Lighting is everything! Photographers’ lighting secrets you can use

Photography is actually ‘painting with light’. Just like in a painting, the artist chooses lighting to affect colour, tone and mood.

We’ve all taken and posed for photos using harsh, on-camera flash… red eyes, flat shapes, shiny skin… flaws exposed! Professional photographers most often use off-camera flash, whether a large portable flash that attaches to the camera or studio lighting equipment on stands, to achieve artistic effects that make the most of the subject’s features, or create a dramatic look.

So here are some of the secrets. Unfortunately, unless you have access to some pretty hard-core equipment you will have trouble creating the right effect with light, but you can still make the most of outdoor lighting, fill flash, and sometimes, slow shutter speeds and tripods. Read on…

Off-camera flash ALWAYS looks better than on-camera flash. With small, everyday cameras, you are using the in-built flash which is placed very close to the lens – this causes red-eye and creates a flat look that usually doesn’t compliment the subject. Flashes that are held even just a little way from the camera create depth and tone, making the photo ‘pop’.



I used one strong light above left the subject and to one side for this dramatic effect.

But buying a separate flash is costly. What can I do with my regular camera? Check to see if your camera allows you to change the flash intensity. Sometimes giving the flash a little less power will give a softer effect.

Even better: Avoid using the flash. Above right. 

Although our pinata is lurvvly, the on-camera flash makes us look flat, shiny and red-eyed.

Diffused (softened/filtered/indirect) light is more forgiving than straight flash. Studio photographers use umbrellas or soft boxes to cover their flash heads and can adjust the flash intensity to varying degrees. Using light from other sources and avoiding your on-camera flash will give you your most beautiful photographs:

  • If your camera has some manual controls, you can try opening up the aperture (changing the aperture setting to a low number e.g. f4) to let more light into your camera. Be aware that this will create a photograph where the objects close to the camera will be in focus, but the background may be blurry… but you may want that. Letting more light into the camera means you can shoot in darker conditions.
  • You could also let more light in by changing the shutter speed (to a bigger fraction e.g. 1/15, ½) but you will need to rest your camera on a tripod or other steady surface and tell your subject to hold still, or you’ll get blur. Again, you might want this. I personally love working with blur effects.
  • Or you could change the ISO to a higher setting e.g. ISO 1600, which makes your camera more sensitive to light, so it’s great for indoors.
  • You can combine any of these technical adjustments with available light to create interesting photographs. Try using window light, lamps, candles or strong flash lights pointing at a soft reflective surface like foil or a silver car sunshield (Hold the sunshield close to the subject, at an angle to their right or left. Point the light at the shield and let the light bounce off the shield onto the subject. You may not see it, but your camera will).

But my camera doesn’t do all that stuff! OR I’m too scared/lazy to fiddle with all that stuff. Give me the quick tips!

  • Get outside. Pay attention to where the sun and shadows are. Avoid the middle of the day as the light is too harsh. Place the subject so that the sun is at an angle – not directly in front or behind them. If you want a sunset background, use the fill flash on your camera (preferably at a low setting) to ensure the subject’s face is not in shadow. This can look really dramatic – I love working with flash on the beach (see samples at )

Using more than one light gives you creative freedom. First of all, where a light is placed creates different emotional meanings. Check out the post ‘Light has meaning’, coming soon. Secondly, photographers work with lighting ratios in the studio, using two, three or more lights at mathematical ratios to create calculated effects.

But I don’t care about that. Give me the quick tips now. Try the old car sunshield trick – hold the silver side of the sunshield up high, at an angle to the subject, so that your flash will bounce off it to create light coming from another direction. Now you have two lights. Better yet, forget your on-camera flash and play with a couple of strong lamps indoors. Place one on either side of the subject and have one a little further away than the other, or covered (careful! No fires please) to make one light the main light and one the softer, fill light. Or try a wide, soft light held above the person’s head but forward a bit, so it creates a shadow under their nose and chin while lighting their face softly. This is called ‘butterfly’ or ‘glamour lighting’.


I used flash to fill in the shadows created by bright sunlight, to create this kooky shot!

It’s fun but it’s not working! If your camera doesn’t give you much creative freedom, you may have to heave a sigh and ring your friendly local photographer, who has paid a lot of money for magical equipment that will give you the effect you want. Wink!

Want more?

Check out these websites for free tips:

Photography Lighting Tips Read this article if you want more creative ideas.

Studio Lighting – a beginner’s guide to lighting–a-beginners-guide-to-lighting-132 This one’s a bit more technical but it might interest those thinking of turning portrait photography into a hobby.