Light makes or breaks photographs.
Without good lighting, your camera won’t catch anything but a few grey shadows or blurry white shapes. Whether you’re shooting outside with natural light or setting up your own studio, light evaluation is an important step in the photography process.
But how do you know if your lighting setup is good or bad? Throughout this short guide, we’ll be discussing the factors you should keep in mind when evaluating your light source, as well as why it’s important.
What’s the big deal with lighting?
Any good photographer will tell you the first place your picture can go wrong: bad lighting.
Bad lighting will lead to a darker, duller picture. Bad lighting will lead to hard shadows. If you have bad lighting, the mood, tone and atmosphere of your photograph might not match your intentions.
Good lighting, on the other hand, will lead to an even spread of light and colour in your photo. It can lead to softer shadows that are more appealing to look at and which better define your subject.
And yes, post-production software such as Photoshop or Pixlr can be used to correct lighting, but this should always be used as a last resort. If you’re unable to shoot a photo with good lighting (or you notice a small error just too late – this happens to us all sometimes) then photo editing software can be used to highlight or brighten areas. The downside to this process is that it also tends to highlight any noise in the image, and the subject in question might look out of place against the rest of the image if only one part of the picture is corrected.
In other words, any issue you have with lighting most often can and should be, fixed before the photograph is taken.
How to evaluate your light quality
When considering the quality of your lighting, there are three key things to look out for:
- The direction of light
- Distance between the light source and your subject
- The size of the light source compared to your subject
These different factors all produce different lighting effects on your subject, however, they also interact quite closely.
As a side note, it’s also important to remember that while these factors can easily be controlled in a studio, outdoor photography with natural light isn’t quite as manageable.
If you’re unsure of these three principles of light in photography, relax as we explore what these principles mean and how you can use them to better light your photography.
The direction of light
The first, unchangeable rule of lighting, is that light travels in straight lines.
Any ray of light emitted from your light source will continue along this path on a straight line until it bounces off an object and proceeds along another straight path.
But what effect does this have on your photography?
If your light source is behind your subject, the light won’t reach the side that your camera will catch, making it appear darker in the photograph. If you want to light your subject, the light needs to be aimed at the side that your camera is photographing.
Once you have a better understanding of how light works, you can begin to use this to your advantage to create more detailed, textured shots. For example, if you want softer shots but have no extra equipment, you can aim the light at a wall to bounce onto your subject. This works much like a softbox in that the light bounces from a different direction, allowing you to develop more of a 3D texture in your shot, while also increasing the distance between your subject and the light source.
The spread or diffusion of light also affects the intensity of shadows on your subject. Where softer light results in softer shadows, making your subject appear equally bright, harder light results in hard shadows. Hard shadows appear harsher and edgier, which can sometimes look unappealing. For example, say you were taking a portrait photograph and your subject was a person, the light might hit them unequally producing harsh shadows beneath their eyes, nose and chin.
Distance between the light source and your subject
The further away the subject is from the light source, the darker it will appear as fewer rays of light will reach it.
Think of the first rule: the direction of light. A light bulb will send rays of light out at all sorts of different angles, and as they all travel in their own straight line, they spread. If an object is placed further away from the light source, fewer of these rays will be on the path to hit it, making it appear darker.
Another way to put this into perspective is by using Newton’s Inverse Square Law:
In basic terms, the energy twice as far from the source is spread over four times the area. This shows just how quickly light can be lost by moving your object away from the source.
What this means for your photography is that, if you want your subject to appear brighter, it should be placed closer to your source of light. By placing it further away, the subject will be dimmer and the features will be less defined.
The best way to figure out the right distance between the light source and your subject is simply to play around with the distance, checking the effect each time.
The size of the light source compared to your subject
The larger the light source when compared to your subject, the softer the light will be.
Rays from a larger light source have more access to the area around your subject. If a smaller light was used on a larger object, all of the rays would bounce from a smaller amount of the object without lighting it up. What this would result in is a light patch on your subject while the rest of it remains darker.
On the other hand, if a larger source was used on a smaller subject, not only would the whole object be lit up, but rays that pass the object would be free to bounce around the room, creating a softer light around the object as they eventually hit the sides. The end result here would be a bright object that slowly becomes dimmer towards the edges.
Other ways you can achieve this softer look include using objects such as reflectors and secondary light sources, which create a larger source without just looking at the main light source.
These three main factors are the basic keys to making the light in your photograph work. You can use them however you like to achieve the style of photo you’re aiming to get.
It’s important to note that while these factors act as the foundation, other factors will impact how the lighting interacts with your objects such as backgrounds and angles, many of which are covered in our other blogs such as the ultimate guide to product photography.
Does the lighting in your photograph need fixing? Splento offers quality touch-ups from as little as £0.49 per photo. All the details for this along with the easy to use upload tool can be found here.
Or maybe you’re looking for the whole deal? Our professional Splento photographers are experts with lighting and can offer their services for an affordable price. For more information, contact us today.
Contact Splento if you are in need of: