For seasoned photographers, lighting becomes an instinct as much as a skill. But beginners are often flailing – placing their lights in different spots and getting wildly different results, becoming frustrated in the process. The following is a list of lighting laws to help you navigate the sometimes unpredictable lighting world. Knowing these basic laws will calm you down when things aren’t going your way and will also produce more consistent results.
Lighting Law 1: The bigger the light source, the softer the shadows.
The exception is when this big light source is far away. This is why the sun, when not diffused by clouds, produces hard shadows. It is a large light source but is also very, very far away.
If you’re finding that your light looks harsh, consider if your light source is large enough. This doesn’t have to mean grabbing a bigger light. A modifier, like a big softbox or umbrella, will help expand your light – even when paired with a small Speedlight. If you’re still not getting the softness you’re after, consider moving that light closer to your subject.
Similarly, the bigger the light source not only are your shadows softer but the highlights will be softer and less specular, too. If you want hot spots on your subject, a quick way to get them is to use a small light source.
Lighting Law 2: The fewer angles your light is coming from, the harder the shadows.
When rays of light are coming at your subject from all the same direction, the more sharply defined shadows will be. This is what is happening when the light is described as “hard”. Light coming from one direction will illuminate the subject only in areas the light can hit. Everything else will be cast in shadows. The quickest way to get this effect is to narrow your beam of your light.
When rays of light are coming at your subject from multiple directions, the less sharply defined the shadows will be. Bigger modifiers do this far more effectively than smaller, more narrow modifiers, like snoots, strip boxes, or softboxes with grids on them. Diffusing the light is simply taking a light source and pairing it with a modifier that will allow rays to approach the subject from many angles. This is described as “soft” light.
Lighting Law 3: Black absorbs lights, while white reflects it.
This might seem like a no-brainer but it is amazing how easily we forget this in the heat of a shoot. If you’re seeing light on your subject in places you don’t want (but love the lighting in all other aspects), then a strategically-placed black card will help. Conversely, if there is a dark spot on your subject you want to lighten up, a strategically-placed white card can do wonders. Too quickly we want to move our light. Modify it, don’t move it.
For an edgy, moody, noir look, do one or more of the following:
• Reduce the number of angles light is coming from with a narrowing modifier, like a snoot or grid.
• Move the light further away from your subject.
• Add black cards to absorb or block light.
Recommended modifiers for this look:
Profoto 1′ x 3′ Strip Softbox – Strip softboxes, or “strip boxes” will limit the spill of light and are a great choice for edge lighting, especially for sports portraiture. Also available as a 1 x 4 for longer edge coverage.
Rogue Flashbenders Kit – Designed for small flash units, these roll into a snoot shape for very narrow beams of light.
Small Flash Grid Kit – Compatible with small flash units, this kit will get you familiar with grids and the narrowing effect they have on light.
Always do one at a time. Changing multiple things at once will make it too difficult to figure out what to change next (or undo) if your results aren’t to your liking.
For an ethereal, soft, airy look, do one or more of the following:
• Increase the number of angles light can hit your subject with diffusion from large light modifiers.
• Increase the size of your light with modifiers or by bouncing the light off of white cards or reflectors.
• Move your light closer to your subject.
Recommended modifiers for this look:
Westcott Apollo 4′ x 4′ Softbox – Compatible with any light that has an umbrella shaft (or sits on a bracket with an umbrella shaft), this versatile no-nonsense softbox is the perfect learning tool for soft light shaping.
Profoto 3′ Octa Softbox – Softens light like any softbox but this octa will produce pleasing, round catchlights (light reflections) in the eyes, which is a nice break from your standard rectangular catchlight. Umbrellas will do the same thing and are a little more portable.
Put these reminders on a note card for your next lighting practice session. Take a bunch of before-and-afters with notes and you definitely will improve your lighting game.
Last modified: July 7, 2021