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If it's not natural light, then it must be unnatural. But of course, light is a perfectly natural phenomenon, however it's created. So, what we are really talking about here is lighting that is totally under your control. Typically, you would buy a lighting kit which would consist of 1, 2 or more lighting stands and heads, possibly with a few accessories like umbrellas, soft-boxes or snoots etc.

These are the sorts of lights you would use in a studio lighting set up. A studio is just any room that is completely blacked out, so you have total control over the lighting of your photograph. You can also use these lights in a normal domestic environment. You just have to take into account that the natural light in the room (windows etc.) will also affect your pictures to a greater or lesser extent.

There are three different types of "head" that actually produce the light. Tungsten or incandescent, fluorescent or flash.



Tungsten lights are the cheapest to buy and extremely versatile. They are more or less the big brother to the humble domestic light bulb, only much more powerful. With the different heads available it is possible to focus the light into one tiny spot or have it spread over a wide area. It is also very easy to create both hard and soft lighting effects.


On the down side, tungsten lights will make an enclosed space very hot very quickly and they use a lot of electricity. Also the light is a low colour temperature. So, if any light coming through a window is affecting your picture, it will be blue by comparison. However, you can place a blue coloured gel over the light to cure this.



Fluorescent lights, although more expensive, are usually the same colour as daylight, use a lot less electricity and do not get very hot. They are excellent for soft lighting but you need a highly specialised head to produce the effect of a hard light source.


The two types above are continuous lights. You switch them on and you can instantly see exactly what effect they will have on your photograph. Flash lighting, by it's very nature cannot do this. This is why most of the flash heads available have a "modelling" light built in. This is usually a tungsten light very close to the flash tube. It can show you where the shadows will fall but in many cases, it is a different colour and power to the actual light that you use to take the shot.



Flash lighting is the most popular type in use today because of its combination of price for the power output, versatility and portability. Its only down side is that there is always a little bit of guesswork involved. The actual effect of the light can only be seen on the final picture. But with some experience, this becomes much less of a problem and, of course, using a digital camera means that it's much easier to do test shots.


What ever type of lighting you use doesn't matter. When it comes to using and positioning your lights, all types produce exactly the same result. What does matter with lighting is the size of the light source because this has a direct effect on the shadows it creates. If the light source is small it will create create deep hard shadows, this is called hard lighting. A tungsten bulb or flash tube used on its own will produce a relatively hard light. Soft lighting produces soft, indistinct shadows. What makes a light soft is size. The bigger, the softer. You can add a reflector, umbrella or soft-box to turn a hard light into a soft one.


It's the size of the light relative to your subject that matters. So to some extent, you can adjust the softness of a light by moving it closer or further away from your subject. For example, the sun is an enormous light source but it produces a very hard light simply because it is so very far away.


As well as the softness of your light, the other things you have control over are the position and the relative power of your light sources, if you are using more than one. Some light heads may have a power output control but, even if your's don't, you can always reduce their power by moving them further away, and vice versa. This has a bigger effect with hard lights than soft ones.


Where to start

There are basically three different qualities of lighting that you can create, Dramatic hard lighting, shadow less soft lighting and naturalistic 3-point lighting. It all depends on the effect you are trying to achieve.


Dramatic hard lighting is all about shadows, deep shadows. It is created by a single small light source very carefully positioned (usually high and to one side) to create shadows exactly where you want them. The lines of the shadows form an integral part of the composition. Another use of pure hard lighting is for glass or crystal subjects. Here several hard lights are used to produce spectral (very bright) highlights. It can take quite some time to set up this type of shot because even a tiny movement of any of your lights can totally transform the look of the final shot.


Shadow less lighting, as its name suggests is lighting without any shadows being seen in the final shot. One way of achieving this is to use a "ring flash" head, which fits round your lens. Because the light is coming from all around the lens, then all the shadows it creates are entirely hidden behind your subject. A similar effect can be achieved by using two soft light sources very close to and either side of your lens. If they are not close enough to the lens, you may get a "double shadow" effect.


This type of set up is most suited to situations when you really don't want the lighting to have any effect on the subject. You want to see the actual colour of something and not the colour made brighter or darker by the lighting. Clothes and makeover work are typical examples.


Another way to achieve shadow less lighting is with a "light box". This is a box made of diffuse material all the way round except the side where you take the shot from. These are designed for shooting small items and are very easy to use. Lights go outside the box, covering both sides and the top. The diffusing material will turn this into an all over shadow less soft light. This works particularly well for metallic reflective objects. In fact, it's almost essential for this type of subject, because all you see in these things is what they reflect. By using a light box, you can see the object itself, rather than just its reflections.


Natural looking

3-point lighting is an attempt to recreate a natural lighting effect indoors. As its name suggests, it involves using three lights, although one of these can be a reflector. So, you can do this with only two actual light sources. It is principally used in portrait photography but applies to any situation where you want a natural looking lighting effect.


The three lights you use have names; main or key light, fill light and back, rim or hair light. The reason for the different names is that film, television and still photography all use this basic lighting system but they all have different naming conventions.


The main or key light is, as you might expect, the most important one. In fact, the effect you will achieve is almost entirely created by this light alone. You can use a hard or soft light source as a key light. Soft is traditionally preferred for portraits because of its reducing effect on wrinkles. But for other subjects, or if you want to emphasise a wrinkled face, a hard light will bring out the texture of your subject.


You can place this light anywhere from just beside the camera to 90 degrees to the side. The further from the camera the light is then the more textures will be emphasised and the longer and more obvious any shadows will be, especially if you are using a hard light source. Overall the lighting effect becomes more dramatic. This is why, for portraiture, it's usually best to keep within 45 degrees of the camera.


Raising the light source has a similar effect. Again, it's best not to raise the light too far for portraits. However, it's the angle at which it hits your subject's face that matters so, if you want them to look up, you can move the light much higher. Positioning the key light below someone's eye level creates a very unnatural effect.


When creating 3-point lighting, it's best to first set the position of the main light on its own. Once you are happy with the shadows it creates, you can then set the other two lights. The first of which is the fill light.


This is the one that can be a reflector. It is much more common for this to be a large soft light and it is placed on the other side of your camera to the main light. Its purpose is purely to reduce the depth of the shadows created by the key light. This means that it must be less powerful than the main light, which is why you can use a reflector. In portraiture the shape of the face is very dependent on the shadows created by the main light, these shadows are called "modelling". You don't want the fill light to overwhelm the shadows of the main light, just reduce them slightly.


The third light in our 3-point system is the back (or hair, rim or even catch) light. It goes behind your subject. It is most often a hard source but very low power compared to the main light. Its purpose is to create a highlight on the top and sides of your subject. In a portrait, this is usually the hair and shoulders. It is meant to reproduce the effect of sunlight glinting off someone's hair. The other effect is has is to help separate your subject from the background.


The procedure for using 3-point lighting is as follows. First set the main light to create the overall mood of the shot. Then adjust the fill to slightly lessen the depth of the shadows. Carefully adjust the level of the back light. The effect of this light should be very subtle. If it's too strong, the lighting can look quite artificial. But if the level is just right, the subtle highlighting can turn an ordinary photograph into something quite special.


Of course, these are not the only ways to set up studio type lights. Ultimately, there are no actual rules of lighting. But if you've just acquired a lighting kit and want to know how to use it, the three lighting set ups described here can be used as useful starting points.


If you want to start trying some of these techniques, then you will need some equipment. carries an extensive range of lights, stands and all the other accessories you could ever want at very competitive prices.


Take a look at studio lights and accessories



Unnatural light