely be determined by the look you’re going for. If you want a more dramatic look, you may want to place your Key light off to the side so that it creates more shadows on your subject. If you want a more natural look, you may want to place your Key light directly in front of or behind your subject.

Once you’ve decided where you want your Key light to be, the next thing you need to do is set up your lighting equipment. If you’re using natural light, this will simply be finding a good spot in your room that gets lots of sunlight. If you’re using artificial lights, you’ll need to set up your light stands and lights.


I usually hear the following statement from new photographers, “Gee I would really like to get into lighting or learn to light” or something along those lines. So for all those people here are some quick tips to get you started on your way to mastering photographic lighting.



When using photographic lighting on-location you need to meter to get desired effects. Use a light meter to measure and balance the output of your lights for proper exposure. Having a light meter is like using a map when traveling. Do you just drive somewhere with no reference points or guides? You need to meter.


It is best to use an incident light meter. This type of meter measures the light falling on the subject. Point the dome of the meter towards your subject and press the button. The reading will tell you how much light is reaching your subject. You can then adjust your lighting accordingly.

A Sekonic L-308DC Light Meter is a great entry-level incident light meter.

Light Placement

One of the most important factors when photographing a subject is the placement of your lights. For instance, short lighting, when your lights are closer to the subject, will produce a higher contrast image. Conversely, broad lighting creates a more evenly light image. Also, the angle of the lighting relevant to the subject will create different effects.


If you want a softer light you need to diffuse it. Diffusion is the process of scattering light. There are several ways to diffuse light:

– Use a diffuser: A diffuser is placed between the light source and the subject. This will soften the light and reduce contrast.

– Move the light further away: The further away your light is from your subject, the softer it will become.

– Use a reflector: A reflector can be used to bounce light back onto your subject. This will create a softer light.


A reflector is a great tool to have when using artificial lighting. Reflectors can be used to bounce light back onto your subject, filling in shadows and creating a softer light. They can also be used to create catchlights in the eyes. Catchlights are those little highlights that you see in people’s eyes in photographs. They add life to the photo and make the subject look more alert.


Gels are placed over lights to change the color of the light. This is useful when trying to match the color of your artificial lights to the color of natural light. Gels are also used for special effects, like turning a white background into a different color.

Related: Our Ultimate Guide to Architectural Photography

Output is Everything

Generally, a photographer when first starting to light will actually over-light the subject. They crank the strobes to full power and light goes everywhere with no control. Remember lighting is all about precision. When used properly photographic lights or strobes will give you total control of your final image.


Use The -2, 0, +2 Rule

An easy rule to follow when lighting is to use a simple formula.  I usually call this the 2,4,6 rule, not exactly sure if I heard that somewhere or if it came out of my brain but it is what I use. For this, you want your shadows to be underexposed by 2 stops, your mid-tones at perfect exposure, and your highlights over exposed by 2 stops. This will give you a 6 stop variation and a perfect exposure every time.


Control Your Shadows

Not controlling shadows properly is one of the most common mistakes you will see by photographers. Shadows that don’t look natural are usually not acceptable. For instance, never have someone stand right against a background, it just doesn’t look right. Also, use a fill card or reflector to help fill in shadows on the face for more flattering images.


Know When To Break The Rules

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and as you learn more about lighting you will find ways to break the rules to create unique images. But when first starting out, it is best to follow the rules so that you can understand how they work. Once you know the rules, then you can start to break them and create your own style.

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of photography. It can make or break a photo. By understanding the basics of lighting, you will be well on your way to taking great photos.


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