Basic Lighting for Photography

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Good lighting can make all the difference in how well a photo shoot or video shoot turns out. Creating the right lighting ambience doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor either. If you can master the basics, it’s easy to keep costs down and get the results you need.

The plan below shows how I usually set up the lighting to shoot basic portraits or YouTube videos. As you can see, there are 4 types of lighting: key lights, fill lights, back lights, and practical lights.

Each light has a different function, depending on its intensity, location, and temperature. We’re going to review them in a simple front camera shooting situation, so you can see how they behave. How you combine them later is up to you. Ready to get started?

Table of Contents

1. Key light

The first of our lights does exactly what it says on the tin. As its name suggests, the key light is usually the most important. Its purpose is to highlight the shape and dimensions of the subject you’re going to shoot. In my plan, the key light is positioned like this:

Lighting for photography - key light

The key light is placed diagonally to our subject at a distance of approximately one meter. By creating shadows, the angle allows the lighting to give the person or object volume and body. If we placed the light where the camera is, it would illuminate both parts of the subject equally, creating a much flatter image.

This is why larger light sources produce better results.

I recommend you soften the intensity of this light as much as you can. If the light is too strong, it’ll create shadows that are too intense. Of course, if that’s the effect you’re going for, by all means increase the intensity!

The trick is to have the light at an angle that illuminates the subject’s cheekbone. Confused? No worries – let me explain with an example:

Hanns showing Rembrandt's triangle when using lighting for photography

If you’re looking straight into the camera, with the light pointing at you diagonally as in the plan above, your face should only be fully illuminated on one side. On the other side, while less illuminated, you should also see a point of light. Okay, you got it already? Yup, the cheekbone should be lit up. It’s easy to identify – there should be a triangle of light just below the eye.

This technique is known as “Rembrandt’s triangle”, since it’s one of the methods the Baroque master used to illuminate his portraits, as you can see here:

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with cap and two chains (ca. 1642-1643)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait with cap and two chains (ca. 1642-1643)

This balance of light and shadow is the ideal arrangement for simple portraits, interviews, and very basic photos. As we already know, mastering the basics gives you a solid grounding for everything else. Although this is enough light to illuminate your scene, and it’s the one I use for many of my videos, we still have three more types of lighting to review.

2. Fill light

The fill light aims to soften shadows without removing them entirely. In other words, it takes a bit of drama out of a scene illuminated only with a key light. In my plan, the fill light is located here:

Lighting for photography - fill light

This isn’t an arrangement I use very often, as I prefer a more cinematic look. But here’s an example so you can see the difference:

Hanns showing fill light type of lighting for photography

For this type of lighting, I also recommend softening the intensity so that, as with the key light, it generates more subtle shadows. How do you soften the intensity of the light? Bear with me, I’ll tell you later. First, we need to review the remaining two types of lighting.

3. Back light

This type of lighting has an almost magical effect. It’s used to separate the subject from the background with a subtle edge of light. With the back light, you can highlight the outline of the person or object you are shooting and make the figure appear sharper. In my plan, it looks like this:

Lighting for photography - back light

For the arrangement in my example, the back light is on the same side as the key light, directly opposite the fill light. The distance of that light will depend on the intensity you want to give to the silhouette.

The idea of using this light is to create a shot with more contrast and volume by adding more depth to the shooting environment of your photo. The back light adds definition to the contours and sharpens the image.

Does that make sense to you? This image shows what it looks like:

Hanns showing back light type of lighting for photography

Before showing you the last type of lighting, let’s look at the arrangement of these three lights on my set. As well as being the most elementary types of lighting (that’s right, these are only the basic ones), they all have something in common: their temperature. The lamps that I used to show you these three types of lighting are cold temperature. In other words, all three emit white light.

Here are two more images so you can see what I mean more clearly:

The fourth light provides your scene with the finishing touch and adds an additional element of contrast.

4. Practical light

Last but not least, the practical light gives a little more depth to the image. Since it’s the only source of warm light, it provides a temperature contrast to the arrangement we’ve been reviewing. In my plan, this is where the light is positioned:

Lighting for photography - practical light

How do our four lights look in the picture? Take a look for yourself:

Hanns showing practical light type of lighting for photography in his room

Summary and tips

Lighting is a fundamental part of image construction. While doing it professionally requires a lot of knowledge and references, mastering these 4 super simple types of lighting is an important weapon in your arsenal for taking awesome photos. Remember that we all have to start from somewhere.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: “Wow, this great stuff! But now you have to write an entry about affordable lamps for those of us who are just starting out with a small budget“.

Am I right? Did I read your mind? Well, the good news is that you don’t have to go searching for another post. I’m going to tell you everything you need to know when it comes to buying your first lights and getting the most out of them right now.

So what lights would I recommend? Literally anything you can afford. The ones I used for these images are from Walmart or somewhere… Okay, I’m kidding! It’s just an example to show that it doesn’t really matter what brand you buy. Check out this link if you want to have the same ones as me, which are pretty good value. 🙂

These lights are super versatile, but since cheap is sometimes expensive, you have to put your creativity to work. As I mentioned above, the light is cold and this cannot be regulated since the lamps have only one bulb. So what’s the solution? Well, this is where the practical light comes to the rescue, remember?

It’s also important to note that these lamps only have an on/off switch, which means you can’t regulate the intensity. Though they have a softbox, this doesn’t really achieve much.

So what’s the solution this time? Layer up to diffuse the light. To create the desired effect, use white cloth, a shower curtain or a shade cloth for protecting plants from the sun as I did below. That’s right, you gotta get creative. This fabric is available from most hardware stores and gardening centers. Simply cut out several pieces and attach them to your lamp’s softbox with clothespins like this:

Use as many layers as necessary to make the lighting softer and more subtle. This is especially important if you don’t have enough space to move the lamp away from the subject you’re photographing or recording.

I hope that all this information can help you make all of those brilliant ideas for photos in your head a reality. And remember – practice makes perfect!

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