Photography Lighting - The Basics

Photography Lighting – The Basics

KARL TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY Beginner Photography Tips 35 Comments

Photography Lighting - The Basics

Light is the most important and fundamental aspect of photography. The word photography itself derives from ‘photon’ (a particle of light) and graphy (Greek (graphé) – to draw). So writing with light is essentially what we do when we capture an image in our cameras or smart phones.  I prefer to think of it as painting with light because the images we create are more in the form of a visual art than the written one although that might be slightly misleading but you can see where I’m coming from!

So we know light is the major player, yet all to often photographers overlook this fundamental component because they are often too busy worrying themselves about lenses, shutter speeds or other technical issues before they have really understood the most important component; light.

So isn’t light just light? No it’s certainly not. In this video I try to break it down for you into the 4 main components: 1. Hard Light, 2. Soft Light, 3. Transmitted Light & 4. Reflected Light.

Photography Lighting Hard Light 1. Hard Light
Photography Lighting Soft Light 2. Soft Light
Photography Lighting Transmitted Light 3. Transmitted Light
Photography Lighting reflected light 4. Reflected Light


Understanding these will help you understand light and how to use it to make better pictures!

If you are a photography beginner or an advanced photographer these tips are essential so if you haven’t watched the video then do so right now as it will change the way you see, but I also summarise in words below.

Hard Light Fashion Photograph
Generally when we think of light we think of either the sun (daylight) or a bulb (interior lighting). Both of these in their simple form are ‘hard light’. As an example the sun on a clear day at midday will cast a strong shadow from objects that it strikes. A bare clear glass light bulb will do much the same thing, but if you wrap a lampshade around the bulb or put a cloud in front of the sun then the quality of light changes.

If you put a large sheet of tracing paper in front of the bulb or a large blanket of cloud in front of the sun then you create soft light where the shadows become soft or disappear.  The simplest way to explain this is because of the ‘apparent’ size of the light source.  The sun in a clear sky and the bare bulb are both small apparent light sources, but if you put a large diffuser in front of them you convert them into large light sources giving you soft light. Watch the video to get a better understanding of what I’m talking about. 
Fashion Shoot With Difused Light
Eifel Tower Paris, Transmitted Light 
Transmitted light simply means you can see the light source in your picture.  Whether this is a picture of the sunset or a city at night, it usually makes for a more interesting image. 
Reflected light is all around us, this is the light that bounces off of stuff and back onto other objects and this has a great effect on the light hitting our subject.  For example, even when you are stood in the shade there is light hitting you, it’s either coming from the blue sky and white clouds or it is bouncing off of the wall next to you. You may not be able to see the light source (or it see you) but you are still illuminated by the light being reflected off other objects.
Reflected Light Example Photograph
Natural Light Fashion Photograph
The trick for great photography is to understand which of these four types of light (or combinations of them) make better pictures. In simple terms they all have their own qualities and situations where they can work well but as you hopefully gleaned from the video and the photo below, it is that a combination of these qualities that can often make for the most interesting images.

My 6 top tips for working with the best light


Sunset Seascape
1.  Shoot in the magic hour of sunrise or sunset, even shoot before sunrise and after sunset too as sometimes the colours of the clouds become more vivid 10mins after the sun has gone down.
Reflected Light
2.  Look for interesting light. Sometimes the unexpected gives you great light, like the sun bouncing off of a glass building an illuminating an area of shade.
Kids Portrait
3.  Use reflectors such as white card or proper silver reflectors to make the light reach the shadow side.
Fashion Shoot at dusk with reflectors
4.  Put the low setting sun behind your subject to halo them and then use a reflector or a pop of flash to fill in the shadow side.
Sunset Portrait
5.  Shooting at sunset or sunrise is much better than midday. At midday the light is from directly above and casts unattractive shadows on your subjects faces. Late sunlight is much better, it’s coming from the side which looks more attractive and its softer because its intensity is diffused and reduced by the earth’s atmosphere giving it added warmth too!
studio fashion shoot
6. Look at other pictures that you like and start analysing the light. Figure out if it is soft light (no shadows or soft shadows) or is it hard light? Are there light sources visible in the picture (transmitted light) and is the light mostly reflected or is it coming directly from the source? As you study pictures you will soon learn to identify which types of light work best for different scenarios and then with that knowledge and what you’ve learnt from this video you should start to bring a whole new dimension to your photographs!



Article by Karl Taylor

Karl has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years. His work is published internationally and he regularly works for some of the world’s leading companies. Click here to learn how Karl has helped hundreds of photographers improve their skills.

All pictures © Karl Taylor Photography

Comments 35

  1. Tapas

    Very nice written. I love your post and all these information are really needed to capture a good photographs not by chance but every time you pick up the camera.

  2. jacQuie

    Was attending an international wild life photographers presentation with our local camera Club, 3 weeks ago, and just there in the background past the animals, was another group in a large vehicle. I’m sure I recognised you leading other photographers! There can’t be two like you. 2 Different ways of using the jungle.

  3. Mahmoud

    I learn a lot from you Karl. I always await your emails and read your articles, especially the ones about different lighting aspects. Thanks.

  4. Christine

    Once again you provide useful information to improve our photography. You’re a star. Thank you.

    Best wishes

  5. hebri dinesh nayak

    Are all the courses only online. I have had bad experience taking these through the DVD route as there is levy of huge customs duty which is not warranted. Regards

  6. Melissa

    Thank you so very much Karl, I have bought your DVD and love your helpful tips! Your explanations on the videos and tutorials have really helped me!!!

  7. Tanya

    I really love your articles that you put out… I have learnt so much from your dvd’s too! Keep them coming.. Thanks Tanya

  8. Seàn

    Karl I bought three DVDs they were excellent and produce very good articles on photography for Novice and Advanced . Well done keep up the good work. Seàn

  9. justin holding

    Hi Karl and Thanks for all these useful tips and bits of precious advice. Since I showed your videos to my work colleagues they all went out and got themselves geared up with a Dslr! When you say “shoot in the magic hour” does that mean that one should completely avoid shooting during the day? Not always easy when you are on holiday and want to catch some great scenery. I’m also really fond of the post-production part of photography, I only shoot Raw and then use Lightroom to develop my shots, do you have any tutorials on this part? Would be overwhelmed if you did.


  10. Michelle

    Hi Karl, I’ve been asked to take some pictures from my friend’s christening. Obviously wanting to give them the best I can as lighting can be tricky in a church, any tips you can recommend? many thanks Michelle

    1. Karl Taylor

      Hi Michelle if you have a separate flash watch this video for some tips

      If you are already a customer then your customer bonus video number 5 will also help. If you do not have flash then try shooting at a much higher ISO setting which will allow you to shoot in lower light conditions. This is covered in depth in the chapter on ‘the medium’ & ‘ISO and resolution’ in our Introduction to Photography Course.

      Good luck. Karl.

  11. Vimal Varghese

    My photos are now promoted from just clicks to ‘photographs’ with your tips and techniques.
    Thanks a lot.
    My experiment with lights and my camera continues..

  12. Tosin Olateru (Couvercle Media)

    Karl… Thank you for every article; you’ve been a blessing to my photography career, and I’m looking forward to attend one of your workshop soon.

  13. Peter Styles

    G’day from Australia your videos mate and very appreciative of the work and trouble you must go through to bring them to us..I love my photography and I am just so blessed that I am able to indulge myself in the beauty that surrounds us all in different ways..I know that you will most likely not see this post..but..cheers anyway..Peter..

  14. David Caballero

    I use to think about light as a population of beams each one with its own character and personality. Often groups of beams of the same breed provide with a typical characteristic, as you mention, and separately; but some other times it is collections of beams of different properties what makes a lighting unique. Great article, indeed.

    David Caballero

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