“The truth is you don’t need professional lighting equipment to shoot awesome photographs,” the Austrian-based photographer Stefan Sappert says. “I once made a photo of Johnny Depp with a single continuous light without a modifier, and the portrait won several international awards. You can even achieve wonderful results only using light coming from a window and a cheap ten-dollar reflector; that’s actually how my photograph of the artist Max P. was lit.”
That’s the one tip we were told again and again: you don’t need a huge budget and studio setup. You can achieve professional-looking images using a simple light source, careful planning, and a hefty dose of ingenuity. Whether you’re interested in portraiture, fine art, commercial work, or documentary photography, that principle remains the same. Read on for more valuable tips to improve your lighting.
1. Learn from the masters
“To improve, look at work from photographers you admire and ask yourself: how was this lit? Which direction is the light coming from? Is it hard or soft light? Is it flash or natural light?” Stefan advises. “Some great resources include Instagram pages where you can see ‘making-of’ images taken behind-the-scenes at successful photoshoots.
“For example, I recommend @iso1200magazine and @light.shapers. I also suggest checking out YouTube tutorials on ‘cinematic lighting,’ as you can learn a ton from filmmakers and directors, not only photographers. Finally, learn by trying, making mistakes, and improving on those mistakes.”
2. Study different kinds of light
Before you even pick up a camera, good lighting starts with observation. Notice how soft, diffused light differs from bright, hard light, or see how changing the size of your light source or moving it closer to your subject affects the overall mood. Experiment with front lighting, backlighting, and side-lighting to help sculpt the details of your scene.
“Learn the art of looking at available light, and understand the effects of its direction, intensity, and temperature,” the New York and Los Angeles-based photographer Emily Hlavac Green suggests. “From there, practice single-point lighting and master that first. The strength of an image lies in both light and shadow, so keep it simple.”
3. Go natural
“Make friends with natural light,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Nicolette Daskalakis urges. “The sun is the most powerful light available to us, and if used correctly, natural light can bring a beautiful, complementary, and enchanting quality to your photographs.
“‘Magic hour’ (around sunrise and sunset) can be a beautiful tool for softer, ethereal portraits. But harsher afternoon sun can also be used to your advantage for more contrasting shadows and pop-y images. A lot of amateur photographers feel like they need an entire studio setup or professional lights to create stunning images, but the truth is you don’t. Go outdoors, or move near a window, and you’ll find that nature has a free lighting source that can work wonders.”
Window light is perfect for practising because it changes temperature throughout the day and can go from diffused to hard depending on the weather. You can also easily use flags to block your windows and create a tailor-made opening to suit your needs.
4. Plan your shoot
This tip is especially important when you’re working with natural light. “The best way to start is to schedule your shoots during the first or last three hours of the day, so that the light comes from the side and not from the top,” the San Juan-based photographer Steph Segarra says. “I usually schedule my shoots so that my favourite shot can be done just at the golden hour.
“I scout the location beforehand so that I can see the light at the hour I will be shooting, and I use an app called Sun Surveyor to check out the position of the sun in relation to my location and the hour I plan to shoot. Sometimes, if the light outside is too harsh, I will get an assistant to hold the diffuser from my 3-in-1 reflector in front of the subject to soften the light.”
5. Learn to simplify
“Natural light is my favourite, but even when I use a flash, I rarely use more than one light,” the New York City-based photographer Calla Kessler tells us. “Less is more. Mobility is important to me, so I like simple and lightweight lighting.
“Seeing photographers use multiple lights with intricate set-ups intimidated me before; it seemed so inaccessible and expensive. However, I learned it isn’t difficult to create similar looks with far less gear. I am all about open-sourcing techniques and making sure photography isn’t this lofty hobby reserved for those who can afford it.”
6. Start with continuous light
“Continuous light is absolutely your friend, and I find strobes are rarely necessary,” the New York and Ohio-based photographer Hana Mendel admits. “I can easily say that 90% of my images were created using LEDs, hotlights, and/or a reflector. This is for a very particular reason: in choosing continuous light/reflector(s), the photographer must acknowledge the present environment within their chosen frame.
“Continuous light builds a scene that exists in real-time. Of course, this isn’t always advisable when you need extremely controlled light. But I’ve found this to be an effective way to visually convey outward influence within the image.” Continuous lights are usually a more cost-effective and portable option, and in most cases, they’ll do the trick.
7. And then experiment with flash
“My number one lighting tip is to not be afraid of using flash,” British photographer Josh Adam Jones explains. “I would also recommend experimenting with simple lighting set-ups where possible, even if this is using the built-in camera flash and some DIY bounce cards or diffusers.
“With digital photography, such experiments can be recorded and observed relatively easily, making the process quite accessible. This is particularly useful for artists who prefer using natural light, as being able to use artificial light in a way that looks like daylight adds a significant skill to your photographic toolbox.”
8. Use a light meter
Once you get into using and arranging multiple sources, natural or artificial, it’s essential to understand your contrast ratios and how they work together to create the look you want. That’s where an old-fashioned external light meter comes into play. On set and location, these tools will allow you to recreate the same lighting set up easily and efficiently. “My number one lighting tip is to use natural light—and a light meter,” the Paris-based photographer Bettina Pittaluga says. “My light meter has changed everything about my relationship to light.”
9. Practice, and then practice some more
“It sounds simple, but in my experience, lighting takes time and practice,” the California-based photographer Lou Mora explains. “I would say that learning how to truly see light and knowing how it will translate through the lens are far more important than any trick or tool one could buy.”
Assisting an established photographer on set or scheduling your own test shoots can be a great way to sharpen your talents. “When I was an assistant, I worked with a range of photographers who shot everything: product, food, lifestyle, portraits, and automotive photography,” Lou says. “One photographer, in particular, could see light quickly, and he knew exactly how to make it work for him. I worked with him for a couple of years and honed that skill. It’s proven invaluable.”
10. Have fun with it
“Lighting is everything to a photographer, but with that being said, it’s not anything that should be taken too seriously,” the Denver-based photographer Emily Teater tells us. “I think the most important aspect of lighting, whether you are a new photographer or have been working in the industry for 10-plus years, is to play.
“If you don’t have fun with lighting and play to create new images, you will inevitably get stuck in a creative rut. I have been there a time or two, and the best thing I did to inspire growth was to play with lighting. Whether natural or studio lighting, there are so many ways to discover new techniques and grow your skills. Just be sure to have fun and never stop playing.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.