Creating Good Lighting

by William Lulow

Good lighting looks natural. Sounds almost simplistic but it’s true. This doesn’t mean that good lighting can’t be artificial. It just means that it should not call attention to itself. When we look at a photograph, we want to see what the photographer intended. We want the subject to be apparent and shown in such a way as to capture our interest. You can tell that a photograph is really great when it brings the viewer into the scene.

Bad lighting will create its own “attention.” It will detract from the image’s message and, instead of making us look at all the details, will cause us to look at only the glaring mistake.

The lighting, especially in a portrait, should enhance the subject – make the person look interesting, glamorous or simply nice to look at. The lighting can be purposeful. That is, it can emphasize one or more features of the person. It can be dramatic, informational, or designed to evoke a mood.

As an exercise, try lighting a person with only one light. Move the light around the person and notice what it does. Don’t make any images as yet. Just observe the effects of the light. Think about what you are feeling as your subject is lit from various angles. This will help you decide what kinds of portraits you want to make. It will almost force you to think about what the lighting does.

Then, go back through some of these blog articles about lighting and see what some of the classical lightings are called and how to set them up. Remember, it’s not the equipment you use, but how you use it that makes the difference between an image that looks “natural” and one that doesn’t.


A “Rembrandt Lighting.” This position is designed to light most of the face but keeps almost half of it in shadow. It is therefore, a moody lighting but has a “normal” look to it. It’s dramatic, but doesn’t call any undue attention to itself. There are shadows, but they don’t conflict or dilute the message. This should be the aim of lighting in general.