Light & Shadow Technique in Photography


 Better Photo Tips – Studio Light Patterns

It is not a big secret that all photos are made of light.  What to do with that light on the other hand, often confuses many beginning photographers.  The goal here is to help you see that light in a much simpler way.

by Tedric Garrison

Hair Lights, Back Lights, and Barn Doors, oh my!  Studio Lighting can be very overwhelming when you first start getting into it.  Some photographers out there have thousands of dollars of accessories associated with their studio setup.  The good news is, you don’t have to be rich to enter into the world of studio portraits.  Think about it.  How many light sources did God create for earth?  If you said “One” meaning the sun; you were almost right.  He also created the sky and the ground to “bounce” that light into the shadows.  Light that is bounced back is commonly referred to as a “fill light”.

If there was no fill light on earth; anything not directly lit by the sun, would have NO DETAIL, it would all be totally black.  It is astounding how much you can do with one main light and one or two fill lights.  For those of you thinking three lights doesn’t sound simple to me, let me clarify.  In this article what I am describing is one light and one or two reflective surfaces to help bounce that light or to fill in the shadows.  With one light and one or more reflectors, you can make amazing photographs. Having the tools and knowing what to do with those tools are two different things.

Today I want to show you what to do with these basic tools.

1) Short Light is the type of studio lighting setup, where the face side of the subject which is the farthest from the camera gets the main light. In this type of lighting setup, the side of the face which is toward the camera gets less light then the side facing away form the camera. The effect you get when using this lighting setup is a thin face, this is why it is good to photograph large (or chubby) people with a short light setup.  A photo tip worth remembering is: short light helps to visually thin your subject.

2) Broad light is just the opposite of Short light. In the Broad Light setup, the side that is getting the most light is the side facing the camera. This setup is less commonly used for portraits as it tends to make people look chubby.  In both these cases, you can place a reflector on the opposite side of the light (at about a 45 degree angle) to help fill in the shadow side.

3) Split Light sounds more complex than it is. Position your main light on one side of your subject so that it’s exactly 90 degrees to the subject.  In other words, you will see a dramatic shadow going right down to the middle of his or her face.  If your main light is a flash, you might want to consider a secondary light; not for exposure . . . but just for light placement.  We call this small secondary light a modeling light.  In some units, they actually have a modeling light built in around the main light, so you can visually see what’s happening.Using the modeling light, make sure the line between light and dark runs directly down the center of your model’s face, right down the tip of the nose. The model should be looking directly at the camera. This is what we call a split light portrait.  Another photo tip is this: split light portraits, create dramatic visual results.

4) Rembrandt Light is considered an artistic classic.  The main light is positioned high and on the side of the face that is away from the camera.  Generally the subject is placed at a 45 degree angle to the camera (as opposed to just looking straight on.) This technique produces an illuminated triangle on the cheek closest to the camera. The triangle will illuminate just under the eye and not below the nose.  The face should appear illuminated on one side and heavily shadowed on the other. Place your reflector (or white poster board) on the opposite side of the studio light. The reflector should be angled so that it reflects any remaining light in the room to the subject’s darken side. The key here is NOT to eliminate the dark shadows, but to add detail within the shadows.  The third photo tip to remember:  adding subtle detail makes images appear more artistic.

5.) Butterfly Light is achieved by positioning the main light directly in front of the subjects face and adjusting the height to create a shadow directly under, and in line with the nose.  This style is best suited for subjects with a normal oval face and is considered to be a glamour style of lighting best suited for women.  This lighting technique creates hard shadows in the eye sockets and under the chin depending on the size of your main light and distance to your subject. Use a reflector under the main light source to fill in the underside of the face (eye sockets, under nose and under chin areas).  Sometimes this is referred to as “over and under lighting”. Now the setups given above; can use extra lights, but they don’t have to.  Just as you can take an award winning photographs with a $50.00 camera or a $5,000.00 camera, you can also take great shots with a single light source.  As we mentioned before, having the tools and knowing what to do with them are two totally different things.  It is my firm belief that photographers who learned to master Black and White photography first and then learned Color photography; will ALWAYS have the advantage over those who started with color photography.   This is not meant to insult younger photographers.  If a cake taste bad, it doesn’t matter what kind of icing you put on it.  Learn the basics of good photography first, and then you can add more lights, more lenses, or whatever the case may be. Thus the fourth photo tip to remember is this: start with the basicsFree Web Content, master them first.   Then go forward.


Using Light in Photography Techniques

 The use of light in a photograph can be the deciding factor of whether that picture will be spectacular or terrible.  When you use your camera to automatically choose aperture and shutter speed, what your camera is actually doing is using the built in light meter and measuring how much light is being reflected to the camera.

by Richard Schneider

But that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it.  You should also think about the angle of the light entering the frame, what kind of shadows you want, and whether you want to use fill-in-flash (using flash to light the subject if you have a really bright background).  If you are shooting at night you can create all sorts of cool effects like lights in motion, pictures with moonlight, or silhouettes.  The following are just some examples of all the possibilities.

Angle of Light

The angle of light should be taken into careful consideration whenever you feel like you want to create a specific effect.  Shadows can be very powerful when cast over half of someone’s face.  When you are deciding which angle you would prefer to have the light coming from you are indirectly deciding where the shadows will be cast.  The angle of light can be used to show texture if it is coming from the side because the shadows create the effect of more depth.  It can add detail and mystery to someone’s face if you choose to keep half of their face in the shadows.  The most common light usage mistake that people make when they are taking portrait pictures is having the light coming directly from the back when they don’t intend to create a silhouette.  This usually results in having the subject’s face just very dark and the background overexposed.

Light Rays Effect

The effect of rays of light indoors and outdoors can be very spectacular.  A brilliant part of some great photographs is the ability to actually see rays of light in a photo.  Whether it is in the setting of a brilliant sunset, light pouring through a window or light from artificial lights almost all kinds have the potential to look amazing.  Usually the only way to obtain something like this is a narrow aperture (high f/stop) and a very slow shutter speed.  I have found rays of light to be very nice in architectural photography in the form of light streaming through windows or spaces.


Silhouettes are another interesting example of strategic light use.  The way to create a silhouette is to have significantly brighter light coming from behind the subject.  In doing this it is important to take your camera light reading off of the background instead of the subject in order for the camera to adjust for an exposure based on the backlight.  If you do this the subject will be successfully underexposed and the background should hopefully have a well-balanced exposure.  You can do this for any kind of subject including people, animals, landscapes and impressive cityscapes.

Scarce Light in the Darkness

Photography at night is completely different than photography in the day.  At night there is most likely not enough light to handhold the camera if you are going to take a well-exposed photo (without flash).  A tripod is very necessary and I always use a tripod when I am shooting at night to take away the risk of blur from hand shakiness.  If you keep experimenting with different ways of using light you will find that you can get very interesting results.  One favorite location of night photographers is on the roadside of a busy street.  With a long shutter speed the photographer can use the car lights to make streams of light across the frame.  The longer the exposure, the more fascinating the results with light most of the time.

Try This Technique to Make a Copy of Someone

Set the shutter speed for somewhere around 30 secondsFeature Articles, set the camera on a tripod and set the self-timer so you do not have to press the shutter button. Someone needs to stand next to the camera with a flashlight and someone else needs to be the subject of the photo in front of the camera.  The subject then stands in one place while the flashlight is pointed at him and moved in an up and down motion.  After around 15 seconds the flashlight is turned off and the subject is told to move to his left.  Then the flashlight is pointed at him again and moved up and down until the camera finishes the exposure.  If you do this successfully you can create the same person twice in one frame.


The use of light is a very essential practice to master if you are going to be a successful photographer.  When a digital camera takes a photo its sensor is essentially just collecting all the light from the scene that is reflected in through the lens.  It is your job simply to figure out where you would like the light to be coming from and how long the sensor should be exposed to the light in order to create a sufficient exposure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s