Note: This week’s articles constitute a reposting of earlier articles. They are designed to give the reader an understanding of lighting basics. I publish these from time to time in an effort to reach as many readers as possible.

Beginning Lessons In Lighting

by William Lulow

Most people who decide to take up photography do so because they are fascinated by the art form as a visual means of expression or they derive pleasure from “creating” an image. There are also those who progress to the point of wanting to make photography their career. Yet there are many photographers who begin their life’s work, or serious attempts at it, without really mastering the principles of good photographic lighting both natural and artificial. They may be able to recognize a well‑lit picture when they see one, but creating one from scratch is another matter.  This  is the beginning of a step‑by‑step way for those who are familiar with lighting and lighting set‑ups as well as for those who have never worked with artificial lighting at all, to improve their photographs. Many professional photographers sometimes need to get back to basics when trying to solve a lighting problem. Amateurs most often need to familiarize themselves with the various possibilities that artificial lighting can provide in order to better their photographic efforts. In addition, with the advent of the digital age, lighting principles are becoming more and more important. For no matter what the medium, application of proper lighting techniques will never change. In fact, working with one or many of the photo‑enhancing or photo‑manipulating software packages available today requires knowledge of lighting to solve some of the more common retouching problems. If one plans to create one’s own digital images, proper lighting is critical to success.

There are many books on the market about lighting and portraits, but my approach is different in at least one major way. It “builds” from one “lesson” to the next so that if the student progresses in a step-by-step manner, he/she will, at the end, have achieved a basic lighting technique which can then be used at any time and any place to create the type of effects desired in photographs. My lessons follow the basics of my course in PORTRAIT LIGHTING which was offered each semester at the New School for Social Research, Department of Photography, in New York City back in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, in my workshops, students are taught all the basic lighting setups used by professionals. They learn what the lightings are called, how to arrange lights, how to take meter readings for proper exposure and balance, how to deal with equipment, where to buy lights, and what kinds of lights to buy.

In subsequent blog articles, I will detail this information. So, begin now and follow along with me. At the end, you will have a much better understanding of how to use light.

The first lessons begin with very rudimentary lighting equipment and through demonstration and example, explain that all the more complicated lighting setups are merely derived from the basics with the addition of rather straight‑forward embellishments. For example, a one‑light set up can be created with a simple 500 watt floodlight or a rather fancy, strobe light bank. The type of light each source gives will be strikingly different, but the principles of applying each will remain the same. This is an important point to which I shall return often: if you learn the principles of good lighting, they do not change no matter how complicated the setup or what kind of lighting equipment.

Instruction in the principles of good photographic lighting begins with a discussion of simple continuous light or “hot light.” Continuous light is light which you can see all the time. It is easy to see the effects of placement, intensity, etc., because these effects are readily observable. (With strobe, or electronic flash, it is much more difficult to see what the effect of the lighting will be, even if you use your camera’s LCD. If you have your camera connected to a laptop computer via a cord or with Eye-Fi, you can preview your lighting setups much more easily, but it is still easier to use a continuous light source). Therefore, all initial examples will be obtained with the use of hot light. Once the principles of applying “hot light” to your subject are mastered, it will be easy to see the different effects you can achieve with strobe or a mixture of the two. And, you will be able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy what the final picture will look like.

The purpose of mastering these lighting techniques should be to pre‑visualize what you want the final photograph to look like. When you have decided upon the kind of image you want to make, the process of using all the available tools to bring the physical world as close as possible to what you have imagined really becomes a step‑by‑step logical one. Granted this process is constantly modified and changed, but the initial attempt at translating what we see in our minds to a two‑dimensional surface is one of finding ways to lead the viewer to see and feel what we want him to. In other words, by the use of lighting, shadow, highlights, and accents, we send a message to the viewer, what we are thinking about the subject we photograph. A photograph by definition, is a “light picture” of something that initially exists in the real world. Beginning photographers may have an idea that they wish to convey in a snapshot or a portrait of someone. They may also have that intangible feeling that they can create something by taking a picture and printing it a certain way. But, most beginning photographers don’t have enough information about their tools to be able to translate that feeling into the two‑dimensional world of photographs.

So, read these blogs articles to get an idea of how lighting should be used as well as other topics relevant to the application of all photographic concepts. This is an example of a “Hollywood Lighting,” one of the basic lighting setups.


The light is placed higher than the camera and slightly to one side (in this case, camera left). Sometimes, this effect can be created by placing the light high and behind the camera. It creates a triangular shadow under the nose and lights up most of the face. This is the first step. It is the most direct, flat light. You will need to buy some light stands in order to follow these lessons.