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Common Photography Lighting Terms

Updated on September 27, 2012
An empty photo studio with lighting equipment and a white backdrop.
An empty photo studio with lighting equipment and a white backdrop. | Source

The very word photography means the 'study of light', where photo means 'light' and ology means 'study'. Light is the reason we can speak of color, white balance, exposure and ISO settings among other terms and jargons. This is why it's simply imperative as a photographer of every level to understand some basic types of lighting and effects.

Natural Light

Natural light, as it relates to our planet, is the heart of light and is that which we receive from the Sun, even at night when the Moon reflects the Sun's light. Photographers can use this light to form some breathtaking shots, such as the popular portrait by the window shots and taking photos from under a tree as the light streaks beautifully channel through. There are tons of other ways to use natural light creatively, and this may even include manipulating light by using reflectors.

Ambient Light

Any kind of light can be ambient light once it’s not produced from your equipment. It’s somewhat of a relative term, and speaks of surrounding light that you can use to your advantage. Sometimes ambient light can be a challenge for a photographer to choose white balance settings, because of several ambient light sources giving off light of different color temperatures.

Fill-in Light

There are times you may be shooting portraits in the daytime and the faces in your images may have some harsh shadows cast upon them. This is just what happens when using natural light especially in the middle of the day. There’s a technique used to deal with such an occurrence called fill-in flash. It involves you using a flashgun to provide that extra exposure for the face, so that your portraits are nice and clear. This doesn’t only apply to only portraits but any subject that you may need to illuminate a bit more without affecting the overall exposure of the photograph.

Bounce Flash & Red Eyes

With the flashgun you can also adjust it to cause light to bounce off walls to produce a natural looking illumination of your subject. This is what is termed as Bounce Flash, and is quite useful for indoor photography. They’re two advantages in doing this including that fact that you won’t have to point your gun in someone’s face, as well as you’ll reduce the risk of milky white faces and get some really nicely somewhat naturally lit images. Sometimes when you point a flashgun directly at a person and take the shot, you may end up making a person have the dreaded ‘red eyes’. Oh, having portraits and candids come out with red eyes can be real annoying. The red eye phenomenon is caused when the flash is fired within close proximity of the lens typically in low light, and the light emitted from the flashgun is reflected from the retinas of eyes that are dilated. The red color is actually the color of the eye’s blood vessels.

Backlighting & Lens Flare

Many times photographers seek to recreate that which natural light can do including using projecting a light from behind a subject. This can create a cool effect because shadows will be cast on the foreground whike the background is lit. This kind of lighting is appropriately termed as Backlighting. If there’s anything that photographers abhor is lens flare! Lens flare may happen with backlit images, whether naturally backlit or otherwise. What happens is that light reflects within the lens causing light to scatter in an undesireable way. The quality of lenses has a part to play in this, and as you know not all lenses are created equal.

More Lighting Terms

There’s lots more to learn about lighting, but we’ve just touched on the common terms and phrases that are used very often by photographers. In producing images, you’re basically working with the nature of light. The more you understand it, the better you can manipulate it to your creative liking.


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    • theblackedition profile imageAUTHOR

      Shane Brown-Daniels 

      5 years ago from USA

      Thanks Peter.

    • petersavage profile image


      5 years ago from Australia

      Excellent hub! Voted up.


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