How to Re-Create Good Lighting for Your Digital Photography

By David D. Busch

Yes, you can re-create good lighting if you know what you’re doing. And nothing can destroy a photo faster than bad lighting. You can make a lot of improvements to a challenging subject simply by using good lighting techniques.

Your uncle’s bald head, a teenager’s less-than-perfect complexion, a harshly lit beach scene, a drop of falling water — you can portray all these subjects attractively by using effective lighting techniques.

In your uncle’s case, throwing the top of his head in shadow and avoiding shiny lights on his upper hemisphere can minimize the glare from his bare pate. The teenager might benefit from diffuse lighting that softens the texture of his or her face.

You can fix up that glaring direct sunlight on the beach by using a reflector to bounce light into the shadows. And you can freeze a drop of water in midair with a halo of light added by an electronic flash.

To use light effectively and take your photography to the next level, here are some tricks to master:

  • Managing the quality of light: Light can be highly directional, or soft and diffuse. It can cast sharp shadows and dot your subjects with specular highlights. Light comes in different colors, too.

  • Using multiple lights: Photographers create some of the best pictures by using two, three, four, or more lights. You can use one source to illuminate the main part of your subject and others to outline its edges, fill in the shadows, or call attention to a particular area.

    Photographers use some lighting arrangements often enough that those arrangements have their own names: broad lighting, rim lighting, paramount lighting, and so forth. You can create other arrangements yourself.

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    If you can master applying multiple lights so that they model and shape the appearance of your subjects, you have a powerful tool at your disposal.

  • Making best use of a light source’s duration: Generally, electronic flash units are the main non-continuous light source that photographers put to work. Using the duration of the flash creatively requires practice and experience. Some techniques are simple.

    For example, you can use your flash’s brief duration (particularly when shooting up close) to freeze even the fastest action. For a more complex technique, use repeating flashes to trace movement or balance flash output with ambient light to create combination exposures. People have written entire books on these topics, so you have a lot to discover.

  • Subtracting light: Sometimes, you don’t want to add light to a scene as much as you want to remove it so that you can create a particular lighting effect or look. Barndoors are little flaps that look like a horse’s blinders and fit over an electronic flash or other light source to block the light or feather it onto a subject.

    Opaque sheets can block light coming from a particular direction, functioning as a sort of reverse reflector. Gadgets that stage-lighting directors call cookies or gobos can change the size and shape of a beam of light. With lighting effects, sometimes less is more.