Lighting is the single biggest destroyer of photographs. So, I want to take some time up front to cover it in at least a little bit of detail. In order to get on to other useful topics, if I have to come back to this in greater detail later, with more specific examples, I will.

Lighting is probably the most important element of a photograph as well. You can have the most expensive camera, with the best lens available, and if the lighting is crappy, the photograph will be crappy as well. It is kind of like having the most expensive piano money can buy, and not knowing how to play it.

The good news to that is if you have only a moderately price camera, you can do some amazing things when you have great lighting. If you are a world class pianist, you can sound good on just about anything in tune. The thing that is missing from having the absolutely best, high end stuff will more than likely only be able to be appreciated by a select few.

For example, I was in between “better” cameras, and I took this portrait of my daughter with a simple point and shoot camera.


What makes good lighting? Let me answer that by asking another question. Why is that when you look at some photos, they seem to barely have any color at all? Other photos seem to have super deep, rich, saturated colors? I want to answer those last two questions, and it will in turn answer the question about what makes good light.

Whether you use film or digital, whatever you using is only able to capture a fixed amount of detail. I like to think about that as the volume that a bucket will hold. The illustration below shows a bucket, that is able to hold a determined about of photographic detail. As you will see, I conveniently labeled two axis of the bucket.

The volume of this bucket can not really change, but you can stretch in and skew it in one direction or the other. If you have a lot of dynamic range in your photo, the depth of color will suffer. In case you didn’t know, dynamic range is just a fancy term for the difference between the darkest spot in your photograph, and the lightest spot.

This example is where I think a lot of photographs suffer. Either from stay light leaking onto the subject (creating a lot of dynamic range) or a lot of light difference between your subject and background. All cases where there is a lot of dynamic range hurt the color depth.

Now, let’s look at the other extreme. Let’s say we get control of the dynamic range. Enough light and darks to give your subject dimension, and yet trying to cover a huge dynamic range. When this happens, your bucket looks like this.


This is when the magic happens. Colors will look deep, vibrate and better than real life. It is such a tough thing to do because film, or your digital sensor is so much more sensitive to the difference between light and dark than your eye is. You see a scene, and think it will be fine, but it is not to your camera. Also, it can be easy to see the light on your subject, and forget to check for that little bit of light that leaked into the background and ruined your color depth.

Here are a couple of examples. First the bad.


This is a beautiful waterfall. The composition is not bad. There is a neat foreground element, along with a bigger fall in the background. Yet the difference between the dark spot on the lower left, and the brightness of the upper fall in the background leaves the photos without much depth of color. You can also see stray light poking through everywhere in the foreground.

How about the good.


See the difference? There is no stray light shining in. There is a difference in lighting and direction based on the shadows on the rocks. Enough to give direction and shape, but not enough to destroy the range of color. You can see the greens are deep and the browns are great.

The same concept can be done with people too. With people you will be more concerned with the direction of light, and how it is falling on them. But, if you use this concept of subtle changes of light, and keeping things relatively evenly illuminated across the subject and background, you will really see the colors in your photos start to pop.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of good lighting enough. Too many people that start picking up and camera and making photos, and don’t master light, tend to use a lot of effects and coloration to compensate for the lack of interesting photograph. When I see photographs like that, all I see is something that is poorly lit and a lot of photoshop work done after the fact. I am not knocking any style. If cool effects and color treatments are your thing, it will only be made better with better lighting.

I plan to come back to lighting eventually, especially how it can relate to people and posing. But, in order to get through the more basic photography concepts, I wanted to make this post about the importance of lighting and a practical concept to apply.

If you have anything specific you would like me to cover on lighting, please let me know!

Happy shooting!

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