How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

In brief:

  • Light is made up of tiny straight lines moving in wave motion. These waves are measured in nanometres. Human eye can see wavelengths ranging from 400 to 700 nm
  • When light comes in contact with a surface, it is either reflected or absorbed by it, or transmitted through it. Translucent surfaces allow part of the light to pass through them while blocking some of it
  • The purpose of diffusing light in photography is to make the light source larger in relation to the object it is used to illuminate. In some types of photography, light absorbing black cards are used to take away light from certain parts of the composition. This is a common practice in food photography
  • Some of the methods of diffusing light in a studio environment include using diffusion paper, shoot-through umbrellas and softboxes. At home, you can place your model in front of a window to create beautiful diffused lighting. Outdoors, position your subject under a tree or an awning.

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How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

Light is electromagnetic radiation. It is made up of straight lines which together form a wave motion. The length of these waves is measured in nanometres. Humans can see wavelengths ranging from 400 to 700 nm. At the shorter end of the visible range there is the colour violet; the longer end produces the colour red. All other colours – green, blue, yellow and their variations – are located between these fringe colours and have their own individual wavelengths.

Together, the colours of the visible spectrum form what is perceived as the white light. For photographic purposes, we can also use radiation that we can’t see with out eyes, although this is possibly less common nowadays: some films and certain modified digital camera sensors are able to record ultraviolet and/or infrared light, both outside the visible spectrum.

Reflecting Light

How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

All objects that we see are visible because of the light reflecting from them. Everything in the world is comprised of a colour or a combination of two or more colours. Various materials can either reflect, absorb or transmit light, and the colour of surfaces changes according to the colour of the light reflecting off it.

When you have a polished, shiny surface, like a mirror, your light will give off a specular reflection. This means that the light hitting the object from one angle will mostly be reflected in just one direction also. Furthermore, the light will leave the object at the exact same angle that it came to it. If you shine a light on the mirror at a 15º angle, for instance, that light will bounce off the mirror at the same 15º angle. In this case, looking at the mirror directly from above, none of the reflected light would meet your eyes.

As opposed to a polished surface, a matt surface, such as a plexiglass, will act to diffuse the light. When the light is directed onto a less shiny object, it will scatter in different directions. The resulting reflection is much softer, with less defined edges. This kind of light can be utilised in portrait photography to illuminate the human face beautifully. Using a handy collapsible photography reflector, you can easily create wonderful portraits outdoors by reflecting some of the ambient light onto your subject. Outdoor portraiture is a very economical way to start in portrait photography and, with just a little practice, your results can match those of professional portrait shooters.

Once you understand and get enough practice in using light, your next step in portrait photography is learning how to make your subjects – also known as talents – look natural in front of the camera. This is probably the hardest part of portrait photography and requires grasping the basics of interpersonal psychology. For anyone, who isn’t a professional model, the normal reaction to being photographed is to freeze in front of the camera with a plasticky smile and the look of a poor hunted animal.

It is up to the photographer to help his or her model become comfortable and relax into an effortless-looking posture and expression. To instil a desired frame of mind in their subjects, many photographers use humour and jokes in the hope of breaking the ice and bringing out the real person. If being funny doesn’t come naturally to you, do not fret. The best way to make a person comfortable is to just be yourself. A photographer’s relaxed attitude catches on easily.

Absorbing Light

How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

Light bouncing off surfaces is at the heart of photography. Everything the camera sees is light reflected from a surface in one way or another. In addition to being reflected, light can also be absorbed by a surface.

Sometimes a photographer may wish to diminish the amount of light in one or more parts of his photograph. In food photography, for instance, it is a common practice to use black cards to absorb the light and prevent it from reaching certain parts of the composition. Uniform lighting, without any variation, can often be too harsh or boring. By creating shaded areas in your food photo, you simultaneously make it more atmospheric and interesting.

The black reflectors are usually made of thick cardboard. They are a fantastic way to add suspense and interest to your food photography without breaking the bank. If your budget allows it, you can also invest in light stands as well as reflector holders and brackets which will comfortably let you place your black reflectors to where they are most needed. But, even without C-stands and reflector holders, it is completely possible to make high-quality food photos in a very small home studio.

After you’ve mastered the food photography lighting your next challenge is making sure your food looks hot and appetising. Working with food is invariably a game of speed, although there are many ways to make your food look wholesome by using various ingenious professional tricks.

For example, to stop ice cream from melting while shooting it, food photographers make their own ice cream from mashed potatoes, lard, sugar and colouring. To produce steam mimicking hot foot, some photographers soak cotton balls in water, microwave them and place them, while steaming, behind the food that’s meant to look hot. As a final example, a tricky food photographer might use shaving cream when photographing a dessert that’s supposedly covered with whipped cream. The reason for destroying the sweet dish is to gain time: shaving cream keeps its shape longer than whipped cream.

If you’re not into trickery, however, and just want to make beautiful photos of the foods you’ve prepared yourself, it’s best to work out the suitable lighting before bringing out the food from the kitchen. When the food is ready and cooked, it will stay looking fresh and steaming for about ten to fifteen minutes. It’s part of the craft of the natural food photographer to work fast. As a reward, she will get to eat her creations – something an industrial food photographer using the tricks of the trade cannot do.

Transmitting Light

How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

Transparent objects let light through them. Semi-transparent, or translucent, surfaces allow some of the light information through while also blocking part of it. These semi-transparent items give us an idea of the brightness level behind them but stop us from seeing the exact shape of the light or the objects around it. For instance, if you’re looking at a forest scenery through a thick plexiglass, you can detect that it’s daytime but you can’t really see the individual trees.

Most light sources used in photography are small compared to the objects they’re used to illuminate. Even the sun, although about 109 times larger than the earth, is a tiny light source. It is so far away that it only occupies a small percentage of the sky and does not, in reality, look much larger than a big ceiling light.

It is the relative size of the light that is important when lighting an object. The smaller the light source the sharper the difference between the light and the shadow that it casts. Normally, in portrait photography as well as in product photography, we aim at creating soft shadows with a long gradient from light to dark. To achieve this beautiful muted light, we must somehow render our light larger than what it naturally is.

How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

This is where translucent materials come in. Covering our light with a transparent object doesn’t help us at all. We need a material that has an effect on the light without blocking it completely or, conversely, letting all of it through. Semi-transparent objects – such as a cloud covering, if you’re photographing outdoors, or a white canvas cover on your softbox when taking photos in a studio – make a small light source bigger by dispersing the light in different directions. In effect, the material covering the light forces the light to diffuse and so to reach the object from multiple angles. The relative size of the light has changed and it is said to ‘envelope’ the object.

It’s All Light

How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

Photographers work with light, and the more we know about it the better we will ultimately be at our trade. It is not important to understand the detailed physics explaining the behaviour of light – I doubt that anyone has a full spectrum of knowledge on this fascinating and mysterious subject. For photographic purposes, we need to be aware, however, that light is composed of individual colours at separate wavelengths.

How to Take Charge of Your Photography Lighting

We must also realise that light reacts with surfaces in a number of ways. At the most basic level, the light hitting an object can either be reflected, absorbed or transmitted by it. An example of the first type of material would be a mirror or the calm surface of a lake on a sunny day. The second type of materials, ones that absorb light, are represented by black velvet. Interestingly, scientists at Surrey Nanosystems, a British nanoelectronics company, have now invented a material called Vantablack (Vertically Aligned carbon NanoTube Array). This new material is said to absorb 99.965% of visible light. It is so dark that you can’t detect the shape of an object made with it.

Finally, light can be transmitted, either completely or partially, through a surface. Translucent objects, which let some of the light through them and also block some of it, are used to shape light in photography. These useful tools come in many forms, and they are made from a variety of materials. In most cases, their function is to make the light source bigger and to help us illuminate our subjects in a more pleasing way.

How to Diffuse Light in Photography

There are a few tried and tested methods photographers use to disperse light and make its relative size larger. Depending where you’re photographing and what kind of gear you have with you, you can either place a diffusing material between your light source and your model, or you can reflect the light off of a surface on to your subject.

The latter method is called ‘bouncing’ the light, and it happen when you direct your on-camera flash away from your subject and onto a nearby wall, ceiling or other suitably large surface. The light hitting the surface bounces back onto your subject much larger than it was. This is a great way to create beautiful light with minimal equipment. All you need is a camera, lens and a flash head that allows you to direct the light to your side or behind you. And, of course, you’ll need that wall or ceiling.

However, even if you are outdoors with no surfaces anywhere around you, you can get away by using the white bounce card built in with most higher-end flashes and which you can pull out from the unit. Bounce cards are popular with photo journalists who need to create passable portrait lighting in many different situations. The light from a bounce card won’t be as beautiful as the light bounced from a wall. But, it is usually better than using a direct flash on your subject.

As opposed to the bounced light, the diffused light is directed towards the model. The light, in this case, travels through a translucent material which disperses it onto a larger area. The scattered light reaches its target from multiple angles, which makes the shadows softer and the subject more evenly lit.

The principle of diffusing the light is simple. In practice, there is a whole plethora of ways to skin the cat, however.

Diffusion Paper

Using photographic diffusion paper in front of the light diffuses it only minimally. In addition to paper purposely made for photographing, you can also use normal baking paper which is cheaper. Beware of using baking paper with hot lighting, such as tungsten lights, as there’s always a risk of fire. You can attach the diffusion paper directly onto your light or use a stand to position it some way away from the light.

Shoot-Through Umbrellas

The shoot-through umbrellas are made out of thin, usually white fabric which allows light to pass through it. The diffusing effect of an umbrella is quite pronounced and, depending on the distance of the light from the subject and the amount of ambient light, will cast a uniform, directionless light on your model.

Photographic umbrellas are a cheap way to get into the business diffusing light. They will typically cost less than 20 dollars. An umbrella diffuses light effectively but it may be difficult to creat dramatic, directional lighting with them.

China Balls

A variant of umbrellas, china balls are attached around a light socket holding the light bulb. You might already have one of these light shades at home; they were incredibly popular in the 70s, and evoke images of serious long-haired men and women sitting in groups on bean bag chairs wearing corduroy pants and turtle-neck sweaters.

China balls may not be as readily available in shops now than forty years ago but you can easily source them online from eBay or Amazon. They are a very economical way to create beautiful, uniform lighting.


A more directional, but still diffused, lighting effect can be created by using softboxes. A softbox is a box made out of a fabric, and plastic or metal sticks that form the structure of the box. Four or more of the sides of the box – depending on the shape of the softbox – are light-proof. One side lets the light through, typically with a diffusing white fabric attached to it. The light source, which can be a flash gun or a continuous light, is placed inside the softbox. The light is bounced off of the sides of the softbox and through the diffusing cloth onto the subject.

The softbox is a versatile lighting tool, and there are many ways and many different looks that you can create with just one softbox. The cost of softboxes varies somewhat. Some of the larger ones may set you back a couple of hundred dollars. A portable Chinese mini softbox, on the other hand, can be had for three or four dollars.

As with most studio lighting, you’ll also need to consider the cost of the lights and the light stands before your lighting setup is ready to use. Even so, starting in studio photography is not expensive nowadays. The real cost is mental and the currency used energy, rather than money. To learn using softboxes and other studio lighting equipment takes time and effort.

Window Light

You can also soften your light without incurring any costs whatsoever. At home, place your model near window. The light from a window is diffuse and directional at the same time. With window light, it’s easy to create different looks by placing our subject in various positions. If you have your model standing in front of the window with their back towards it, you can utilise the back lighting effect by setting you exposure level high enough to blow out the window light. This will give you a nice high key portrait with an almost white background.

Alternatively, having your model sit or stand sideways to the window, you can make different traditional portrait looks from split lighting to Rembrandt lighting. Finally, having your subject face the window, you can create flattering fashion portraits. A light reflector – held by your model underneath her chin, just outside the frame – will help to complement the look.

Under a Shade

When photographing outdoors, you can utilise diffuse lighting by positioning your model underneath an awning or under a tree. The light under a shade is usually less directional than the window light. To add drama with directional lighting, use a light reflector to direct light onto your subject. Just as with artificial light sources, bigger light is usually better in this instance, too.

A large reflected light is created with a large reflector. reflectors come in different colours. The usual options are white, silver and gold. The white reflector makes for the softest, most diffused lighting. The silver reflector gives out a bright, specular light. The golden reflector, furthermore, creates a bright reflection with the colour that matches the tones of a sunset.


Michael Langford: Basic Photography. 5th Ed. Focal Press, 1986.

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Cinematography Tip: How to Create Soft Diffused Light:

All photos copyright Markus Jaaskelainen 2018.

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