A beginner's guide to photographing light

Discover the top tips and tricks for capturing light photography with practical advice from professional photographers that help you to capture every kind of light.

Light is the key for photography

There are many important factors to consider when it comes to photography, but none more important than light. Light determines how bright or dark your images will be, but also the overall tone, mood, and total atmosphere of a photo.

“In the world of photography - light really is everything,” says professional photographer Tim Northey. “Understanding light and knowing exactly how to use it is a fundamental skill for mastering photography.”

Photograph of morning light shining on snow covered cabin in forest.

What are the different types of light photography?

When it comes to photography there are two main forms of light. Natural light from sources like the sun, and artificial light, obtained from various lighting and equipment. Many types of photography rely solely on natural lighting like landscape photography. While others rely more heavily on artificial lighting, like studio photography.

The easiest way to start is with natural light

Natural light is the most accessible and can be used in many different types of photography, from landscape to portraits, from wildlife to street photography.


During daylight you have one large source of light to work with – the sun. Due to its sheer size, sunlight typically bounces and reflects off buildings and other objects, often giving it multiple layers. This helps give natural light dynamic characteristics that can be hard to replicate artificially, especially when using a single light source.

Natural light shining on temple and Mount Fuji

Artificial light gives you the ultimate control

There are many artificial sources available to light up a scene and give control over the lighting conditions. Artificial light is often used to create a very specific result that can be easily replicated. This makes it a favourite for forms of photography like studio headshots and product photography.

What is 3-point lighting?

This is a go to for photographers and filmmakers alike, because of the natural looking light it produces. The overall aim is to make the subject stand out, while avoiding the scene itself becoming too flat. Three lights are used in this way to help create a more natural looking dynamic scene.

What is three-point lighting

Distribute your light evenly by diffusing it

Whether artificial or natural, another key component to light is how direct or intense it might be.


“Softer or more diffused light can be easier to work with and achieve a more balanced result,” says Northey. “This is why using harsh bright sunlight in the middle of the day can be more challenging, contending with bright contrast.”


Different techniques and types of equipment are available to help diffuse light. An example is soft boxes which are frequently used to diffuse bright artificial light sources.


“If working indoors, a simple way to diffuse natural light is by taking portraits next to a window,” Northey says. “The opening of a window can help filter light and create a flattering effect on lighting your subjects.”

Portrait lighting techniques to explore

When it comes to portrait photography, both natural and artificial sources are frequently used. Often even in combination.


While there are many artificial portrait lighting techniques, the two most frequently used options are called loop or butterfly lighting. With these, the direction of light is key, as they both get their name from the shape of the shadow created by the nose.


They involve placing the light in front of or just off to the side of the subject, slightly higher than their eyes, angled down at varying degrees to create a slight shadow. “You can play around with this by moving the light closer or further away and by adjusting the angle,” says Northey.


These techniques can also be used to help understand natural light. Often portraits will be taken when the sun is slightly lower in the sky, which puts the sun’s light at an angle above the subjects’ eyes. These hours during daylight can be slightly easier to work with, creating a more flattering and balanced light.

Portrait photography: model posing next to a window

Shedding light on getting started

When working with any type of light, there are always a few important factors to consider. This includes the intensity, direction and even the colour balance of the light source.


“Although there is no right or wrong way to use light, you’ll soon find out what works and what doesn’t work for your style of photography. So, experimentation really is key,” says Northey.


The easiest and most accessible way to get started is by experimenting with natural light. For all types of photography harsh sunlight during the middle of the day can often be the most difficult to work with.


Aim to get outside during the hours just after sunrise or just before sunset. “This is a good place to start, but don’t be afraid to really explore all types of conditions to help you fully grasp how light works,” says Northey.

Mount Fuji

Remember to always consider the direction of light. When the sun is slightly lower in the sky, experiment by taking photos with the sun directly behind you. This should light up most of the scene, making it clear and bright. When the sun is slightly off to one side, it should add more character or contrast by causing slight shadows and highlights to appear. To play more with shadows and silhouettes, shoot more directly towards the sun.


For a more diffused light, experiment during cloudy weather. Here the direction may be less important, but it will give your photos more of a moody atmosphere with flatter colours. Ultimately consider the look you are after and how light conditions may assist with this.


It is easy to experiment with artificial light in the same way. This can be done at home taking self-portraits with a single artificial light and a self-timer. Begin with the light directly in front of you, just above your eyeline. Then move the light around, varying its angle and intensity by moving it closer or further away. See how this changes the result.

The settings for success with light photography.

When it comes to understanding how light changes the result of your photos, one of the most important factors to consider is your camera settings. “If you aren’t familiar with the exposure triangle this would be the perfect place to start,” says Northey.


The exposure triangle explains three main camera settings that control how much light is entering your camera. These include aperture, shutter speed and ISO.


Consider a well-lit scene like shooting outdoors on a bright sunny day. Here, you could use a faster shutter speed, usually somewhere between 1/200 to 1/4000 and a lower ISO number, typically ISO 100. This will ensure your photo is not overexposed or too bright. When it comes to aperture, you might be restricted to using a narrower aperture or a larger f-stop number.


At night, the opposite is true. Often you need a slower shutter speed such as 1/100 or even slower if capturing motion blur, a wider aperture such as f/2.8, and a higher ISO number like ISO 800 to brighten up the overall scene. Shooting at night has its challenges, but it also opens opportunities to experiment in other ways by using slower shutter speeds.

Small cabins covered in snow

Equipment for light photography

One of the most overwhelming things about getting started with lighting equipment is the many options and types of equipment available.

Flash photography

The most used light in photography would be a flash, which is essential when it comes to event photography. When using a flash, always consider that it can be very bright and direct, so diffusing the light is key. To achieve this, you can add a diffuser to your flash. If shooting indoors with a lower ceiling, aiming your flash slightly upwards and bouncing it off the ceiling is a great way to diffuse a flash more evenly.

Light box photography

A light box is often a go-to for product photography. It has a white background, an opening at the front and a light source. By placing the product inside the box, the light bounces in all directions, eliminating shadows and clearly showing all the product’s detail. While they are simple to use and suitable for all photography skill levels, their use in product photography means that they have a very specific use.

Ring light photography

The ring light may be the best light for a beginner photographer, as it is often quite budget friendly and easy to work with. As the name suggests, the light is in the shape of a circle which helps provide a very diffused source of light, meaning there is no need for additional equipment like a soft box. These lights can be used for macro photography, headshots, weddings, or even beginner YouTube setups.

LED light photography

LED is the umbrella term for many different types of lights used in photography. LED lights are great for different skill levels and budgets. LED lights can come in portable options which can be used anywhere. There are also different colour options, making them super versatile and a great option for getting creative by adding a splash of colour to a scene.

Top tips for light photography

When understanding light in photography, the best piece of advice is to always remember that our eyes are naturally drawn to light. “When looking at photos, typically our eyes are drawn to the brightest part of the image,” says Northey. “Knowing this is important, as we can really use it to our advantage when creating photos.”


Always consider this when deciding how to frame your subject, especially when photographing people.


“My biggest mistake initially for outdoor portraits was often shooting directly towards the sun,” says Northey. Shooting towards the sun is often done in landscape photography, as this is where the sky is bright and colourful. But by placing a subject between yourself and the sunlight, they will ultimately be in shadow.


Outdoor portrait of model posing with sun shining from behind the photographer

“It’s essential that the light is hitting your subject’s face in a way to draw attention to it,” says Northey. “This same simple thought process can be used for all types of photography, ultimately to ensure that the light is drawing appropriate attention to your subject.”


Going one step further, taking photos at night can also be another way to experiment with light. “Night photography opens up another world to playing with light,” says Northey.


You can experiment with slower shutter speeds and learn how lights moving through your frame create light trails, or how moving and tracking an object with a slower shutter speed can result in fun new ways to explore photography, such as panning photography.

Light trails and motion blur of a black taxi on a street

Adjusting light in Lightroom

Using light to your advantage does not stop once you have taken your photos. When editing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom you can take this to the next level and adjust things that perhaps you didn’t quite nail when taking the photos.


In Lightroom, you can adjust the overall lighting with your basic adjustments. Or to go one step further and adjust the overall balance of light, you can use many different masking tools. These tools allow you to directly adjust light in specific parts of your photo without affecting other parts of it.

Practice is the ultimate key to mastering light

Like any skill, understanding exactly how light works and how it will affect your photography is only mastered by regular practice. “Get out there and try different photography techniques, in a broad range of situations and lighting conditions.” says Northey. This really is the key to understanding the importance of light in photography and how to use it to your advantage next time you pick up your camera.


To totally master light photography, it is essential to understand ISO, aperture and shutter speed, the camera settings that make up the exposure triangle. Whether you need a bit of a re-fresh or to touch up your knowledge, jump more into these topics and level up your photography.


To find out more about how you can use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to take your photography to the next level, visit our Light Photography page


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