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Photography Tips: How to Figure Out What Lighting Was Used in a Photo

Updated on August 4, 2011

Deconstructing Photography Studio Lighting

Being able to look at a photo and figure out how it was lit is a very useful skill for a photographer. It means you could create a similar image if you wanted, and also re-use the lighting style to create a similar mood in a photo of your own. Fortunately, with some key insights and a little practice, you'll be able to deconstruct a photo in terms of studio lighting, to figure out how it was lit.

First, some basic terms. 'Key light' is the main light used to light the model. 'Fill light' is a secondary light used to fill in some of the shadows created by the key light. 'Hair light' is just what it sounds like, a specific light used to pick out the hair. 'Background lights' are often used to light the backdrop independently of the lights on the model.

There are several things to look out for in a photo which will give away how it was lit. Primarily I look for:

1) The catchlights (light reflected in the model's eyes)

2) The shadows

Both shadows and catchlights will often reveal the direction the key light is coming from. Consider photo 1 below.

The catchlights in this photo immediately show the key light is above and slightly to the left. But even if there were no catchlights in her eyes, you can tell the same thing from the shadows under the model's nose and mouth. If you imagine a three-dimensional line going from a shadow to the thing casting the shadow, and keep going, that line points to the light source. So because the shadow is under and slightly to the right of the model's lips and nose, you can tell the light must have been above and left.

Furthermore we can tell it was a 'hard' light source, rather than a softbox, because the shadows are clearly defined. Hard lighting is like the sun, you get really strong shadows. Soft lighting is like an overcast day, and the light bouncing around makes the shadows softer. Hard light can be trickier to use in a flattering way on a model, as soft lighting is more forgiving, but light coming from in front and above the model (as in this photo) is generally a flattering angle to have it come from, in my experience.

The next thing I look for is evidence of other lights. In this photo there are no other lights. A fill light could have been used to soften the shadows (or a reflector, out of shot, below the model's face, to bounce the light back up). However the shadows add intensity here so it works fine with just the one light.

Consider photo 2. Where do you think the key light is?

This is pretty easy. We can't see any catchlights, but there are lots of shadows. Clearly the light is coming from the left. It's probably slightly behind the model too, because no light at all is hitting the side of his face that's facing the camera, such as his ear.

We can see from the shadows of the wrinkles in the shirt and also the shadow on the model's nose that the light is coming from the same height, maybe slightly below the model's height.

Again it's a very hard light (strong lines at the edges of the shadows), and there are no other lights used.

How about this one? Look at photo 3.

This isn't so obvious but we can still decode it. First question: where's the key light? No catchlights to be seen, so consider the shadows. Note the shadow under the model's lip. Althought the shadows are softer (because a softbox was used), we can still see a shadow there. So the key light must have been above, in front and to the right. Further evidence is can be seen in the model's hands - they're brighter than the rest of her skin - because they're closer to the light.

So that's the key light. What about other lights? Look at the model's back. There is a patch of light there that can't have come from the key light, so that shows there was a secondary light somewhere behind and to the left. In this photo, it was probably set up as a hair light but then the model changed pose and the hair light missed! But it doesn't look too bad - it adds depth, making her look slightly more three-dimensional.

Last example - look at photo 4. See if you can figure out the lighting before reading my explanation.

Note the catchlights - they show a light above and a light below. The shadows on her face show the light above is the key one though - the shadows go downwards. Rather than using a fill light below, the lower 'light' is probably actually just a reflector, bouncing the light from the key light above back up to fill in the shadows. This light-above-reflector-below combination is a very flattering (if slightly unnatural) look, often used for beauty photography.

So we have a softbox above and a reflector below. Any other lights? The hair is glowing, but that's not surprising with the softbox right above it. Notice the model's shoulder though. There's a rim of light that shows there's another light behind and slightly to the left. As in the previous image, this could be a hair light, or maybe just added to give extra definition to the model's shape.

So there you go - I hope that gives you something you can go and apply to other images, so that you can figure out what lighting was used. If you have access to studio lighting, I recommend you try out some of these studio lighting combinations, and see what you can come up with! It's a good challenge to recreate the lighting in someone else's photo. Even if you don't get it perfectly, you'll learn from the experience and you'll get closer with practice.

If you found this useful, you might be interested in my photography e-book.

Example Photos

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