(Last Updated On: December 17, 2019)
11 most common types of lighting

Lighting is the most important consideration in photography. It’s what makes the photograph possible. So, let’s get a better understanding of what we are talking about when we are discussing the types of light.

What is Light in Photography?

Light is the fundamental element in photography. In fact, the word photography was formed by merging the Greek words for light and drawing. Photographers create an image by capturing light particles on a light sensitive medium. Without light, it would not be possible to have photographs.

What Type of Lighting is Best for Photography?

That depends on the picture you’re taking. Many photographers prefer to have a speedlight or flash because they are portable and flexible, but it often happens that using the ambient light works better. It all depends on your subject and the mood you want to create.

Types of Photographic Lighting and How to Use Them

Whatever type of lighting you’re using for your images, there are different reasons to choose certain lighting for photography. Here we describe 11 types of photography lighting and how to use them: 

1. Ambient light

Ambient light is defined as lighting that is not added to the scene by the photographer. Sunlight can be ambient lighting, but so can a streetlight, and don’t forget about moonlight. None of these are added to the scene by a photographer.

The goal with ambient lighting is often to get a soft, evenly distributed light that can bounce from one surface to another. This kind of lighting works particularly well for landscape photography.

This landscape image is one form of ambient light
The light seen here is one form of ambient light

Some photographers make a distinction between ambient light from natural sources, such as sunlight, and ambient light produced by artificial lighting from manmade fixtures, such as a streetlight. You should be aware of that and take care to describe the lighting more specifically for your images.

It’s also important to describe any modifiers you might use to direct the ambient light you have available. One technique is to reflect ambient natural light into a shaded area in order to create a more diffuse light. This is called open shade, and it gives your subject a soft, even, and gentle glow.

Otherwise, the way you ‘set up’ ambient light depends on the look you want. You can use modifiers to reflect it. You can also either have your subject move around until you achieve the desired lighting or you can move around your subject. 

2. Flat lighting

Flat lighting is when you have the light source facing directly onto the front of your subject. If you’re photographing a person, it will mean that their face is well lit, and that you won’t see any shadows on their face.

Shadows tend to draw out imperfections, and so, this is a great technique to use if your subject has acne, other blemishes or wrinkles. It’s not normally preferred as a lighting technique for portraiture photography since shadows bring the face to life, but with a subject who is self-conscious of their skin imperfections, this would be the way to go.

It also works well if your subject is oozing with character. In that case, flat lighting will allow the natural appeal to shine through. To set up, you simply place your light in front of and slightly above your subject’s face. You can angle it until it lies ‘flat’ on the face.  

3. Broad light

Broad lighting is actually a type of side lighting. It’s where the most well-lit side of your subject is facing the camera, and the less well-lit side is away from the camera.

If we’re talking about a subject’s face, this type of lighting can work well for a person with a narrow face since it makes the face look fuller. It would be less desirable, however, if the subject already has a full face.

Broad lighting can make thin faces look fuller, as seen in this image of a woman.
Broad lighting can make a thin face look fuller

Broad lighting is also a technique that gives more contrast to the image than other types of lighting.

To set this up, you simply place your light source at a forty five degree angle from your subject, and then have your subject turn away from the main light source until you achieve the desired effect.

4. Short light

Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. This is where the shadow falls on the side of the face closest to the camera. This technique is flattering to most facial types, but in particular, it works well to make a full face look thinner.

Short lighting is ideal for low-key images, in part because of the heavy contrast it provides. It’s also good if you’re trying to create images with more depth, and it can be used to hide imperfections.

The set up for this is similar to that for broad lighting. You start with the light source positioned at a forty five degree angle from your subject. But, unlike with broad lighting, this time you have your subject turn toward the light–you want the brightest part of your subject’s face to be the short side.

5. Split light

Split lighting is where the light source hits the subject from the side at a ninety degree angle. It creates a split of light and shadow–half of your subject will be in the light and half will be in the shadow.

This technique tends to create more dramatic images. It often makes your subject appear tough and more masculine. This type of lighting also tends to emphasize the texture of the skin and the details of the face. It gives a sense of assertiveness and can also be used to emphasize glamour.

It’s quite easy to set this up. You simply put the light source at a ninety degree angle to the direction your camera is shooting, and it should be hitting your subject on their side. It also helps if the light is slightly behind the subject. Then you can move your subject around until you get a ‘split’ of the light–half of your subject lit and the other half in shadows. 

Split lighting is set up by putting the light source to the side of the subject, which results in half of the face lit up and the other half in shadow as seen in this image of a man's face.
Split lighting is set up by putting the light source to the side of the subject, and it results in half light and half shadow

The technique can be made more or less dramatic by softer or harder light sources. Sources of harder light will make the shadows more dramatic and the image will be more intense.

6. Backlighting

Backlighting is just what it sounds like–the light source is behind your subject. It can be used to create silhouettes, or you can combine it with certain atmospheric conditions–like fog–to get more dramatic images.

One of the problems with this lighting technique is that you can lose clarity in your subject because it is backlit. For that reason, it might help to use reflectors to reflect some of the light back onto your subject (if you don’t want a silhouette), or you can use a technique called the semi-silhouette where you only allow the light to just barely enter the frame. That creates a nice glow that is a welcome contrast to the dark background.



7. Rim light

Rim lighting is where the light hits the subject at an angle, such that it creates highlights along the edges of your subject. This highlights the shape of your subject and it’s a great technique to use to separate your subject from the background.

You can create this in the studio with a single light source positioned behind your subject. Then, have your subject turn until the light creates a rim highlight along the edges.

Rim lighting creates edges of light, as seen on these hills, that emphasize the shapes.
Rims lighting creates edges of light that emphasize the shape of the subject

If you want to use natural light, it’s better to try this technique on a sunny day. Then, you position your subject so the light is above and behind them. Contrast is a key factor with this technique–with lower contrast the rim effect will be minimized.

8. Butterfly light

This technique is named for the distinctive shadow it creates below the nose of your subject. You set this up by placing the light in front of and above your subject. It will create a small butterfly-shaped shadow under their nose.

On the plus side, it highlights prominent cheekbones, which is why many women like it. But, on the negative side, it also emphasizes shadows from deep-set eyes. Thus, you’ll want to take your subject’s unique features into consideration before choosing this technique.

This lighting technique is also referred to as paramount lighting, and it is flattering to most people, making it a favorite for portraiture photography.

9. Loop light

Loop lighting is another go-to technique for portraiture photography because it is flattering for almost every subject. It is less dramatic than other lighting types, but it creates more depth than flat lighting. It does all of this by still keeping the subject well-lit.

It’s easy to set up–you simply pose your model, and then set the light at a forty five degree angle to your model and slightly above eye level. This creates a loop-shaped shadow–hence the name–under the nose of your subject on the opposite side of their face from the light source.

Loop lighting creates a loop-shaped shadow under the nose, as seen in this image of a woman.
Loop lighting creates a loop-shaped image under the nose

You can vary the light’s intensity by moving it closer to or further away from your subject. And, you can vary the shape of the shadow by raising or lowering your light source.

10. Soft light

Soft light is light where shadow edges are soft and open, and there is less contrast. It is achieved with a larger, broader light placed closer to the subject. Overcast days are a great opportunity for outdoor soft lighting.

This type of lighting can be achieved by diffusing your artificial light. This can be achieved in the studio by using a full diffusion panel or softbox that is placed between the light source and the subject. Window lighting can also be a great source for softer light. 

Soft light is used mostly for portraiture, macro, and nature photography. It can also be used to make a subject appear more youthful.

11. Hard light

Hard light is the opposite of soft light–it creates strong shadows and high contrast. It creates more dramatic and edgier images. In the studio, you can position the light source where you would with soft light, but you don’t use diffusers to soften the light.

Hard light creates sharp, dramatic shadows, as seen in this portrait of a woman.
Hard light creates sharp, dramatic shadows

You can also make the hard light look like a spotlight, and that will increase the shadows in the image. One of the things to keep in mind though, is that not everyone looks good in hard light.

It can accentuate skin imperfections and the shadows created by deep set eyes, for example. Thus, you have to consider your model’s unique features before choosing this type of light. 

All of these types of lighting are great for different reasons. It depends on what kind of mood you’re trying to create as well as the subject you’re photographing. Whatever the image you want to create, light is crucial to creating the mood you want.

Many people think of the photographer as similar to the artist who paints. The difference is that the photographer is painting their portrait with light instead of paint. That’s why an understanding of exactly how to create the looks you want is vital for every photographer. 



Frequently Asked Questions:

What are the types of natural photography light?

There are a number of types of natural photography light. These are categorized by position (front, back, top, side), degree of light diffusion (harsh–little or no diffusion and soft—diffused light), and whether the light is direct or indirect (e.g., reflected light).

What are the 3 basic types of light?

The first would be ambient lighting–which can be natural (e.g., the sun) or manmade (e.g., indoor lights). The second is accent lighting–light used to accent a particular feature or achieve a desired effect. The third would be modified light (e.g., diffused).

Which types of light should you use for a portrait?

The most common types of lighting for a portrait are the following:

  • Flat lighting; 
  • Loop lighting; 
  • Rembrandt lighting; 
  • Short lighting; 
  • Broad lighting;
  • Butterfly lighting.

What are the types of artificial lighting?

The main types of artificial lighting include the following:

  • Incandescent lights (banned in many countries); 
  • CFLs (created to replace incandescent light bulbs); 
  • LED lights (bulbs or panels); 
  • Strobe lights / speedlights / speedlites–all of which are commonly used by many photographers.

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