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Basic Types of Photography Lighting

The Five Basic Lighting Situations

In any photograph you will have a main source of light. In natural light photography that source is the sun. In studio lighting, the main source of light is called, the “main light”.

The position of the main light relative to the subject determines which of the five basic lighting situations you have.

Front Light

The main light source is in front of the subject.  A common example of this would be photographing someone in a dim room using the on camera flash or a speedlite mounted on top of the camera. Front light illuminates people’s eyes and make them pop in the photographs.

Back Light

The main light source is behind the subject. A common example of this would be photographing someone facing you with their back to the sun.

Side Light

The main light source is to the side of the subject. An example would be pictures where one side of the face is illuminated and the other side of the face is in shadow.

Rim Light

The main light source is behind and to the edge of the subject. This produces highlights when the light bounces off the subject at an angle. This type of lighting is often used in artistic nudes to show off the curves of the body.

Diffuse Light

The light is so disperses that it is even in all directions. The most common example of this is shooting on an overcast day when the cloud cover disperses the light evenly. Sometime photographers call this “ambient light”. “Diffuse light” or “dispersed light” would technically be more accurate terms.

These are the five basic lighting situations and a good photographer will master being able to take photographs in all five situations.

You should be able to look at any photograph and easily identify it as one of the above five lighting situations.

There are also two other possible basic lighting situations but these are so rare they are hardly ever used. The first would be where the main light was above the subject and the second would be where the main light was under the subject. For all practical purposes you can ignore these two possibilities all together. If at some point you want to go wild with artistic creativity, you might fool around with these possible situations but more than likely you would handle these situations the same way you would handle side lighting.

There is one other possible lighting situations but I wouldn’t call it a basic type of lighting.

Speckled Light

This is where you have beams of uneven light hitting your subject. Examples of this would be shooting under a tree where patches of light make it through the leaves and place bright spots on your subject or when photographing someone with shadows upon them due to an object being between the subject and main light. Photographing someone near blinds can leaves striped shadows across their figure or face.

Speckled lighting is generally artsy stuff. The difficulty is illuminating the shadows so they don’t completely black out or diffusing the highlights so don’t completely burn out and turn white.

In another article, I will discuss how utilize these five basic types of lighting situations in natural light photography.

Mike Williams
Austin Fine Art & Glamour Photography

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